Woods & Wilds Festival 2017

Note: Happy Thanksgiving! This is my 2,500th post since the launch of Musoscribe in 2009. — bk

Storytelling plays an important part in the ongoing struggle to protect the environment. For the second year in a row, nonprofit organization Dogwood Alliance highlighted the synergy between the tradition of storytelling and its own efforts, adding in plenty of music and other activities as well. The Woods & Wilds Storytelling and Music Festival took place October 1 at Salvage Station in Asheville.

“Storytelling is one of the easiest ways to tap into folks’ relationship with nature,” says Kimala Luna, Dogwood Alliance’s Marketing Coordinator. “Oftentimes, until people hear somebody else expressing that, it doesn’t necessarily occur to them,” she says, “because nature is something that we inherently take for granted.” She suggests that storytelling is one of the most effective ways to bring community together. “And that’s the ultimate goal,” says Luna.

“When I’m telling a story, I am open to you,” explains Dr. Thomas RaShad Easley, a forester, pastor, civil rights advocate, professor at North Carolina State University and – as RaShad Eas – rapper/hip-hop recording artist. “If you’re listening to me and you’re taking it in, that also means you’re open to me,” he says. “And if I say something a certain way, it could shift your attitude.” Noting that the process works in both directions when it’s part of dialogue, Easley calls storytelling the “ultimate therapy. But it’s also the ultimate connector” between people, he says.

“’The environment’ means so many things to different people,” Easley says. “But we’re not gonna get more water or more land. So we can tell stories about how to preserve and conserve our resources, and explain that it’s really about our humanity, not just about something monetary.”

With regard to storytelling as an art, Easley says that while the specific details of a story might change over the course of multiple telling, the core ideas remain. His performance at Woods & Wilds was scheduled to focus in part on his personal odyssey of becoming a forester, a path that wasn’t originally part of his life plan. “Lately I refer to myself as a hip-hop forester,” he says with a good-natured chuckle. “What I want to do is tell a story about how both of these fields have something in common: they’re both misunderstood.”

While on the surface hip-hop might seem to be mostly about rapping, there’s a lot more to the art and culture. Easley says a similar mindset often applies to forestry. “People think, ‘All they do is cut down trees.’” He believes that perspective ignores the focus on sustainability, a central tenet of responsible forestry.

Easley also likens hip-hop’s use of sampling and re-purposing of existing musical elements to forestry’s focus on renewable resources. Moreover, he believes that combining hip-hop – “the product of black and brown people,” he says – with forestry (“our understanding of which came from our white brothers and sisters”) is a useful step on the path toward greater community and mutual understanding.

Several of the storytellers appearing at this year’s Woods & Wilds have had a long relationship with Dogwood Alliance. Cole Rasenberger is only 16 years old, but he was at the forefront of a 2009 initiative to convince KFC to switch to recyclable paper products in its fast food packaging. He’s remained active with Dogwood Alliance as a “Forest Defender” ever since.

Other storytellers featured at this year’s event included Danna Smith, founder of Dogwood Alliance; Cary Rogers, promoting peace and health; activist and YMI board member Roy Harris; and Lianna Costantino. Chair for the Center for Native Health, Costantino is a tribal member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and worked as a paramedic at last year’s Standing Rock occupation.

There was plenty of music on the program, as well; in addition to headliners The Get Right Band (rock/reggae), the varied list of acts on the schedule included Asheville artists Sherri Lynn & Mountain Friends (Americana/bluegrass), Dub Kartel (reggae) and Lyric (pop/rock/soul/funk). Atlanta-based banjo duo Threadbare Skivvies is also on the bill. The festival will also feature yoga, kids crafts and other events, and emcees for Woods & Wilds included Ali McGhee from Asheville Grit and Desiree Adaway.

Recent high-profile disasters like Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have put a strain on charitable giving, but Luna notes that “both were big wake-up calls” relating to the challenges of climate change, she says. She sees Dogwood Alliance’s forest protection efforts as a key part of continuing the work of fighting against the climate crisis.

Luna says that the proceeds from admission to the festival will go toward Dogwood Alliance’s efforts in protecting southern forests. She notes that in the 21 years since the nonprofit began its work, the Dogwood alliance has increased the protection of some 90 million acres of forest. “Hopefully, the proceeds will go toward protecting 90 million more,” Luna says.