One of the steps towards building community resilience in the Transition Towns movement is to “Honor the Elders.” Initially I understood this to mean that we need to listen to the stories of the older members of our communities, in order to find out what life was like when they were young.
People born before the 1960s remember a life with less oil. Their stories are a fascinating insight into a world that younger people can only imagine. How did people feed, clothe and house themselves before the advent of cheap oil? What were the relationships that wove families and communities together, and tied them to their place? What lessons might we learn from their past, and how could this inform our collective visioning of a better future?
Looking into my own rural village in the UK, I discovered that many of the older locals remembered traditional ways of farming, growing and preserving food, as if it were yesterday. They not only knew how to live off the land, they also knew how to live with each other, in supportive relationships, through good and hard times. They were living treasures, hidden in my own backyard.
Later I discovered the 1960s magazine “Foxfire “which preserved the stories of the traditional folk culture in the Southern Appalachians, covering a range of self-sufficient skills related to food, weaving, housing, and healthcare.
Hearing and reading the stories of these older generations gave me hope. A simple, sustainable way of life was not only possible, but well within our reach. We don’t need cheap oil to survive. We can thrive without it.
When I moved in 2007 to California, my understanding of “Honor the Elders” deepened, as I realized the difference between being older, and being an elder. An elder is consciously living a life of passionate purpose, sharing their gifts and wisdom while being in service to the larger community. Their presence or absence plays a critical role in shaping our collective future.
At the same time, I realized that the true elders of this land are surely the indigenous peoples. Despite being dispossessed, decimated and degraded by European colonizers, they are still here. They hold tremendous knowledge of place. Many of them have cultural traditions and practices that have the power to restore, regenerate and repair our relationships with each other and the natural world. Indigenous wisdom is greatly needed in these times of change.
Honoring the indigenous peoples means to remember the stories that have defined our country and culture. How many people are aware that the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) gifted the American founding fathers with the “Great Law of Peace” which informed and inspired the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution? Or that the founding fathers did not honor the Great Law of Peace in its totality? That they decided on majority decision-making rather than consensus, and then denied the suffrage of women? That they took what they wanted and discarded the rest?
We can honor and respect the indigenous peoples, by listening to their voices, restoring their rights, and acknowledging their place in our communities as wisdom keepers and peacemakers.
When we treat our elders with respect, it keeps our families, communities and culture connected. Indigenous peoples know this. They know that the elders are a direct connection with their ancestors and with the land, and they know that they are guides, mentors and wisdom keepers. They honor their elders with gifts, songs and ceremonies.
Transition Sebastopol has a working group called the “Elders Salon” that meets every month to discuss what role elders might play in addressing the challenges ahead, and what wisdom they can offer from their past experience.
In February of this year, fifteen members of this Elder Council will meet in council with fifteen youth from the Regenerative Design Institute in Bolinas. The intention is for the elders to begin a dialog with the youth, to ask questions and learn from each other, to start building intergenerational relationships that will strengthen the resilience of their communities.
Sebastopol also has an exciting new community radio show called “Elder Culture” that is giving voice to elder wisdom, and reaching out to a much wider audience. Their aim is to build a collaborative culture where elders are both seen – and see themselves – as valuable and essential contributors to the paradigm shift in our communities.
If we want to change the world, then we must learn to cultivate an elder culture, one where the elders are placed at the heart of the community, in the leading roles of advisor, guide and mentor. Our elders deserve to hold honored positions in our communities as decision-makers. Their voice needs to be held and heard in a positive way, in service to community and the earth.
The good news is that a movement of elder culture is emerging in America, and around the world. It is our responsibility to be part of this movement – to restore the role of conscious elders and create vibrant and regenerative communities that nourish both people and planet. The question is: what can we do in our own communities to honor our elders and be part of the Great Turning?