One of the steps towards building community resilience in the Transition Towns movement is to “Honor the Elders.” When I first learned about this, I thought it meant that we needed to listen carefully to the stories of the old people in our communities, in order to find out what life was like when they were young, before the advent of cheap oil.
People born before the 1960s remember a life with less oil. Their stories are a fascinating insight into a world that younger people today can only imagine. How did people feed, clothe and house themselves before cheap oil? How did they move around? What were the relationships that wove families and communities together, and tied them to their place? What lessons might we learn from the past, and how could this inform our collective visioning in creating a more vibrant and sustainable 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. It turns out electricity didn’t arrive in my village until the 1970s. My neighbors not only knew how to live simply off the land, they knew how to live with each other, through good and hard times.
I began to read the 1960s magazine “Foxfire “which preserves 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. Reading the stories of these older generations raised my spirits. A better way of life was not only possible, it was well within our reach.
Then I moved to California in 2007, and my understanding of “Honor the Elders” deepened. First I realized that there was a difference between being an older, and being an elder. An older is someone who is typically stuffed into a home, a hospital or a backroom, who is ignored and undervalued. An older is an unrecognized elder, isolated from the community. An elder is consciously living a life of passionate purpose, sharing their gifts, in service to their community. An elder is recognized as a sage, integrated into the community.
The presence or absence of these elders in our communities, plays a critical role in shaping our collective future. We need to hear their voice.
At the same time, I realized that the rightful elders of this land – the Americas – are the indigenous peoples. Despite being dispossessed and decimated 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.
Honoring the indigenous peoples means to remember the stories that have defined this 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 this Great Law of Peace? That they decided on majority decision-making rather than consensus, and then denied the suffrage of women, while breaking treaties and stealing lands from the indigenous peoples?
We can honor and respect indigenous peoples by acknowledging that we live on stolen land, by restoring their rights, and by listening to their stories. We need to hear their voice.
When I sat down and thought even more deeply about what it means to “Honor the Elders“, I finally understood that the true elders on Earth are our non-human neighbors: the plants, trees, soils, oceans, rivers, mountains, animals and birds. They’ve been here a lot longer than we have. If we can learn to honor these ancient wild ones, and place their voice at the center of our communities, then perhaps we will know what it means to live in balance, in reciprocal relationship with the web of life. We need to hear their voice.
When we treat all of our elders with respect – human and non-human – it keeps our families, communities and culture connected to each other and to our place. Indigenous peoples know this. They know that the elders are a direct connection with their ancestors and the living land. They know that the elders are wisdom keepers. They honor the elders with gifts, songs and ceremonies. My own ancestors did the same, a long time ago. It is time to remember and bring these practices back into our daily lives.
Our elders deserve to hold honored positions in our communities as guides and mentors. Their voices need to be heard – loud and clear. It is our collective responsibility to place all of our elders back into the hearts of our communities, back into our daily lives, so that we can begin to create a regenerative culture that honors and supports all life, and not just one race, one gender, one class, one species.