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Exploring the role of elders in Transition

'Honoring the elders' is one of the key original ingredients of creating a Transition Town (or city, or village). The term brings to mind a traditional society where age equalled knowledge and respect, and where younger members of a tribe or community would seek out the elders for advice. Sadly, as one member of Transition Dartmouth Park pointed out when I raised this topic, this no longer applies to life in the UK, where age is often equated with a burden on the state, ill health, fuel poverty and disrespect. So what does 'honoring the elders' mean in the context of Transition - does it only refer to those who are older, and how is it part of our daily practice and experience?

Knit and natterAs a movement Transition seeks to harness the very best of human ingenuity, and look to the past for some of the pre-fossil-fueled-mass production era skills we have lost. So Transition groups run skills shares on knitting, sewing, preserving, foraging, herbal medicine and many other things which hark back to centuries old learning, and which in the last generation have been wiped out by cheap, mass produced and imported alternatives.

In some cases those who still have these skills are the older people in our community, and Transition groups attempt to learn from, and celebrate their knowledge and skills. Pamela Edwards, one of the coordinators of our Home Energy Metering Project says: "Those of us who are a bit older in years have useful memories of more frugal times when clothes were sometimes home made, of preserving garden produce, and of using resources with greater care than tends to be the case today." I personally learnt both jam-making and foraging from youngish men, not from my mother or grandmother, but our 'knit and natter' group is a case in point - the more skilled knitters having learnt as children, with many years experience to now pass onto others in the group.

In Transition Dartmouth Park we have a reasonably good spread of ages (although not enough young people) and one member of our core group, Sarah Harrison, describes it as 'pretty free of age awareness/discrimination'. But she goes onto say: "I have no sense that those of us who are older are 'elders'." However, since starting the group I feel we have certainly benefitted from the knowledge and experience of some of the older people involved. Those, like Sarah, who have long been involved in community and other groups and processes, have I feel, been able to contribute a lot in terms of understanding group dynamics and advising on how to resolve possible conflict.

gardening clubPersonally I also value the sense I have that my son is growing up as part of a whole, multi-generational community, and that those people we know locally are not limited to others with school age children. Because of our involvement in Transition,  we know people of all ages in our community, and it has enabled older and younger people in our area to work together on common projects. Catharine Wells who is involved in our food growing project at Highgate Newtown community centre, and in our after school gardening club with our local primary school, agrees: "What attracted me to the Transition movement was its success- in our area at least- in involving people of all ages, from schoolchildren upwards. It is the mix of ages, of different backgrounds and circumstances all enjoying active and positive involvement in making lots of local visible incremental changes which seems to me to be the key. Age, learnt experience, wisdom  are some of the many key ingredients. When I watch children watering a growing plot, I think that energy and enthusiasm are needed as well!"

cycle cinemaWhen I spoke to others in our group on this topic, another contribution of elders to the Transition process emerged for me - the more recent memories of movements that tried to do things differently. Pamela said: "The 1970's, when many of us were involved in Transition-type initiatives - veg growing and preserving foraged fruit, clothes making, brewing beer and wine, setting us housing communities and cooperatives. This all got derailed by Thatcher's 'Dash for Gas' in the 1980's, with its promised shiny future powered by endless resources. If there is one thing we should pass onto younger members of Transition communities it should be: 'don't let this happen again.'"

Patrick Lefevre, a retired community lawyer and chair of the Dartmouth Park Conservation Committee, who has supported Transition Dartmouth Park from the start, agrees with Pamela: "not sure I am quite ready to accept myself as an elder but I absolutely agree that the most important thing activists of a certain age bring to the party is the memory/experience of a pre or early stages of the individualist consumer culture when people and communities valued themselves, their own cultures and saw social cohesion/solidarity as a must."

Images: 1. Transition Dartmouth Park 'knit & natter' group; 2. Our after school gardening club with Brookfield primary school; 3. Patrick Lefevre (foreground) and Pamela Edwards (second from right) at our cycle-powered cinema last year.

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