Fred Lanphear lived his life with great intentionality. He was intentional about his career, which he thought of not as a job but as a calling or vocation. He was intentional in his devotion to his family. He committed the last decades of his life to helping found and grow an intentional cohousing community, Songaia, located on the outskirts of Seattle. Finally, he was intentional about his role as elder.
As he approached his 60th birthday, Fred had felt a need to mark and celebrate his passage into old age. He created a yearlong program for himself. He traveled to Rhode Island, where he had grown up, to reconnect with family members and with the land and sea of his youth. He created a “mythological quilt” that depicted the primary involvement of each decade of his life. He attended to physical needs of his aging body. And, finally, he undertook a four-day vision quest. The outcome of this yearlong program was a renewed sense of calling and a renewed commitment to devote his remaining years to fostering the growth of communities that helped reconnect the human community with the natural world. Over the next decade, Fredís sense of his mission as elder grew, and by his 70th birthday heíd arrived at a deeper understanding: Becoming an elder meant becoming an elder for the Earth — becoming an Earth Elder.
Fredís various initiations — first as an elder on his 60th birthday, then as Earth Elder on his 70th birthday — are interesting in themselves. The deeper questions are, of course: What did Fred mean by these titles? And how did he arrive at this awareness that he prized so deeply?
Fred began his career as an agronomist, a scientist convinced that modern industrial agriculture held the key to providing for future human needs. Slowly, however, his awareness of the harmful consequences of this mindset began to grow. He told me the story of his working with a colleague in St. Louis who had become curious about the death of street trees in the city. After they mapped the locations of the dying trees, a pattern emerged: The area of dead trees formed the shape of a cone with its apex at a chemical plant — clear evidence that emissions from the factory were the source of the toxins that were killing the trees.
The next phase of his life was service within a Christian service organization, the Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA). He spent years in Africa and India, teaching the agricultural skills in which he had been trained, a member of the small outreach teams that ICA created to foster community development. The experience confirmed his sense of the importance of community development and led directly to his efforts to form an intentional community. His initial partners in the founding of Songaia in the 1990s were his wife Nancy and colleagues from ICA, Stan and Carol Crow. After Songaia had become established, Fred contributed leadership to the national intentional community movement, helping found the Northwest Intentional Community Association and serving on the board of the Fellowship for Intentional Community.
Up until now, community to Fred had meant the human community of family, friends, and associates. Then he read The Dream of the Earth by the cultural historian and ecotheologian Fr. Thomas Berry. “Itís all a question of story,” Berry had written. The old stories that have informed our cultures for millennia are no longer adequate for present conditions. The new story of evolution speaks of a profound interrelatedness between all beings in the cosmos. Human life emerges from and is deeply embedded within creative processes that have been operating over billions of years. These periods of deep time are simply staggering for a human consciousness that typically spans just a few decades.
Fred created a “mythological quilt” that depicted the primary <
involvement of each decade of his life.
Here was a notion of community much larger than what Fred was used to. Community had to include all of the beings, both living and nonliving, that inhabit planet Earth. Fred had devoted his life to nurturing the human community; now he sensed he was being called to something more: Given the needs of our time, living in the context of the “old stories” with their limited sense of community was no longer adequate. Continuing to live his life intentionally, he chose the title Earth Elder to express his dedication to the “something more.”
What did being an elder mean to Fred? In traditional societies, the elder is one who is able to draw upon years of experience to provide guidance to the community. The concept of guidance is interesting: Thomas Berry asks, how will we humans obtain the guidance we need to navigate the difficult transition we face? For Berry the answer lies in the evolutionary story: Guidance comes from all of the processes that have worked together to bring forth the world in all its wonder as we now experience it. Elders are the storytellers who remind the community how it came into being and how it has survived the great challenges of the past. These are the stories that bind the community together and provide the members with their sense of meaning and participation in the great community of existence. So Fred, in addition to offering guidance from the wisdom he had garnered through his own experience, moved naturally into telling what Thomas Berry called the Great Story.
For Fred, being an Earth Elder required he devote himself to three activities: learning, living, and mentoring.
“Learning the Great Story” meant learning a new story that differs from traditional stories of creation in several important ways. First, in the Great Story the universe is not a static place where creation is finished and Earth is a completed home; rather, the universe, profoundly creative and dynamic, has been evolving and continues to evolve. Second, human presence has become so powerful in the dynamics of the earth that the future of evolution and of continued life on Earth now hinges on the choices and activities of the human community. Thomas Berry likens human presence to the geological forces that have created the differing epochs in Earthís evolution. Third, humans are deeply interdependent with all other members, living and nonliving, of the Earth community. Earth does not consist of inert stuff for use and disposal solely for the benefit of humans. Finally, evolutionary development occurs as much through cooperation as through competition. A prime factor in our “fitness” to survive is our ability to forge mutually enhancing relationships.
While he still had use of his hands,
Fred this image of a rocket ship
blasting its way into the cosmos
to describe his feelings about his
life and death.
“Living the Great Story” meant coming personally into a sustainable relationship with the processes of the planet. Fredís cohousing community, where many members strive to live in a manner that is conscious of the consequences of their choices for the larger Earth community, was an important locus for this activity. An important dimension of this conscious living is to view Earth and her systems as sacred, to be accorded reverence and to be celebrated. The community has created a labyrinth and peace garden as concrete manifestations of this sense, and they celebrate the natural seasons of the planet, the solstices and equinoxes. Songaia has also created a Festival of the Earth as a community holiday, merging elements of Earth Day with the festivities of May Day and their own creative expressions.
The final dimension, “Mentoring,” meant not only being present to younger members of Songaia, but also helping the larger community find ways to celebrate the Great Story. He was inspired by a ritual called the Cosmic Walk, created by Sr. Miriam MacGillis of Genesis Farm in New Jersey. In this ritual a rope, approximately 140 feet long, is laid out on the ground in the form of a spiral. The length of the rope represents the timeline of the evolution of the entire universe, one foot representing 100 million years. The beginning of the rope at the center of the spiral represents the beginning of the universe, some 14 billion years ago. Particular moments of emergence, such as the beginning of life on Earth, are marked along the timeline the rope represents. As participants in the ritual walk along the spiral, we are invited to reflect on the variety of gifts that have come into existence during the course of evolution. Fred led people in the ritual on a number of occasions, and one of his final gestures was to bequeath the Cosmic Walk materials to members of the Earth Elder study group, with instructions to “Tell the Story!”
After Fred was diagnosed with ALS, sensing that the terminal disease left him only a couple of years to live, the intentionality that had characterized so much of his life intensified: He invited members of Songaia, family members, and other friends to share his final journey. His neighbors responded generously by assisting in the care he needed increasingly as the illness progressed; and Fred accepted their care graciously, freely sharing his feelings about his steadily progressing disability and its implications.
While he still had use of his hands he created another image: a rocket ship blasting its way into the cosmos — an image that aptly represented his feelings about his life and death. He had fully internalized the sense of his own emergence from the earth through an evolutionary process, and he expected his death to mark his return into the fundamental processes that have guided the universe through its 14-billion-year unfolding.
Until his final passing, Fred Lanphear, Earth Elder, dedicated himself to the challenge laid down by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in a quote that Fred loved: “The task before us now, if we would not perish, is to shake off our ancient prejudices and rebuild the Earth.”