The Earth Elder Initiation
of Fred Lanphear

Editor's note: Craig “Oz” Ragland has lived at Songaia Cohousing Community near Seattle since 1992. Inspired by one of Songaiaís founders, Fred Lanphear (who passed away in 2010), Oz left his 20-year career in software to support the Intentional Community movement. He joined the Cohousing Association of the United States board of directors in 2006 and was hired as its Executive Director, serving in that position from 2008 to July 2011. Oz, currently 54, aspires to grow into Elderhood and become an initiated Elder in the coming years. Oz recently joined the Rites of Passage Journeys board of directors to support others in this important work. For more information, see

After dinner on March 27, 2006, the men of Songaia Cohousing Community burst into the common house dining room wearing masks, hooting and hollering, and beating drums. They settled Fred Lanphear, Songaiaís oldest member, into the well-padded wheelbarrow they had brought with them, then rolled him off into the night for his elder initiation.

Scenes from Songaia: Oz Ragland at Songaia entrance

The conversations that were the catalyst for this initiation had started in December 2005, when Fred, nearing his 70th birthday, asked members of the community to sit with him individually and talk about the last phase of his life. Awareness of this impending passage had dawned on Fred ten years earlier; at age 70, he was ready for his elder work.

He shared his vision of moving gradually from a life of “doing” to one of “being and teaching” through writing and mentoring. Among other things, he was ready to share the story of Songaiaís creation by writing a book about the community.

As one of the founding members, Fred had put tremendous energy into Songaiaís formation. As a widening circle of people collected, joining the original four founders, Fredís gentle leadership helped build a strong community — a ten-year endeavor that culminated with 13 families moving into new and remodeled duplex homes in 2000.

In addition to regular community-wide meetings, the Songaiaís women and men have monthly circles and often attend retreats together. At one menís circle — rare in that Fred was absent — the men were discussing the initiation of the communityís boys, when someone noted that Fredís elder passage needed to be acknowledged and celebrated.

Though none of the men in the community were themselves initiated elders, all felt that the men in his community should design the experience. Fortunately, Songaiaís other male founder, Stan Crow, was an experienced ritualist who had founded the nonprofit Rites of Passage Journeys and had designed many initiations. Together, then, the men explored ideas, worked out a basic framework, and assigned responsibilities, ultimately weaving all the elements together into a cohesive whole.


The first step in that ritual was Separation. The men who wheelbarrowed Fred into the dark and up a steep forest trail were separating him from the women and children of the community. Halfway to the ritual destination, a large log blocked the passage of the wheelbarrow. It served as a threshold, a point of conscious choice for Fred: either embrace his initiation as Earth Elder or return to the community.

Fred stood and accepted the challenge. As he crossed the threshold, he was handed a beautifully crafted staff which he used as he climbed the rest of the way up the hill to a ceremonial fire. The men closed the circle around the fire and began ritually calling the directions, inviting Fredís ancestors, the powers of the universe, and the more-thanĖhuman world to witness his transition into the next stage of his life.

Scenes from Songaia: Fred and Brian Bansenauer



I invite the emerging mystery of the Northeast, the Sky, the Heavens to join us, the men of Songaia, tonight.

The Northeast is the energy of Conception. Tonight could be the 71st anniversary of Fredís conception. At this very moment, 71 years ago, his fatherís sperm and motherís egg may have made that love connection, creating a unique life force which has taken the journey to become the man we now know as Fred.

We are here tonight to witness and support Fred, a man of mystery. We are here to support his ongoing connection to spirit and his emerging role as a Songaia Earth Elder.

Fred, I ask you: Will you as Elder call the men of Songaia to connect with mystery?

And Fred responded: “I will.”


I invite the inspirational energy of the East to join us, the men of Songaia, tonight.

The East energy is of beginning, the in-breath, the dawn; it holds inclusion and enthusiasm in its excitement. For many years, the men of Songaia have witnessed Fredís East energy through his many roles in the drama of creating Songaia community. We honor these roles in which Fred has welcomed us into Songaiaís circle of men. He has invited us to participate, and many of us have responded. Fred has promoted and helped focus our community as well as our roles as men.

Fred, I ask you: Will you as our Community Elder call the men of Songaia to support your initiation as Earth Elder?

And Fred responded: “I will.”


I invite the Southís creative work energy to join us, the men of Songaia, tonight.

The South is the summer, joyous implementation, our perspiration, being in the thick of it. The South is where we make it happen. Itís where we grab the shovel, gentle it into the ground, and lift some beauty of the earth into a wheelbarrow — and then do it again. Fred has moved many a shovelful of Songaia beauty. We invite Fred to bid us join him as he continues to create. Over his years of Songaian leader- and follower-ship, Fredís South work has focused on many things, but it has often involved a shovel.

Fred, I ask you: Will you as Elder call the men of Songaia to perspire?

And Fred responded: “I will.”

Scenes from Songaia: Karly Lubach, Nancy Lanphear,
Fred Lanphear, Dorothy Fulton


I invite the Southwestís earthy sustenance to join us, the men of Songaia, tonight.

The Southwest provides our connection to the earth. It provides our core grounding. It is about nurturing and physical caretaking, it is about beauty. It is about timeless wandering, about downtime, relaxation, and play.

Fredís groundedness is manifest as one moves around Songaia. It is, perhaps, the most tangible way we witness Fredís contributions to our lives. The landscaping, the many trees he has planted, the gardens, the arbors, the greenhouse, the storage areas, and more. Think of how much of Fredís energy you have personally eaten over the years. How many tomatoes, zucchini, beans, peas — and even cucumbers! (Fredís active avoidance of cucumbers was a long-standing community joke.)

Fred, I ask you: Will you as Elder call the men of Songaia to be grounded, to be in place?

And Fred responded: “I will.”


I invite the Learning of the West to join us, the men of Songaia, tonight.

The West is about gathering after the work, after the meal. It is about bringing people together to learn, to understand, and to build community. The West is about us sharing our gifts of appreciation. It is about seeking our truths, our stories, and the fruits of our labors.

Fred honors the role of the symbol, of story, and has deeply shaped the way we see our community. Think of the many Songaia workshops and meetings he has led, the Thanksgivings, and the many walls of wonder. With his involvement in the broader communities of NICA (Northwest Intentional Community Association) and the FIC (Fellowship for Intentional Community), Fred shares his learnings from Songaia and his other communities on a whole new level. Fred also responded to a call and will be leading a workshop about becoming an Earth Elder at the Art of Community NW event in September. I call the Songaia men to support him as he prepares for this event.

Fred, I ask you: Will you as Elder call the men of Songaia to share our gifts?

And Fred responded: “I will.”


I invite the Vision of the North to join us, the men of Songaia, tonight.

North energy includes vision and purpose, wisdom, perspective, and deep gratitude. It integrates. It reflects. It also retreats to hibernate and emerge anew. It holds teams together; it coordinates, organizes, and connects the dots.

Fredís many years as Songaia Navigator were crucial in holding together a series of core teams through our biggest challenges. He was a keeper of wisdom and integration; he helped us remain balanced through thoughtful post-meeting reflections and conversations. Through these years, Fred also held the vision for other nonprofits, including The Northwest Institute of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, and One Sky Medicine.

Fred, I ask you: Will you as Elder call the men of Songaia to deeply reflect?

And Fred responded: “I will.”


Scenes from Songaia: Earth Day May pole celebration

I now invite a different type of Northeast energy to join us, the men of Songaia, tonight. I invite us to glimpse the return to Mystery that lies ahead for us all.

Given that 71 years have passed since his conception, Fred will not be with us in flesh as long as others of us here. We initiate Fred tonight as Earth Elder. We expect him to hold this role for many years. We trust and call him to grow in his coming years of Earth Elderhood. We also call him to help us develop and share a greater vision of Eldering at Songaia.

Fred, you were initiated as Elder when you turned 60. Tonight, we, the men of Songaia, initiate you as our first Earth Elder. We call you to help us understand what it means to be an Earth Elder. What does having you as an Earth Elder mean as we consider our next initiation? What does having an Earth Elder mean to our circle of men? What does it mean to our community? We call upon Fred to help us shape our story and vision.

Fred, we call you to become our Earth ElderÖ an Earth Elder for Songaia, an Earth Elder for the bioregion, an Earth Elder for the planet.

Fred, I ask you: Will you as Elder call the men of Songaia to support your new journey as an Earth Elder?

And Fred responded: “I will.”

After the directions were called, the men sang several songs, including ones special to Fred and others that pertained to change. Fred, who had been asked to share his intentions around Earth Eldering, then spoke somewhat hesitantly, but with a touching depth and compassion. In the lengthening evening, each man shared personal thoughts, stories, and poetry.

After formally presenting Fred with the wheelbarrow, staff, and the gift of a day-long workshop with storyteller/mythologist Michael Meade, the men released the directions: the emerging mystery of the Northeast . . . the inspirational energy of the East . . . creative work energy of the South . . . the earthy sustenance of the Southwest . . . the learning of the West . . . the vision of the North . . . and the return to mystery of the Northeast.

Thank you for joining us, the men of Songaia, tonight. The men of Songaia thank you for joining them!

Then the men hiked back from the woods, supporting their first initiated Earth Elder as he leaned on his new staff.


Initiating Fred as an Earth Elder within our community recognized him for what he had been growing into for many years, including his 10-year journey as an initiated Elder. It gave community members a framework for how they might relate to him. Explicitly, wearing the mantle of Earth Elder, he made himself available to the community for conversations, stories, and support.

Shortly after his 70th birthday, Fred was diagnosed with ALS. Instead of treating this like a disaster, he approached it as a new opportunity for connection and participation. In a special community circle, Fred did a remarkable thing in inviting members of the community to actively participate in the last phase of his life, in whatever minor or major ways felt right to each individual. This transformed his final journey from one dominated by loss and grief to one of gratitude, mentoring, and service.

Scenes from Songaia: View of community from a spaceship

Throughout the progression of his disease, Fred embraced an attitude of gratitude. He was grateful for the personal care his community provided for him and his wife, Nancy. He was grateful to the ALS Society, which provided equipment and information. And perhaps most importantly, he was grateful to be alive as The Great Story became known and for the opportunity to be of service to the Great Turning.

The level of care provided by his community neighbors enabled Fred to stay in his home until he died on September 9, 2010. Unlike some with ALS, Fred never lost the ability to communicate, but as the disease took him closer and closer to his death, he had no choice but to spend less time actively “doing” and more time “being.” He sank more deeply into his Earth Eldership.

Fred had many companions on his final adventure. Because he had befriended his disease, he transformed it into chances for others to connect with greater depth.

Fred had many opportunities to share as an Earth Elder, including playing key roles in the initiation of other Elders and Earth Elders. He engaged in a great many dialogues, helping others understand the Great Story and think about their roles in contributing to the Great Turning. Fredís growing connection to Spirit and appreciation for life inspired many. He served as a role model and mentor to many adults and children at Songaia and, as a revered ancestor, continues to be an important part of many peopleís lives.

Several involved with his care felt that they received more from him than they were able to give. While no longer able to work in the garden, Fredís active eldering had a profound impact on his community, friends, and family. As his body declined, Fredís Earth Elderhood deepened as he mentored and blessed those around him. He helped several embrace the later portions of their own lives, enabling them to envision a possible future as Earth Elders themselves. Fully participating in othersí lives as an Earth Elder, Fred communicated his optimism about the future, encouraging each of us to find our rightful place in the Great Story of the Universe.