People Systems

Part 2 – The Role of the Grandmothers

Expanding on the Grandmother Effect

In the first article in this Series we talked about wise woman ways, growing older, and the healthy maturation of human beings. In this article we’ll discover what the wisdom of whales, trees, and indigenous peoples can tell us about the gifts that older women have to offer.

As the eastern sky began to lighten on the last morning of a recent camping trip, I went to the rocks above our campsite to do some stretches and meditation.

I’m a very amateur meditator at the best of times. On this occasion I was more distracted than ever because as the sun rose, I became aware of another meditator on the bluff above me. I recognised her as the mother of a teenager from our group, a woman a few years older than me.

And then another woman from our group, also a few years older than me, walked silently into sight on a rock slab below me and began a yoga routine facing the sunrise.

My focus was lost, no matter how I tried to sink back into the landscape. But never mind my poor meditation skills; there was a different kind of magic in my session on that morning. I hold both of these women in high regard, and I felt comforted by their presence.

Why should I be comforted by the presence of older women sitting on rocks and stretching in the morning sunlight, aside from the fact that they’re my friends and I like being around them?

To answer that question, I need to share a perspective about older women that is not mainstream in our culture, and I’d like to begin to illustrate it by telling you about grandmother whales and grandmother trees[i].



Grandmother Whales

Grandmother Whale
Image by NOAA, unsplahs

Scientists know of four species other than humans in which the female loses her fertility when she has lived only half her lifespan[ii].

They are orcas (killer whales), beluga whales, pilot whales, and narwhals. These are all toothed whales, which have stronger and more complex social structures than baleen whales.

In these four species of whales, the male’s typical lifespan is nearly over around the time his female counterpart is losing her fertility and embarking on the second half of her life.

Scientist have been searching for a reason why a female whale would outlive her fertility. What possible use could she be, if she can’t reproduce?

Turns out, the role of the post-reproductive female whale is a leadership role. Whale families, called pods, are led by the oldest female in the group.

Among other things, grandmother whale remembers where to go in lean years when food is scarce. Which to me indicates that whales learn and accumulate knowledge throughout their lives, and that this knowledge is passed on to subsequent generations not as a stored repository or instinct, but in a dynamic process of living and learning that’s completely dependent on the presence of older female whales.

Studies have found that when a grandmother whale dies too soon, her descendants are much more likely to die early deaths also.

When too many older females in whale communities die, entire pods can weaken and collapse – especially now, when whales and the ocean systems they rely on are so compromised by threats relating to climate change, pollution, and decimation of ocean food chains.



Grandmother Trees

Grandmother Tree
Image by Mali Maeder from Pexels.

Trees live in communities too, connected by the fungal threads of mycelium networks. Within the tree community, the oldest tree supports the younger trees via this underground web of connection[iii].

With roots that reach deeper and further, and with her crown way up high in the forest canopy accessing the sunlight, this tree, sometimes called the “mother tree” or the “hub tree,” provides her descendants and relatives with key nutrients and other resources that they cannot reach themselves.

The mother tree also sends warning signals about approaching threats, such as parasites or insects, that younger trees have not encountered yet.

The oldest tree that serves this role can be connected to hundreds of trees at once, increasing the survival of seedlings and the health of the community.

When these large old trees are dying, their final act of care is to send key nutrients and other resources to the other trees via the fungal networks. And if too many older trees are cut down, the whole system collapses.



Weaving The Dreams For The Grandchildren

Like being born, reaching adolescence, giving birth, and dying, menopause is a transition from one life-form to another.

It’s a major rite of passage that enables and empowers a woman to transition from the role of nurturer to the role of way-finder.

There is a descent into darkness, there is loss, there is change, and then a new woman, a different woman, emerges. She emerges by means of self-knowing; there is much deep, personal work to do in the metamorphosis of menopause.

“Aboriginal Law Women identify a whole new role post-menopause. Not a renegotiated one, but an entirely different one.

The role of the grandmothers is to ‘weave the dreams for the grandchildren.’”

Jane Hardwicke Collings, Women’s Mysteries Teacher

In aboriginal culture and in other indigenous cultures, dreaming life and waking life are closely entwined.

“Dreaming,” in its many forms and with many variations and layers of meaning, has to do with maintaining culture and serving adult spiritual responsibilities, in particular the responsibility of caring for and constantly renewing the seen and unseen dimensions of the living matrix in which the people are embedded.

In this context, I would interpret “weaving the dreams for the grandchildren,” to mean something along the lines of working to ensure that the web of life, which will sustain the children, is itself sustained.



Coming Up Next

The next article in this Series breifly explores how the gifts and contributions of older women came to be “invisible” in our culture —unseen and undervalued.





Kate writes at about thinking differently and living a more natural, connected, and sustainable life. Download this complete article Series and check out her other free downloads, here.




[i] I came across this research about grandmother whales and grandmother trees in “Autumn Woman Harvest Queen,” Jane Hardwicke Collings’ empowering ecourse about menopause as a rite of passage.

[ii] You can read about recent studies into menopausal whales here and here.

[iii] Read more about the underground networks that connect the trees of the forest almost into one organism, in “Trees Talk to Each Other in a Language We Can Learn,” “The Underground Mycorrhizal Network,” and “Talking Trees.”


Kate Martignier

Kate writes at – an exploration into thinking differently and living a more natural, connected, and sustainable life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles

Back to top button