Monday, October 31, 2022

Species Compass

This is another new form I've been sharing and learning from, the 'species compass'.

Native American cosmology placed totemic animals around the horizon: 

North, mountain lion

South, wildcat

East, wolf

West, bear

I invited friends and those involved in ecological stewardship to compose a compass from flora and/or fauna, representing the landscape they love and care for. 

This form is made for sharing. Please adopt and adapt it. I can imagine examples done for seasons, and, of course, compass which refer to species which are absent or extinct. It is a simple plan for what was, is, and could be.

The project is ongoing and I will add to it in due course.

The contributors are (in order of appearance): Juliet Robertson (River Dee, Inverurie); Gerry Loose (Isle of Bute); Shaila Rao (NTS Mar Lodge, Cairngorms); Chris Watson (Holystone Wood, near Rothbury, Northumberland); Nick Belt (Dundreggan, Glenmoriston); Doug Gilbert (Dundreggan, Glenmoriston); Alec Finlay (Stonypath, Little Sparta); Gill Russell (River Don, Glenkindie), Caitlin DeSilvey (Helford River), Phil Gates (River Wear, Weardale), and Kathleen Jamie (Newburgh, Kingdom of Fife).

My sense is that the compasses that come from Highland rewilding projects function as a dialogue between past and present philosophies of land management, almost as a kind of parliament in which the cardinal points debate ecological principles. 

I asked the poet Andrew Schelling about Native American tribal beliefs and he said that those he knew have 'a four-direction cosmology, associated typically with cardinal directions, a color, and often an animal. 

Those in the south-west have, of course, mountains—so the Navajo for instance regard not just their terrain but the cosmos as bounded by four, which include Mt. Blanca, Mt. Taylor, and two others—those of course being the white man names.

A Navajo friend once gave me a bracelet with four colors, which turned out to be Plains tribe cosmology, the colors stood for directions and animals.

The Achumawi, according to Jaime de Angulo, had a three-way cosmology until the white settlers appeared. Their world was triangular. 

I also admire the Karok and Yurok who do not have cardinal directions, but build into their language “up river” and “down river” as well as “up hill” and down slope.” In fact, the names Karok and Yurok are the words that mean up and down river.'


This is Phil Gates' description of his compass. 

Goosanders because I had never seen them until I came here 45 years ago and stood on this spot by the river Wear

Bird Cherry because there is a magnificent specimen just to the east that was surrounded by pines until 1o years ago, when they were felled: liberating it from the shadows; it has been smothered in blossom every spring and full of birds that come for its berries

Curlews because this is one of the first places I hear them arriving in spring, on the fell behind me

Yellow star of Bethlehem because I found just two plants of this locally rare species the first time I came here on a March day - and they are still here 45 years later (now there are about half a dozen.


My own compass is a sentimental evocation of The Stonypathian, for the landscape where I grew up. 

The big ash that has now fallen and which used to be the garden's patriarch.

The curlews and bog cotton of the surrounding moor, within which the garden rested, and which it will always be in a fragile tension with. 

The few magical hazels which stand by the Anston Burn, on a patch of slope too steep for the sheep. 

It's notable that all of these species pre-date the garden my mother and father made.


Gerry Loose gave the reasons for his choices.

I chose oak for the north because, here on the Isle of Bute, we have a community owned Atlantic oakwood. Not uncommon along the west coast of Argyll. 

Sweet chestnut for the south because two of my favourite trees are such, ancients, corkscrewing trunks and a wealth in odd years of chicken of the woods. 

Porpoises sport all the time to the west since they have the whole Atlantic to range in but come so close to the shoreline. 

Minke - well minke! such a glorious sight, mostly in summer, to catch  them rolling between the island and the mainland.

Taken together, the four seem to sum up island ecologies: the wild and the cultivated, the rare sightings and the apparently immovable (except trees change their ranges century on century; though the chestnuts have no offspring in the south).


Juliet Robertson very deliberately chose trees because this was the focus of her walks, as they define the seasons. 

The elderberry crop this year has been huge on the tree near the Port Elphinstone canal. 

There’s an old lime down by the River Ury that comes alive in summer with the sound of humming wasps feasting on its nectar, 

I have holly in my own garden, planted not long after I arrived in Inverurie, and birch for the Uryside. 

The birch is a pioneer species and demonstrating this at Uryside where a birch woodland is being established entirely by the tree's inclination rather than being formally planted. 


Naturally I could have added more themes: flowers, insects, birds, mammals. At some point I’d love to create my own seasonal calendar based on natural events rather than the static 4 seasons. At the moment, it’s geese season at Inverurie with 1000’s flying overhead.


Gill Russell's compass describes a conspectus of her home in Glenkindie, by the River Don.

The buzzards circle and call above the fields of rabbits to the north of our house. Lying awake with the bedroom window open I often hear owls in the woods to the south, across the river. A heron lives on Garlic Island, upstream and west from our house. In the river shallows, downstream, towards the east, each dipper has a rock.


Shaila Rao took more of an ecological system approach to the compass, using it as an indicator of ecological issues/conflicts in the uplands.

North is the wolf, a pinnacle of rewilding in Scotland and one that we may or may not ever reach. Also the top of the food chain and an important player in healthy forest ecosystems. I also associate this with the north for some reason!


South is the red deer, selected as they have had and continue to have such a significant impact on Scotland’s woodlands. They are also an iconic species in Scotland. I positioned deer to the south opposite wolves as they would be prey of wolves and the complex interaction of these species is important in the dynamics of forest ecosystems.


East is a Golden eagle, for me an emblem of wild land and wide expanses, and indicator of a healthy ecosystem. It also happens to be one of the top predators in Scotland. They are also just beautiful and magnificent. 


West are Salmon, an indicator of healthy rivers and healthy seas. It also links closely with woodlands, in that salmon should be in rivers through forests and trees play an important role in supporting the freshwater habitats and hence this species.


Perhaps after doing this I realise that my head is always in ecology and looking at relationships within species and habitats. If you’d asked me just for my favourite four species it would have looked totally different–dotterel, mountain hare, hen harrier and alpine saw wort!


Caitlin DeSilvey summarises her portrait of the Helford River watershed and a yearning for her childhood home, in another incomer, the Monterey pine.

N – Sessile oak – the river’s signature species, scrawled along the banks and overhanging the watery edges.

S -  Holm oak –  the river’s future-oak? undaunted by droughty springs, ilex as indicator species.

E – Monterey pine – incongruous giants watching over the river’s mouth, California 


W – Feral apple – hugging to hedges and lanes; tossed, lost, and found again.


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