Alec Finlay: Species compass walk

Our artist-in-residence blogs on how to care for what lives with us with a species compass

Most Paths for All groups develop a strong sense of place, walking in the same landscapes through the seasons, seeing the colours change, spring blossoms translated into Autumnal tints. 

I’ve learnt that from the repetition of walks, a sense of stewardship tends to emerge among walkers and, where support is provided, people translate passing through a place into caring for it.

This could mean planting trees, improving paths, adding benches, or even commissioning works of art. In an ideal world people would also add huts or bothies, orchards, and urban crofts.

This blog post shares a simple creative form that you might find useful to reflect on the place you walk, and who you share it with. It’s an idea I've been learning from, and I call it the 'species compass'.

The concept comes from Native American cosmology, which placed totemic animals around the horizon, for instance: 

North: mountain lion; 
South: wildcat; 
East: wolf; 
West: bear. 

I imagine the selected species varied depending on where a tribe lived, but this compass has the four I was first told of. It reflects the values of a predominantly hunting culture and I imagine each animal also had spiritual associations. In the same way you find that Gaelic place-names tend to focus on relatively few species that had a totemic meaning, like deer and eagles.
To learn more about the possibilities this simple form contains, I invited friends, especially those involved in ecological stewardship and rewilding, to compose a compass composed from flora and/or fauna, representing the landscape they love and care for.

I have posted a blog with these examples, which you can see here:

I painted the compasses on wrapping paper rescued from all the Amazon parcels that arrived during lockdown. I’m not sure why I chose such a simple material, perhaps the earthy colours, but it felt like this artwork shouldn’t be too ‘pretty’.

This, as an example, is the compass devised by the naturalist Phil Gates, for rural Wearside. As you can see four simple names can become a brief biography. 

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 that 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.

What would appear on your species compass?

Could you also compose a compass for each season? 

What absent or extinct species might you include? 

What meanings and associations do the species that you selected have, and what do they say about you?

To hear Alec speak about the species compass, tune in to our latest podcast episode.