The compass. If you know how to use it, it can save your life. If you don’t know how to use it but you try to use it anyway, well, you’ll probably get into more trouble than if you had just left it at home. If you know how to use it, but privilege your own “sense of direction,” then you, too, should have left it at home. A compass, like most instruments of survival, can be as risky as it is helpful depending on how it is used.
Imagine you study a map and find your starting point and destination. You grab your straightedge for a perfect line between the two points and use your compass to determine the direction of your coarse. 90 degrees. Got it.
But your compass orients itself to magnetic north and your map is oriented to true north. Unless you happen to be somewhere in the middle of Wisconsin, the difference between those two norths can mean that you end up miles away from your intended destination.
So, you account for that difference (the declination). You arrive at the trailhead, orient your compass to north, orient yourself in your direction of travel and start walking. You take 3 steps and run into a tree. No big deal, walk around it and continue in your straight line. Ten more steps there’s a little stream with a footbridge, which you cross. You check your compass and see that despite your attempt to walk straight, you have traveled 6 degrees off course in the span of less than a minute.
The simplicity of a compass does not mean a simplicity of course. North is rarely absolute. Straight lines are an illusion. An internal sense of direction is deceiving.
Perhaps the most dangerous part of traveling in the wilderness is the false confidence of knowing where you are going. It is the peril of underestimating the small obstacles in your path such that you fail to consult your compass. But there is another danger, too. You can become too afraid to steer off course. You can set your compass and watch the needle obsessively at every step, missing the whole point of your trek in the first place.
The best practice of orienteering is not to surrender your every sense to the compass, nor is it to completely trust in yourself. The best practice is to set your compass on a large object in your path, close your compass and walk to it. Once you are there, open your compass, check your direction and set another point. Then put it in your pocket and walk slowly but deliberately with your eyes to the trees.
This is clearly a metaphor.
Since waking up on Sunday morning to the news of the latest mass shooting, I have felt so very low, so very sad, so very disoriented. My inner voice keeps muttering about the evil in the world, the hopelessness of hoping, the impossibility of justice and equality. This most recent event, like so many before it, is a tremendous obstacle to those of us who yearn for a better world, for a healed earth, for unqualified love and acceptance for all.
On the other side of this obstacle and every obstacle we need to pause and examine our compass and determine where we want to go. In the meantime, let’s walk lightly over the petrified and fallen branches, the fragile footbridges and loose boulders. Let’s not trust our own sense of things too much and let’s not be afraid to keep moving forward as we turn to our communities, our poets, our sacred texts, our selves and ask again, “where are we going?”