New metaphors for sustainability: a stranger’s compass

This post comes to you from Ashden Directory

Our co-editor Wallace Heim continues our series of new metaphors for sustainability with a guidance system that changes hands. 

Walking an unfamiliar Cumbrian fell with a compass, often without a map, links me to the land in a special way. The invisible, magnetic north that spins into place on the device is often perplexing and counter-intuitive. However reassuring it is to know there are vast forces of geology beyond any I can see, forces that co-ordinate my safe passage, I still have to negotiate the land right in front of me: that granite face, that swamped mire, that fast river. There is no picture in which to find myself, only wit, the land and the pull of a distant polar force.

A few times, I’ve come across a dropped compass. There’s a moment when clearing the mud from its face when I wonder whether it was left behind because it was broken, or not believed. Is the north that was found in a stranger’s hand the same as in mine?

I don’t think sustainability can be likened directly to a compass, as if there was a pole of certainty to it. There are orientations that guide, but they fluctuate with a landscape that is continually shifting. The incremental decisions made in response to immediate conditions themselves change the situation, alter what is possible to do. I see sustainability as a response to change, one that keeps alive the capacity to respond to further change. What kind of compass would show this light-footed improvisation that makes sure those in the future can navigate their own way?

Walking with a stranger’s compass comes closer as a metaphor. The compass is given, handed over, and it connects me to those I will never know, while helping me cross the land that I am in. The instruction is not reliable; maybe not safe. Or maybe it is, and the coordinates are sharper than on my own compass, signalling a clearer route. Is it pulling me in a direction I couldn’t have imagined? This uncertain magnetism invigorates the walk. One day, I’ll leave my compass behind.

“ashdenizen blog and twitter are consistently among the best sources for information and reflection on developments in the field of arts and climate change in the UK” (2020 Network)

ashdenizen is edited by Robert Butler, and is the blog associated with the Ashden Directory, a website focusing on environment and performance.
The Ashden Directory is edited by Robert Butler and Wallace Heim, with associate editor Kellie Gutman. The Directory includes features, interviews, news, a timeline and a database of ecologically – themed productions since 1893 in the United Kingdom. Our own projects include ‘New Metaphors for Sustainability’, ‘Flowers Onstage’ and ‘Six ways to look at climate change and theatre’.

The Directory has been live since 2000.

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