My buddy Rafe and I hunt on the same property. It’s almost that time of year, so we go scouting together, checking the usual places for bed-downs and trails, and keeping our eyes open for new trails, setting trail cameras. You know: the usual. I always bring a compass.
Rafe teases me, but he knows, like I do, that in the excitement of pursuing a mortally wounded animal, your mind will tell you it’s noting landmarks, but after the adrenaline dissipates, your mind will laugh hysterically at the cool practical joke it just played on you while the woods close in on you like so many strangers in Penn Station. Besides, it’s still summer here. During hunting season, after the leaves fall and the sun falls, the landscape becomes alien. It’s best to take the occasional compass reading. My Oma gave me a military-style compass when I was a little boy, and I still carry it with me (she was in the Hitlerjugend, but that’s a whole ‘nother glass of schnapps). I have it right here, in fact, not an arm’s length from me.
“No, it’s not,” I said.
“Haven’t you ever seen those globes where the lettering is all upside down, like as if it was Australians who made it?”
“Who made what?” I asked.
“The globe,” he said.
“But they didn’t make that globe, because Australians know that they’re in the Southern Hemisphere. The world would look just as ridiculous upside down to them as it does to us.”
“Nuh uh,” he said.
“Yeah huh,” I retorted. “A bunch of academic types made that globe, as an exercise, not as an alternative to a real globe.”
“A ‘real’ globe?” he mocked.
“Lookit,” I said, pointing to my compass. “Put a Z there, and it still points thataway.”
“But a Z is just a sideways N.”
“Fine,” I said. “Put Gandalf’s rune there, and it still points thataway.”
“It’s still relative,” he said. “It’s totally arbitrary that we call it ‘north.'”
“No, it’s not,” I repeated. “This thing behaves relative to a real thing up near the north pole. More than that, the fact that magnetic north moves a little bit, and that you have to do the left-add-right-subtract rule proves the point: it might be relative, but it’s relative to something there.”
“It’s right-add-left-subtract, dummy,” he said.
I rolled my eyes. Then I said, “If I was a slave in the South in the 1800s, the one thing I’d steal from my master before I made for freedom is a compass.” I was conceding to him that the the North Star is not visible.
“That’s totally proving my point,” he said. “North is completely relative. What if the North had slavery, and the South was where freedom was?”
“You’d still take a compass and bear south relative to a fixed north pole.”
“See?” Rafe said, leaning against a tree in exultation. “It’s all relative.”