Once upon a time I was in a coven. It was a while ago now; we split up when some of us moved north and others of us moved south and it just wasn't working, geographically, anyway.
In this coven, like a lot of others, when we cast circles we used the correspondences of east as air, south as fire, west as water, and north as earth.
I went along with it; it was what we did, and I guess I didn't think about it too much. But one thing always bothered me and never made any sense to me at all, and that was putting earth in the north.
North is winter. Winter is cold, dead, sleeping, comatose; none of this makes sense to me as earth. Oh I get that earth represents the Void in some ways, the black primal matter from which all else arises; but in my experience with the Void, or the wings of my daimon, shall we say, that black is not dead, but vibrantly alive, teeming with potential: radiant, even. And north and winter just don't fit that, for me.
If something is going to function as the I guess archetype of the element, then I'd expect that element to be awake, at least, and for earth, that means growth, luxurious unbridled inexhaustible life, zoë, as Kerényi would say. In other words, not winter.
But then in my wanderings about the internet I found this article: Re-Thinking the Watchtowers, by Mike Nichols. If you've never read it, go do that now, and then come back. I'll wait.
He makes a fairly compelling argument for doing it this way: east as earth, south as fire, west as water, and north as air.
So I tried it, since north as air fit with what I'd always seen, here in New England, which is so much like Old England, in both the lay of the land (once in fact the very same land, which split off with continental drift) and, more or less, in climate. North as the place from where the cold winds blow? Yes, that makes sense to me.
And it worked. Holy moly it worked. Everything got upped, got more powerful. I could feel it. Mostly, I think, because, like Nichols says in his article, you get a sort of 'generator' effect, of alternating 'feminine' and 'masculine' energies, of the obviously horizontal (earth and water, that which literally is the horizon and that which seeks the level, east and west) and the vertical (fire and air, both of which can flow upward, heat rising through the air, south and north); and it really does feel (to me, anyway) like an radial engine firing, round and round and round, building up power.
Now. One of Nichols's arguments for putting air in the north, is that it corresponds to the layout of the land, specifically the British Isles. When you look on the map, to the west is the Atlantic Ocean, to the south, the warmer lands (and eventually the equator), to the east, the great land mass of all of Asia, and to the north, the cold blustery Arctic, which, incidentally, is not land anyway, being a frozen ocean.
But then the other night I was again wandering about the internet and came across another web site talking about the elements and the directions; alas, I don't remember what the site was, so I can't link now, but the author recommended trying all kinds of different correspondences, to see what fit best for you. Everyone, after all, has different associations with things depending on circumstance and experience, or on how one's individual brain works.
So then I thought: well, much as I like England and wish I were there (I've been and it felt like home, oh my god it felt like home), I am not. I'm in New England. And when I look at the map of where I actually am, the land I am supposed to be grounded to, my landbase, as Hecate would say, what do I see? I see water, that same Atlantic Ocean, to my east, and the great mass of the rest of the country to my west. Now I know, west as the Sea over which the Dead pass, sure, that's very ingrained in folklore. Folklore that I've certainly read, and which resonates, because my family does ultimately come from those lands, but folklore which is still specific to a place that is not where I am now.
So I switched it again, putting water in the east, and earth in the west. It still has the same horizontal/vertical, feminine/masculine tension to it.
Now I've only just come up with this, and so I've only had one chance to try it, and that wasn't in a full circle, just as part of cleansing a space. But as I faced east, I could picture the ocean before me, the ocean I know and am familiar with; and facing west I saw the rest of the land, all the way across the Mississippi, over the plains, over the mountains, all the way, all this land, and I knew where I was. I could feel my feet firmly planted in the reality of this land, this specific place.
So I'd say, if you live on the eastern seaboard of the US (Hecate, yeah, I'm totally looking at you), give it a try. It grounded me instantly, profoundly, unthinkingly, just as a matter of course, because it represents where I am.