The eagle and the geese

Nan Shepherd has won many followers since Robert Macfarlane brought her to our attention. In The Living Mountain she writes in a remarkable way about the Cairngorm landscape, conveying both its grandeur and its subtlety. Written during WWII it reads as if written yesterday.  Light and shadow, rain and snow, the passage of the seasons, affect mountains, but time is slow time, geological time.

I’m comfortable with slow time

She’d be the subject, I’d decided, of a short blog. Later that day I was watching a TV programme on Alex Ferguson (retired Man United manager) and leadership. I saw a link between the two.

Nan Shepherd, walking on Ben a’Bhuird:

‘Once some grouse fled noiselessly away and we raised our heads quickly to look for a hunting eagle. And down the valley he came, sailing so low above our heads that we could see the separate feathers of the pinions against the sky, and the lovely lift of the wings when he steadied them ready to soar.’

A page of two lay she focuses down on to the almost infinite forms ice and snow can take, depending on the surface and the wind. There’s an extraordinary level of close observation, looking up, and looking down. I love to investigate in my own walking, to get close, to see the shape and form of things, though I couldn’t ever begin to describe it as Nan Shepherd does.

Alex Ferguson…. he’d look skyward at the Carrington training ground and point out to the players a V-shaped flight of geese overhead, how they fly together, and take it in turns to lead.

‘I’m going to tell you the story about the geese which fly 5,000 miles from Canada to France. They fly in V-formation but the second ones don’t fly. They’re the subs for the first ones. And then the second ones take over – so it’s teamwork.’

Shepherd and Ferguson have one thing in common here – they looked skyward, and looked closely. Shepherd drew no conclusions. The simple act of observation was personal, and enough. For Ferguson, it took players (and Ryder Cup golfers!) by surprise – and they never forgot image or insight.

Any message in all this – only that we can be too earthbound!

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