“…the tactile details of a landscape that often pass unnoticed. They are durably imprinted memories, these footnotes, born of the skin of the walker meeting the skin of the land….Walking barefoot, you are freshly sensitive to the nap of the landscape.
The Old Ways, A Journey on Foot, Robert Macfarlane
I remember running out of the house on a summer day, getting halfway across the backyard when, “Yeow!” my feet were stabbed by a thousand knives. Falling, I got more stickers in my arm and back! In my excitement to go outside, I had forgotten to account for that one patch of Goatheads.
Lesson learned, I was more careful the rest of that summer, and even today I take being barefoot very seriously. Our yard in Colorado is much nicer than that of my Texas youth, but still has lots of non-grass growth (weeds?) including dandelions. I actually kind of admire the dandelions; they flower early and give a nice yellow sheen to the otherwise drab green (brown?) lawn, and even the “poofs” that come later are kinda cool. But, even with dandelions I can walk across my yard barefooted and it enriches my sole (and my soul?).
While I go barefoot quite a bit in the spring and summer, in my childhood memories, we were almost always barefoot. And even though our feet became toughened early each year, I can still remember the different textures, lawn, weeds, gravel, sidewalk, carpet, wood floors… Nowadays I don’t go far when barefoot, maybe just next door or out to the car. It’s been a long time since I was denied service for no shoes.
But it’s also been a long time since I squished the mud between my toes and let it dry around my ankles and up my calves, making a kind of cast that cracked and fell off when dried. And we often stubbed a toe or kicked a stone that tore off the end of your big toe, so that you had to go home and get it washed out and bandaged. Of course, the bandage could also interfere with wearing shoes, so you walked with one toe held up off the ground until you forgot about it and struck it again.
My brother could put out a lit cigarette on the ground with his bare foot — which intimidated me greatly. We learned where the sticker patches were and how to avoid the gravel on the edge of the paved street. Being shoeless gave us a sense of freedom, a sense of being feral and untamed.
Riding bikes barefoot was common and resulted in various kinds of foot problems, including road burns, chain scrapes and spoke toes, all injuries of various degrees of severity, gaining you an admonition from your mom and admiration from your peers. It seems like we used a whole lot more band-aids back then.
I also remember being on beaches where the sand was so hot you had to wear shoes or at least flip-flops (what we used to call thongs. Today thongs on the beach are much more exciting than flip-flops were.) We used to run in giant steps from the safety of our towels or the shade of umbrellas to reach the wet sand, where we let the waves wash over and cool down our burning feet.
The Texas ocean was usually flat and silty, and you could wade a long way out and only have water up to your waist. Of course, you could seldom actually see the bottom, so stepping on crabs or shells or other undefined things was routine. I never found that to be very much fun and was surprised and pleased the first time I encountered clear water where I could see where I was putting my feet.
One day I paddled a raft-like float into the deeper water where schools of mullet swam with their bulgy eyes skimming the surface. I found I could sidle up to them quietly, then use a great kick to push me into their center, where I flailed at them and made them scatter in those saw-blade like leaps. It was great fun, until the time my kick met with solid resistance, shooting me through the school and out the other side. I quickly realized that whatever I had kicked was big and was probably also hunting the mullet with less pleasurable intent. The raft and I fairly skittered back to the shore where I landed on the beach without touching water.
I suspect that one of the first articles of clothing invented by humans was the shoe. Foot coverings would allow you to run faster over rough terrain and provide some protection against sharp rocks and vegetation. In a hostile world, mobility can mean the difference between life and death. Even today, soldiers are cautioned to take care of their feet as much as their weapons.
Here, after our recent hailstorm, I dashed out the backdoor barefooted, only belatedly realizing that the storm had deposited not only leaves on the patio, but lots of small twigs. They dug into my Spring-tender bare feet like nails, and I made a quick retreat.
Apparently, I’m still learning, but the sheer delight of running bare toes through fresh grass is too much to resist. I guess there’s still a bit of kid in me, after all.
Time to buy more band-aids.
“…there are kinds of knowing that only feet can enable, as there are memories of a place that only feet can recall.”