“It is true that I remember the terrains over which I have walked barefoot differently, if not necessarily better, than those I have walked shod. I recall them chiefly as textures, sensations, resistances, planes and slopes: 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.”
~ from The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane
It’s June already and I still have my winter feet. Used to being shod and covered with warm socks or fuzzy slippers, my feet have grown soft and tender, sensitive to every surface irregularity. Walking across the lawn barefoot reminds me of its unevenness, and I try to avoid all the sticks, bark, and miscellaneous detritus from the winter that are painful to step on.
As a kid, I remember shoes as something you wore to school or church, or to visit relatives. During the summer, they were an unnecessary inconvenience, except when you went to the school grounds or a vacant lot to play. The goat’s-head stickers invaded everywhere, even some less-tended backyards, and there was no agony like running full tilt into a patch of them. Crashing to the ground, you were likely to get more stuck into your back, arms or legs. Stepping on just one or two began a dance of carefully tightrope-walking on toes to avoid stepping on more and/or driving the ones imbedded in your foot even deeper. Usually, you tried to hop away or just remain frozen and call for help. (Since everyone else was barefoot too, a rescue mission required good friends and delicacy.)
But by summer in Texas, most of us had built up a layer of tough skin and callouses impervious to most depredation by gravel, normal stickers and sticks. My older brother enhanced his reputation among the neighborhood kids by putting out a lit cigarette barefooted. I was happy to ride his coattails, but not have to emulate his foot’s feat.
We also spent a lot of time in the water, in both lakes or ponds and swimming pools. The water softened your feet and the concrete bottom of the swimming pool abraded them. (No water shoes in those days.) A day in the pool left your feet wrinkled and tender. Natural water features had hazards that included sharp rocks, sticks and scary, squishy unknown things that moved as you stepped on them. Of course, on our vacations to the Texas coast, we appreciated the warm, soft sandy ocean bottom, but were wary of the plentiful crabs and shells.
At the end of summer, we had to start wearing shoes again, and often had grown out of the previous ones. Your feet spread when you’re barefoot, and of course, kids grow over time, even when not nourished by the summer sun and rain. Often, my brother got first shot at new shoes, and I was told to try out his old ones. Most of the time, his hand-me-downs were sufficient for me, although his triple-E flat feet were much wider than mine and my feet rattled around a bit. (He described his feet as “pancakes with toes.”)
Barefoot around the house, I enjoy the textures of the various wood floors, carpets and rugs. Although icky, it also helps to identify the places where our puppy didn’t make it outside. Feet actually wash off easier than most shoes or slippers, with the added benefit of immediate recognition of a problem without spreading it around.
Outside, being barefoot keeps you more in touch with your surroundings (literally). My father delegated the dog poop duties to us at what seemed to me to be a pretty early age, and advised that we needed to be very thorough in our duties. In fact, enhanced thoroughness could be achieved by picking up dog poop while barefooted. That squishy between-your-toes sensation is hard to forget, and that memory or threat quickens even the summer-dulled senses of a teenage boy. Ah yes, I remember it well …
Now, my winter feet are patched with Bandaids to cover the cracks and cuts from early summer outdoor excursions. Our alley is gravelly, making the taking out of the trash and recycling barefooted a painful ordeal. In addition to the puppy bombs, our puppy has developed a taste for sticks, and has strewn the backyard with broken sticks, half-chewed chunks of board and other mysterious things. Where they come from, I know not.
Nonetheless, a morning walk across the lawn still damp from the previous evening’s watering gives me a primordial pleasure. I get a deep-down sense of newness, the cold feel of the wet grass refreshing, and making me feel like that kid again. The sky looks a little bluer; the sun a little brighter; and the bird sounds are crisp and joyful.
What could be better?