Walking in the hospitality of the earth

My wife bought me these shoes for my birthday:


They are minimalist running shoes from SoftStar,1 made for running trails and cross country, with simple leather uppers and flat two-millimeter soles. You can get them in colors that make them look like running shoes — black with lime green, say, or or orange suede with turquoise, or solid metallic gold if you’re planning to challenge Usain Bolt in 2016 — but this pair looks, I think, like what if wingtips hooked up with ballet slippers in a bar and had a love child, which means that even though they are essentially laced-up moccasins, I can wear them to work and nobody notices that I am not wearing real shoes. And so I frequently do, because after a couple of weeks of wearing these around my beloved boots are apt to feel like little tarsal iron maidens. In these, by contrast, ankles rotate freely, arches flex, toes can stretch and wiggle, just as with no shoes at all.

It would of course be unthinkable to go around barefoot, though the reasons usually put forward don’t bear much examination. One might hurt one’s foot, but a cut, in my experience, is far less likely than the injury of repetitive strain, and one quickly learns to watch one’s step. There are sanitary grounds, but feet are more easily washable than shoes, and athlete’s foot far more common than hookworm.2 A barefoot rebel would be summarily ejected from stores and restaurants — the soles of his feet being presumably filthier than the boots he wears to muck out the chicken house, let alone the hands he may not have washed after using the restroom. It would make far more sense to require handwashing before entry. I believe the insistence on shoes comes down mainly to the fact that to go without them has become literally, tautologically unthinkable. We accept shoes as normal, civilized, right. To kick off one’s shoes implies relaxation, and what sort of person relaxes on a public street? People who go around barefoot, unless at the beach, are savages, bums, hippies, slothful shunners of convention — enemies of the state, perhaps. Free spirit is valued only in television commercials.

My new shoes attract no attention, none of the opprobium of visible insteps3, which is good: silent subversion is considerably more convenient, and longer lasting. But the comfort they give nevertheless comes with a price. I have to some degree been forced to change the way I walk — one simply has to step more lightly without a thick ergonomic cushion of synthetic rubber, and land more on the midsole than on the heel, but that change comes more easily than might be expected. What’s harder, but more interesting, is that I’ve been forced to change the way I think about walking.

Wearing these shoes, which perform only the barest function of shoes, to protect my feet from wet and mud and a bit of broken glass — wearing these shoes I am open to the earth. Not metaphorically, not to the whole world and everything in it, but literally and specifically to the earth. And the risk of being open is, as with people, in becoming quickly and keenly aware when and where one is not welcome. Walking nearly barefoot I am continually rejected by pavement.

I simply did not comprehend what vast stretches of ground this civilization has paved until I tried to go nearly without shoes. I could dredge up numbers, I could explain the problems of runoff and flooding and environmental damage, but I wasn’t directly and personally aware of the pavement. The eye grows used to taking in great seas and rivers of asphalt and concrete, the mind learns to expect it, but the feet, constantly cradled and imprisoned, cannot, and suddenly shorn of shoes they are thrust upon the hard world like a babe torn from its mother’s arms. Two millimeters of synthetic rubber is no protection from the pounding fist of concrete. Modern fools dreaming of walkable suburbs cry to selectmen and commissioners to grant us sidewalks, not realizing that the concrete sidewalk is the least hospitable venue for the human foot ever devised by the human imagination! Unyielding, impenetrable, unidirectional, easily swept or washed clean, deeply Puritan in spirit and function, it directs and chastises us with every step without taking a morsel of our burden upon itself. A dirt path worn by human feet would guide us softly to habit and convenience without the blunt force of a city planning department, and even rocks may be broken, uneven, with welcoming nooks and slopes that offer, if not convenience, at least intellectual stimulation, but a sidewalk is merely flat, straight, clean, and hard, utterly unlike anything to be found in nature.

The earth thus armored against its will, we gird our feet as if for battle and go into the world, not as sojourners seeking welcome, but as enemies, as invaders to an inhospitable desert. But the grass beside the sidewalk — glory be to grass, to weeds, even to bare dirt, and especially to fallen leaves! Signmakers’ dire warnings to the contrary, grass stands ever ready to welcome us — our human selves, naked and unguarded. The lawn, the meadow, the field point us nowhere but reply kindly to our every footfall, asking only that we tread lightly in return. Without a sidewalk there is no trespass. There is only the earth — but we have to remove our armor to feel its hospitality and guidance.

Stretching my legs at lunchtime along a gnarled finger of pale concrete that points somewhere I do not particularly want to go, feeling the rhythmic slap of industrial puritanism, I find myself stepping every now and again onto the grass beside the sidewalk. Neatly bounded, mown too close for health, its sheltering cloak of dry leaves blown away by gasoline exhaust, it too bears the scars of rational order. But the ground here hasn’t lost its voice. It bids me welcome, and a few soft strides refresh me and brush aside the pavement’s rejection. I can reject it, too, even if I’m forced too often to walk on it.

  1. SoftStar claims that they are made by elves. I can’t confirm this, but I suppose anything is possible.
  2. Not to mention the paucity of pig manure on public streets.
  3. An interesting bit of evidence as to the disdain with which we consider our feet, and thus presumably whatever they touch, is the paucity of synonyms for foot in my thesaurus — just two, as opposed to seven for hand.