Monday, February 16, 2009
Baring our soles
Our feet are unique. Making moulds of them in wool certainly showed that (see post below), but so do footprints on a beach. Look at these two. One gouges a great hole with its long toes and heavy front pad, drawing a great archless slab. The other seems almost impossibly pointed at its toes, the body it bears balancing precariously above an arch hovering high over the ground.
This beach in Kenya carried a transient record of the collision of different peoples, trajectories and times. Kenyans and Europeans; fishermen and strolling tourists. Sometime between two high tides the two feet above kissed, mingling forms into one, when their owners might not have ever knowingly passed each other, locked eyes, nodded a greeting. Promiscuous feet. Then the tide washed in, removed the evidence.
How often do we walk barefoot? Perhaps the only time for many of us is on a beach, enjoying the granular massage of sand on soles. But what do we deny ourselves by not baring our soles more often? My friend Philo Ikonya, whose village walks I shared, talks about removing shoes as removing barriers, 'like talking between feet and the earth'. She talks about the enlivening effect on the senses as if contact of the foot on the land makes her alive right up to her forehead. Barefoot rambling enthusiasts are also keen to point out the health benefits of escaping the strains footwear puts on the biomechanics of our gait.
Three of us tried it, a walk of a few kilometers between Philo's mother's home, the river where she used to fetch water, the church which she attended every Sunday, the school where she taught for thirty years, where a pair of shoes were kept in a cupboard to be put on when she arrived. I bared my winter-soft feet, and the other two bared their city-shod ones, and we walked, careful of sharp rocks, occasional glass, our feet warming to the journey, spreading onto the soft red sand of slopes worn above the river by repeated climbs and descents. Young girls strained uphill with barrels on their backs, their toes active, rising and splaying slightly from the pad, the foot solid and supportive.
Women walking barefoot around these village paths and roads is nothing unusual. We met an old lady who told us she would gladly walk the 30km from Nairobi barefoot. She could afford to buy shoes, but why would she want to wear them, when she had the freedom to walk like this? I agreed with her, but at the time I was hopping from foot to foot, as the sun-glossed earth scoured my soles. A white woman walking barefoot was a little unusual and did attract comment. What power did my companions have over me that they could make me do it? Was I being punished for something?
It was a sensual experience, made me measure each footfall, appreciate the texture of soil, sand, pebbles, tarmac, the cool damp crumble of a valley-bottom path, the crazed maps of baked earth. And when we reached the church, and washed the red soil from our feet under a tap, replaced our shoes for the return journey, I felt a new aliveness in my feet, a tingle, as if they had been more properly exercised. I enjoyed, in the days that followed, a slight callousing on the soles. The natural weathering of well-walked feet.
I came home to a deep fall of snow and then a fast thaw, bundled my feet in damp wool socks and boots to walk across the re-emerging grass of the golf course. The soft snow had melted, but it left behind it islands of impacted ice, foot-shaped, stamping their lines across the grass like floating reminders of journeys made in an ice age. With the incoming tide of warm rain, rising temperatures, they too will soon be gone.