A year and a half ago I was living in Ireland and doing a lot of gardening. N. phoned the house. She is an octogenarian new-ager. New-age philosophies, however, sound different when they are espoused and recommended by someone of a certain age; from anyone over 70, quirkiness sounds like wisdom. “Take your shoes off when you garden, dear. Cut the grass in your bare feet. Dig in your bare feet and let the soil nurture you. Feel the earth hold you. Sink into the caress of the grass.” I didn’t heed her. Worried that I’d get my toes mangled in the petrol mower or that I would end up with Hobbit-feet from ploughtering* in the muck.
She came to mind again this week when something popped up on a link at the bottom of an email I’d received. It was all about barefoot walking. I read it and was told that walking on grass in your bare feet will cure every ill under the sun. From helping you to sleep, to improving your posture, and many other things in between.
I was a teenager when a barefooted, waif-like Zola Budd took on a well-shod, but not so sure-footed, Mary Decker in the L.A ’84 Olympics. Neither was placed. Everything ended in tears for both of them, as Decker lay splayed track-side, from her trip-up and Budd seemed to lose the will to race. Then there was Sandie Shaw, remember? She sang ‘Puppet on a String’ at the Eurovision in the Sixties. Whilst Zola Budd might have had her reasons for running barefoot – gait, impact, or simply habit and tradition – it turns out that Sandie Shaw initially went barefoot because she had big feet and her shoes for a particular performance simply didn’t fit! With Sandie it also matched the hippie, counter-culture vibe of the day, and so her barefoot trademark stuck.
I’m thinking these things on my usual walk around Arthur’s Seat. About two thirds of the way round, I peel away from the path and onto the grass. It has poured all morning and the grass is wet and seeping through my runners. My socks are gurgling and my feet are slipping inside my shoes. Well, if there’s a time for barefoot walking, it’s now – I think to myself. I unlace my shoes, peel off already wet socks, roll up my leggings, and take off barefoot down the wet, grassy, and today, muddy hill. The first effect is that my feet are freezing, in a stimulating way. Like diving into cold water, any unpleasantness passes quickly. The second effect is that it is squelchy underfoot and I become fixated by the muddy water oozing up between by big toe and my first toe on every step. My three smaller toes are so used to living in shoes that they huddle together, like freezing orphans in a dormitory, not letting any muddy water through. The next thing I find is that the act of walking barefoot is making me laugh. It’s just a funny thing to do at this time of year. It has unlocked a giggle in me. And as I am laughing at myself squelching down the hill barefoot, I notice other walkers and runners looking on in an interested, bemused way. I begin to look down and ahead, checking what might be in the grass. My usual practice of looking around me is lost as I scan for glass, or stones, or unmentionables. It is all clean and clear though. I cross the road near the parliament where the ice-cream van is, still barefoot, and make my way to the fallen tree-trunk where I sit to shoe-up for the last part of the trip home.
I’ve no idea if there is anything in this barefoot malarkey, but I feel different to when I set out an hour ago. And my feet are a lot dirtier.
(* For any of my Canadian friends, this is an Ulster-Scots word!)