(Originally published by Flycatcher Magazine, and posted on their website on November 28th, 2015).
But not because I don’t like shoes. Quite the opposite. I collect shoes – shoes with a story – though I don’t display them lovingly on a wall as a testimony to colour, variation or style. My tabi, for instance, are Japanese boots that separate the big toe from the others and are tightened by aptly named tabs climbing the calf. Traditionally worn for work on bamboo scaffolds, the vulcanised rubber grip catches the ground as glue. I have discovered this make them rather impractical for playing tennis, quite unlike my five-finger shoes, which are perfect for the speed and impact of a court. Comfortable, especially for one who goes barefoot by choice, five-finger shoes are practical in any situation; be it swimming, dancing or the carpeted floors of an office.
But even in the office, under my desk, my feet revolted; withdrawing themselves from not only these, but any other shoes I tried to wear. Be it ten minutes in, or five hours, I would push back my chair to find myself barefoot. Ever wanting freedom, my feet would take advantage of my distraction to remove their chains. Nothing could contain them, not even the tabi with their form-fitting tabs.
Except, in fact, for a third pair of shoes. I first began looking at military boots for their versatility. I reasoned, quite correctly, on their design for a multitude of terrains, and on their quality. Any military has strict guidelines, above which even non-standard kit gear must rise. Hiking boots, however, cater to that proportion of the population with the free time and money to indulge in outdoor adventures. Without oversight, the cheaper the price, the less the quality of the boots.
There are also fundamental differences in design. Hiking boots are designed for just that – pacing at a regular pace with a heavy pack – and not for crossing rough country at speed, with an equally heavy load-out. They have little need for an extended ankle support nor for the security of tight laces stretching 6-inches up each calf. I initially purchased these appropriately khaki boots for hiking, or running, but it was this security of double knotted laces, beyond the reach of toes, that finally foiled the near-sentient ability of my feet to get naked. Not only this, but once I got used to their not insubstantial weight, it turned out that military boots are also quite good for tennis.
Bare feet are not. I won’t recount that experience in detail, but I will say it was rather painful and taught me an apparently needed lesson about when it is safe to lance a blister yourself, and when to leave it to the professionals. I also learned quite a bit about callouses, their formation, and the repercussions of their removal. There are depths to the bottom of my feet that I even now shudder to think about and that do, sometimes, predict the weather.
Though my soles are long since healed, the texture is still that of kid gloves, quite unlike the crocodile underbelly they were formerly approaching. Yet I still walk barefoot. Indeed, it is more pleasurable than ever to do so for the very reason that the callous is yet thin. I feel everything I walk over. I experience the brush of cropped grass and the slice of native brush between my toes. I delight in the cooling squelch of mud and the cut and thrust of bare stone. I know the burn of a hot road, the incandescent pain of sun soaked sand, and the cool comfort of hardwood floors, which bow and creak beneath every movement.
As some yoga teacher somewhere said, I ‘walk as if [I am] are kissing the Earth with [my] feet’, and for the most part, it feels as if the Earth were responding in kind. The spiritually conscious part of my being insists that this connection is mutual, for with every step on bare earth I feel grounded; whilst the natural scientist in me ponders both the neurological connections between bare feet and the brain, and the evidence of increased muscular damage resulting from shoe padding. Indeed, the science behind bare feet is fascinating, suggesting positive impacts on posture, mental health and sporting ability. Indeed, being grounded has a debilitating effect on my generally high levels of anxiety, much like the live wire of the metaphor. If a kiss a step is what it takes to feel calm, then my feet will remain bare.
Nevertheless, even I wince at the notion of ‘kissing’ the ground with every step. The dirt is dirty, and the hazards numerous. Yet I find myself ever conscious of where I step, of foot placement, and of obstacles and clear passage. Much more than a shoddy memory accounts for my inability to remember the last time I stepped on broken glass, let alone made contact with dog excrement. I have found that by walking barefoot I maintain a physical, mental and spatial understanding of my physical surroundings; thus encouraging the unconscious creation of a mental map of those locations whence I wander. Certainly, I experience a sense of landscape and my place within – an awareness I had thought an innate sense of direction until I moved to Darwin, where few streets hold to the logical North-South, East-West delimitations. Thus, I now believe than walking barefoot has only increased my situational awareness, allowing a greater sense of comfort rather in an anxious (read: any) situation.
But of course, the most anxious of situations is that where I am told I must be shod. The smooth concrete floors on a hardware store were once within my reach, but they, like cinemas and NT bottle-o’s have retreated out of reach, beyond the bounds of anti-litigation legislation. This, like the societal reasons for high heels, for foot shaving and shaping, I can understand, but don’t fundamentally agree with.
There is protest where these bare feet tread, just as there is the comfort of space and perception. By walking barefoot, I denote my independence and sole responsibility for my actions, deriding all who would restrain such solitary purpose. The callous of my skin speaks of the duality of feet burnished as much by pavements as by the distain of those whose souls are sequestered by form – leather bound prisons that speak of captivity, of uniformity – without forethought for purpose and place.
Here, there is conscious decision and the determination to challenge the heavy-footed paths of conformity in favour of comfort itself and of intentional place.
So yes, I walk barefoot.
Except when playing tennis.
Jeremy Garnett is a performance artist and published poet. He recently curated and edited ‘Layers of Creation’ – a collection of photos, poems and short stories from Darwin.