Right now I’m reading the book The Old Ways — A Journey on Foot. Written by Robert Macfarlane, a fair bit of it takes place in the Outer Hebrides (and some of it is sailing, not on foot, but that was wonderful to read, too). It is a wonderfully descriptive narration of his journeys.
There is even a part on doing some of his walking barefoot.
The barefoot portion takes place on the island of Lewis, the largest island that makes up the tip of the main portion of the Outer Hebrides, which is all stone and moor and peat. Here is where he is introduced to the idea.
Anne had been brouhgt up in Braga, and though she’d left the island to study archeology on the mainland, she had been drawn back home. Her family had for several generations owned a shieling in the middle of the moor. They still gathered out there early each summer to spend several days cooking, walking and talking. When it wasn’t too cold, and not so dry that the heather was sharp, Anne liked to walk barefoot on the moor. ‘It takes about two weeks to get your feet toughened up so that it’s no discomfort. And then it’s bliss. You should try it when you’re out there. Take those big boots of yours off!’
So when Macfarlane does go there himself, he does give it a try. And he notices the sorts of wonderful things and connections that we barefooters go on about (it’s just that he writes it better ).
But he also has a shoddie point of view of it. Since his feet haven’t been conditioned, it is more of a travail for him. He also mentions Croagh Patrick in Galway, a pilgrimage that is climbed barefoot by many, for the mortification. That is only a result of lack of conditioning.
Anyways, here’s the longer passage; I hope you enjoy it. And the whole book is worth reading.
When the day was at its warmest, and the peat at its spongiest, I took Anne’s advice, tugged off my boots and socks, and walked barefoot for an hour or so. The peat was slippery and cool, and where I stepped on sphagnum it surged up and around my foot, damp as a poultice.
‘Walking barefoot has gone out of fashion,’ wrote Nan Shepherd in 1945, ‘but sensible people are reviving the habit.’ Such walking ‘begins’, she observed:
with a burn that must be forded: once my shoes are off. I am loath to put them on again. If there are grassy flats beside my burn. I walk on over them, rejoicing in the feel of the grass to my feet; and when the grass gives place to the heather, I walk on still. Dried mud flats, sun-warmed, have a delicious touch, cushioned and smooth: so has long grass at morning, hot in the sun, but still cool and wet when the foot sinks into it, like food melting to a new flavour in the mouth.
I recognized from my own mountain days Nan’s inclination not to put her shoes back on after a river crossing. Over the previous few years, I’d been experimenting with my own barefoot revival. I’d walked five miles across the White Peak in Derbyshire: over waterworn limestone that felt glassy as marble, up terraces of wiry grass littered with the striped shells of snails, over hilltops of thistly pasture and at last down on a warm footpath to a river, in one of whose bankside pools I gratefully bathed my feet. In the Black Mountains of Wales I walked for most of a summer’s day along paths of Old Red Sandstone, worn to an ultra-fine grade of dust that was soft as rouge powder. I spent half a day barefoot on the chalk downs and beech woods of south Cambridgeshire with Matt, an archaeologist friend. Early on, we both picked up on our feet a blackish tree-sap or resin, tar-like in texture. The resin acted as a sampler of the ground over which we walked — as the wax in the bottom of a lead-line samples the seabed — and we both acquired a layer of seeds, dust and leaf fragments on our soles. And in Essex’s Epping Forest, wandering through glade and shade, I began to feel the changes of habitat underfoot: the different plants that populated each zone according to the available light, and the different temperatures of the leaf-litter. Then I trod on a holly leaf, and in trying to get away from the holly leaf trod on a sprig of hawthorn, and so I spent five minutes tweezering bits of the forest from my heel.
It is true that I remember the terrains over which 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. I remember a hot path across boulder clay: the earth smooth and star-cracked by sun, so that I walked with constellations and fault-lines underfoot. I remember crossing a freshly ploughed field, where the harrow had crushed the soil and the sun had warmed it, such that stepping into it was like treading ash from a fire several hours dead. Walking barefoot, you are freshly sensitive to the nap of a landscape. Grass suddenly feels wide and burnished: its blades flattened together to create a cool surface.
Not all of my barefoot walks have been pleasurable. Trying to cross a heat-baked ploughed field, with its rows of sun-hardened sillion, was like walking over a sea of swords. One August my friend Leo and I tried walking a stretch of Suffolk ling-land unshod. It looked like the most benign possible terrain for such activity: a dry sandy heath. But we were hopping in pain within five paces: the heather and moss concealed a widespread miniature gorse. Going on would have been like trying to stroll across pincushions or hedgehog backs.
The super-sensitivity of the bared foot is what has given rise to the `Reek Sunday’ climb of Croagh Patrick in Galway by Catholic pilgrims. That barefoot walk is founded upon the conviction that mortification of the sole leads to amelioration of the soul. This is barefootedness as penance, maceration, test: the stones cut the pilgrims’ feet so badly that blood oozes up between their toes and stains the path.
Others have found a more benign connection between barefootedness and awareness. Between 1934 and 1936 the Scottish naturalist Frank Fraser Darling tracked a herd of several hundred red deer in Wester Ross, north-west Scotland. The breakthrough in Darling’s understanding of their behaviour came when he decided to take his shoes off. ‘During the summer of 1935,’ he wrote in A Herd of Red Deer (1937), ‘I went barefoot, and after a fortnight of discomfort I had my reward. The whole threshold of awareness was raised, I was never fatigued, and stalking became much easier . . .’ Darling’s unconventional methods transformed modern ethology: instead of considering the deer as reflex creatures, displaying learnt but unversatile reactions to their environment, he proposed a dynamic model of the herd in which each deer’s sensed experience of its landscape shiftingly informed their ways of living. Darling’s contention, in short, was that deer ‘were capable of insight, and his insight into their insight emerged from his decision to go sympathetically barefoot. What Darling’s work proved was that there are kinds of knowing that only feet can enable, as there are memories of a place that only feet can recall.
Touch is a reciprocal action, a gesture of exchange with the world. To make an impression is also to receive one, and the soles of our feet, shaped by the surfaces they press upon, are landscapes themselves with their own worn channels and roving lines. They perhaps most closely resemble the patterns of ridge and swirl revealed when a tide has ebbed over flat sand. Our heels have marks that look like percussive shockwaves. The arch, where the foot’s flex is greatest, is reticulated with shallow folds. The ball carries non-intersecting ripples. The whole foot is a document of motion, inscribed by repeated action. Babies — from those first foetal footfalls, the kneading of sole against womb-wall, turning themselves like astronauts in black space — have already creased their soles by the time they emerge into the world.