Feel the Earth
Something to know—Two humans, Cameron and Rayla, run this blog—you can read more about us if you are interested, but for the meantime, we just want to say this particular post is written from Cameron’s point of view, but we do our writing together, and it is a reflection of both of us.
So far we haven’t delved too far into our definition of pleasure or what it looks like to be devoted to it. For the most part we have avoided it because of the individual nature of pleasure. What brings joy to me might not bring joy to you, so we can’t exactly step out and give you the key to your most pleasurable life. However, we can share examples from our own lives with you in order to highlight our process(es) of finding and devoting ourselves to pleasure.
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I have lived in the same area for my entire life, and I grew up going on regular walks in the 200 acres of forest that are about a five minute walk from my house. It’s true that I feel the wander-lust that seems to be a big theme for my generation, but by remaining in the same spot for so long, I have developed an intimacy with this land that has given me more than I could have possibly imagined when I first started walking in the woods.
At some point in high school, I started walking barefoot. I would go into the woods for hours at a time with my dogs, and whether it was the “nature of the beast” influencing me or the fact that I had crappy shoes that would get soaked within a couple minutes of our pnw weather, I started ditching my shoes in a bush as soon as I got to the woods.
At this point, it’s impossible for me to know how much I have walked in the woods barefoot. It has become a part of my spiritual practice and a part of who I am.
I have almost forgotten how novel the idea of being barefoot in the woods can be in our society, but when I run into people I am almost always reminded. When people notice my bare feet, I tend to get two very specific responses. The first response is a sort of quiet contempt, usually an eye roll or a scolding. Whether it is because they are worried about me or they think I am being stupid, it seems as if they would very much like me to put my shoes back on. They are positive that the ground is too dangerous to experience without protection.
The second group of people are those who are astonished that barefootedness in a forest exists outside of fantasy novels about elves. They often make a comment about how cool it is, they wish they could wear their birthday shoes, if only their feet were tough enough. While being told that I’m a badass is nice, I’m not sure that it's true, at least, not on account of leaving my shoes at home (or in a bush).
Both reactions share an interesting assumption: that walking barefoot is not a realistic activity for the average person. This is sadly understandable for many urban places; glass shards, trash and needles are a very genuine worry. However, just beyond the asphalt, there are many places that are relatively safe, and though you may find some human dangers from time to time, this is the exception, not the rule. I have never genuinely gotten hurt walking barefoot in the woods.
In as much as the second group is impressed, they think that my feet must be tough to endure the sticks and rocks and thorns. While it does take time to readjust a shoe wearing foot to the variability of the ground, it is not toughness that makes the journey safe and enjoyable--it is patience and tenderness.
When we hike in boots, it is easy to take a couple minute jaunt off trail to check something out or go pee. We might quickly climb through ferns and step on sticker bushes to get where we’re going. Shoes make this easy. They make the plants in the way almost unnoticeable.
It is entirely possible to walk off-trail barefoot, but it can take quite a bit longer. In American culture, this is a waste of time. Our culture glorifies speed and seeks always to remove all obstacles to efficiency (RIP lovely trees near the courthouse on Wetmore Ave in Everett, Wa).
The slowness that comes with bare feet does not have to be a bad thing; it is a great way to regain the mindfulness that our wider culture seems to abhor. It gives you a better understanding of how your body is meant to move and how shoes and concrete force us to be less human. Perhaps more important than the increase in self awareness, is the increase in our awareness of all the living things that call the ground home.
Where our shoes don’t recognize the brush of grass, the irregularity of roots or the crunch of a beetle, our feet do. All covered up, it is easy to think of the blackberry bush or the nettle plant as a painful nuisance, but after having synced up to the ground that you share with these plants, you realize that they only hurt you unconsciously. They are simply making their boundaries clear. Similarly, there are so many bugs that die under our feet. When we can feel them, it is much easier to feel for them.
The point is not to suggest that you are some kind of monster for killing a bug or a plant. Rather, without being vulnerable, it is difficult to fully comprehend the gravity of what you are doing to these other life forms. The closeness with the earth reminds us that there are consequences to our actions. We become more purposeful with our movements.
Not only do we increase our chance of harming others when our shoes are on, we blind ourselves to a whole other dimension of pleasure. On a hot, dry day, the dust sticks to my feet and I can trace the mark of the earth on my skin. After a rain, I can feel the mud squish up between my toes and nothing else seems to form to me quite so closely. It is fun to kick and crunch the leaves in fall, but it is something special to lose my feet in a pile of them.
I have done a quite a bit of walking after dark, so the shift to walking blindfolded wasn’t very hard. With shoes on and eyes closed, you’d be liable to walk into a hole or off the side of a cliff. Alternatively, when you’re barefoot, closing your eyes illuminates the ground. The walk ceases to feel like exercise and becomes a conversation.The brush of a leaf tickles and you laugh; the sting of nettle makes you step back and mind your boundaries.
When I got good at my blindfolded walks, I felt like a wizard. Of course, this isn’t something special about me, it’s something special about my relationship with the earth. The relationship I have built with the ground is a special kind of magic. It is an expansion of my sense of self. Each step is a reminder that I have no relationship stronger than the one I have with this earth. Every single thing I touch, every single thing I love, is held by that relationship.
The Power of Pleasure
Renewable energy, carbon taxes and green infrastructure are all important pieces of the climate change puzzle. If we are to effectively combat climate change, we need advanced technology and speedy implementation, but we also need so much more.
The predicament we are in today was born of a specific culture, a specific way of being. We sacrificed clean water, clean air, and the mental health that comes from simply living near trees for efficiency and economic growth. We deadened ourselves to the pains of cement underfoot in order to build roads of concrete; we pushed aside the joy of a deep breath of air in favor of a faster production line.
It is unrealistic to think that we can undo the damage we have wrought on this planet without changing our culture. Thankfully, the impact of a culture is made up of the actions of individuals, and many of us lay awake at night wondering what we can do to help.
I invite all of you to take off your shoes and feel the earth. It will not solve problems like climate change or deforestation or pollution, but it might change you. When you walk barefoot through a forest and come upon some glass, you will be tempted to pick it up. When you see oil around your feet in the creek downstream from the local factory, you will wonder if the stimulus to the economy is worth the deficit to the environment. When you walk out of the woods and realize just how uncomfortable the concrete street is on your joints and feet, you might realize that our human built environment isn’t very human friendly.
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Wanna go for a barefoot walk in the woods? We would love to take you.
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