Walking Off the Beaten Track
1 October 2018
This week I listened to a podcast about feet. The one thing that stayed with me is that we spend too much time walking on smooth, flat, surfaces. Feet are not something we give a lot of thought to, even though they can be our only point of contact with the earth.
The way we stand and the alignment of every part of our body in opposition to the force of gravity occurs through our feet. They are therefore necessarily complex structures. Modern shoes encase these engineering marvels in stiff surrounds, limiting the movement of the individual joints and muscles, as well as our tactile-sensory experience. Over time the small muscles in and around the feet atrophy through lack of use, leading to a loss of movement. I had become familiar with this concept several years ago and as a result I transitioned to minimalist (or “barefoot”) footwear. Aside from allowing the feet and toes to move in the way that they have evolved to, the lack of a heel changed the way I stood and put less pressure on my lower back. The thin sole also allowed me to sense the ground while occasionally telling me that I had just stood on a pointy stone. It took many months for my body to adjust to this new style of footwear, but having done so I will never go back. Even for a wedding I resent having to wear stiff shoes with a raised heel, but survive the infrequent occasions with the knowledge that my wife is faring worse than me.
My thoughts had not extended beyond the shoes that I wear until I was prompted to consider the ground. Upon reflection, I realised that I almost always walk on perfectly flat, even surfaces. So, while out for a walk in the park with my daughter, rather than take the path laid out before us, we walked through the grass. While it was clearly a surface influenced by humans, it was still far more undulating than the path we were expected to use. This was of course not my first time walking on grass, but I previously hadn’t paid much attention to the sensations of doing so. This time I was mindful of how my feet hit the ground, and how they bent and twisted to accommodate the change in angle and cushioning on each unique footfall. What I hadn’t expected was the influence it had all the way up through my legs to my hips. I could feel muscles in my calves that I had not given much consideration to before and my legs felt tired after only a short distance. The experience left me pondering how much of the stiffness in my calves, which I had put down to my general inflexibility, is actually a result of underuse.
During this short journey through the grass I was reminded of a passage in the book IQ84, by Haruki Murakami, which I had recently completed. In it, there is a description of the indigenous people on Sakhalin, a Russian island north of Japan, called the Gilyaks. Over time, the island became modernised and roads were constructed. The new arrivals could not fathom why the Gilyaks chose to continue walking through the dense forest rather than use the open roads. It seems that the Gilyaks knew much more about the feet than we do, and probably many other things as well.