Well, summer is approaching, and for the past few weeks, I’ve begun sporadically going barefoot around the house and garden, when the weather’s nice and the ground is firm. Now, this is something I just do as a matter of course, and never think much of it, but I decided to do a blog post on it because I read an article about going barefoot in summer in “The Weekend Australian Magazine” this morning.
Before I say anything more about myself and shoes, I’ll put in the article.
Season of the Shoeless
by Nikki Gemmell
The enormous yellow letter “S”, over a metre tall, stands alone as the single, striking piece of decoration in a local florist’s window. S for what? Spring? Summer? Severe clear blue skies? The smell of suntan lotion and surf? The start of the swimming season, snake and seasonal fruits, sprinklers under trampolines, sheets drying in Aussie sunshine and then falling into their sweetness and smelling the sky in your sleep? Or, perhaps, the shedding of shoes as the world lightens, loosens, after winter’s clench? Ah, that Vegemite of national habits that’s either loathed or loved. Welcome to the season of hurting sunshine, dear reader, and a paean to that most delicious and deplorable of Aussie traditions – the bare foot.
Can you recall doing the hot-shoe shuffle on searing sand? The coolness of water the colour of milky tea in an Aussie dam; the silky softness of its mud fringing the shores, its cold squelch between your toes. The feel of shaded moss on a slippery rock. Walking through a puddle. Riding your pushy* barefoot as a kid. Cool tiles on a scorcher of a day. The season of bareness is upon us and I’m rejoicing. I have been known to jump in the car barefoot if the trip’s just down the road. Is this legal? Goodness knows, but the heightened sensitivity of soles on pedals seems far safer than navigating local roads in stilettos, platform clogs or things, and believe me, all four have been tried.
There are places more celebratory of this national pastime than others, of course. Queensland seems to be the hotbed, and coastal areas of NSW like Byron Bay. Unheard-of, I suspect, down south, at least so the chap tells me, Melbourne boy that he is, sneering at the unseemly northern ways. I learnt to let it go in the Northern Territory, observing that long, slow walk of the Aboriginal women, unhurried, unstressed, leading by the feet rather than the hips, soles as tough as leather. It took a while, but the feet were trained into it until it felt like a shoe hide had grown on the bottom of them, and now it’s hard to go back to the smart ways of the south. Unshod, you learn to avoid bees and bindis* and glass shards quick-smart, to be more observant of the world as you walk.
Foreigners, and a fair few Aussies, are disgusted at the sight of bare feet ambling down a local street, at the servo* or the corner shop. It’s unhygienic, revolting, bizarre, the visitors rail in travel blogs; akin to burping in public or wearing cossies* to church. Australia’s not poor, they say, this is not a third-world country – why? Oh, it’s nothing to do with any of that. It’s about convenience and freedom and letting your feet breathe rather than being entombed in sweat and feeling earthed, close to the ground, connected. Alive to the natural world. It gives you a sense of place; you read the land through your feet. If bare-footed Aboriginal kids in central Australia can kick a Sherrin like Gavin Wanganeen, then any of us can walk down the street in them, surely; particularly if you live near the sea, which the majority of us do. The only horrors, apart from offending the sensitive among us, are navigating public bathrooms and stepping in doggy-do. You learn.
That beloved literary character, Huckelberry Finn, “was always the first boy that went barefoot in the spring and the last to resume leather in the fall”. I’ve seen school photos of Australians, pre- and post-war, with barely a child in shoes; heard at the corner shop of older people who as kids only wore shoes to church; of legendary brothers “who never wore them”; of the bloke who tried to get into a concert barefoot and was refused, so licked the back of his ticket, stuck it to his sole, and sailed in with nary a care in the world. Ah, Australia. So here’s to that giant S, whatever it stands for – the seasonal shedding of shoes, in my book.
My opinions of barefootedness are somewhat mixed up, and I’ll be the first to admit it. I love going barefoot at home and really don’t wear shoes all that much in summer. However, yes, I’ve got to say that I do sometimes find myself judging someone going down the street, in the library, into church, and so on, in bare feet – despite knowing that in some parts of the world, going barefoot into church is a sign of respect!
And I certainly don’t go barefoot as often as some people – my sister, for example, who struggles to keep a pair of shoes on in summer. She’s not as bad now, but we were forever finding pairs of shoes, socks, sandals, etc, in the car – after forcing shoes onto her feet to leave the house, we arrived at the shops after a five-minute drive and find her dancing barefoot across the baking asphalt. And then there’s the family at our church who is almost invariably, without fail, shoeless. I would never go barefoot in town or to church, although I’m not above wandering out onto our (very remote, rural) street without anything on my feet, or taking off my shoes the moment I arrive at a friend’s house.
So obviously, I’m never going to join the Society for Barefoot Living (www.barefooters.org) or the Unshod Society (www.unshod.org), who promote going barefoot all day, every day, year ’round. But neither will I understand people who baulk at going barefoot in the back yard or to the waterhole in the baking heat of January.
For me, it has always seemed completely natural to do away with shoes during summer. As far as I’m concerned, “If your feet are happy, you will be too.” By that, I mean, going barefoot in winter results in freezing iceblocks for feet, sending cold radiating up your legs until you’re a shivering heap. And I also mean, wearing shoes and socks in summer does nothing but make you feel uncomfortable and hot – simply removing the footwear brings relief and seems to cool down your body temperature.
I like going barefoot at home, and as soon as the ground is dry enough, I take my socks and boots off and go out barefoot to feed the chooks*. Yes, at the moment I’m wearing socks around the house, because it’s still a little cold inside our old, solid stone house, despite clear blue skies and the beginnings of the sauna-feeling when you step out the back door – but it’s a lot easier to take socks off to go outside, than to put boots on.
When I was little, I didn’t like going barefoot so much (I was a strange child, I know), mostly because it hurt my feet. I distinctly remember my father telling me on several different occasions to tough it out until my feet get used to it and grow a sole. This is certainly true – the first few barefoot days can be a little painful, and for a few weeks or months, walking on a gravel driveway will hurt, but after a while, your feet become tough and leathery on the bottom and wearing shoes feels strange.
I’ve never understood people who think that going barefoot is something abhorrent – although I totally get why they think it’s something that belongs in third-world countries. (Although I did read an American book on environmentally-friendly and money-saving living which promoted using washing lines even though “it’s what people do in poorer countries or in the most economically-depressed neighbourhoods in the US”. That I didn’t get. I live in the state which invented the washing line! Well, the Hill’s Hoist, anyway. And now back on track…). In the area I used to live, on the plains (in the City), it was perfectly normal in summer to see a group of kids clad in only t-shirt and checked shorts or polycotton three-tiered skirts, shoeless as they headed towards the river with their mothers trailing behind in sundresses and thongs*.
Anyway, this is quickly becoming my longest post yet, and I have no idea where I’m going with this. So I’ll just wind up here by saying I’m about to head out and clear the path to the chooks, shoeless. Oh, and I’ll also provide a glossary of words in the article and in my musings in this post which might be confusing or seem inappropriate to non-Australians.
* glossary of Australian words.
pushy – bike, bicycle, push-bike
bindi – a sort of sharp grass thing, possibly the same as kangaroo grass
servo – petrol station, gas station (USA), short for “service station”
cozzie – QLD only, short for swimming costume; swimmers (NSW), bathers (SA), togs (NZ), swimsuit (USA)
chook – chicken
thongs – flip-flops