If you don’t know the man, John Burroughs was America’s most popular nature writer in the late 19th and early 20th century. The other day I was flipping through one of his early essays and came across this commentary:
Occasionally on the sidewalk, amid the dapper, swiftly moving, high-heeled boots and gaiters, I catch a glimpse of the naked human foot. Nimbly it scuffs along, the toes spread, the sides flatten, the heel protrudes; it grasps the curbing, or bends to the form of the uneven surfaces,—a thing sensuous and alive, that seems to take cognizance of whatever it touches or passes. How primitive and uncivil it looks in such company,—a real barbarian in the parlor! We are so unused to the human anatomy, to simple, unadorned nature, that it looks a little repulsive; but it is beautiful for all that.
— John Burroughs, Winter Sunshine
Burroughs was not a barefoot enthusiast per se, and he was careful to disclose he wasn’t advocating the “disuse of boots and shoes.” But he was drawn to nature and vigor — intrigued by “barbarians in the parlor,” the same words he would use to describe Walt Whitman, the radical poet whose works defied the social norms of those times. Burroughs was also questioning the improvements that civilization imposes on people, wondering whether in some cases we might be more “alive and cognizant” in a natural state.
As a child growing up in a big city, I always wore shoes. Besides beach and pool, I can’t remember seeing people barefoot, and if I had, the sight would surely have seemed “primitive and uncivil and a little repulsive.” From Burroughs’ times to my own, not much has changed in America in this regards, but this attitude is not characteristic of all cultures, at least not judging from the sculptures of Ancient Greece and Rome.
A few years ago, I was surprised to see a father and daughter running barefoot in the park. For a change here was “simple, unadorned nature,” and Burroughs was right: it was beautiful.
Though it be a black foot and an unwashed foot, it shall be exalted. It is a thing of life amid leather, a free spirit amid cramped, a wild bird amid caged, an athlete amid consumptives. It is the symbol of my order, the Order of Walkers. That unhampered, vitally playing piece of anatomy is the type of the pedestrian, man returned to first principles, in direct contact and intercourse with the earth and the elements, his faculties unsheathed, his mind plastic, his body toughened, his heart light, his soul dilated; while those cramped and distorted members in the calf and kid are the unfortunate wretches doomed to carriages and cushions.
— John Burroughs, Winter Sunshine
In exalting the naked foot, Burroughs is drawing a distinction between states of mind. To be “a free spirit,” “wild,” “vital,” and “athletic” — this requires the shock of “direct contact and intercourse with the earth and the elements.” When we buckle on a shoe, it shields us from dirt and debris, but there’s a cost to the coddling: the leather “cramps,” “cages,” “hampers,” and “distorts”; soon we may find ourselves dependent, as Burroughs warns, on “carriages and cushions.”
Life is full of trade-offs. Last fall, I was trying to get in a final barefoot hike in the Catskills before the snow came. But when I reached Fir mountain, I found the snow had beaten me to the punch. I climbed up a thousand feet, enduring the cold for as long as I could, until I was wailing in pain. Odie the family Labradoodle, who’s always barefoot, ignored my distress — he was too busy scampering around and rubbing his nose in the snow. I beat a hasty retreat and didn’t return until spring.
In the unprotected state, you’re more vulnerable, clearly, and also slower and perhaps less stylish — which is why people have worn moccasins, sandals, and shoes for thousands of years.
In his essay, Burroughs shifts from talking about feet to extolling the activity of walking, which for him was the path to nature and a source of exhilaration. In regards to the “Walker”:
The vital, universal currents play through him. He knows the ground is alive; he feels the pulses of the wind, and reads the mute language of things. His sympathies are all aroused; his senses are continually reporting messages to his mind. Wind, frost, rain, heat, cold, are something to him. He is not merely a spectator of the panorama of nature, but a participator in it.
— John Burroughs,Winter Sunshine
Burroughs is linking vitality to the sensations of nature — to the ground, the “pulses of wind,” frost, rain, heat, cold. And indeed he loved to wander through the Catskill mountains observing nature. But he’s not just calling for people to exercise outdoors, his point is broader. When we use technology to smooth off life’s rough edges, we become very efficient and productive, but those rough edges are the stimuli that toughen the body and arouse the mind. Without those shocks to the system, we may not develop the strength necessary to be a vital participant in life.
Similar concerns were raised by the American Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, as well as by John Muir. These writers valued individuality and wildness. They criticized society for turning people into complacent workers, conformist thinkers, and consumers whose primary goal is comfort. Some people go even further and advocate abandoning mass techno-industrial civilization and returning to paleolithic life. But for most people, the question is a matter of degree, and depends on the choices we make that expose us to or protect us from the stimuli of nature.
Burroughs made his own choices carefully. He wore shoes and boots, and while he was a great walker, he also rode in carriages and trains and learned to drive the automobile (although he never felt comfortable in one). After working for many years as a well-paid bank examiner, he returned to his native Catskills to start a farm and spend more time observing nature. He built a small cabin in the woods and retreated there whenever he could. He appreciated the phonograph, but not the typewriter. In later years, he advocated and lived a simple joyous life.
As for myself, when I run or hike barefoot, it’s sometimes pleasant and sometimes painful, but it’s always memorable. When wearing shoes, I run faster and farther, but the experience is still intense. But then I return to the modern world. The challenge for me (and maybe others like me) is to find the connection, sustain the vitality, and live the simple joyous life — even when sitting at a desk.
No small challenge!
What about you?
Man takes root at his feet, and at best he is no more than a potted plant in his house or carriage till he has established communication with the soil by the loving and magnetic touch of his soles to it.
— John Burroughs, Winter Sunshine
After writing this post, I’d wondered whether John Burroughs did indeed spend some time barefoot, perhaps while farming, if not hiking. I came across an answer while reading his book, Leaf and Tendil, which includes this reference to his childhood days:
When I was a farm-boy, it was about this time [of year] that I used to get out of my boots for half an hour and let my bare feet feel the ground beneath them once more. There was a smooth, dry, level place in the road near home, and along this I used to run, and exult in that sense of lightfootedness which is so keen at such times. What a feeling of freedom, of emancipation, and of joy in the returning spring I used to experience in those warm April twilights!
— John Burroughs, Leaf and Tendril, 1908
Burroughs, John, 1837-1921. Leaf and tendril (Kindle Locations 464-467). Boston, New York, Houghton, Mifflin Company.