Emily Howard participated in Metta Earth’s Wilderness and Ecopsychology Leadership Intensive in the summer of 2015 and sat down in February 2016 to reflect on how the experience has influenced her life since. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan and blogs for Metta Earth. This is Part One in a series of two.
“Will we be OK in bare feet?”
Before us was a marshy plot of land warming in the afternoon sun: the neighbor’s ground, on which we had been given permission to gather cattails for braiding. I was the one who asked the question and aimed it at the other members of our small group—all of whom were in bare feet. Promptly and easily, they began stepping over the old barbed wire fence and into the squelchy land with no shoes and a “yeah” tossed over someone’s shoulder so casually that my anxieties, and the assumptions behind my question, were forced into the forefront of my mind.
A group of us were participating in Metta Earth’s leadership training on ecopsychology and wilderness and this jaunt was not, to my mind, part of either the wilderness or ecopsychology bits. I was definitely up for harvesting and braiding cattails, but would have been more comfortable doing so if I could have run back to the house and gotten my rubber boots first. But everyone else had gone in and so, keeping my shoes on, I stepped over the fence. Almost immediately, the marsh began to play a game with my preconceptions, sucking a shoe off every few steps.
The question “will we be OK in bare feet?” was really a statement: “I will not be OK in bare feet.” But my bare feet had something different to teach me.
As everyone else began pulling cattails, I acquiesced, found a fairly dry spot to set my shoes on, and proceeded in bare feet. As I worked, I slowly realized that the discomfort I was expecting turned out to be a pleasure: I was standing in warm, spongy ground with no mud, nothing hard or sharp, just transparent brown water that flowed between my toes and enveloped my feet up to the ankle. More forgiving than carpet and softer than the finely trimmed lawns on which I had walked all my life. We bent down to pull cattails and water noisily rushed into the gap as the stalks came loose—schloop! “They come out easier if you say please,” someone said. So we said please and went home with our arms full of cattails.
As we had approached the marsh, I never stopped to question exactly what was so formidable about this place—quicksand? sawgrass? poison toads? alligators? In Vermont? And yet, I’d made the unconscious, split-second decision that this ground was unsafe or uncomfortable without shoes. The question “will we be OK in bare feet?” was really a statement: “I will not be OK in bare feet.” But my bare feet had something different to teach me.
I arrived at Metta Earth six weeks away from completing my doctoral dissertation in British environmental literature. About a year prior, I had decided not to enter the academic job market upon graduation, but to take the questions that had been raised for me during my research and apply them directly to environmentalist work. Given my background as a literary scholar and Buddhist, I was mostly interested in the cultural renewal side of environmentalism. I was fascinated, uplifted by the idea that spiritual traditions and the arts are essential to environmental movements. Led by my interest in spiritual ecology, I enjoyed reading books like Gary Snyder’s Practice of the Wild, and was reading Douglas E. Christie’s Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes Toward an Contemplative Ecology. I searched for the phrase “contemplative ecology,” and one of my first hits was the Metta Earth Institute. Here, it seemed as though people were doing the kind of work I wanted to do: blending environmentalist thought with spirituality and creativity. When I saw Metta Earth was offering an Ecopsychology and Wilderness Leadership Intensive, I quickly signed on.
Looking forward to setting aside my work two weeks and with only a vague idea of what to expect, I arrived at Metta Earth with camping and hiking gear (almost all of it borrowed except shoes and underwear) jammed into my airplane luggage. As I wandered the grounds on my first afternoon there, everything was a delight—the woods, the cows and sheep, the flower and vegetable gardens, the chickens. As we began the program over the next few days, however, I noticed something. I had considered myself to be, you know, a free spirit and in tune with nature and stuff—at least compared to the academic culture that surrounded me. Yet I found myself withholding something even in the midst of acres and acres of beautiful forest, pasture, and meadow. I kept my shoes on.
It wasn’t as if they had some sort of magical abilities I didn’t—they got splinters in their feet, nettles on their knees, and cuts from grass on their shins. The difference was in their mindset, I think—the willingness to tolerate the possibility that this might be difficult ground to walk on, and to walk on it anyway.
Others walked in bare feet through the meadows and woods, but I felt hesitant to do so. The cattail marsh partly cured me of that. As we hiked out to the woods and set up our camp, though, I still assumed in every landscape I came across that it would be too difficult or painful to walk though barefoot. But much of the time, members of my group walked easily barefoot in the marsh, the deep woods, the garden, down the road to the river, in pasture and meadow. It wasn’t as if they had some sort of magical abilities I didn’t—they got splinters in their feet, nettles on their knees, and cuts from grass on their shins. The difference was in their mindset, I think—the willingness to tolerate the possibility that this might be difficult ground to walk on, and to walk on it anyway.
During our Wild Quest time in the woods, we walked down to the creek to collect water for camp. My companions asked if we could sit for a moment while they cooled their feet in the water. I looked down at my own, in socks and hiking shoes. There was no way that I could take them off, since I couldn’t wet my feet in the stream and put them, still wet, into my socks and shoes. I also couldn’t carry my shoes back since I was carrying buckets. That moment drove home a lesson that years of meditation practice had prepared me for: certainty and safety stifle; openness to pain and to the unknown is freeing.
Check back soon to read part two. Learn more about Metta Earth’s Wilderness and Ecopsychology Leadership Intensive.