“Nor can foot feel, being shod”
This line from Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “God’s Grandeur” is a commentary on what the poet saw as one of many pitfalls of the burgeoning industrial revolution, which, in his imagination, divorced people from knowledge of the natural world in which they lived. People are “shod”—shoe-wearing, meaning that they can no longer feel the earth beneath their feet.
For decades I’ve held this line as a metaphor—until now, when, as a consequence of spending a much-needed vacation in a beach area, I had the experience of literally un-shoeing myself for an extended period. I walked around barefoot much more.
It hurt a lot. Because I always wear shoes, my feet were woefully unprepared for the kind of toll the ground was taking on them. I got cuts and hobbled around like I was almost unable to walk at all. I had to apply salve to my feet every night.
But over time, my feet adapted to the new environment. They became adjusted to the rigors of walking over the ground. They breathed. They toughened up.
Now, having returned home, it is strange to put on the shoes I’ve worn all my life. They feel constricting. They allow me to quicken my pace and do more, but in the process, I’ve lost a feeling of slowing down and becoming aware of the world around me and its many rich sensations.
Ironically, the street where I live has just been re-paved after years of disrepair. I can walk or ride my bike on it easily; my kids can ride scooters and zip up and down it with ease. I’m struck at the contrast: it is what Hopkins warns us about. “The soil/ Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.” Life in this technological world offers us many conveniences and even pleasures, but what it distracts us from is the “dearest freshness deep down things,” where observation, reflection, and contemplation flow easily. I must find new ways to reconnect to the world I live in. I must take time to reflect and contemplate. I must slow down, take my shoes off, and encounter the living God.