I believe gratitude begins with going barefoot.
In the early 1990s, I was out of college and rootless. I had no immediate job prospects and felt depressed about my future. My friend Karin and I decided to get as far away from home as possible- New Zealand. We discovered a surprising way to travel on our tiny budget. After accidentally knocking over a book at our local camping store, I happened to glance at the title: Willing Workers on Organic Farms. WWOOF, the book jacket read, is a worldwide nonprofit that pairs travelers with farms seeking volunteers. Perfect.
We arrived in Auckland, New Zealand, with a list of prospects in our backpacks. Our first WWOOF farm was a biodynamic outfit several miles outside of town. There we met Bluey, the caretaker of the property. Bluey was a wizened Australian with a shock of white hair that had once been flaming red. He regaled us with wild stories about his past; he had once spent several years living in a cave in silent contemplation. He didn’t wear shoes. We were enthralled.
With great pride, Bluey showed us row upon vivid row of vegetables and fruits, warm compost piles and grazing farm animals. There were two stolid sheep, a swaybacked gray horse and a dreamy-looking cow. Biodynamic farming, Bluey explained as we walked, goes far beyond organic cultivation. Part of a philosophy developed by Rudolph Steiner – a prolific Austrian educator and sage in the early 1900s – it treats the entire farm as a living organism: an intricate web of earth and cosmos, animal and human. Special preparations act as holistic medicines to keep the soil in balance. Essentially, dirt is a hallowed force. The result: remarkably flavorful produce sky-high in vitamins and minerals and soil so rich and sweet-smelling you can practically eat it.
As we picked vegetables for dinner that first night, I began to feel a kind of euphoria. My younger brother, who is now studying biodynamic farming, calls it “farmer’s high.” My senses felt expanded with my bare feet in the soil. The late afternoon sun warmed my head, my body was wholly engaged in a ballet of bending, picking, tasting, my ears nourished by birds and quiet. That whole “be here now” mantra suddenly had merit. I felt a connection to all these growing things so profound that it has stayed with me to this day.
That night on the farm, our meal of zucchini, cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, cheese made from our cow’s milk and bread baked by our host was more satisfying than any high-end restaurant. As we continued on our trip over the next six months, Karin and I stayed barefoot save for the roughest terrain. It was direct nourishment, manna from the earth, a forgotten connection discovered anew.
Now, I am still compelled to take my shoes off before I plant anything, and my kids and I go barefoot whenever possible. It reminds me to be grateful to what feeds us, and to tread lightly.