I spent the day in the Eco Brooklyn garden with seven interns today hauling salvaged blue stone around and working on the natural swimming pool. Typically we are working around the pool so they have their shoes off.
But today I had them wear shoes to protect them from the heavy stones they were hauling.
I know the garden very well and can navigate the many native plants and stones with my eyes closed. For the most part the interns have been pretty good at where they put their bare feet as well, even if it is more to protect their virgin feet than to protect the garden.
But today they were like a herd of elephants. Carried away with their work, they forgot what was beneath their shoes. And asking them to be more aware didn’t lessen the damage.
Considering they were so intelligent in other areas I expected a much higher level of awareness from them and I found myself getting frustrated. And it wasn’t like they didn’t care or had physical disabilities. These college level athletes were mortified when I pointed out the damage their feet were doing.
It made me think about intelligence in general and how different societies value different things. In mainstream North America intelligence is measured in college test exams. In the Jungles of the Amazon intelligence is measured in whether you step on a snake or not.
But more importantly I had this profound realization that these seven intelligent college grads had spent the vast majority of their lives walking on dead materials – concrete, tile, car carpet, varnished wood – with shoes. They were completely illiterate when it comes to talking to the alive earth with their feet.
99% of the time they don’t need to be aware of where they are stepping. They have to navigate dead objects like getting out of a car, running on a track or walking up stairs but these things are all standardized – hard, flat, lifeless – so the process requires minimal awareness. The worst that can happen is they step in dog crap and never do they worry about killing anything.
The Eco Brooklyn back yard, however, is full of life and far from standard. There are little piles of stones to be toppled, plants of all sizes to be trampled, snails and bugs to be crushed, and all sorts of other life forms like mushrooms, moss, lichen, and berries that a Nike shoe easily kills.
This lack of connection between our feet and the soil is powerful. I saw these kids with great intentions slowly trampling their surroundings and it brought up in me much more emotions than what was at hand. It reminded me of the many times I see environmental destruction due to a lack of awareness of and connection with the earth.
People are good. But disconnect them from their surroundings and they become killer monkeys.
This was a real learning experience for me as I work with them as a mentor. I have extra wide feet because I spent most of my summers as a boy barefoot. I remember crying from the pain of trying to put my feet into shoes at the end of summer for school. Maybe this gives me good connection between my feet and the soil. It isn’t much compared with so many people on this planet who live closely with nature but in NYC’s concrete jungle I’m an exception.
It drove home in me that more important than understanding the ecology of a natural pool or eco garden is having the awareness of where we step, both physically and metaphorically. An awareness of ourselves as we move on this planet and impact other life forms is the height of environmentalism. This has been a valuable lessen for me both in my own life and in my teaching.