Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Knowledge of the Feet and Hands

If you ever go to Sri Lanka you'll see that people have their shoes off a lot of the time. Not just shoes, but even when they have a chance to get their feet out of a pair of sandals they'll do it. Everyone. Not just tuktuk drivers. I was at the university the other day and my colleagues had slipped off their sandals. It's one of the things I have in common with people here. We don't like our feet cooped up. 

Toes, heels, soles, ankles--parts of people's feet seem to be in a constant state of exploration. Or when their not exploring, in graceful repose. I'm not as good as them at using my feet to divine the environment. But I'm working on it. 

On a more serious note, exploring the rice fields and small irrigation tanks last week I couldn't help but notice that people were naturally barefoot everywhere in the vicinity of the ponds. Most striking to me were the barefoot cultivators on small rice paddy dikes and in the ponds that were being newly flooded for the Yala (secondary) crop. 

A look at the rice fields in their shades of green and gray, glistening with young rice or readying mud, revealed something else. These fields, intricately worked and leveled by human agency over millennia, have been shaped in part by innumerable bare feet. It follows that the humble rice cultivator, the farmer who builds the dikes, levels the fields, cuts the channels, spreads the seed, sprays the pesticide, scatters the fertilizing pellets, tends the plants, and harvests the rice, does all of this work barefoot. And so generations of Lankans have worked this way, thanks to a knowledge of their immediate environment as sensed through their feet. Where I feel pavement through layers of material, the Sri Lankan farmer knows the soil through the bottoms of his feet. This to me indicates a profound difference in the way we experience our world one from the other. 

The fact that generations of feet have built the landscape of rural Sri Lanka through a sort of "foot-knowledge" is a fact worth celebrating on its own. But what does it have to do with what I'm calling "knowledge of the hands?" 

In Colombo I asked my hosts where I could find someone to give me a head massage. I'd experienced one in rural Mihintale, a story of its own, and I wanted to repeat the experience. They pointed me to the Sippaheluda Ayurvedic Hsopital, about a mile from my guesthouse. After my head massage there I decided to come back the next day for a full-body massage, something I've done only once before. I have to say I'm a bit skeptical about the benefits of massage but this changed my mind once and for all. The full-body massage provided an unexpected experience, strangely encouraging, one of those intangibles I discussed in my last post. And after it I decided to book for another massage for a couple of days later. 

My second massage is what made me think about the connection between knowledge of the feet and knowledge of the hands. The massage therapist was the same as the time before, but his massage was different. As his hands probed and manipulated, I could feel that he'd assessed on my first visit the condition of my skin, bones, muscles, and organs. Without telling him a thing about how I felt or where I had old injuries or discomforts, his hands and fingers anticipated the contours of my body. He knew through his hands. Through his hands he learned about and in a way, changed my body's history, the same as rice farmers, through their feet, know and renew the landscape of cultivation season after season. 

A rare brush with the intangible. A set of intangibles that nevertheless influence profoundly the natural and human environment around them. 

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