An ode to the feet
An ode to the feet
With his invention "Five Fingers", Robert Fliri from Naturno/Naturns gives us a feeling that most have forgotten since childhood – that of barefoot walking. On a joint tour, we rediscover our feet as sensory organs.
We walk through the mountains, run to the train station, stroll through cities, and if we are in a hurry, take two steps at a time. Have you ever thought about what a complex process walking is? Once set in motion, our legs tick evenly like clockwork. The only species on the planet to do so, humans move upright on two feet and have been able to populate even the most remote areas of the world. For about a year, we learn to walk as small children and – almost like riding a bicycle – never forget it again.

Robert, are we underestimating our feet?
“The human foot is a masterpiece, unique in nature. It consists of a complicated system of bones, muscles, tendons, tissues, joints and layers that allow a wide variety of movements. For example, if you walk barefoot, you can't roll your ankle. But even more fascinating – and few know this – is the large number of receptors in the soles of our feet. They communicate continuously with the human brain via nerve cords. This provides the brain with important information about the environment and the nature of the subsoil, which is essential for people to be able to move quickly and safely, especially on uneven ground.”

The feet serve as eyes, so to speak? Robert Fliri laughs, and although born in 1976, he looks much younger at those moments. We sit on the village square in Plaus and talk about what the renowned New York Times called the "best invention of the year" in 2007: the Five Fingers, whose idea was born on the sunny Naturno Sonnenberg Mountain. In order not to just talk about it, I slip myself into the "glove for feet" during the conversation and recommend that anyone who would like to be the center of attention should go to a café in Five Fingers: curious looks are guaranteed.
Robert Fliri_Five Finger_Peter Santer
Admittedly, it is possible to argue about its aesthetic merits, but the principle of this artificial horned skin makes sense, and Robert contradicts my assumption that walking cannot be unlearned: "When we walk in shoes, we have a completely different pattern of movement than when walking barefoot. We no longer stimulate our feet with padded shoes, sedentary activities and smooth floors. The consequences are weaker muscles and ligaments as well as an inhibited, almost anxious way of walking – especially when walking in a typical urban environment where it is always the same gives way to a natural environment." Robert repeatedly gets up to support his explanations with practical examples, speaking of the forefoot, heel impact and knee pain. I nod thoughtfully. "Weak feet are widespread in the First World. The cushioning and supporting footwear is well-intentioned, but does not challenge our musculoskeletal system. Barefoot walking, especially on uneven natural ground, is a good compensation." Smiling, he adds: "And on top of that, it just feels good to feel the ground under your feet again."

The concept of the Five Fingers was also so revolutionary because it suddenly simply omitted everything that had been previously part of shoes to date – protection, spring suspension, and support. After several companies rejected the design, the Italian sole manufacturer Vibram ventured into the risky project and launched the first model on the market in 2005. In the USA, demand rose rapidly. "Americans are generally more open to new things, but as soon as the interest is there, they lose it again. The European market is more conservative, and grows more slowly but sustainably." No wonder that the unexpected success caused a murmur in the conventional shoe industry. Nature probably knows what it does better than the usual sports shoe manufacturers.

We empty our coffee cups, grab our sports backpacks, and Robert says: "I know a place on the Sonnenberg Mountain."
Robert Fliri_Five Finger_Peter Santer[3]
Robert Fliri_Five Finger_Peter Santer[6]
What does the Sonnenberg Mountain mean to you?
“I spent most of my childhood and youth at Sonnenberg. Even later, when I visited my grandparents, I kept looking for different routes to get to the farm. The idea for the Five Fingers was born in 1999. To this day I love to roam the Sonnenberg, going cross-country through the terrain. It is the ancient, original trails that fascinate me, they are really unique. South Tyrol's landscape is permeated with them. I also call them capillary paths, and we must preserve them. Unfortunately, the opposite happens and we try everywhere to build paved and gravel roads, and direct people to wide forest roads. That's fundamentally wrong. Our body is made for natural ground with roots and stones, and it moves there intuitively, quickly and safely.”

We climb up the Sonnenberg on path no. 10 and soon Robert branches off from the path to another, unmarked path. As smooth and fast as an arrow he moves through the terrain and I have trouble keeping up. We are now on one of those old paths that has connected the Sonnenberg farmsteads with the valley floor for centuries. While some of them have now been developed into hiking trails, others have almost fallen into oblivion. We move quickly, the oak leaves from last winter rustling under our soles, thorns clawing into my skin. I discover a fresh track of deer in the dust. While we always walk forward, I also go back at the same time, and try to think of the beginnings of these paths: why and how they most likely came into being. To the generations of people who have walked on them, trail after trail, all the conversations, secrets and farewells that these paths have experienced and kept to themselves forever. It is like suddenly all your senses have been turned on.

The feet adapt to the ground, falling perfectly over stones, while the toes seek support in the sand. It is an exciting feeling. I sometimes catch myself consciously balancing over roots and climbing over stones out of pure curiosity for the feeling. In front of us a striking hilltop rises in the forest, so we sit down and I feel a slight pull in my calf. Robert smiles contentedly.
Robert Fliri_Five Finger_Peter Santer[7]
As a way back, he suggests a barely visible narrow path that leads into the forest. Light-footed, he goes ahead, I hurry as fast as I can and am once again amazed at the firm ground contact of the Five Fingers. But then the step is suddenly interrupted – in front of me an abyss. I look over the edge, the smooth rocks drop at least two meters, but here and there are small steps in the rock to find support. Hectically I try to assess the situation as well as myself. I am dithering.

Robert, what can nature teach us?
“Nature teaches self-responsibility and self-confidence. You have to know yourself, to judge yourself. Can I make the climb? Is the wall too steep? Is the trench too wide? You have to make a decision and then bear the consequences. Many people today live in a state of constant security. Children grow up in an almost fearful environment. This makes access to nature and the experience of it all the more important in order to counteract this development. But one must not romanticize nature or look at it esoterically. Nature is chaos, as can be seen from the bulky rocks, the gnarled roots and the sprawling vegetation. It is not a safe space through and through, but when you move through it, you learn important qualities for life.

Like every evening I still put on my running shoes after the meeting with Robert. Today, however, I notice the description, reading from springy midsole and energetic cushioning, from the heel plug and silicone material for shock absorption. I am at kilometer 3, when I want to push myself - as in the morning – light-footed from a root. I stumble.

Attention: Please always stay on the marked tracks!

Text: Petra Götsch
Photo: Peter Santer
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