I enjoy something that most people shun and think of as beneath their dignity. Well, I like several things that could be described in that way, but foremost among them is manual labor. Most people don’t do it, thinking it’s a sign of poor education and a lack of intelligence, but I’ve always found it challenging in both mental and physical terms. The other favorite thing of mine that generates nearly as much negative response from people is my interest in martial arts of the ancient kind. That always makes people put a little more distance into their personal space, too. The most acceptable thing I do is probably gardening, which I consider an interesting blend of both of my disreputable hobbies.
I see both martial arts and manual labor working their way into modern fitness training, but what I see there disturbs me. Most fitness training is nothing more than ineffective, pointless manual labor, god forbid anybody should actually do something useful to stay fit. I’ve watched people on The Biggest Loser swing sledgehammers, and I’m appalled. No one who ever actually used a sledgehammer would swing one that way. Manual labor is an art, a unique blend of technique and power. What you see when the big people smack a tire with a sledgehammer on BL doesn’t even come close. Fitness trainers still separate the social classes and follow the elite patterns, reserving real labor for the peasants who clean the gym later. From the martial arts standpoint, wielding a sledgehammer is just strength training, the heavy sledge moves too slowly to be of much use in a fight. Modern combat hammers such as the medieval-style War Hammer from Cold Steel have no practical non-combat applications. If you want something that won’t generate an automatic lawsuit when modern-day Vikings come charging over the hill, a good crowbar makes better sense.
If you’ve read much of Mark Twain’s work, you might remember something from “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” that applies here. In that tale, a devout yogi sort of fellow spent all his time on a stone pedestal, bowing repeatedly, and Twain’s hero realized that this could be put to good practical Yankee use. After some inventive tinkering that involved hooking him up to a generator contraption, that yogi provided considerable power for the local community instead of just pointlessly burning calories. That’s what manual labor is all about. You stay fit and do something that actually matters. In the course of that, you also learn things that apply to self defense.
In cardio work you’ll often see weak replications of martial arts movements, but again it’s nowhere near the real thing and usually not even marketed as the real thing. Even martial arts classes and self defense training often do a poor job of preparing people for a fight. Win or lose, there’s no substitute for actual experience. I can’t recall ever being in a ruckus that evolved like the ones in the movies, and it’s a sad feeling when you try out your best move on somebody and there’s no effect. In classes where you practice by pulling punches, you train for no effect, and it’s hard to get out of that habit.
Gardening gives me a chance to get medieval in a fairly respectable way, bringing down some of my martial arts weapons from their hooks on the wall and putting them to work as they were originally designed. I do more work with hand tools than most people would accomplish with machinery, and by stepping back in time to traditional tools and hard labor I also step back to the ancient system of training. In old China, for example, the generals praised the value of the peasants as common soldiers. The people who did the hard work of hacking and hewing on the farms made those ancient armies successful. No other class of person did as well on the battlefield, and in China, the weapons evolved to match the skills of the farmer. The Monk’s Spade, the Nine-Tined Rake, and the Tiger Fork all took their martial forms from ancient farm tools.
Build a garden the hard way and you’ll understand why many of the ancient world’s martial weapons originated in fields, not battlefields. In some of the old martial systems, before anyone agreed to train you in combative techniques you had to prove yourself through ordinary manual labor, developing strength and humility along with the basic techniques that power ancient weapons. Those who train without time in the fields miss important things. America had its own parallel to that in its naval traditions, where the saber became the officer’s weapon, effective if you had training in the art of fencing; and the cutlass became the enlisted man’s weapon, heavy and powerful and very effective in the hands of someone trained in building fences.
This past year I’ve had reason and opportunity to put a few of my skills to use, because as the cost of food rose and my income dropped, suddenly I was back in the 1800′s again, when it was profitable to grow a garden. But, it’s not profitable to grow that garden if you use a Troybilt roto-tiller. If you have the money for a Troybilt, you’re better off putting that cash into groceries. Troybilts don’t guarantee food, but they do guarantee expenses. I’ve used them and they don’t dig even half as deep as a garden spade, or do as thorough a job as an earthworm. I’ve never used them in my own gardens, even though neighbors have offered them, free of charge. They aren’t necessary and they often won’t do what really needs doing. If you have a good garden spot, you’ll have good luck with them. If you don’t, you won’t. A spade gives you more options, if you’re like me and you’ve never planted a garden in a spot well-suited to growing food. Getting busy with a spade can make good gardens out of bad ones.
Spades and shovels made their way into several martial arts traditions because of their double value. The Monk’s Spade, an old Shaolin weapon, still almost makes good sense as a farm tool, with rings that allow others in the family to pull it through the ground like a plow while one lucky person grabs the shaft and steers. Legend has it that Shaolin monks began carrying spades on their journeys because they found them handy for dealing with bandits both during and after the fight. Monks were also bound to bury any expired people they came across, so a shovel made good sense in several ways.
Finding good martial arts weapons today is difficult, because even if you buy something made from combat quality carbon steel, the rest of the construction often fails to hold up to real use. The Monk’s Spade sold for martial arts practice today won’t hold up to real work, but it’s still possible to find a shovel or garden spade that’s good enough for double duty. For a modern equivalent of the Monk’s Spade I’d pick the Irish Garden Spade, a real farmer’s tool with good balance and the same general design as the weapon that evolved from the Chinese shovel/hand plow.
In fact, Cold Steel even makes a shovel designed for both construction and destruction and patterned after a recent military tradition from Russia. The Spetsnaz Combat Shovel might be a handy tool for many people who garden with less activity than I include, since it’s shorter and smaller than a full-sized spade. The Cold Steel combat shovel exceeds the needs of most gardeners and would make an excellent all-purpose survival tool for the backpacker as well.
Modern combat shovels evolved from the deadly trench warfare of WWI, where common soldiers from any of the several armies involved soon learned that their entrenching shovels, with stout steel blades and short handles made for use in cramped circumstances, were more effective in close combat than rifle stocks, bayonets and daggers. The American army forgot that lesson entirely. If you’ve ever used a folding entrenching tool you’ve learned to hate it — a worse tool was never built, in my opinion. Russia took the lessons of WWI to heart, equipping their special forces with a combat model of the trench shovel and teaching them applications for both mayhem and manual labor. If you’re interested in ancient kata, any movement designed for the hand axe works equally well with the combat shovel, and it’s built better than most modern martial arts equipment.
This year, one of my martial arts relics came down off the wall and went back to its original duties, in the garden. The kama cuts way better than a grass sickle, although I do miss my old grain scythe that I left behind in the Ozarks. With the kama you have to lean a bit farther down and take smaller cuts, but once you get in phase with the lay of the crop it makes a very pleasing zipping noise and shears the hay off the ground like fleece off a sheep. In the springtime I might try out the sai, although I’m not entirely sure that it would make a good farm tool. Some say it originated on the farm, and was used to cultivate ground and plow shallow furrows for planting. Although I can see some of that in the shape of the sai, it doesn’t make obvious sense in that application and may have changed in its basic form, now more intended for breaking swords than ground.
All this keeps me entertained as I work, and possibly will come in handy should a barbaric horde come charging out of the soybeans someday. I have a training tape for an old kata based on the agricultural hoe, and I may dig that out and work on it this year. It’s called Thunder Hoe and like the Ferocious Enchanted Staff or Convenient Spade routines from Shaolin, it’s filled with practical things as well as flashy ones. So far, there’s no martial art based on the Troybilt tiller, but every hand tool I pick up tells a story, sometimes one of mine and sometimes a good one I just heard somewhere. Probably looks boring to most people, but once you learn your trade a manual art leaves your mind free to wander. It’s hard to find any other job where your thoughts are truly your own.