Of Parries, Precipitation, and Poultry

Photo by Kalisa Veer, https://unsplash.com/@kalisaveer

We can do most anything when it’s important to us. In the sodden pinelands of the Pacific Northwest the pursuit of most everything entails acceptance of weather if not outright preparation for it. Whatever it is, hiking, sailing, running anyone devoted to these activities does them irrespective of weather. Fencing is normally more or less immune to the elements because usually it’s indoors. Here, because of the damp, we may buy and apply more 3-in-1 oil than others, but fencers everywhere must combat the rust that mixing damp kit and steel fosters. The combination of PNW weather and a pandemic, however, means facing unique challenges. Most fencers at this point have either participated in or know people who have attended online classes, posted footage of drills, or who have even worked out together via zoom or google-meet. Because we can’t congregate inside or in large groups, we’ve had to be creative. Many of us studying the Art have to train; it’s not just the exercise, but that it’s part of who we are, our way of understanding the world, even acting in that world, and so we can’t not, if that makes sense.

The group classes I was teaching either collapsed thanks to Covid or have been put off until it’s once again safe to train indoors. The more fencers with whom I speak the more I hear similar tales of woe. Most of us, if we have a space, pull in just enough to pay rent; moreover, the most affordable insurance demands that we operate as non-profits, so it’s very week by week, skin of the teeth staying open. I wasn’t the only one to lose a space and the people who used it. While easy to take that to heart—and one does at least in part—the truth is that most martial arts studios, of any kind, probably have a shorter half-life than new restaurants. My other classes, conducted through a local parks and recreation organization, will (hopefully) return when we’re in a better place with Covid, but otherwise I imagine what I am doing now will continue.

One of several excellent covered spots in the region

Most of this year I have taught a handful of people, individually, once a week, outside, and masked. Living where I do this means navigating months and months of rain. I’ve found a few places, such as public parks, with sufficient covering to keeps us from being soaked, but at various times these have been closed during quarantine.  So, we’ve used porches, garages, one portion of a barn, my backyard, an empty street, and a local basketball court. Focused on the students, and what they need, as well as how best to supply that, it’s easy to ignore the cold or wet (less so the heat for me). It also strikes me, each practice, how dedicated these fencers are. They meet with me every week, and like ancient Persia’s messengers, “are stopped neither by snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness from accomplishing their appointed course with all speed.” [1] Their zeal in turn keeps me going too; I work harder, prepare more, and do all I can to help them improve. I owe them my best.

There are times, though, when just how weird all this is hits me. Probably my favorite example, so far, was having to stop practice to chase a chicken back into its coop. One of my students lives on a small farm just outside of town, and we often meet in a space next to his barn. We had a good laugh about it once that blasted wee dinosaur was back in its cage, but never did I think managing fowl was something I needed to be prepared for. Ridiculous moments like that help make the difficulties in working out of doors easier. Slipping on mud, wet planks or concrete; walking to practice with a giant garbage bag over my fencing gear (not looking at all suspicious, I’m sure); the strange head-bobbing machinations we make to ensure that face-masks don’t become headbands inside our fencing masks; and competing for covered space with any other group who normally trains indoors (high school dance and cheer teams, kids at play, adults meeting to chat so many feet apart) it’s all become part of the equation. In addition to the sad contributions we make to slapstick comedy, there are other benefits.

This farm I visit once a week, for example, has a little concrete, but is mostly gravel where we practice, and so footwork drills in particular are affected. Working without a decent floor creates a number of hurdles. Concrete is nice and flat, but hard; it can also be slick. Gravel is pure rubbish to fence on, but sometimes the only option, especially as what isn’t mud is more than likely a fen in hiding. Grass is slick, but also hides those covert fens until one steps into them and loses a shoe (NB: shoes fill surprisingly fast with mud. It’s worse than chickens). Wood, such as decking or the planks at certain parks (sitting areas, bridges, etc.) are better, but the latter are normally full of benches, picnic tables, or railing. Somehow, wherever we end up each week, we “make it work” (the excellent Tim Gunn, a fencer by the way, would be proud). One unlooked for benefit from all these odd places is that trying to fence on them helps put some of the observations in the sources about terrain into higher relief. For one example, Monsieur L’Abbat, who wrote about smallsword, not only recommends that the lead foot be lifted slightly and set down “flat and firm,” but also that the rear foot, depending on the ground, not turn over too much onto the edge. [2] It also, I believe, helps us learn to adjust footwork to fit the ground—the importance of proper technique with footwork is all the clearer too: if we don’t do it right there is the very real chance that we’ll twist a knee or ankle or end up cap-a-pie in mud. Terrain also affects measure which can affect tempo, and while certainly not an ideal way to work those all-important universals, what we’re learning would be difficult to do otherwise.

In a similar way, attempting to fence in winter clothing can be illuminating. It’s rarely truly cold here, but the damp makes it feel much colder, and balancing layers with exercise is tricky. Like normal outdoor activities we often start with more on and discard layers as we warm up. No one, however, wants a nice winter coat slashed or poked, and so this often means various layers underneath fencing jackets. Mobility can be affected either way. The days where we conduct lessons without rain and roof mean situating ourselves as best we can to avoid the sun (it can refract nicely on the mesh of the mask); if it starts to drizzle we normally keep going, but rain makes it hard to hear and see, never mind the potential danger in slipping. That’s really not ideal even with practice weapons in hand. While additional clothing, because it’s modern, doesn’t necessarily give us a sense of how fighting in a great coat, justeaucorps, or pelisse was, it nonetheless makes us aware of how clothing can affect technique, and, of what we need to do to ensure we maintain good form.

In recent weeks some of this has been harder to juggle. An ice storm last weekend made homework for the epee course tricky; my other responsibilities and various jobs, vehicle failures, changes in school schedules, everything it seems makes coordinating lessons a little more difficult. But I do it. We do it. Because we can’t not. More than anything else this is the fact that comes up for me most when I stand back at look at the past year.

Salute, from Girard, P. J. F. Traité des armes. France: La Haye, 1740.

It’s an honor to meet these students each week. With all that is going on in the world, in their own lives, with all the shared challenges humanity faces, they make time for fencing. Rain, snow, or shine, they make it. Their level of dedication, depth of passion for the Art, and the discipline it takes to do that each week is truly impressive. As their instructor I’m humbled by that, especially given the loss of a school and students, of major plans that had to be postponed, of all the disappointments, because these woes are out front, visible, and quick to clamor for attention. It would be easy to dwell on what I lost.

When the Art is our life, when what we learn in studying it is the lens through which we understand so much of what we experience, when it is for lack of a better expression a way of life, a creed, then these seemingly small victories appear less small. My students are fencers in a long, difficult bout, and they’re not giving up. Covid, online school, sick friends and relatives, job issues, isolation, all that may have points on them, but they’re not forfeiting; they’re still in the fight. That sort of resilience is perhaps the greatest lesson we are learning each week. It’s proof of fudoshin (Japanese “immovable mind”) and its benefits, of the ability to focus despite calamity, poor weather, or chickens. [3] Sharing this time with my students, handing down the tradition handed to me, and seeing them improve, all while things collapse around us… there’s beauty in all that and I’m grateful to be a part of it.


[1] Herodotus, The Persian Wars, 8.98. See for example Herodotus, The Persian Wars, 4 vols., translated by A.D. Godley, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1920-1925, available online at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Hdt.%208.98&lang=original

[2] Andrew Mahon, who translated L’Abbat’s book into English, makes a piquant observation about the rear foot and the ways in which it might turn onto the edge:

“Monsieur L’Abbat recommends the turning on the Edge of the Left-foot in a Lunge, as may be seen by the Attitudes. This Method indeed was formerly practised by all Masters, and would be very good, if their Scholars had not naturally run into an Error, by turning the Foot so much as to bring the Ancle to the Ground, whereby the Foot became so weak as to make the Recovery difficult… Therefore I would not advise the turning on the Edge of the Foot to any but such as, by long Practice on the Flat, are able to judge of the Strength of their Situation, and consequently, will not turn the Foot more than is consistent therewith.

It may sometimes be necessary to turn on the Edge, on such Ground whereon the Flat would slip, and the Edge would not, if it were properly turned; but even in this Case, by turning it too much it would have no Hold of the Terrace, and therefore would be as dangerous as keeping it on the Flat.

The chief Reason for turning on the Edge, is that the Length of the Lunge is greater by about three Inches, which a Man who is a Judge of Measure need never have recourse to, because he will not push but when he knows he is within Reach.

Monsieur L’Abbat, The Art of Fencing, or the Use of the Small Sword, 1734, ed. Andrew Mahon (Dublin, IRE: James Hort, Gutenberg.org).

For the lead foot, of note is this passage:

The Foot should fall firm without lifting it too high, that the Soal of the Sandal, or Pump, may give a smart Sound, which not only looks better and animates more, but also makes the Foot firm, and in a Condition to answer the Swiftness of the Wrist.

Care must be taken not to carry the Point of the Foot inward or outward, because the Knee bending accordingly, as part of the Thigh, goes out of the Line of the Sword, and consequently, of the Line of Defence, besides ‘tis very disagreeable to the Sight.

The Feet sometimes slip in the Lunge, the Right Foot sliding forward, or the Left backward; the first is occasioned by carrying out the Foot before the Knee is bent, whereas when the Knee brings it forward, it must fall flat and firm; the other proceeds from the Want of a sufficient Support on the Left Foot.

Il est bon que le pied frape ferme sans l’élever, que la sandale claque avec éclat, ce qui non seulement paroît & anime advantage, mais encore bonifie le peid & le met en état de suivre la Vitesse du poignet; il faut éviter de porter la pointe en dedans ou en dehors, parce que le genoüil ployant sure cette ligne se fort, & une partie de la cuisse de la ligne de l’epée, & par ce moyen de la défense, outre que cela choque extremement la veüe. Les pieds peuvent encore manquer dans l’alongement le droit glissant en avant & le gauche en arriere; le premier vient de ce qu’on porte le pied avant de ployer le genoüil, au lieu que quand le genoüil le deviance il ne peut se porter qu’à plomb, & par consequent avec fermeté, & l’autre se fait par le manque d’apuy sur la partie gauche.

Jean-Francois le Sieur Labat, L’Art en Fait d’Armes ou de L’Epee Seule, 1696 (Toulouse, FR: Chez J. Boude, La Fédération Française des Arts Martiaux Historiques Européens), Ch. 3, p. 18-19.

[3] 不動心(fudōshin) is a concept in various schools of Japanese swordsmanship. My exposure to this concept, for fencing, was via kendo. There are various resources for those interested in this idea. See for example, Taisen Deshimaru, The Zen Way to the Martial Arts (New York, NY: Penguin Compass, 1982); Joe Hyams, Zen in the Martial Arts (New York, NY: Tarcher/Putnam, 1979); Michael Maliszewski, Ph.D., Spiritual Dimensions of the Martial Arts (Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1996); Hiroaki Sato, ed., The Sword & The Mind (Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press, 1986).

Author: jemmons0611

Vis enim vincitur Arte.

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