Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Thursday, June 07, 2018

The hemlock trees are dying

It was wet in the woods the other day. Actually, I think this was two or three weeks ago now--it's been quite busy lately and I lose track of the time. Spring had arrived and everything was alive. Even the spiders were out. I could hear the stream that runs down the hill to the reservoir. In places where the evergreens were thickest, the forest didn't look all that different in the spring as it did in the midst of winter. But the maples and the oaks and the birches and hickories were starting to leaf out and it was easier to see which trees had died over the winter, opening up patches in the canopy. On the ground beneath them, you could see seedlings ready to take over. On the part of the trail where it's widest and there seems to be the most sunlight, small hemlock saplings, no more than a foot or two high, had sprung up along each side of the path. Further up the trail, the giant hemlocks stood, many of them over a hundred feet tall by the look of them, and stately--they seemed to have no need for spreading branches to establish their places like the spruce trees or the balsam pines.

In the first technique of Seiunchin,
both arms are initially brought up
to the outside of the attacker's arm.
But the older hemlock trees are dying. I could count dozens of them along the trail and more off in the woods, the bark stripped off in places, left like red mulch around the base of the tree. They've been hit by the wooly adelgid. It's an invasive species for which the hemlock has no natural resistance. The wooly adelgid brings the borer beetle, which feeds on it, and then, after the borer beetles have burrowed beneath the bark of the tree, the woodpeckers attack, stripping the bark to get at the beetles. Fungus begins to grow around the roots of the diseased tree, and before long, the tree falls. The cold New England temperatures kept the pest at bay for years, but now they're heading north as the winters warm, and the hemlock may go the way of the American chestnut. It shows, I think, it's all tied together; a chain of events that seems to connect things in a way that's difficult to see at the start--one thing leading to another or, if not so singularly predictable, a step in one direction changing the expected outcome while opening up any number of different possibilities, like a small alteration in the environment opening an existential niche that may not have been there before. 

The initial counter from the first
sequence of Kururunfa.
For some reason, all of this made me think of how we string the various techniques of a kata together. But I wasn’t thinking about the sequences of techniques in the standard way in which it is shown in kata—beginning with the receiving (uke) technique, then progressing with the controlling or bridging technique, and finishing with a throw or an attack to the neck or head--as much as I was thinking about how an understanding of the structure and themes of a kata allows one to move between the techniques of different kata within the system. Because the Goju-ryu classical kata are composed of sequences—with entry techniques and bridging techniques and finishing techniques—it’s fairly easy to begin with a technique from one kata and then, depending on how the attacker is moving or responding to your initial receiving technique, move into a bridging technique from another kata and, again, tack on a finishing technique from yet another kata. Understanding the themes or principles of the various classical subjects also helps facilitate this sort of flexibility, especially when each kata seems to be exploring a different theme or response to a different sort of attack--that is, the receiving techniques seem to show the most variation. How one bridges the distance in order to control the opponent may also show a certain amount of variation but the idea here is basically to maintain contact after the initial receiving technique and, without putting oneself in further danger, moving to the opponent’s head or neck to finish the encounter. 
Continuing with the first technique
from Seipai (on the non-kata side).

For example, in the opening move of Seiunchin kata—and in fact in many of the other techniques of this kata—both arms are brought to the outside of the opponent’s attacking arm, whether we see this attack as a wrist grab or a punch or a grab of one’s clothing. If one were to continue the sequence, the defender’s left hand would rotate in order to grab the attacker’s left wrist as the right forearm was brought down on the attacker’s elbow. This is the position in kata that looks like two down blocks in shiko dachi (horse stance) done at a 45 degree angle.

However, if one is thinking about variations, it is easy to see how the defender might move from this initial position in Seiunchin kata to the first attack in Kururunfa kata. The defender need only maintain contact with his right arm on the attacker’s left arm, releasing the left grab, and bring the left forearm up into the neck of the attacker. This is then followed by a left knee kick. 
Continuing with this technique from
Seisan kata by dropping the left arm
and stepping in behind the opponent.

But if these counter attacks are somehow thwarted, the defender can then tack on the first technique in Seipai kata (though it would be from the non-kata side), with the left forearm brought up alongside the neck, since the initial straight arm technique begins from this position with the elbow or forearm attacking the opponent’s face or neck. 

Or, by dropping the left forearm down along the back of the opponent’s left arm and moving to the back, the defender could continue with the bridging and finishing techniques from the first sequence of Seisan kata. 

Continuing with the pull down
technique from Saifa kata.

[Me with Bill Diggle from photos
we did for the book, The Kata and
Bunkai of Goju-Ryu

Or, once to the back of the opponent, the defender could grab both shoulders, as we see in Saifa kata, and pull the attacker down onto the knee and attack with the hammer fist strike. 

I think it is important to see the connections, but we can only really be comfortable with these kinds of connections when we understand the sequences of a kata and see the themes or principles contained within them. Once we are able to do that, the attack becomes relentless, sort of like the attack of the wooly adelgid on these stately Hemlock trees, I think. 

Hemlock tree after it has
been attacked by the
wooly adelgid, borer
beetles, and woodpeckers.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Same difference

I remember when we were little, when our parents would let us out and we would roam freely through the woods and fields. They expected we would come home for lunch whenever we got especially hungry. On summer evenings, we had to be in by dark. It was a different world, a different time. When I head off into the woods now, I generally stick to the trail. It might almost seem as though I'm headed somewhere--no longer running for a hollow tree glimpsed off in the distance or following a meandering stream. As long as I'm in the woods, it doesn't much matter to me where I am. I'm just content to plod along in the company of trees, without a hint of the grid-like overlay of civilization's labyrinth of roads and houses. I hear the echo of Bill Bryson's words: "However far or long you plod, you are always in the same place: in the woods," and that's enough. Though I've often felt that I could see the hint of a sneer on Bryson's face, as if he needed to shield himself against the criticism he anticipated from cynical urbanites.

Perhaps he didn't mean to imply anything in the least disparaging. His book, A Walk in the Woods, is wonderfully entertaining, though it seems to find much of its humor in the ineptitude of its protagonists, in the unlikeliness of their shared adventure to hike the Appalachian Trail. Yet I wonder why we should feel so out of place in these primal surroundings, which of course aren't even so primal anymore, now that we've fenced it in and preserved it as a state park or labeled it a conservation area.

The other thing about that quote is that it makes it sound as though it's all the same, that it's all just a bunch of trees, one pretty much like the next. Sometimes I think this tendency to generalize, to smooth out all the rough edges and do away with differences, is quite human. I remember it was almost a common retort when we were children to respond to a friend who might correct something you said with the quick rejoinder, "Same difference." I'm sure that ended it when I was a child, though I'm not at all sure what it really means. But it got me thinking about the ways we tend to treat techniques in kata when they appear to be the same--that is, we assume that techniques that look the same must function the same in kata.

Open hand block from Shisochin.
The open-hand "block" we see in Shisochin is not the same, nor does it perform the same function, as the open-hand technique in Seipai kata. If we isolate the techniques, they appear to be the same, but each technique in kata is influenced by the techniques that precede it and the techniques that follow it in any given sequence. And the logic of this suggests that there may be slight variations in how each is performed--variations that differentiate it from techniques that only appear to be the same. The supposition, of course, is that there is no hard and fast alphabet of techniques that comprise a single system of self defense and that we are then meant to rearrange these techniques--as if we were forming words and sentences from letters--into various kata. Though this is certainly how we seem to think of "basic" techniques when we practice head blocks (jodan uke) and chest punches (chudan uke) and down blocks (gedan uke) and front kicks (mae geri) at the beginning of every class. Perhaps we don't really stop to consider that these "basics" form a very small percentage of the techniques found in the classical subjects of Goju-ryu.
Open hand "block" from Seipai.

It is this bent of mind that tends to divorce kata techniques from their applications or bunkai. The open-hand techniques after the first turn in Seisan kata--turning to the south after the opening sequence of techniques in the front-facing line--are another example of this, I think. After the initial right arm circular block and the left palm strike, the kata moves into a right-foot-forward basic stance while the left arm and left palm is brought down and the right arm and palm is brought up, finishing with the right palm rotated and facing forward. This same technique is done once more, stepping forward into a left-foot-forward basic stance, before pivoting to the right to finish the sequence with the "punches" and kick to the west. In some schools, these techniques are done twice--first stepping with the right and again stepping with the left--and in others, four times, twice with each hand and foot. In either case, the "message" of the kata is that the two techniques are meant to function together; that is, both are part of the controlling technique of the bunkai sequence, following the initial block and attack of the first technique that occurs on the turn. (The repetition of four of these techniques suggests that both sides are being shown or practiced within the kata. Either that or an attempt to bring the kata back to the original starting point at the end, though this certainly does not generally seem to be of any importance in Okinawan kata.)

The second palm-up technique from
Seisan kata just before the pivot
to the west.
The point here, however, is that the second of these techniques (and the fourth, if one chooses to repeat this technique four times) is done a bit differently. In the first of these techniques, the right hand is brought up palm first and then rotated until the palm is facing forward. The second technique is usually done that way also, with the left palm rotated until it is facing forward. However, if you watch some of the older teachers perform Seisan kata, you will see that at least some of them do not rotate the left palm. Rather, the left palm is brought into the chest, only facing forward as it is brought in towards the chest, the movement that precedes the turn to the right (west) to finish the bunkai sequence. The reason it is performed this way in kata by some of the older teachers is that the left palm has been brought up into the opponent's chin (the right has hold of the hair) and as the left palm is brought in towards the chest the opponent's head is twisted in. Then, with the pivot to the right or west, the opponent's head is twisted sharply in the opposite direction.

This, of course, raises a difficult issue. Kata should always inform bunkai. Otherwise we're left with all manner of creative interpretations that don't bear the least resemblance to kata movement. But kata was meant to preserve bunkai or self-defense applications. We have, I think, an innate desire to generalize movement, to homogenize it in order to understand it. But from a certain perspective, there really is no such thing as standard or basic technique, no generic chest blocks, for example, when it comes to the classical kata if each scenario is unique. Certainly there is good technique and bad technique, but the performance of any given technique is really dependent on how it is used in a sequence of kata movements. Occasionally, I think, over time, some of these movements, for whatever reason, have undergone subtle changes--differences have been dropped, rough edges have been smoothed out, until what was once only similar is now seen as the same technique.

When I was a lot younger, I used to look at every tree, judging whether it was a good climbing tree or not. I know a lumberman who would look at trees and size up the quality of the wood--was it soft or hard, straight-grained or not. The techniques of kata are the same--they're not generic, but rather dependent on how they fit into kata, how they are used within the self-defense scenarios of Goju-ryu kata. Like trees, I suspect, they're all different.

[For a more detailed discussion of these techniques see my book, The Kata and Bunkai of Goju-Ryu,