Monday, June 01, 2009

Chop Wood, Carry Water

Take a healthy young man, hand him a cane knife, and send him out to the fields to earn his living chopping the stuff down for the local sugar mill. I surmise, that, after a few months of eight-hour days, six days a week, that young fellow would be, assuming he didn't cut his own foot off, pretty good at swinging sharp steel.

Keep him at it until he is, say, forty, and after fifteen years of doing it, I would be willing to bet good money and give big odds that he'd be expert at waving that sharp back and forth. He would have learned how to husband his energy; the most efficient ways to protect his joints and muscles and would be adept with both hands. He'd know where best to slice a cane to take it down with the minimal amount of effort; how to quickly sharpen his blade -- and to know exactly when it needed to be sharpened.

Send a couple of strong-arm boys at him on his way to work one morning to steal his favorite lunch, and if he had his cane knife in hand, I wouldn't like to be them. This is a man who knows how to cut things, knows how it feels to connect with something solid. Even if the attackers each had knives, the advantage would, I'd have to guess, go to the cane cutter. This is his tool and after years of playing with it, he'd know what it would reach and what it would or would not cut.

I saw a cane cutter throw an apple in the air once and quarter it with two easy swipes of that fat and ugly blade, then hook one of the pieces on the way down, and I got the impression he could do that all day long every day of the week, and blindfolded on Sunday.

Now. Put the cane-cutter up gainst a swordsman, one who has practiced for years. This gets a little trickier, doesn't it?

On the one hand, people will offer that cane might kink or snap back now and then, but it doesn't swing steel swords at you. Cutting plants, no matter how tough they are, isn't like cutting somebody who cuts back. The sword player knows how to block or parry or avoid an attack.

On the other hand, fifteen years of lopping cane gives you shoulders you can break rocks on, and an eye for how, where, and when to cut. A half-assed block is apt to get knocked aside.

Other factors at play, of course, but it makes you wonder. According to the dictates of specificity, the more detailed and focused you become at a task, the narrower your scope, the closer you get to mastery of that particular function. If you focus on behind-the-back pool shots more than any other four guys, you'll probably get better at it than them.

Michael Jordan was a hell of a basketball player, one of the best to play the game, and a superb athlete; but as a baseball player, he was minor league and never going to get to the big show. Some of his athleticism transferred to the baseball field, but that was not his forte -- he started too late. But nobody playing baseball, (and few playing basketball) could keep up with him on the court.

On the third hand, getting too specific might not serve you as well as being a generalist in some situations, and, as always, it will depend on what the situation is ...

Still and all, add cane cutter to the list of guys I wouldn't want to see with a sharp heading my way -- along with butchers and surgeons.

When your only tool is a knife, every problem starts to look like a steak.


Edwin Voskamp said...


You should see how the blade of the wakizashi looks that I bought in Indonesia in 1989. It had been used for chopping cane for 40+ years. It shows that they weren't good, clean cuts.

J.D. Ray said...

Ask Bo Jackson!

Viro said...

"Now. Put the cane-cutter up gainst a swordsman, one who has practiced for years. This gets a little trickier, doesn't it?"

This made me think of Magellan- a practiced swordsman who found himself up against spears and sticks.*

*Which apparently is a bit of a half-truth. I have kept hearing that Magellan "was killed by a native with a stick." This is usually said by some proponent of Kali or Escrima. If Wikipedia is to be believed, Magellan went down in a big-ass battle ( where he was zerged by the enemy.

So, maybe Magellan would have whooped some serious ass in a one-on-one fight.

Steve Perry said...

Well. A wakizashi was not designed for cutting cane, so you are taking a tool and using it for a similar, but different purpose. It was a back-up to the longer blade, and a samurai who carried the two swords might use it against another person how many times in his life? Ten? Even fifty or a hundred?

Your typical cane cutter would do that many cuts in a few minutes on a slow day. Forty years, you might expect that if you hit one bad cut out of ten thousand, you'd bang the blade up considerably.

I got your Pah! right here ...

Edwin Voskamp said...

The length-wise twist of the blade shows that the angle of the swing and the angle of the cut did not sufficiently often coincide.

Steve Perry said...

You can tell how often it sufficiently coincided by looking at it? Know the density and temper of the steel, and the metallurgical composition? Have a number of other similar weapons that underwent similar use with which to compare it?

Uh huh. I believe you, Edwin.

Oops, best I be careful where I put my foot down, though I don't want to step in that, uh, well ... you know.

Edwin Voskamp said...

Nope, I don't. (laugh) I don't have enough of a clue. And you should know me well enough I don't, nor would pretend to it.

But the fine gentleman I bought it from said after they acquired it from its previous and first owner it had been used to chop cane.

And after I bought it, a gentleman of Japanese descent who restores Japanese blades for a living for collectors and museums , had a look at it and it was his opinion that the twist in the blade was caused by chopping cane a lot with a stroke that was more vertical than the position of the blade.

Steve Perry said...

I will defer to an expert on Japanese blades as to how they were misued by cane-cutters. Still doesn't get past the notion that such misued could well have been due to the less-than-optimum design of the tool

A wakiszashi doesn't look anything like a cane knife. The spine is much thicker than the edge, the cross-section more like a wedge than a machete-style blade. The balance is different, the weight, and it isn't as good as its longer brother, the katana, for slicing long pig, much less bamboo or sugar cane.

Faulting a cane-cutter for not being able to use such a tool as well as one designed for the task is kind of like giving a guy a ball peen hammer to break concrete, then noticing that the hammer has suffered from it.

Edwin Voskamp said...

I fully agree, Steve. The expert told me that all blades the Japanese were forced to leave in the hands of the locals that were used for chopping cane suffer from this, katanas and wakizashis alike.

On the other hand, if the cane cutter can't be blamed not to be able to use a tool designed for cutting people to cut cane, how would he, using his tool designed for cutting cane, be a threat in cutting people? Especially against someone who is versed in that, with a tool designed for that?

Steve Perry said...

A good point. However ...

My surmise is that the action of cutting something that requires effort for years develops muscles and abilities in a general enough way so that chopping off an arm or a head is much more in the realm of possibility than if the blade is wielded by, say, a guy who stacks cans on a shelf at the local Safeway for his living.

And we still haven't established that the use of swords for cane harvesting damaged them from poor use or poor design.

And a cane knife is designed for repeated chopping against stalks that are relatively firm, so the chances of damaging that kind of blade with a couple of whacks against flesh and bone are probably less than forty years of slashing cane with a short sword.

Skill and intent matter, of course, but I still would want to cross blades with a professional cane cutter who had been doing it for fifteen years, any more than I'd want to get into a knife fight with a butcher. Both have technique, and I expect that some of that hands-on knifery and loppery can be altered enough to make them passing dangerous.

A guy who can quarter an apple in the air and catch one of the chunks on the back hook demonstrates a certain basic dexterity with his tool, just as a man who spends his days butchering animals with a sharp knife ...