By Mick Fleming:
Last full moon we cut fifty 30 ft long bamboos, left them in the stand for a month so as the starch could drain out and then transported them by trailer to the Maya Farm, our organic growing location for much of our fruits and vegetables used at The lodge at Chaa Creek. The following full moon we cut 500 cohune leaves and dragged them to the same spot where we planned to build our roof. The roof was to replace an earlier one that was used to keep anything that needed to be cool or out of the rain. The California red worms which we keep to make humus for the veggies live there, a large pile of dry chicken manure we use as fertilizer has its place, a few shelves house the organic sprays and seed packets and a picnic bench for our Maya gardeners to have their midday break around. You may well be asking yourself, why all this attention to the full moon, is this just another old wives tale? The answer is, perhaps, however in the past 33 years of living here in Belize, observations have shown that any bushman worthy of the status of a true artisan would never cut leaf or lumber on any day other than those leading up to the full moon or those just after. The theory behind this is that the gravitational force of the moon is sufficient to draw the sap up through the tree into the branches rather like the ocean tides. The sap in turn helps to prevent the pin worms from invading either the wood or the leaf and in our experience any time this protocol is not followed, the tell tale signs of powdered saw dust appear in little piles on the floor indicating the presence of these destructive critters. Old wives tale or not, we plan our roof repairs well in advance and always around the correct phase of the moon.
The format for building a roof such as the one we have planned for is to cut your beams and rafters to size and lay them out on the ground. One by one they are raised into position by the crew of six, all of them Maya, in olden times they would have tied these rafters together with “lianas” harvested from the bush but in this case we decided to use threaded rods. We drilled through the bamboo as close to the nodes (the strongest part) as possible and then tied them with tying wire as an extra precaution as we live in the hurricane zone. The braces were added once the cathedral like rafters were in place and within the week we had the main structure ready for thatching. It was amusing to hear the crew discuss their doubts as to the bamboo frame being able to bear the weight of the green cohune leaves, after all none of us had ever built with bamboo before. Having split the 500 leaves down the middle, a task performed by hand with a little assistance of a machete, it was time to start thatching, that was once we had persuaded the guys that the roof would not collapse!!
In this part of the world the Mayas are the ones who perfected this art and indeed still use these types of roofs for their dwellings. The leaf which grow in abundance can be sustainably harvested and keep the temperatures at least 20 degrees cooler than the fashionable option of zinc. A cohune thatch with a steep pitch will last for 6 to 7 years as long as the ridge is well maintained, we cheated by putting a long piece of zinc along the ridge for convenience! The art of thatching a building of this size involves the cooperation of 6 men on the roof and two down below. Layers of 8 leaf laid out in a head to tail pattern are tied to the rafters in sections and secured with wire. Once one level is complete everyone moves up a rung to the next and the process repeats itself until you reach the top. Once at the top the zinc sheet is positioned over the last line of leaf and “voila”, you have your water proof shelter. Cutting the leaf took 2 people five days, the erection of the bamboo structure a further week and a half but with just 3 men and the thatching a week with 6 men.