As I write this, the full moon is shining overhead. The gibnuts are hiding, the fish are biting, the werewolves are turning, and it’s time to start cutting materials. The Kekchi and Mopan Maya of Toledo District’s jungle, where we are located, are very connected to the Earth. They have been guided by the planet’s natural rhythms for generations in farming, construction, religion, and nearly every other aspect of life. Over thousands of years, they’ve perfected the art of using natural materials to build sturdy structures out of nothing more than wooden posts, palm leaves, and vines. The full moon fits into all of this since both the posts and the leaves need to be cut close to the full moon to ensure they’re as strong as possible.
The first part of a simple shelter like ours is the rosewood posts. Termites are abundant in the tree-filled jungle, and are a constant danger to any wooden structure. Rosewood, a hardwood native to the area, is nearly immune to termite damage due to its incredible hardness and density. It’s common to see the insects crawling up and down rosewood trees, but they can’t chew through the wood. This is especially important since these posts are the load-bearing elements of the structure, and replacing them would be a pain. Fortunately, we don’t have to worry about that in properly harvested rosewood. The full moon draws sap up from the roots to the leaves, filling the xylem of the trunk in the process. These liquid filled tubes harden and dry when the tree is cut, leaving a log that can resist insect damage for decades.
Once the vertical rosewood posts are firmly in the ground, we build the roof. The rafters and beams are also made of a native hardwood such as Santa Anna or sapodilla, but never rosewood since it’s just too heavy. We also cut these logs close to the full moon, ensuring that they last for years. While less resilient than the rosewood posts, they still provide years of service. The ones in the picture below will outlast several changes of the palm leaves they support.
Finally, when we have a wooden outline of a shelter fully built, the thatching is added. These shelters use cohune palm leaves, which grow all over the jungle. These leaves are massive, generally reaching 15-20 feet in length at maturity. I’ll get into what exactly we do with them in a future blog entry, but just like the posts, beams, and rafters, they need to be harvested close to the full moon. We hire one of the local villagers to cut them for us, then send our staff out to pick them up.
Basing construction schedules on the cycle of the moon might sound foolish or like a waste of time to some, but these natural cycles govern too much of life in southern Belize to ignore. All of the residents of this jungle are very connected to it, and we all work in harmony with the land as much as possible. Besides, there’s more than a little truth to the moon’s power. Everyone around here has a story about someone who just didn’t listen, and had to rebuild only a few months later.
Chef-in-Residence Zach Wielgosz