Construction 5: Carrizo

November - December, 2014

Carrizo, from the Latin carix, is a reed grass of the genus Phragmites. Some folks call it ditch reed. Not elegant, but accurate. Carrizo sprouts from a tuber that looks so much like a sweet potato on steroids that they call it a camote. Carrizo is irrepressible. If you dig out a camote and leave even a tiny fragment in the ground, two weeks later you have a sprout, a month later it is waste high, and before you can turn around twice you have a forest. A full-grown carrizo cane stands about 6 meters high, and its stem, segmented and
hollow like bamboo, can be 10 centimeters thick. On the banks of the irrigation ditch that is the north boundary of the property we bought here in Santa Cruz Etla, the carrizo grew
so thick that when we did the deslinde last year, the alcalde had to cut down fifty or sixty stalks just to be able to measure the boundary.


            In the ‘waste-not, want-not’ world of rural Mexico, carrizo has infinite uses. You can cut it, dry it, and use it for fences. Or for a door. Or for roofing material, as a base for terracotta tiles. Laid over a wall, it is good for sound-proofing. You can lash thin ones together to make a rickety stand for pinwheels of fireworks, or thick ones to make scaffolding for construction. Planted along a boundary line, carrizo shields you from your neighbors. It makes good shade. When the wind blows through the leaves, it sounds like a waterfall. A length of carrizo makes a good cane. You can beat off dogs with it. You can pound it into the ground and tether your burro to it. Selected for hollowness and cut to the proper lengths, carrizos will do for a marimba. You can weave it into a lattice and train your chayote vines to climb it, so that pretty soon you can just reach up and pick the hanging chayotes to flavor and thicken your stews.


            A couple of days ago on my morning walk with Kalba, I ran into a neighbor who was heading out into the Santa Cruz communal land with his machete.

            “Going out for some firewood, eh?”

            “No, no; I’m going to cut carrizo. To make cups.”

            “Cups?” As I asked I realized how dumb the question was: cut a carrizo below the joint, and again below the next joint, you have a hollow segment stoppered at the bottom and open at the top.

            “This weekend is the mayordomía of La Juquilita, the Virgin of Juquila.”

            “I thought Juquila was December 8.”


             "It is, it is. But the mayordomía changes every year. We do the change two weeks later. I’m this year’s mayordomó. And the man who will be in charge of keeping the chapel pretty, you know, repainting it, cleaning it, fresh flowers on the feast days, that is my cousin. He’s coming down from Mexico City.”

            “And the cups are for mescal . . .?”

            “Of course! ¡Claro!” Meaning that I might as well be asking if the sun comes up in the morning. Duh!


            What Lalo’s men are going to do with carrizo is roof the front and back terraces of the casa and our two studies. It sounds easy but, like everything else connected with building with traditional methods, it has its complexities and nuances.

            We ask if we are going to use the remaining stand of carrizo that grows along the zanja ditch. I figure we could cut 50 or 75 canes from it without seriously depleting the patch.

            “Maybe we’ll cut a couple; but we will need at least 2,000 canes. Maybe 3,000.” Lalo disabuses us of the dream of self-sufficiency. “We’ll have to buy the carrizo, but it’s not all that expensive, and we’ll get good quality. We won’t need it for another month and a half, but we have to buy it now.”

            We are a couple of days before Muertos. “Buy it now because . . .”

            “It has to dry. It has to be sized and peeled. And the full moon is November 6, so this is a good time to order it. You have to cut carrizo at the full moon. Otherwise it won’t last.”

            “I don’t understand. It won’t last . . .?”

            “It dries out. Turns to dust, starts to flake. If you cut the carrizo at the full moon, it won’t do that.”

            I look quizzically at Cynthia, but she quickly confirms what Lalo has said. “That goes for lumber, too. For the beams: they’ll have to be cut at the full moon. Otherwise . . . “

            I ask our once-a-week gardener, Lázaro Solís, if he has ever heard this. By the way, Lázaro has just been elected mayor of Santa Cruz Etla. A great honor. I extended my condolences.

            “Yes, it’s absolutely true. Cut at the full moon. I don’t know why, but everybody who works in construction knows it.”

            Two days later, on a bird walk with Bill Stitcher, I ask him about it.

            “It’s common wisdom. But I don’t have any idea.” A few moments and a half-dozen species later he adds,  “Maybe there’s a night insect that lays it’s eggs in freshly cut wood and the light of the full moon scares it off?”

            I guess that will have to do.


            November 8 a pickup truck deposits a mountain of carrizo stalks down near the stairway to the street, alongside the new carrizo door that Lalo has knocked together to keep the dogs our (or in, depending on whose they are). Two days later, another load. Three of the workmen are dispatched to prepare it for use.


            Cane by cane they shave off the leaves with their machetes, scrape off the loose skin with the back of their machete blades, lop off the leafy top of each cane with one quick chop of their machetes. All-purpose tool meets all-purpose building material. They pile the leafy tops to one side, lay the peeled canes out to dry, and a few days later bind them loosely into bundles of 80.


            A few days before Christmas they carry the bundles up to the construction site. The walls on Linda’s study, my study, and the back terrace are complete. The front terrace verticals are nearing completion and the notching of the heavy pine crossbeams is underway. The roof beams, the morillos, presumably all harvested from the forest by the light of the fullest of moons, have been smoothed, insect-proofed, and fitted into place.

An anchoring cane has been lashed into place alongside each of the morillos. In teams of three, the workmen start laying the carrizo crosswise onto the morillos, lashing each new  cane with a loop of string onto the anchoring cane. It is meticulous, painstaking work. The strings hang down from each of the morillos like fishing lines dangled into a stocked pond on the first day of bass season. Gradually, from the lowest edge up the slope to the roof peak, the carrizos are lashed into place. When they have finished, over them will be placed a layer of waterproof insulating material, and over that the overlapping rows of terracotta roof tiles, called tejas.




Cultural aside having nothing to do with carrizo. The sound now written with a ‘j’ used to be written with an ‘x’, and the clay on the north side of the lower Río Grande was so suited to roof tiles, that Mexicans began referring to the whole area as roof-tile-place.


            Second cultural aside, only tangentially having to do with carrizo, and yet a marvel of coincidence.

            (a) A couple of meters above the river bank, in the sun-drenched meadows bordering the Río Grande, grows a sticky-leafed plant bearing clusters of small yellow flowers. It’s called chamiza. Its dried stems, in the absence of more suitable firewood, can be burned as brushwood. At El Paso, the scrubby island in the middle of the river, long disputed between the two countries, was by treaty turned into a cultural park called “El Chamizal.” The American half is a performance space that sponsors, among other things, a Spanish Golden Age Theater Festival, to which has adhered an academic conference focusing on Renaissance theater. I was one of its founders and sat on the board for a couple of decades.

            (b) The sticky-leafed yellow flower grows in Oaxaca, too, and the piece of land we bought is known locally as “El Chamizal.”

            (c) I had a sciatica attack last week, was in considerable pain, and could barely straighten up. Sill am; still can’t. Several folks recommended a poultice of the sticky chamiza leaves bound tightly to the back: “chamiza and a good night’s rest will set you straight.” Lalo brought me an armload of chamiza. OK. We peeled off the leaves, stuck them to my back, bound them with a towel and a length of rope, put me to bed, and instructed the neighbor’s eight dogs to go gentle with their usual dawn serenade. I slept well despite the toweled lump in the middle of my back. The dogs ignored my instructions and at 5:45 I got up, untied the rope, peeled off the chamiza, and made coffee. I guess I’ll stick with the chemical anti-inflammatories and another of Elizz’s muscle-probing massages.