We recently started a new construction project at Pitchandikulam, a forest community within Auroville. Joss, originally from Australia, is the protector of the forest. He’s spent most of his life working on conservation and reforestation projects in Southern India, but also Tasmania. He’s considered something of a reforestation expert here in Auroville. Whilst building there I happened to have lunch with George McGavin; a British TV presenter who was meeting with Joss for assistance on a piece he was doing for the BBC.
Joss truly is the father of that forest. The first day we met him he lead us on a small tour of the forest, ever so carefully guiding us through the plants and undergrowth, gently brushing his hands over the leaves as we wound our way through the trees listening to him speak. He took his time to stop and impart wisdom upon us, and in turn we waited patiently as he gazed up at the foliage overhead, thoughtfully searching for the next word he might say. You wouldn’t rush Joss – even if you had too.
The plans for the treehouse were set out: It would be just a sleeping house (no toilet or bathroom), just big enough for 1-2 people to stay in who would likely residents or volunteers, and safe and easily accessible for the children of the forest, so that they feel welcome to play in it.
The first day we flew around the upper branches installing safety lines and pulley systems. During this project we decided to experiment by hanging some of our main beams from the branches with cargo belts (see above) which are normally used to secure containers and other heavy objects onto trucks. In typical Indian fashion we didn’t get what we asked for because all the lengths were labelled incorrectly. Mounting the beams with belts like this meant slinging a belt over a branch fork and then poking the beam through the two loops of the belt which hung down. If the level was completely off then we’d need to make adjustments to the length of the cargo belt by pulling in slack to the desired level and securing the belt to the beam in that position with a makeshift wooden clamp. Making an extra round or two on the beam before poking it through the loop often solved the problem. It took us a whole day of climbing up and down, arranging and rearranging, before we got a level which worked nicely. Ironically we settled on our first arrangement. Three of our main contact points were secured with cargo belts. The final fourth one was fastened by placing the beam directly into a branch forking, making a groove which corresponded to the shape of the branch and buffering with rubber to protect the branch (see below).
Most of the timber used for this build was sourced from the forest at Pitchandikulam, with the exception of two curvy logs which we brought with us to be used as the staircase posts. The team at Pitchandikulam had also salvaged a bunch of old Casuarina – an evergreen shrub similar to Pine – from a building they had recently destroyed.
I loved climbing that tree. The latin name is Enterolobium cyclocarpum; 16 metres high and 3.6 metres around at the base. The branches began spreading quite low and opened up giving us a perfect landing landing spot to store tools and hang out in. From here 6 fat branches spread out pretty evenly opening up the inner space; at about 7 metres from the ground the tree gave us a decent sized area for the house. By the second morning we had built a small landing platform where the first staircase came from the ground and ended. The second staircase would then turn and lead up into the treehouse. We installed 3 pulleys for lifting materials and placed one of them, which ran down the centre of the tree, especially high; this one would be our main lifting point. I hung out there for a while taking photos.
Our two main beams were almost as fat as railway sleepers and weighed over 100 kilos each. To lift them up it took 6 of us; four operating 2 separate pulley systems which were attached to either end of the beam, and two up in the tree retrieving and positioning the beams. It’s always a pretty nerve racking time when the really big stuff gets lifted up. Everybody shouts different ideas to one another and with no real leader a maelstrom of instructions and confusion follows. People on the ground excitedly hang onto pulley lines in groups waiting or not waiting to heave on the rope, whilst the guys up top waiting to retrieve yell down at the minions to chill out and stop yanking so hard as the gigantic beam juts up into the sky. Eventually someone who has the best vantage point over the scene, or simply managed to shout louder than everyone else takes charge. At this point tranquility is restored, everyone becomes compliant and cooperates with the leader patiently listening out for further instructions and quickly biting the head off any insurgence which later arises.
Once main beams were levelled and fixed we quickly twacked our secondary-beam structure into place by hammering them down into the main beams with fat rebars. After that the floor planks went down, by this time the staircase was pretty much complete, so with a stairs and a floor to stand on work became much easier. The wall structure went up in two days and the roof in three. The final details and finishing took almost a whole week; handrails, trap door and counterweight, furnishing the interior, sanding and oiling.
We wrapped up in Pitchandikulam with an early morning Puja Ceremony. I quickly dashed up the stairs to instal a plaque I’d made for the treehouse which included some details about when it was built, how much it weighed (2.55 tonnes) and its recommended weight capacity. Incense was lit and one of the elderly ladies walked the smoke around the tree to bless it. I tried not to laugh when she asked my buddy ilango to go up and bless the treehouse itself because she was too scared to go up. Everyone was given a banana, some chai and some coloured dye to put on our foreheads. Joss said a few words and expressed his thanks to us. Once the Puja was over we ran up the stairs along with all the other families we’d met during the last two weeks to take a proper look at the house we’d just built.