Jungle of the Maya
by Jim Wright

Reviewed by Jack D’Isidoro

Jungle of the Maya beautifully encapsulates the otherworldly and elusive elegance of the Selva Maya (selva being Spanish for forest) and its inhabitants, portraying a visually stunning landscape which covers over 9,000,000 acres. As it stretches over Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, the Selva Maya lies in a delicate balance between the progressively encroaching, detrimental presence of humanity and its own ability to survive over an increasingly diminished space. Hidden amongst the dense intricacies of vegetation and wildlife are the ancient remnants of the Mayan civilization; the timeworn edifices of the Mayans not only provide a source of amazement for an advanced, archaic culture, but also stand as reminders of humankind’s necessity to successfully and innocuously integrate itself into nature.

Jungle of the Maya underscores the importance of symbiosis between humans and the natural world, but also intimately emphasizes the innate, secluded workings of the minutest organism, to the larger, more majestic predators of the jungle. The stimulating, vibrant photography immerses the reader into the many worlds of the Selva Maya, vividly revealing the fluttering wings of a hummingbird, the eyelets of a jaguar’s hide, or the discerning gaze of a howler monkey.

The book seems to deliberately ignore the internally catalyzed downfall of the Mayan civilization, instead opting to blame the Mayans with their inability to coexist with the land. Any mentions of overpopulation, invasion, or a peasant revolt are ostensibly absent. Although the landscape is resilient, it is also extremely resistant to farming; the soil is only a few feet deep, with the underlying limestone or vegetation quickly absorbing water. So agricultural and population trouble may have actually obliterated the Mayans. Nonetheless, the Mayan’s collapse reinforces the need for a harmonious, responsible existence with natural world.

Jungle of the Maya serves not as a traditional guidebook to the region, nor as a reference to the countless exotic species, but as a celebration of the wondrous creatures and the need to address the challenges which face them. The narrative is close and inviting, providing the reader with a sense that they are being personally led on adventure through the varying, dense layers of the Selva Maya. The jungle is initially approached as an impenetrable Eden, possessing innumerable treasures. To venture past this initial barrier is an arduous task, yet the narrator not only eases the reader’s apprehension (as they now see themselves gawking into the unknown), but begins to decipher the entanglement of different creatures caught in this mass of green sublime. This is the vantage point from which to observe the Selva Maya’s inhabitants—not the vast, endless interiors, but the boundary through which life traverses and becomes immersed in the biosphere. Only once one becomes consumed by the Selva Maya, once one has stepped through this periphery, can one truly appreciate the unknown beauty of nature.

Jungle of the Maya is visually appealing to anyone of any age, serving as an educational tool to the young or as a tasteful addition to the coffee table. More importantly, it brings to light the endangerment of the Selva Maya and the unfortunate national issues which threaten its existence. Through its expansive photographs, the book builds a basic sense of empathy within the reader for these exquisite species. Not only will the reader want to directly experience walking through these ancient temples, hear the howler monkeys at dawn, or watch a crocodile sunbathe, but they will have a deeper appreciation for the need to preserve the natural world.

Jim Wright
Jungle of the Maya
(Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2006)
ISBN – 13: 978-0-292-71412-0 $34.95 138pp.

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