Book Report

The Bird Who Cleans the World and other Mayan Fables, by Victor Montejo.

The Bird Who Cleans the World and other Mayan Fables, by Victor Montejo. Translated by Wallace Kaufman. Curbstone Press1991. 120 pages. $13.95.

Buzzards can be beautiful. Do you ever consider how grateful we humans should be, to the bird who cleans the world? This enlightening tale, (the first fable in the book), along with other chapters in this small book tell /stories that give answers to many weighty questions. Also, read “Advice from a Jackass”, “How the Serpent was Born”, and “Who cuts the Trees Cuts his own Life” for more ancient insights on the relationship between man and nature. These fables give us nature’s wisdom, and are similar to universal legends and wisdom from Native Americans and other indigenous peoples around the world. Most of these fables are related by animals, who impart wisdom through their stories.

The first fable is a great beginning, so it is the one I will describe. It takes place at the time of the great flood, when the whole world was destroyed by torrents of water; all except for one house on a hill that remained untouched and housed all the species of animals. When the waters receded, a trumpet bird (Ho ch’ok) was sent out to scout, but the waters were still high, and the trumpet bird returned to the house. Usmiq, the buzzard was sent out next. He was very hungry, and  he found dead and rotting animals everywhere,which he hungrily devoured. When the buzzard finally had a full tummy and returned to the house on the hill, stucnk to high heave, and the other animals would not let him enter. As a punishment for his gluttony, he was condemned, from that time on, to eat only dead animals, and by doing so, to clean the world by going out daily to dispose of the stinky rotting dead animals. So, from that time on, the buzzard has been called ‘ the Bird Who Cleans the World’, as he soars through the skies, and searches, carrying off all things that might contaminate the earth. He flies and circles, looking for rotten things to eat. It is a great fable!

In another chapter, “ Sometimes Right is Repaid with Wrong”, we learn about rabbit, who kept borrowing money and belongings until he owed half the world, and of course he never repaid or returned anything. The solution here was original, if not exactly ethical. “The Lazy man” fable, is longer ( 5 pages), with a satisfying ending, and the chapter ,” the Buzzard and the Dove” contains many bits of folk wisdom, including; “love has no boundaries, “... looking at the courage of a person, instead of looking at the dress”, and that “...necessity sometimes wears a dog’s face.” (whatever that means)

The short (half page) fable...” The work of the mosquito,” is funny and ‘almost’ gives us a positive spin to the role of mosquitos in our lives. It didn’t make me cozy with mosquitos, but perhaps you will look at them more kindly after reading this little book.

The ancient Mayan culture, so important in the history of Mexico, was complex, sophisticated, and beautiful. The Mayans have been called the ‘father of Mexico’ by historians, and in these short fables, handed down by parents and storytellers through many centuries, we find written beliefs, saved for posterity, that gives answers to many questions about the mysteries of the natural world the Maya found all around them.

In the author’s preface, Victor Montejo, says that his mother often told him animal stories that she insisted were true. She also told him that it was very important that these stories be understood and passed on to the young; that the teachings and dreams have values and powerful meanings that can be interpreted by the wisdom of the elders.

According to these teachings, secret signs (read and interpreted by Mayan people), by animals or natural elements have powerful meanings. I found this book of fables to be a window to the past, and also ancient wisdom, still timely in today’s Mexican culture.

After the author’s preface and introduction, you will find 19 short, and easily read stories. Each fable contains a colored illustration, and there is a page at the end of the book which explains all of those illustrations. The fables are nature-based; an ancient culture’s answers to universal questions through story telling. The stories concentrate on many of the “why?” questions we still ask today.

You can find The Bird who Cleans the World and other Mayan Fables at El Caballo Blanco bookstore in Loreto, which is my bookstore, (, or get it  through the publisher, and in many used book stores. I think you will enjoy this book.