John Nichols: A Fragile Beauty

John Nichols: A Fragile Beauty
In Harmony With the Earth

“An albatross around his neck” John Nichols called his 1974 novel The Milagro Beanfield War in an afterword to the book’s 1994 anniversary edition, because he felt that particularly after Milagro had, over multiple obstacles, been made into a 1988 movie directed by Robert Redford, it had eclipsed much of his other work; be it the two other novels in his New Mexico Trilogy (The Magic Journey, 1978, and The Nirvana Blues, 1981), his other novels, from 1965’s Sterile Cuckoo to A Ghost in the Music (1979), Conjugal Bliss (1994) and beyond, and his extensive nonfiction work, much of which, like his novels, deals with life and the love of the land in his beloved northern New Mexico.

A Fragile Beauty is part companion volume to the Milagro novel(s) and movie, part introduction to Nichols’s world, in which the movie’s release had created new interest. As such, it follows prior works such as If Mountains Die (1979, with photographs by the author’s friend William Davis), the memoir The Last Beautiful Days of Autumn (1982), Nichols’s joint piece with Edward Abbey (In Praise of Mountain Lions, 1984), as well as On the Mesa (1986). As in the 1982 memoir and in several other pieces (The Sky’s the Limit, 1990, and Keep It Simple, 1992), Nichols himself not only supplied the text but also the photography; chronicling his New Mexico neighbors’ extraordinary spirit and powers of subsistence, and the unique natural charms of the state which, not without reason, bears the name “The Land of Enchantment.”

In an introductory essay, extracts of which were originally published as an article in the May 1987 edition of American Film Magazine, the author talks about the years of his political formation, and his arrival and early experience in New Mexico, particularly his work as a reporter and editor with a now long-defunct newspaper called The New Mexico Review, and his support of the fight for a fair and responsible water distribution system, which eventually fed into Milagro; as well as about the novel’s tenuous transformation into multiple draft screenplays and, eventually, a movie. But mostly, A Fragile Beauty is a celebration of life on the mesa; of the humble and humbling majesty of its mountains, endless skies, seasons, storms, sun and snow, sagebrush, flowers, cottonwoods, pinons, forests, golden asters and aspens, rivulets, gullies, gorges, lakes, ponds, trout, lizards, dragonflies, coyotes, wolves, birds, horses, cattle, and sheep … and of Nichols’s friends and neighbors: Justin Locke, Julian Ledoux, the Martinezes, Charley Reynolds, Mike Kimmel, Doug Terry, Isabel Vigil and her daughter Evelyn, Pacomio Mondragon, and the folks of the Tres Rios Association. (No, I never met any of these people in person. But the way Nichols talks about them, he makes you feel like you know them just this much – and of course you have met them and many others, too, if you have read “Milagro.”)

“Whenever we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it connected to everything else in the universe,” Nichols quotes John Muir, and he adds, “I have always kept that in mind while writing about the land, people, heartaches of northern New Mexico. To extoll the fragile beauty of the Taos Valley in words, photographs, or in a film, is to sing the praises of, and to demand consideration for, the entire earth.” And Robert Redford writes in his foreword: “These mountains and their attendant valleys belong to the spirits of the dead and the cultures that have followed in their footsteps. They belong to the tourist only in passing and in pictures. … John Nichols understands this, himself much like the land he treasures and stays pledged to keep. … His may be a windmill fight. But it is a noble one, and I salute it.”

What could I, a mere tourist to the region, possibly have to add? Surely not much that these two, and particularly John Nichols, haven’t expressed with much greater skill in one way or another. But I think I can claim just about enough familiarity with northern New Mexico to say that I share their concern for its preservation; and upon each new visit, my innate response to the region’s extraordinary natural beauty is still very much that of my very first stay there as a teenager: to me, as to then-sixteen-year-old John Nichols, who first spent a summer there in 1957, this is still “dream territory;” “a piece of terrain wild and beautiful enough to be commensurate with [my] capacity for wonder,” as Nichols puts it, citing F. Scott Fitzgerald. I don’t need to take anything other than photographs back home with me. But every time I return, I hope that my favorite piece of the Land of Enchantment will still be there the way I remember it, and every time I see changes – not all of them for the better. So, yes, Mr. Nichols, your defense of the area does speak to me, too; and for the future inhabitants of Milagro Country, for the future Joe Mondragons, Seferino Pachecos and Mercedes Reals, as much as for the rest of us, I hope the region will be able to preserve its beauty and its community values over the onslaught of commerce.

Favorite Quote:

“We are touched by magic wands. For just a fraction of our day life is perfect, and we are absolutely happy and in harmony with the earth. The feeling passes much too quickly. But the memory – and the anticipation of other miracles – sustains us in the battle indefinitely.”


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