In the Homeric epics, the poet, protected by design, survives so the song can praise the heroes and inscribe their names on sculpted stone, or whisper to the wind of legendary deeds about "swift-footed Achilles" and cunning Odysseus."
By his own hand, John Nichols attains the status of elegiac poet in prose and imagery expressed in his most recent books, "My Heart Belongs to Nature: A Memoir in Photographs and Prose" (UNM Press, 2017) and "Goodbye, Monique: Requiem for a Brief Marriage" (Acequia Madre Press, 2019).
In "Nature" the reader sees and feels the heart and soul of the man, whose "Milagro Beanfield War" made him famous, but whose eulogies and standup literary comedy have mesmerized Taoseños and aficionados of Beanfield myth and mitote for the last 50 years, turning the activist into a treasured community member.
Now, in approaching mortality, he has revealed the mind and heart which dives into stock ponds on the mesa or soars above in the Little Tarn among the brothers and sisters of Wheeler Peak. And for students of "Nichols Studies," the source of the man's generosity and loving tolerance is revealed in "Monique."
Nichols came by his love of nature honestly, inheriting from two generations of "naturalists," father and grandfather re Museum of Natural History in New York. From a mom he hardly knew, who died when he was 2 years, 11 days old but whom he got to know recently through research and interviews and the dim collective consciousness of his childhood, he inherited a kind of humane equanimity. She, too, exuded a love of the natural world, especially for our feathered friends. But the more you look at Monique in prose and photos, the more you see John and understand what a friend of hers wrote: "She was totally unselfish ... She never in the slightest or in anyway 'put on airs.'"
So, I come not to bury but to praise John Nichols. I met him first in the summer of 1969, he was 28 and I 22 at the box office of the Plaza Theatre. "Are you going to show good movies?" he asked. "Like Buñuel, Bergman, Fellini?" Indeed, like Truffaut and Godard, the new gods of the cinema, like Costa-Gavras who directed "Missing." As Pauline Kael, film critic, said about the movies then, they showed Americans how life offered other "possibilities."
One of my favorite pedagogical experiences occurred when introducing students to novel and film at University of New Mexico. John joined us and recounted his nascent climb into the spotlight vis-à-vis "The Sterile Cuckoo" (1965) and the unforgettable Pookie. Later, Liza Minnelli reprised the role for which she received an Academy Award nomination in the movie (1969). Nichols as the "script doctor" won a screenplay Oscar for Costa Gavras' "Missing" (1982) but received no credit due to arcane rules of the academy.
Nichols' love of nature stands him in good company. The son of a charwoman, who grew up in Algerian poverty, litterateur Albert Camus makes the point in his lyrical essays how he didn't feel deprived because of the sand and sun, the sky and the sea, the beauty of Algeria and the very Greek way of life along the Mediterranean.
You may love John's standup when he brags about not having read Lawrence, Taos' chief literary and historic chamber of commerce figure. But Lawrence, too, affected by El Norte, makes the point in the essays ("The Bad Side of Books," 2019, edited by Geoff Dyer) where he writes in "Morality and the Novel" (1925): "This is how I 'save my soul' … between me and other people, me and a nation, me and a race of men, me and the animals, me and the trees or flowers, me and the earth, me and the skies and sun and stars."
When Nichols, the fragile body bent, shuffles toward the lectern at the Harwood, you wonder about the aging corpus until you see the eyes twinkle, the mouth opens and the spirit of camaraderie emerges in laughter as he pokes the sacred cows but with love in the spirit of a very human creature, subject to lust for a quotidian life he declaims as if our favorite Taos comedian.
Like mother, like son. In this homage to Monique, you, dear reader, will see the mystery of sentiment and genes merge in the man we call friend, whose character was nurtured by nature writ large, thanks also to this young woman, who died at 27 but left us with a tiny fragile fellow who grew into the spirit we see today, coming out of Smith's with a basket full of dubious can goods (more in the spirit of '50s preservatives than organic dietary expression) but whose eyes flash and sparkle, one who never stinted on a friend or denied his love for the women, who, whether briefly or for decades, affected his heart.
"Goodbye Monique," this 239-page book, born from piles of several three-ring binders, stacked up in his Valverde Street digs, represents a magnificent "editing" job in this lyrical story about Nichols y la familia.
In "Nature," John describes his passion for stock ponds on the west Mesa, the cannibal tadpoles and the fascinating brew of turgid water, where a wealth of vital spirits live. Meanwhile, he stumbles through the decades, recording the increasing decay of his body as he climbs up among the peaks surrounding Taos Ski Valley to spend time among his buddies, the bighorn sheep.
Among the friendly peaks, he writes, late in life of the "Little Tarn," his private place, where he never met another person in 10 years but at altitude (above 12,000 feet) and says, "That is the only time I have ever stayed awake all night fixated upon the heavens. I felt as if I was floating in space untethered."
In the copy of my book of "Nature," he wrote, "Here's my swan song to Taos, which has certainly been magic to me."
As one who reads less for information and more for insight provided by literature, I prefer essay to the novel. Never have I been more challenged as a college instructor than when I guided six or eight undergraduates through the Milagro Trilogy during one eight-week summer session, developing my own notes to enumerate the endless characters and plot points. I damned near drowned in the flood of untethered or redundant prose in "The Nirvana Blues."
That same summer I met John, 1969, I also met Dennis Hopper, who was at the peak of his movie fame "Easy Rider" (1969). I love those ironies: Pookie, the lovelorn loner versus Captain America and Billy. Maybe Jack Nicholson of "Easy Rider" and Pookie Cuckoo channeled each other: the activist then who helped stop the Indian Camp Dam, contrasts nicely with the movie star, who gave Taos real estate a boost and an alternative arts figure for the art and lit "image trade" so loved by local Babbitts.
During the Horse Fly years John and I frequently compared notes about los politicos and a certain Manby-like attorney who threatened to sue us both though 35 years apart - as issues of social justice became focus of la tierra y agua es la vida.