"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.")
"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."