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Tucson Weekly Food For Thought

From Beanfield Wars To Mushrooms, Author John Nichols Offers A Delightful Mouthful Of Global Reflection

By Demetria Martinez

OCTOBER 13, 1997:  BETWEEN 10 P.M. AND dawn, author John Nichols writes novels in his snug adobe house in Taos, New Mexico. It is during this time that Nichols, 57, renews his pact with himself and the planet. "If I can write two or three more novels that treat the human race with dignity, that will be sufficient," he said in a recent interview.

For Nichols, best known for his novel The Milagro Beanfield War, writing is activism. His novels are testaments to the way people have fought for dignity--whether battling developers in order to preserve ancient agricultural practices, or facing down personal demons after duty in Vietnam.

He has also produced works of non-fiction, such as Keep It Simple, a meditation on the environment illustrated with his own photographs.

Ask this quiet, self-effacing man what he's thinking about these days, and he doesn't miss a beat: "I'm still trying to overthrow a capitalist system that uses racism as a tool to maintain class division for economic reasons.... I figure life is a struggle to figure out how to implement a democratic socialism based on the Declaration of Independence and the idea that all people should be treated equally. In particular, how we distribute wealth so that everybody gets to share it."

Nichols is no armchair intellectual. He attended a Virginia high school when "apartheid" reigned; he saw his friends bring bats to school to keep blacks out after the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision.

On a trip to Guatemala, he saw the devastating effects of the U.S.-backed coup which overthrew a democratically elected government. This experience fueled his opposition to the American war in Vietnam.

In New Mexico--armed with knowledge of Spanish he learned from a grandmother who lived in Barcelona--he joined ranks with his Chicano and Native American neighbors. Opposed by powerful hotel and ski industries, they've struggled to maintain a land base and irrigation system that for centuries has sustained life throughout the Taos valley and northern New Mexico.

"I stay really aware of what's happening here, with a macroscopic overview of the planet," he said. "I believe every local community struggle reflects infinity in a grain of sand. Taos is a metaphor for how the planet functions or dysfunctions. For that reason, I've always resented being called a regional novelist."

Issues of who has power, who doesn't, and who suffers as a result are universal, he explained. "It's not only New Mexico. The same thing that goes down here goes down in suburban England and upstate Vermont and South India."

Nichols currently is working on four novels, including one he describes as an "environmental doomsday book, presented as a slapstick comedy." It's called The Voice of the Butterfly.

What does Nichols do for fun? Writing is fun, he said, and talking into the night with friends about world events. But in the autumn, he carves out a lot of time to hike and fish in the nearby Sangre de Cristo mountains.

He says it's been a wet autumn. As a result, "I've been observing mushrooms. I'm afraid to eat them, but I'm beginning to learn about them. If you can't overthrow the capitalist system, you can at least learn about the differences (between types of mushrooms and other natural wonders right under one's feet)," he concluded.

Author John Nichols offers a writing workshop from 2 to 4 p.m. Wednesday, October 15, at the Hotel Congress, 311 E. Congress St. He'll also read from recent works from 7 to 9 p.m. in Club Congress. For more information on this and other UA Extended University Writing Works Center-sponsored programs, call 626-4444.

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