Desert Places and Desert People

Feb 8, 2017

Radio Reader Book Discussion Leader Jane Holwerda of Dodge City, Kansas, spent some time thinking about the 2017 Spring Read's theme Water and Replenishment as well as this month's book, the Milagro Beanfield War as she hiked around Scott Lake on a recent Sunday afternoon.

Welcome to High Plains Public Radio Readers Book Club, an on-air, on-line community of readers exploring themes of common interest to those who live and work on the High Plains.  We’re talking about John Nichols’ Milagro Beanfield War, the first book in our 2017 Spring Read, Water and Replenishment

Published in the early 1970’s, the novel has since become a kind of cult classic, one revered by readers who enjoy a certain level of gritty realism, comedy, triumphs over greed and indifferent bureaucrats, and random gun fire here and there. Hmmm….sounds like fun, right?

You don’t have to read too far into the novel to meet up with characters memorable for their grit, humor, and passion. From Pacheco’s wandering and destructive pet pig, to the Patron Saint Crazy of Milagro, Cleofes Apodaca, who in searching for his lost dog digs up a water source then is drowned—(Just read the novel for the details on that one, ok?). Or Ruby Archeluta – a flabbergasting combination of strength, beauty, and vitality--who springs from a bathing pool and strangles a massive antlered deer. Or the water-baron villain Ladd Devine, known as “the Buzzard”—Zopilote – and his wife Flossie, described as a “’honeydear’ woman from…Odessa, Texas…who [wears] …gold-lame…cowgirl pants and stack[s] her …hair in a three-story bouffant.” She enjoys lazy afternoons, champagne in hand, off flying over northern New Mexico, observing differences between arid and plush lawns. There’s the rugged government agent Kyril Montana from whose perspective we readers are first given the view of the “curious division of green here and desert there….between what’s lush and what’s dry....with [the irrigated] beanfield…an absurd green bauble in the otherwise desolate landscape slated to become a golf course.” Of course, that absurd lush green plot is the impetus for the bean field war itself, instigated by one man’s little rebellious act of replenishment.

Are you struck, as am I—every day of our extended growing season here on the High Plains  and in reading Nichols’ Milagro Beanfield War – by the way that some trickling water permeates our dry places and transforms them?  And not only dry, desert ground, but also dry, barren people….there’s probably a reason so many rituals of the spirit include water. In Nichols’ novel, for example, the judicious combination of water and cultivation has numinous results: what was dry and dusty becomes lush and living – crops, gardens, lawns – and – people.

In your life, in your communities, have you ever seen anything like this? Are there definite distinctions between “lush” and “dry” in your life? In your home town? What stories of replenishment do you tell? What are your favorite scenes of replenishment in Nichols’ novel?