If we stray too close to Marshal South, the celebrated back-to-nature visionary, the story of his dreams and the sudden destruction of all he held dear challenges us to evaluate our own lives and perceptions in uncomfortable ways. But it can also inspire a more productive path in the ongoing debate between preservation and development, both critical issues for our rapidly growing state.
With his wife Tanya, Marshal South left civilization in 1930 to build a simple home away from it all atop a waterless mountain in the Anza-Borrego desert. Over the next 17 years, the Souths wrote poetry and philosophy, had three children and lived in a wilderness Eden of their own making. Marshal earned a meager, but sufficient income to buy needed supplies in nearby Julian by writin
g a monthly column in Desert Magazine about his family’s adventures in living free from society’s conventions and harried routines. They ground wheat to make bread, collected cactus fruit with yucca leaves and wore clothing only when visitors arrived. Using hand made adobe bricks, the Souths constructed a home anyone who longs to escape the madness of civilization would love to own. Unfortunately, their experiment in primitive living was not to last forever. Sometime in October, 1946, Tanya no longer wished to live Marshal’s dream. She abruptly left the mountain, taking their three children to San Diego, while her husband was in Julian painting a frieze in the town’s library. The kids received their first haircuts, were enrolled in school, and tried to adjust to a world they had never known. The oldest boy, Rider, was just becoming a teenager. Marshal died two years later, his world shattered and his family’s home in the wilderness abandoned, left to crumble under the desert sun.
There is something about this story that haunts people. We see photographs of the South’s children, sitting naked on granite boulders outside their home or making pottery under a shaded patio. We imagine them laughing as they hop from boulder to boulder or are all snuggled up under blankets listening to their father’s stories by fire glow. These images tap into some atavistic, inner gallery within our own dreams, calling to us like sirens from a long ago, forgotten time.
Some dismiss Marshal as an idealistic malcontent, a hermit who forced his family to live under unnecessarily harsh conditions. They will visit the ruins of the family’s home and joke to each other about the place being a “real fixer-upper” and take candid photos while leaning against the old, concrete cistern. Yet deep inside their psyche is planted the vision of a man who lived free to create his own image on his own terms, close to nature and loving every minute of it. It gnaws somewhere within the heart, like an ill-defined longing that just won’t go away. The broken commitment to see it through to the end and the sudden interruption of innocence, no matter the reason, hurts inside and disturbs our secret hope that someone somewhere is still able to escape the rat race. If only we could do it for just one year.
It doesn’t matter how accurate the image was that Marshal South shaped for himself. He believed it and lived it. Individualism, living according to one’s ideals, and forming an intimate relationship with the natural landscape are basic American values. They are celebrated in American heroes from Daniel Boone to Teddy Roosevelt. It was self reliance and the ability to read the rhythms of the wilderness that allowed America’s early explorers and pioneers to succeed. “It is to these freedom-loving souls who will not march docilely in the ordered ranks to the piping of those who would sway them, that all freedom owes its life,” Marshal South wrote. “They are the bearers of the sacred fire.”
Every time we spend a quiet weekend in the backcountry or stare into a campfire we are reconnecting with the crucible that shaped us as a nation. Natural open space unfettered by the hum of a nearby freeway or the sight of yet another casino is as precious to Americans as are the hallowed, marbled monuments in Washington D.C. The South’s back-to-nature story makes an impact because it reminds us of our heritage and the ideals we celebrate, but sometimes forget between the demands of making a living and the technology that was promised to set us free. This is why nature in the raw is so vital to our country’s future. It helps us remember who we are and where we came from.
Unfortunately, the importance of nature as a fundamental American value is not properly recognized. Even environmentalists who seek its protection fail to understand its power to unify unlikely allies. Rather than being seen as a shared value that can bring people together in a positive manner, nature is sliced up into a litany of never ending, single issue battles that focus on mitigating loss rather than creating a long term vision of hope for protecting our nation’s natural heritage.
Wildness defines our character as a people. Most everyone can agree that nature is a beautiful thing and there is value in protecting it. Let’s focus on that agreement and forge a consensus on how much wild, open space we want. With the rapid pace of growth, leaving the decision up to future generations is no longer an option. The challenge is to preserve enough wild so children 100 years from now will have the space they need to imagine their own Marshal South dream.
For the definitive story about Marshal South, please obtain a copy of “Marshal South and the Ghost Mountain Chronicles – An Experiment in Primitive Living,” from Sunbelt Publications.