Nature, American Values, and Marshal South

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.

85-Rid & Rud in front of house b
The side view of the South’s home, “Yaquitepec,” with Rudyard (L) and Rider (R), showing the cisterns used for collecting the rare desert rain.

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 writing 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.

Marshal S Ib
A modern day desert wanderer exploring Yaquitepec’s front yard.

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.

DSC_2529bThe sun at Yaquitepec reveals.

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.

Marshal S Vb

Marshal S IVb

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.

The inside cover of “House of the Sun,” by Marshal South.
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Something is odd about Cal Fire’s state Tree Mortality maps

We examined a place near Santa Ysabel, off Highway 78 in San Diego County that we know well. What we found was disturbing.

1. Much of the area designated as having 40 – 15 dead trees per acre is either California sage scrub or chaparral (where there are no trees), or non-native grassland with a few scattered oaks. The white square in the first image represents one square acre for reference. The X on the second Google Image and the corresponding Tree Mortality Viewer map marks the approximate location of the square.

2. In oak woodland areas where there are actually trees, the estimate of tree mortality doesn’t seem to come close to what is actually on the ground.

3. We question the likelihood of having 40 – 15 dead, mature oaks on a single acre, especially in the upper range.

Whatever measurements the state is using, they appear to be based on crowded mixed-conifer forests. Where there are no conifers, the program seems to have a major hiccup.

We have discussed the inaccuracy of the maps with others in the field and they have confirmed the problems are statewide. This is an important issue because land and fire management decisions are likely being made based on these maps.

The state needs to conduct ground-truthing of their computer generated data if they intend to develop policy that reflects what is actually occurring.

The Tree Mortality Viewer can be seen here:

Santa Ysabel acreAbove: The area in which Cal Fire indicates there are 40 – 15 dead trees per acre. Most of the area in view is California sage scrub, chaparral, or non-native grassland with a few oaks. White square represents one square acre for reference.

Santa Ysabel Trees Google with XAbove: Much of the terrain to the right of Highway 79 is not forested, but rather California sage scrub and chaparral. X marks the approximate location of the square acre in the previous photo.


Santa Ysabel TreesAbove: The state’s Tree Mortality Viewer map. The X marks the approximate spot for the square acre in the above photo. Red designates areas that supposedly have 40 – 15 dead, mature trees (oaks) per acre. Other colors: Orange (15-5 dead trees per acre), Yellow (5 or less dead trees per acre).

Posted in Climate Change, Fire, Habitat Clearance | Leave a comment

Overgrown shrubs?

Our letter to journalists.

We respectfully request that in future articles on wildfires in California, you dispense with the word “overgrown” when describing environments dominated by native shrubs as used in your recent articles on the Detwiler Fire (e.g. overgrown shrubs, overgrown vegetation)(1). Or at the very least, question those who claim such things.

The notion that vegetation or shrubs in native shrublands like chaparral (the dominant native plant community that surrounds Mariposa) can be “overgrown” is not logical. By its very definition, “overgrown” is a human-centric term that implies something needs to be trimmed or, in case of shrubs, manicured like a garden would be. This is the last thing we want to communicate if we desire to protect what little wild nature is left in California. Plants grow, some large, some small. There is no natural process in a native shrubland environment that could produce overgrowth. Such a concept is in conflict with the basic principles of evolution.

Trails can be overgrown, as can backyards, and tree plantations. But these are human inventions, not natural systems.

Usually the notion of “overgrown” is in reference to claims that past fire suppression has created unnatural amounts of vegetation. While this is true for some forested systems below 7,000 feet, it is not true for native shrublands (2).

We agree with you that yes, “The flames are being fed by tall grass… that sprouted along the central Sierra Nevada foothills during the winter rains” as you quoted a Cal Fire representative as saying (7/20/2017). Non-native, invasive grasses are incredibly flammable and pose a real threat to communities and natural ecosystems. But it is incorrect to claim that native shrubs have produced much in the way of additional vegetation because of the past rainy season. Native shrubs typically grow quite slowly. At any rate, any new vegetation has a high water content and does not burn easily.

As you know, words are powerful and can communicate and reinforce biases and stereotypes that can lead to unfortunate consequences. When people read that wildfires are “being fed” by “overgrown shrubs,” this encourages the use of destructive land management practices in wild native shrublands such as clearance activities and prescribed burns (3). The chamise/manzanita dominated chaparral found in the Mariposa region represents a rapidly vanishing native ecosystem. We need to do what we can to protect it, not blame it for human-caused disasters. Please see photo below.

We also urge you to question the continual claim by fire officials that “many dead trees” play a significant role in fueling wildfires. In regards to the Detwiler Fire area, the primary trees are scattered oaks and gray pines, neither of which have been severely impacted by bark beetles or the recent drought. While there are certainly groups of dead trees in some locations, the reference to dead trees appears to be a standard comment from some regardless of the environment in which the fire is occurring (see map below). Secondly, there is growing scientific evidence that even in areas where there are a large number of dead trees (mostly conifers), the fire risk is not significantly increased (4).

We know you are doing your best to report on a situation where emotions are high and the possibility of loss of life is quite likely. As climate change continues and populations grow, we will only see more of this. So it is becoming increasingly important for journalists like yourselves to question those who are responding to the consequences of both to ensure they are addressing the real issues.


PHOTO: The chaparral dominated environment near Mariposa (photo taken August, 2015, about 10 miles north of town along Hwy 49. looking north). Note the gray pines to the left of center near the highway. They are typically very sparsely distributed. Also note the lack of any dead specimens. The is a beautiful, native California environment, not one filled with “overgrown” vegetation. Unfortunately, this area has been burned in the fire (see fire perimeter map below).

Citations for additional information:





For more on how to protect your home from wildfire, please see our page here:

Detwiler Fire MC Trees II

Regarding the dead tree issue, the above map of Mariposa County shows the state’s tree mortality map overlaid with the Detwiler Fire perimeter (light area left center). You’ll notice the fire has basically not involved much in the way of dead trees.
The colors yellow to burgundy indicate the assumed level of tree mortality with a rather wide range.
o Deep burgundy depicting areas with more than 40 dead trees per acre
o Red depicting 40 – 15 dead trees per acre
o Orange depicting 15-5 dead trees per acre
o Yellow depicting 5 or less dead trees per acre

Below: the Detwiler Fire perimeter.

Detwiler Fire

Posted in Climate Change, Fire, Misconceptions, Native Plants | 17 Comments

Wildflowers 2017 – More than a Superbloom at the Carrizo Plain

Having spent a good amount of time alone in the wilderness, I relish the chance to connect with nature without distractions. But this time, this year’s Superbloom, was a time to share nature’s connections with others. The people we met and the conversations we had with so many who were inspired by the millions of native plants smiling in flowers across the landscape, reminded us that together we can both enjoy and protect the wild that is left in this world.

Our first adventure experiencing the Superbloom was on the Carrizo Plain, a lonely valley bordered by the coastal range to the west (adjacent to San Luis Obispo), and the Tremblor Range to the east (which slowly descends into the San Joaquin Valley and the little oil town of Taft).

Here is a small taste of the flavors we enjoyed.


Contemplating the purple majesty of Lake Phacelia.
– Great Valley phacelia (Phacelia ciliata), Carrizo Plain, CA.

The wild of the Carrizo, however, was not easy to protect, as evidenced by past tragedy documented in an excellent article by Matt Kettmann.

Soon after the monument was created in 2001 (by President Clinton), 13-year BLM veteran Marlene Braun was named manager. Having been stationed in Alaska and Nevada, the workaholic Braun finally felt at home on the Carrizo, and took intense pride in protecting it. She scaled back grazing on sensitive grasslands and began developing the monument’s first management plan, which would phase out long-term livestock permits. Every agency signed on, even the BLM’s California office. Then, in March 2004, the Bush administration—which was critical of Clinton’s last-minute monument designations—appointed Ron Huntsinger as Braun’s supervisor in BLM’s Bakersfield field office. With marching orders to favor ranching over preservation and “fix this plan,” Huntsinger and Braun became immediate enemies. The two butted heads repeatedly, so much so that in May 2005, Braun—who had also been dealing with her own psychological demons—arranged her personal affairs and wrote a few important letters about her fears for the Carrizo. She then took a .38 caliber revolver, killed her two dogs—neatly placing their bodies under a quilt—and turned the gun on herself.

Braun’s suicide shocked the region, resulted in a federal investigation, and eventually led to Huntsinger’s transfer. The management plan was the fourth casualty. “The whole process imploded. It collapsed,” explained Neil Havlik, who was named to the monument’s advisory committee when it was created in 2002. “It was finally decided that the process should start all over again.”

The full story can be found here:

And the fight continues to protect this natural jewel as the current administration in Washington DC is now questioning the continued existence of the Carrizo Plain National Monument.

Wildlfowers Carrizo Plain

Lake Phacelia, populated with purple smiles. Yet one variation speaks out in the lower left – the stuff of evolution and a metaphor for the what is required to protect the Plain.
– Great Valley phacelia (Phacelia ciliata).

Close-up of the divergent character.
– Great Valley phacelia (Phacelia ciliata).


California native plant botanists. They must know something.
– Baby blue-eyes (Nemophila menziesii).

– Baby (very) blue-eyes (Nemophila menziesii).

For the complete plant list of the Carrizo Plain, try the official BLM list:


Soda Lake. One of the rare times it is actually a lake!

The rocks of the Plain. This outcrop of cross-bedded marine sandstone was laid down during the Early Miocene (about 20 million years old).

The Carrizo Plain looking north from the Caliente Range. Painted Rock, a sacred Chumash rock painting site, is the rock outcropping in left-background. Soda Lake is in the mid-background.

Massive sea of yellow with splashes of green in the Caliente Range.

Solar energy being collected by nature and technology.

Regarding the solar panels on the Plain, Neil Havlik explains,

When several proposals for solar power facilities in the Carrizo Plain area of eastern San Luis Obispo County, California, became publicly known in 2009, those proposals raised many questions. How big would they be? How would they be managed? What would be the environmental and social impacts of their creation? Would they be a benefit to the community or a detriment?

Overall, in the view of this one observer, the solar facilities have been a significant benefit to the Carrizo Plain. There are several reasons for this.

The public debate over the solar facilities was lively and lengthy. It included the imposition of more than 125 conditions of approval, ranging from environmental mitigations to bus-pooling for workers (more than 1,000 at the peak of construction) to reduce impacts on traffic. Many of the environmental conditions were enhanced by the settlement of litigation that followed the County’s approval of the projects. The result has been the creation of a second cohort of conserved lands second only in size to Carrizo Plain National Monument itself, together with renewed interest in continued expansion of those lands…

The full article can be found here:

The one bird that defines wide, open landscapes, it is the Western Meadowlark. This one appears to suddenly realize he has been caught singing flowers!


The colors as they were. Some of the photos of the Plain’s wildflowers that are going viral on the internet have suffered a bit of Photoshop over-exuberance.

Fellow nature photographers getting ready on the ridge to catch the late afternoon sun as it streaks across Colour Mountain.

Colour Mountain! This was one of the most photographed scenes on the Plain. The watercolor palate of native wildflower colors, the purple, the orange, the yellow, the blue, was stunning. In the foreground are crowds of yellow common hillside daisies (Monolopia lanceolata) and a few purple wild hyacinths (Dichelostemma capitatum), all waving in the wind.

Just a little closer!

The canyon to the right of Colour Mountain.

Monet was here.

When leaving Colour Mountain, don’t forget to look back! The white-colored snake’s head (Malacothrix coulteri) decorates the foreground.

And another mountain nearby.

The further south one drives along Elkhorn Road, the colors just keep coming.

What many thought were California poppies splashing oranges across the landscape (as seen in the above photos), were usually these little gems, the San Joaquin blazingstar (Mentzelia pectinata).


The Plain’s version of Half Dome with Parry’s mallow (Eremalche parryi) in the foreground.

The Carrizo Half Dome close up.

Desert candles (Caulanthus inflatus) punch up through the sandstone soils.

A bouquet of California poppies (Eschscholzia californica), blue chia (Salvia columbariae), and the white Fremont’s pincushion (Chaenactis fremontii).

In a field of daisies (Monolopia lanceolata).

Booth’s Evening Primrose (Eremothera boothii).

A lonely Californian juniper
(Juniperus californica) guarding the Tremblor Range.


Everywhere, awash in color! The pink swash on the right is filled with the drying seed cases of shiny pepper grass (Lepidium nitidum).

The valley floor was filled with yellow common hillside daisies (Monolopia lanceolata).

Orange San Joaquin blazingstars (Mentzelia pectinata), yellow common hillside daisies (Monolopia lanceolata), Great Valley phacelia (Phacelia ciliata), with a lupine and maybe a white snake’s head thrown into the mix!


So much to learn from the rocks.

“A great earthquake shook the mountains, ripping a deep gash through the rock formations…”
– Spanish travelers describing the 1857 earthquake in the Carrizo Plain; from “The Legend of Los Temblores,” in Cuentos, by Angus MacLean.

A guide to Wallace Creek geology can be found here:

The San Andreas Fault at Wallace Creek. The Pacific Plate has been moving north relative to the spot where this photo was taken on the North American Plate, moving the creek with it. At this particular spot, the fault has moved about 420 feet over the past 3,800 years.


We searched and searched for a glimpse of a pronghorn, but no luck. We did, however, capture a few of the Plain’s other attractive denizens. To read more about these amazing antelopes (plus the Plain), see Jack Elliot’s blog here:

The classic open space bird singing full tilt, the Horned Lark!

Walk slowly on the trails and you will often have a companion. Taking one last look at me before leaping into squirrel burrow, the common side-blotched lizard (Uta stansburiana).

A jackrabbit taking a pause before jumping over the hill.

Savanna Sparrow.

The curious California Thrasher peering from its perch.

Long-billed Curlews flying under the radar.

Bee friends swarming!


On the way out of the Plain, we took Hurricane Road to the little oil town of Taft (go to Ruby’s Grill in town for lunch!). While the maps make the road look like it requires 4-wheel-drive, not so, at least when it’s dry.

A canyon filled with wildflowers!

Creamcups (Platystemon californicus).

On the way down to Taft, just a few more colors.

A single silver bush lupine (Lupinus albifrons) decorates the foreground along the side of twisting Hurricane Road.


Flower Child – The photographer’s assistant.

Posted in Native Plants, Value of Native Species | 14 Comments

Native Shrublands: Past, Present, and Future

It is interesting to think about what natural California was like in the past, and sobering to consider its future. Below are several photos that will offer a few point/counterpoints when discussing how to treat the nature we have left.

The loss of native shrublands has likely been significant over the past thousand years or so, due first to Native American burning, then over-grazing and burning by Spanish and Mexican ranchers, followed by American ranchers and farmers. Non-native weeds and grasses found these  heavily disturbed environments ready to colonize.

Although we do not have accurate records of what California’s landscape looked like prior to the arrival of humans, we do have images that record our impact prior to the massive development in the 20th century.

Old Mission SD c.jpgMission Valley, 1890s, and the old San Diego Mission. Note denuded hills in the background and the rocky earth in the foreground, likely the result of excessive over-grazing, fire, and wood collecting. Hwy 163 now goes through the gap in the hills on the left.

Old Mission Modern bMission Valley, 2008. Note the recovery of native vegetation on the hills in the background as compared to the first photo. The mission is obscured by surrounding development.

Mission Dam Old b2The old mission dam on the San Diego River, approximately 1920s.

Mission Dam b.jpgThe old mission dam, 2008. The hills in the background remain dominated by non-native grasses as they were in the 1920s, while the foreground above the river appears to have lost additional native shrub habitat.

Type converted front range II.jpgIncreased fire frequency has eliminated most of the native habitat in the front country of the Angeles National Forest, replacing it with non-native grasses. Remnants of sage scrub and chaparral still cling on in isolated arroyos.

Trabuco Dist Type Conversion fuel break.jpgFire managers often purposely type-convert native shrublands to non-native grasslands in an attempt to create “fuel” breaks. Ironically, these areas are much more flammable than the original plant community due to the presence of flashy fuels. Photo: Trabuco Ranger District, Cleveland National Forest.

Untitled a.jpgOver-grazing has created and maintained a rangeland environment filled with non-native weeds and grasses with a few old oak trees scattered across the landscape. Oak saplings that do manage to emerge are eliminated by cattle. Photo: San Luis Obispo County.

Untitled IIa.jpgA relatively undisturbed oak woodland with a sage scrub understory. Note the mixed-aged oaks in comparison to the previous photo. This likely represents what much of the type-converted landscape of San Luis Obispo County once looked like.

Oak Woodland IIThis is one of the few, remaining natural oak woodland/grasslands in Southern California. Native purple needle grass and deer grass dominate this landscape of shallow clay soils on top of an ancient, basaltic lava flow. Native grasslands are typically found on such soil types, hence their restricted distribution. Photo: Santa Rosa Plateau, Riverside County.

What does the future hold? With climate change, native shrublands are predicted to disappear in the southern part of California, probably replaced by non-native grasslands. Areas that will become more suitable for chaparral are predicted to move northward. Whether or not chaparral will be able to successfully colonize those areas remains to be seen.

Climate Change CA bThe Thorne paper on the impact of climate change in California is available here.

There is often a debate over how much grassland there was in California prior to the arrival of Europeans, and where and how frequently Native Americans burned to create and maintain grassy landscapes.* However, discussing what the past landscape looked like, while interesting, is not particularly helpful when making decisions about how to preserve what’s left of California’s natural environment today.

If we want to preserve “cultural landscapes,” then sure, we can over-burn native habitat as Native Americans likely did and create vast, grass-dominated areas. The problem is that now, those areas will be overwhelmed by invasive weeds, not native purple needle grass.

And yes, it is reasonable to assume that Native Americans burned areas over and over to eliminate the natural vegetation communities in favor of those that improved survival. Shrublands are not the most conducive environments to make a living from, for humans anyway. That said, there’s enough disturbance on our landscapes already.

The basic problem with the hypothesis that grasslands once dominated much of Southern California and the central coast is that it is utilized to support the notion that native shrublands are unnatural and need to be mitigated. We confront this all the time in land management documents, court testimony, and casual conversations. While it is fading as its adherents fade away themselves, it still has significant support because it confirms the biases of land managers, ranchers, developers, and fire managers who see chaparral has something they want to eliminate.

We have enough of a challenge in dealing with the impacts of climate change on native plant communities. We don’t need to add to it by increasing disturbances to protect cultural landscapes that were by definition, artificial and destructive of native species.

* A good paper that reviews the impact Native Americans had on the central coast can is: Keeley, J.E. 2002. American Indian Influence on Fire Regimes in California’s Coastal Ranges. Journal of Biogeography 29: 303-320.
Posted in Climate Change, Fire, Value of Native Species | Leave a comment