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.
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.