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.

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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.

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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).

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