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Book Review: Marshal South
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2005 blog


Marshal South and the Ghost Mountain Chronicles

Idealism vs. pragmatism— a family struggle
on a mountaintop in the Anza-Borrego Desert,  Feb. 19, 2005

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Marshal South and the Ghost Mountain Chronicles: An Experiment in Primitive Living, edited by Diana Lindsay, Sunbelt Publications (El Cajon: 2005), 321 pages, $21.95

Reviewed by Donald H. Harrison

Born Roy Bennett Richards in Australia, Marshal South not only took a new name in a new country; he also invented an idyllic life in which he and his wife and three children lived nude and unspoiled on "Ghost Mountain" in San Diego County's Anza-Borrego Desert

His wife, the former Tanya Lehrer, had shed her childhood identity as the daughter of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants to become a secretary of the Rosicrucian Fellowship in Oceanside, where she met Marshal early in the 1920s while he was performing some carpentry work. 

During the 1930s and 1940s, to the rest of the world, Tanya was Marshal's pragmatic desert-faring wife—a personification of the resourceful homemaker who preferred gathering her food to buying it. Often, in South's writings, Tanya was presented not so much as an individual with whom he had to reckon, but as another harmonious element in the perfect desert world that South painted for his readers. 

That South's "Desert Refuge" column did not accurately portray Tanya became clear when she divorced him in the mid 1940s—even at the risk of angering his fans—to make certain that her children were educated by the very civilization that South so often had proclaimed that he, Tanya, sons Rider and Rudyard and daughter Victoria safely could leave behind.

Like the philosopher Henry Thoreau or the fictional Robinson Crusoe, Marshal South's ability to live a simple life, close to nature, thrilled readers. He found his audience in the subscribers to Desert Magazine, in which his column—collected in this volume—like alluvial deposits month after month built up a picture of the simple joys of the desert.

Imagine yourself living with your family in a place that to many people clearly was the proverbial middle of nowhere. What would you write about? I submit most people would choose the same subjects that South did, perhaps minus his tremendous flair for description. They'd tell about some of the difficulties they had to overcome to set up housekeeping— having to carry their personal belongings in stages up a steep mountain trail; needing to fashion cisterns to catch precious rain water; being required to improvise tools from the resources provided by nature.
They'd write also about their daily routine; how certain desert plants can be prepared for food—once one acquires a taste for them. 

South told about how he protected food supplies from the small animals and insects that regularly visited "Yaquitepec," the name he gave to his adobe home—"Yaqui" being Indians of Sonora whom he admired for their freedom-loving ways;  "tepec" meaning hill. 

South regularly anthropomorphized the animals that one found at Yaquitepec, be they indigenous jackrabbits, quail, packrats, hummingbirds or tortoises, or two imported burros, whom he named Rhett and Scarlet, perhaps knowing in his heart of hearts that someday the mythical life he tried to live on Ghost Mountain would be "gone with the wind." Not only the animals, but occasionally the weather patterns and even the plants of the Anza-Borrego Desert took on human-like qualities as South filled column after column with tales of the good desert life for which he had become the apostle.  In editor Lindsay's view, he became trapped by the image he had created.

Part of this image was the precocity of the South children—at least as their encounters and sage observations on desert life were "reported" in his columns.  Marshal was quite a "fiction writer," Tanya once was quoted as saying bitterly after their divorce. In various pulp novels he ground out during his career, there invariably was a damsel in distress, who needed saving.  Too bad Marshal didn't recognize the distress felt by the real-life Tanya under his own roof.

Editor Lindsay—who I've gotten to know and admire as the publisher of my own book, Louis Rose: San Diego's First Jewish Settler and Entrepreneur—has assembled in this book what I hope is only the first major installment in the story of the lives of a fascinating couple. In addition to Marshal's columns, Lindsay chose to include the memoirs of the South's oldest son, Rider, as 
told with his wife Lucile, about his boyhood desert life.

For what I assume therefore were reasons of space, Lindsay did not include in this book the voluminous canon of poetry that Tanya also wrote during her lifetime. Before we can say that we know the Souths, in all their complexity, we'll have to await such a compilation. The Tanya that comes through Marshal's writing is muted—more a Depression and World War II-era concept of a wife than a flesh-and-blood woman.

As I read a few installments of this book each night through its conclusion, I found myself wondering more and more what the real Tanya was like.  How did  her experiences with Orthodox Judaism and the spiritual Christianity of the Rosicrucian Fellowship influence not 
only their life on the desert mountaintop but also Marshal's perceptions of it?

Marshal made a few indirect references to the Jewish religion, some of which I'd like to share. 

After climbing in 1930 to what became their mountaintop home, Marshal wrote that "a tiny, jewel-eyed, turquoise-hued lizard, sunning itself on a weathered hunk of granite, cocked its head at us speculatively. Past our feet through the pattern of shade flung by the branches above us, a 
huge pinacate beetle, solemn and dignified as an old rabbi in a long frock coat, ambled, wrapped in meditation. Overhead against the dazzling glint of the blue sky a lone buzzard wheeled. All about was the drowsy hush of peace. 'It's heaven,' Tanya said softly. 'Oh, why didn't we come here years and years ago?'" 

After telling how they dried tortillas on the roof of their house, South compared the Mexican-style bread to the matzoh of the Bible in that both were simple and unrefined. "The old lawgivers knew their people; the craze for things 'refined' and the idea of going the Jones and the Smiths one better was as strong in the days of Moses as it is now. Simple things are rarely appreciated—and the tortilla is fundamentally simple...."

In his May 1941 column, South wrote: "A mescal never knows when it is beaten. Chewed off by rodents and toppled over, hanging by the veriest thread, the bud shoot will still right itself with unbelievable tenacity and go on to flower. Even if entirely beheaded the shoot will often thrust out flower buds from the ragged stump. Purpose! Determination! Do you think it an accident that, all down through history, desert peoples have builded mighty civilizations?"

That December,  he told of how the family worked to build a fireplace. "So," he wrote, "in the course of time—things move slowly at Yaquitepec, not because of indolence but because there are many other things to do—the workmen assembled as for the building of the pyramids. And the seven-year-old lugged rocks. And the three-year-old fetched mud—in an old can. And the one-year-old sat in her high chair and yelped encouragement. And Pharaoh—himself—gat him his trowel and hefted him his hammer and began the fireplace..."

(As consciousness of World War II pervaded even Yaquipetec, South observed in October 1942 that "every bushel of grain and pound of food that each one of us can produce for ourselves, releases just that much more of national supplies to aid in the winning of the struggle. And even on our mountaintop we felt very definitely that we ought to be producing more. It is true that not a great deal of outside supplies were needed for Yaquitepec. But we did need some—particularly as the demands of our growing family increased. We should, we felt, be able to produce more. corn, food, larger gardens.")

There were other passages in this book that I marked with exclamation points in the margins, but I will leave off with South's description of  a climb up Sentenac Canyon as the sun was setting when the South family seemingly had their own encounter with the Burning Bush:

"Blue shadows were gathering against the towering steeps ahead and the canyon and gullies were eerie chasms of indigo," he wrote. "Across the mountain crests the last shafts of the sun struck through the rising evening greyness like the level beams of searchlights stabbing through mist. And there, by the side of the road, as we started up into the gathering dimness of the pass, stood a great creosote bush in all the magnificence of late full bloom. It was in the direct path of a shaft of sunlight that fell upon it from a gap in the westward mountains and covered it with glory. Against the background of the blinding rays that flooded it and flung it into a tracery of delicate silhouette, it stood as an ethereal thing, a thing wrought not from plant fibers but from flashing precious metals. Drenched in a glove of gold and silver from its myriad yellow flowers and tufty white seed globes, its maze of interlaced slender branches and glittering green leaves lifted against the sun-flare in a brilliance that was breath-taking. We all stopped. Perhaps the burros stopped because they were were tired and because I had stopped. I do not know. But I know that it was not because of weariness that I halted. The action was involuntary. I felt as though, for a flash, I had seen something. Such flashes bring one very close to God."