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Marshal South: An Experiment Of Primitive Life In The San Diego Desert

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Marshal South: An Experiment Of Primitive Life In The San Diego Desert

It's a piece of San Diego County history with which many are unfamiliar.

It was 1930, and the Depression hit many Americans hard. Marshal South and his wife Tanya didn't want to stand in a bread line, so they decided to rid their lives of social obligations and material possessions and instead, take up a life of isolation and naturalism. They called it the "experiment in primitive living.'"

Marshal South: An Experiment Of Primitive Life In The San Diego Desert
GUEST: Rider South, son of Marshal South

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The Anza-Borrego desert in San Diego County has its share of history and folklore, lost treasures abandoned mines and eccentric explorers. At least one legend of the desert is true. That is the true story of Marshal South and his family. For twenty years the South's lived a primitive lifestyle in the desert. They built a house and raised children. Marshal South wrote a series of very popular magazine articles that describe their isolative existence. Rider South is in San Diego to talk about his father and his experiments in living in the desert. Welcome to the program. RIDER SOUTH: Thank you. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Also Diana Lindsay. Welcome. DIANA LINDSAY: Thank you. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The first question that you're usually asked is why your mother and father moved out to the desert. You ever to find the answer to that? RIDER SOUTH: They enjoyed a life where it was not quite as cluttered as a city life. My mother was interested in religion, and my father lived in the Southwest. They both combined this and lived in this waterless garden. I knew of no other life except that it worked out well; I adjusted to the city life later on. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Was it very isolated out there, was a regular day like for you? RIDER SOUTH: We would get up when the sun got up, and mother always cooked mush in the morning, or fried potatoes or something, and sometimes she would teach us lessons from the books that we got. Father often went out to his writing house and wrote these stories and magazines, and in the afternoon he would come back and paint pictures. Make pottery out of clay that we took from the hill. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: When did it start to occur to you that your lifestyle in the desert was different from most people? RIDER SOUTH: It really never occurred to me. But it was that different. It always seems normal because that is where my parents were. I was happy with them there. It seemed normal but there are times that we would go into Julian were San Diego for something, and I would see people differently. I would think it's just like it is in town. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Diana, could you read a bit from one of his articles? DIANA LINDSAY: He wrote for Desert Magazine for nine years, every month. It was like survivor, they had no television. There was no television so everyone would wait every month to get this latest story of what was happening on the mountain with the children. This excerpt is from at February 1945. ìThe clean desert wind whips from the East driving in from the far distance, where the Sierras stretch at dim rampant of goblin blue across the horizon. The low hunched junipers ghost mountainsides, chilly to the gusts. One small chimney trails to leeward like that of the steamship bucking a headwind. The desert sun shines from a cloudless sky. The whole tumbling panorama of wildnerness, jagged peak and sawtooth ridge glows in crystal light. Yes it's winter. This is just one of those wide, clear, bracing brisk days that gives desert winter it special charm. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That is an excerpt from a magazine article written by Marshal South. Those articles must have set up images in people's minds of some sort of an isolated paradise. DIANA LINDSAY: It did. So many people wanted to come up and visit and write letters. It was kind of written during the time after the depression, when there was a lot of people and a lot of turmoil. This provided hope. It preceeded a generation of the hippies. He was in the forefront of getting back to nature, here getting away from the turmoil and all that was happening. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Rider, as getting back to nature, your father became a nudist in the desert. Did that lifestyle seem weird to you? RIDER SOUTH: It was all part of what was there. My father and mother were nudists, so I became gradually part of the lifestyle. Many times people would come up and take their clothes off too. When other people didn't, we put on clothes for them. That was the life that I knew. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And your mom was writer too, correct? A poet? RIDER SOUTH: That is correct. She would stay up with a kerosene lamp and write poems. She would whip out a poem at the end of the story that father had in the desert magazine. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: There came a time when your mom called for help to escape from the desert with the kids in the late 1940s. She said some bad things about life in those mountains. Did you see problems between your parents? RIDER SOUTH: Not really, but everybody has a vision of their children growing up in their way. Mother came from New York City, father came from Australia and eventually mother's vision of bringing us into the city and city life prevailed. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Diana, was that what sort of stopped this paradise going on? DIANA LINDSAY: A good part of that. You also have to look at the background of each one of them. Marshal South came from a isolated area of Australia. There were no neighbors. Tanya came from the city. It was probably an adventure, but after year after year of total isolation, the isolation probably got to Tanya and it was something where she could not cope anymore she wanted out. Marshal was actually very happy there. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What remains of the house now? RIDER SOUTH: When you take the roof off of anything, it gradually disintegrates. Even this building. When the roof came off, mud wall started go back to mud. There are some walls still standing but that is about it. The park department took over and would like it to go back to a natural setting. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: If I remember correctly, did your dad die on the mountaintop? RIDER SOUTH: No, he died in Julian. A couple of years after we left. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: But he wanted to remain living on customer? Ghost Mountain? RIDER SOUTH: He wanted to come but the whole setting was different than. We were not around, and his wife was gone, so it was completely different. That is why he did move to Julian. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In addition to the articles, your dad was a prolific writer. His novels are being be published. Are you hoping that this exposes a new generation to his work? RIDER SOUTH: Definitely. He was a very good writer. He spent his time doing artistic things such as pottery and painting, and writing, and he should be recognized for the genius artist that he was. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Diana, do you think that reputation has been partially lost through the years? DIANA LINDSAY: Definitely. He was a well-known writer and poet in his day. He published regularly for Los Angeles times. He wrote over 100 published poems and articles. He did pottery and made a printing press and he was very creative. There is a whole side of him that has been forgotten because people remember him from a magazine and don't realize that he published elsewhere and that there was more to it than the experiment at this mountain. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Rider, do you think this was a good way to grow up? RIDER SOUTH: I did not have any choice in the matter. I was quite happy with the adventure in my youth. I went to work after I graduated high school. All of us graduated high school, my sister and brother went on to college at SDSU. My brother became a professor there and my sister produced four lovely children. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So there was no intellectual disadvantage? RIDER SOUTH: Absolutely not. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Did you find it hard to integrate into society when you left? RIDER SOUTH: Somewhat. It takes a while to change completely. This was not just moving from one country or one state to another, this was quite a change. It took me a little longer than my brother and sister, but I was fine. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want everyone to know that Rider South will be talking about his life and his father's writing through the end of October, and the next event is tomorrow at noon at the San Diego Yacht Club. Thank you Rider South and Diana Lindsay.

The Souths moved to Ghost Mountain in today's Anza-Borrego Desert, built a home by hand, raised three children and chronicled their story in a series of articles in Desert Magazine.

Rider South is one of their children born while the couple lived on Ghost Mountain. He's in San Diego to discuss details about his famous father and the 17-year experiment of living on a remote mountaintop.

Rider South will be speaking at the San Diego Yacht Club on Friday, Oct. 25, 2013 at noon and throughout San Diego through Oct. 30. For more information check online at Sunbelt Publications.

Ghost Mountain Ruins