Spineless Books.



Larry McCaffery

[NOTE: This text originally appeared as the lead review in the SAN DIEGO UNION BOOK REVIEW in 2004.]

Out in the remote western edge of the Colorado Desert in what is now the Anza Borrego State Park, high atop the aptly named Ghost Mountain, the ruins of an adobe house named Yaquitepec have been slowly deteriorating for nearly sixty years. Today a rusted bed springs, the frame of an arched doorway, the cracked cement cisterns that were once used to collect rainwater and a few other physical clues are about all that’s left to reward curiosity of the few visitors who make the steep mile-long trek to Yaquitepec. And yet—as readers of Diana Lindsey’s “Marshall South and the Ghost Mountain Chronicles: An Experiment in Desert Living,” will soon discover—these disintegrating bits and pieces have a fascinating tale to tell. It’s a story long shrouded in mystery and secrecy about the life and work of poet, artist, and writer Marshall South, who spent 18 years living at and writing about Yaquitepec with his wife Tanya and their three children. 

The basic outlines of this story have been widely known ever since 1939, when a “Saturday Evening Post” article written by Marshall South entitled “Desert Refuge” attracted widespread interest in the South’s lifestyle; this attention led South to write a series of monthly articles about life at Yaquitepec that appeared from 1940-47 in Randall Henderson’s “Desert Magazine.” South claimed that in 1930 he and his wife Tanya had packed up all their belongings into a Model T Ford and joined the flood of other Depression-era Americans seeking a new life. Their destination was the windswept, waterless flat near the summit of Ghost Mountain, where they began pursuing a Walden-like experiment in primitive, natural living that would last nearly 18 years.

  Although the South’s faced far more daunting physical challenges in their move to Yaquitepec than did Thoreau when he removed himself a few miles from Concord to Walden Pond, the Walden analogy is nonetheless apt for several reasons. As Lindsay notes, South’s decision to leave behind the mixed blessings of civilization and pursue a life more in harmony with nature was almost certainly influenced by his readings of “Walden” and various other back-to-nature works that were graining new converts among Americans looking for an alternative to the crowds, noise, machines, and dehumanization of urban life. And like Thoreau, South too was a visionary eccentric, a poet, author, and self-taught naturalist, and a deeply spiritualist thinker.

South’s often rapturous descriptions of his family’s experiences, combined with his pronouncements about the vanity and futility of materialism and the benefits of a natural, primitive lifestyle, quickly made his articles the most popular—and most controversial—feature of “Desert Magazine.” In 1947, the South’s experiment at Ghost Mountain ended with a highly publicized divorce. Little more than a year later, Marshall South was dead; Tanya, who had taken custody of the children, continued publishing her own poetry (some 202 poems in all) in “Desert Magazine”; she eventually sold Ghost Mountain to the state park in 1958 for $950. Bitter about the divorce and angry that people seemed to blame her for destroying the great experiment, she refused all requests for interviews during the remaining fifty years of her life (she died in 1997, just months short of her 100th birthday). Meanwhile, a combination of factors— South’s early death and Tanya’s silence, changed names, lost or burned records, the rumors surrounding their messy divorce proceedings—all contrived to strip away the truth from the Marshall South saga until little more than gossip and legend remained.

Until now, that is. With the publication of “Marshall South,” Historian Diana Lindsay not only brings together for the first time all of South’s desert writings into a single volume, but provides a riveting, meticulously researched “Forward” that finally provides an authoritative version of South’s life Complementing Lindsay’s “Forward” are dozens of photographs and an “Introduction” penned by Rider South (the South’s oldest son) and his wife Lucille that supplies warmly personal (though considerably de-romanticized) reminiscences about the South’s life at Yaquitepec. The result is that Lindsay—the author of numerous books and articles about the Anza Borrego region, including “Borrego A-Z,” the best guidebook to the area (co-authored with her husband Lowell)— offers readers two very remarkable books for the price of one.

As it turns out, the real Marshall South that emerges from Lindsay’s volume is a considerably more complex and compelling figure than has been previously known. An artist who worked in silver and leather, painted watercolors and oils, made pottery, carved wood and designed iron sculptures, South was also a widely published author of poems (over 50), short stories and essays (over 40), novels (eight), and desert writings (102 in “Desert Magazine” alone). The first of many surprises unearthed here is that South was really the pen name of Australian immigrant Roy Bennett Richards, who was born in 1889 and raised on a sheep ranch in South Australia. As a teenager Roy had already gained some notoriety by publishing several stories before his arrival with his mother and brother in California sometime in 1908. While living in Oceanside during WWI, Roy—now writing under the pseudonym of Marshall South— published a series of poems that soon gained him the reputation as “Oceanside’s poet laureate” and even drew praise from Teddy Roosevelt.

After an interlude in Douglas, Arizona and a failed marriage, South moved back to Oceanside in 1920, where he met his future wife Tanya, a Russian Jewess and immigrate who was then working as “healing secretary” for the Rosicrucian Fellowship. A poet, palm reader, and astrologer, Tanya brought great peace of mind to South by awakening him “to the uselessness of seeking love in earthly things when it is only the cause of broken hearts.”

But as fascinating as these discoveries about South are from a personal standpoint, the real revelation here is the richness and diversity of South’s desert writings. While South romanticized life at Yaquitepec, he was a superb naturalist and gifted prose stylist whose poetic, vividly rendered descriptions of the desert environment often blend seamlessly into broader musings about the corrupting influences of so-called “civilization.” Consider the following passage, where South supports his claim that the desert in summer “is as much a region of enchantment as any other, and has charms peculiar to itself” by offering a lyrical depiction of the spectacular summer thunderheads that drift northward into Borrego from the Sea of Cortez:
These mighty mountains of dazzling white and ominous grey cease to be clouds. Rather they are the Titan sculptures of invisible gods. Sinister they are often. And awe inspiring. Small wonder that you will find no glib atheists among the dwellers of the unspoiled wasteland. Such things belong to the shadows of smoky walls, to the dulling thunder of machinery and the milling of tired crowds. Out where the little thirsty winds run panting across the shoulders of sun-furnaced buttes there is no room for disbelief. The message is in the sky and in the wide sweep of the glowing earth. To Indian and to white man alike the mighty thunderheads that march across the blue vault, their crests lifting white into staggering immensity, their footsteps trucking league-long blots of indigo upon the panting earth and their voices calling each to each in hollow rumble, speak of the Great Spirit. The arrows of His wrath are in their hands and the rain of His infinite mercy is in their hearts. Atheists do not flourish in desert solitudes.

My only complaint with this book is that it left me wanting more in the best sense of the word. Fortunately this deficiency is easily remedied—for surely Ms. Lindsay is even now readying a second Marshall South volume that will include samples from his poetry, short stories, novels, and miscellaneous other writings? One certainly hopes so. In the meantime, Diana Lindsay, with a big assist from Rider and Lucille South, are to be commended not only for finally bringing to light the truth behind the Marshall South legend but for finding a means to allow South’s remarkable body of desert writing to at last take its rightful place besides those of Ed Abbey, John C. Van Dyke, Charles Lummis, and Mary Austin.

[AUTHOR NOTE: Larry McCaffery’s most recent book, “Expelled from Eden: A William T.Vollmann Reader,” (co-edited with Mike Hemmingson) was recently published by Thunder’s Mouth Press.]


Spineless Books.

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