Shedding civilization

SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES ANZA-BORREGO DESERT, Calif. — The mountaintop where the big experiment unfolded offers lonely shoots of ocotillo cacti, a breathtaking view of the valley below, and wind-battered ruins of an adobe home.

Where the dream took off, it now rests. The children raised in these barren surroundings without clothes in the hope they would forge an unbreakable bond with Mother Nature are now bonding — very far from this desert — with their cars, computers and widescreen TVs.

“Father liked to romanticize a lot of things,” Rider South says, choosing his words carefully in order not to show disrespect for the old man. “But in the end, civilization has a lot of wonderful things.”

Mr. South is now 73 — a husband, father and grandfather, who worked for the Navy as an aircraft mechanic for most of his adult life and now enjoys comfortable retirement in southwestern New Mexico.

And nothing in his dapper appearance betrays a slender, long-haired boy with a pair of distrustful eyes, who more than six decades ago skipped from one rugged stone to another with a bow and arrows.

“No, I would not tell anyone that they should raise their kids in the middle of nowhere,” says Mr. South’s sister, 66-year-old Victoria Morgan, a retired software engineer.

Yet, the middle of nowhere was exactly where she grew up, along with her two brothers, as part of a grandiose philosophical experiment that rejected the gifts of “an industrially maddened world” in favor of “individual contact with the earth.”

Roy Bennett Richards, a native of Australia better known by his pen name of Marshal South, and his wife, Tanya, an immigrant from what is now Ukraine, came to the desolate land of greasewood, yucca and mesquite in 1930, in search for a new beginning and, maybe, a place in history.

Marshal South was a man of many parts and countless undertakings — a talented Western novel writer and poet, a hawkish political star in Oceanside, Calif., a promising painter and pottery artist.

“He pursued many endeavors in his life, but, strangely, abandoned each and every one of them as soon as he achieved a certain level of recognition,” says Diana Lindsay, president of Sunbelt Publications in El Cajon, Calif., a book distribution and publishing house that in 2005 published a book on the subject, “Marshal South and the Ghost Mountain Chronicles.”

Perhaps the final undertaking of his life helps explain it all: Marshal South held human civilization in low esteem and deep distrust.

“Wealth, possessions and mechanical gadgets do not make the man — nor the nation,” Marshal South wrote in his diary in 1941. “These are just the gilded bubbles flying in the wind, the chasing of which leads too often into the morass of destruction.”

Ghost Mountain, a barren elevation in the middle of the Anza-Borrego Desert northeast of San Diego, offered a ready escape from it all.

He took to it with abandon, like a prison escapee charging into the dark that may, or may not, promise salvation.

He took with him all he had — his wife, his pens, his paintbrushes and a beat-up car. And, of course, his collection of books by Rudyard Kipling, his favorite British writer, who had given the world Mowgli, a fictional little boy brought up by animals in the thick of the Indian jungle, made famous in “The Jungle Book.”

Did Marshal South plan to raise his children as real-life Mowglis, free from the greed and tumult of the outside world? Mrs. Lindsay thinks it was the case, although Marshal South had never publicly acknowledged the intention.

“He left an unpublished manuscript after his death in 1948, in which he describes the life of a little boy growing up in the wild,” she explains.

His three children — Rider, Rudyard and Victoria — were born after the family had settled here, among the agave plants, rattlesnakes and coyotes of Ghost Mountain.

All three grew up without wearing any clothes, not even when winter snow blanketed the desert. They tended to a goat and two burros the family took with them to help haul supplies and firewood.

They helped collect rainwater, hunt tiny desert jack rabbits, cut mescal stalks for burning in a stove and take care of a small vegetable garden their parents were trying to grow under the scorching sun.

Believers in home-schooling way before it became a trend, the Souths taught them reading, writing, arithmetic and pottery, but in all other respects, the children were left to their own devices — and the whims of nature.

“Our lives were very different from those of other kids,” Rider South now recalls with a laugh. “But I don’t regret it. It taught me independence.”

For 17 years, the family braved heat and cold, privation and loneliness to build a world away from the world, until in 1947 Tanya had had enough and left for San Diego, taking the children with her.

The great experiment had collapsed in divorce and acrimony, and Marshal South, brooding and heartbroken, died the following year.

Ironically, one year before it all went bust, he penned in his diary a few self-congratulatory lines: “I have broken the mold. For myself absolutely. For my children almost definitely.”

He allowed the possibility that later in life, his children could choose to “associate” themselves with civilization, but invested his greatest hope in Rider, asserting that civilization “will have no power over his free thought.”

Rider South first chuckles when he hears this forecast and then begins to speak.

“All the technological advances have been wonderful,” he says after a respectful pause. “Civilization has done marvelous things for a lot of people. My father just wasn’t that keen on that.”

His sister Victoria, a mother of four, hastens to say she does not think it is good to bring up children in complete isolation from the outside world. “When you isolate yourself from the bad, you also isolate yourself from the good,” she says.

Their brother Rudyard, named after the creator of Mowgli, has so far flatly refused to discuss his childhood experiences with reporters. But in a way, he gave his answer a long time ago. He has a doctoral degree in environmental engineering, his siblings say, and “a very successful career” in Washington state.

For more than half a century, nobody — not even his own children — knew where Marshal South was buried.

His remains were discovered only about three years ago in Julian, Calif., the closest town to Ghost Mountain, under a well-trodden cemetery path.

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