Unity and Vision: Keynote delivered at Watershed Symposium

Transcript: December 05. 2019. Contra Costa Watershed Symposium. Keynote by Obi Kaufmann

Good morning. I am very grateful to Elissa and all those at the Contra Costa County Resource Conservation District for inviting me here today to open this event. I entitled this address with the aptly vague and evocative title Unity and Vision: an ecological tour of Contra Costa County’s future, to capture in general, my themes when I give talks to all levels of informed, uninformed or more-increasingly, misinformed communities all over the state. And although I’ve learned to spit a good game, I myself regularly identity as being inside one of those three camps of the informed, the uninformed or the misinformed. I am Coyote. I’ll spin a yarn, but I am outside of policy and I am outside of published science, and I am very clear, and I am very sensitive to both of those positionings. My strengths, these days come from my most general observations — for example, now to allude back to the title of this morning’s address, I don’t have the prophet’s hold on how time will affect our shared, local ecology but I do know that its fate is tied to the larger living system, and I intentionally refer to it in the singular tense — of California — not the political identity, but probably more accurately, the floristic province by the same name.

When I first was invited to give the Keynote at this excellent event, I imagined developing a kind of quick overview of creek shed-restoration projects or delving into the portfolio of projects currently underway across this place. I do have over forty years of personal experience, adventuring in, studying and painting Contra Costa County’s backcountry, so I immediately got excited to get really nerdy about this advance or that innovation… and then I remembered who I was actually addressing — you all. I painted this map yesterday — a map that doesn’t really exist as such anywhere online. I should say this is arguably, the most important vision of the county — and I was researching all the good work that the CCCRD was doing, and I wouldn’t say I got nervous, I’ve been talking about the natural world of California for a couple of years now since the California Field Atlas became a best seller and I am happy to talk all day about whatever issue in whatever community, but I would say that I took pause.

It is the holiday season and I’ve got family on my mind. We all do. The pause I was given yesterday when I sat down to make that map was I realized that I was addressing family. There are so many of you here, soldiers in stewardship, priests of preservation, colonels of conservation, warriors of the watershed (!) who frankly know so much more than I do about everything that I could talk about, I knew that to speak to you here this morning, I should put down all my tools and just speak to my family. We are all family here today and being in a family takes vulnerability to new ideas. Being in a family means that we work together. Being in a family means that we are dependent on a network of trust. Even if I don’t know your name, I know that by being here today, I know that you know this place, that you identify this place as the place of your family — I know that you know this place as our common home, and I am going to trust you with that concept — I am going to trust you with that love.

I’ve got buckets of hope. As our systems get more efficient and we rely less on the extraction of our local and limited resources to sustain our growing population, we are watching a trend to greater opportunities in ecological stewardship and restoration. We are thrilled to witness modest yet growing populations of some of our most precious biodiverse species including Osprey, river otters, beaver, red-legged frogs, great horned owls, white-tailed kites, steelhead, and rainbow trout. The challenges are legion, but the opportunities rise up to meet them.

When I wrote my second book, which is still on the San Francisco Chronicle’s bestseller’s list, the State of Water, Understanding California’s Most Precious Resource, I had thought that what the subtitle referred to, the most precious resource should be axiomatically, water — the substance itself. It is not. Our most precious resource and I learned this through an evolution of my relationship to the greater, human-community of California that I got to know on tour in support of the book, is our ability and willingness to trust one another with the Story. That story is often boiled down to the interpretation of Data based on personal or cultural bias, but I think, especially in relation to the natural world and our place in it, the better story, the one that requires the most trust is how we better manage the balance of our rights versus our responsibilities.

In modern society, a discussion of worldview often comes down to a discussion of Freedom. There are different definitions of freedom, I believe that most of us operate under the largely false assumption that freedom is doing whatever you want. This is wrong, this is a child’s definition of freedom. Freedom in a society is the agency to attend to your social responsibilities without a governmental entity telling you what those responsibilities are.

With the accelerating momentum of so many stressors on our local ecology, how do we identify the most efficient way forward, through the din of disunity, to a collective vision of connectivity and restoration — one that will best ensure the legacy of our home region’s rich, natural world? We put our science-based strategies into place, we make the law and we wait to enjoy their fruit. When I first started backpacking, it was in Big Sur and it was in the 80’s. I thought I had missed so much. I thought I was born too late. There were no condors, there were no whales, there were no otters, there were no Tule elk, there were no white-tailed kites. Now all of these species are increasing in population. This is because of the right negotiation of legislation, science, responsibility, and love for family.

When you are talking about Water in California, you are not talking about water, you are talking about worldview. John Wesley Powell, our nation’s first director of the USGS, was the first to declare that water will always dictate all aspects of life in the West — a declaration as prescient and indeed salient in 1861 as it will be in 2061. In the emerging era of rainbombs and snowdrought, we will increasing rely on our most innovative and nimble minds to not only do more with less but insure that the more we are talking about includes a plan for the more-than-human family we are actively engaged and beholden to a certain level of management, through the foreseeable future. That future will be us doing our best to find the most adaptive and resilient systems of cohabitation within a larger network of biodiversity based on our responsibilities to each other in the face of a warming planet and a climate that is breaking old, reliable cycles.

We are not going back. There is no reason why we need to give a single inch toward further degradation as we are now engaged in new modes of urbanization and development that include conservation and preservation as core values, as necessary as shelter itself. There will be no going back. We will continue our remediation and we will continue to forge a vision of entering the 22nd century with a more-complex and healthier local ecosystem than the one we entered with at the start of the 21st century. It all begins with protecting the watershed, the circulatory system of the natural world.

We are about to spend a billion dollars to get other 100,000-acre feet out of Los Vaqueros reservoir, and I have to say, of all the dams in California, I think Los Vaqueros is my favorite. I know that land well, There is a lot of quality habitats afforded that place and I stand with the Nature Conservancy, Audubon California, and Defenders of Wildlife in support of its expansion. I am not anti-dam, I am anti-dumb-dam and the illegal raising of Shasta Dam is one that I would put into that latter category, but maybe not for the reasons you think. There is a lot of money involved in keeping us divided. Divisiveness is so common, it is, well… like water. And there is a lot of money being made at keeping us separated in our agendas: north and south, urban and rural, blue and red and even human and other-than-human. It is going to be hard work coming together, and we are fighting in new arenas, like social media, that are deleterious to our finding common ground. But then, it has always been difficult. Humans are very good at finding solutions to problems and I won’t bet against them.

I find despair boring. Hope is so much more exciting. As long as there is time, there is hope. We have a miracle happening around us right now. That miracle is that despite all of our efforts to milk California and to fundamentally transform its ecology to our own benefit, it is all still here. Despite every one of our several hundred, natural-landscape-types being threatened or endangered, we have a very low extinction rate. Exactly 32 animal species in the past 170 years — that is less than 1% of our portfolio. There are no laurels to rest on — the reasons why species go extinct are very complex and it seems as though many species are headed towards the extinction vortex.  But the point is, they are all still here. So let’s call out local family here today and celebrate their existence and let’s work to keep the trophic structure from cascading into a negative fall. Let’s work for the fairy shrimp, the bald and the golden eagles, the Alameda whipsnake, the western pond turtle, The California tiger salamander, The California red-legged frog, The San Joaquin kit fox, and even our friend, the San Francisco dusky-footed wood rat, Neotoma fuscipes. Let’s acknowledge them in all of our work as being part of our family and deserving of habitat. And let’s trust each other enough to have an inclusive conservation about the ecological health of Contra Costa County into the future. I certainly give that to you, gathered here today. The power is yours and I thank you from my heart for rising to accept it. Thank you.


THE MOUNTAINS MARCH OVER ME is certainly one of the most beautiful projects I have been or will ever be a part of. All of my heart is here on display. Filmed last spring in the Sierra Valley and up over the Yuba Pass, this 8-minute film is a deep dive into my work, the nature of my love and the focus of my passion. Calle Stoltz @calle_stoltz, Robert Andersson @doprobertandersson, Mats Andersson @mats_arne and the team at both INDIGOFERA and REDWING have pulled off a miracle and I’m forever humbled and eternally grateful. This project was born in love, friendship, a spirit of adventure and a genuine kinship with the natural world. In the film, I am wearing selections from the FORESTCITY collaboration that I conceived with http://www.indigoferajeans.com. I am also wearing the “Obi” hat profile by @havstadhatco, the Coyotethunder Field Bag by @kamenroad, and the #climberboot by @redwingheritage – tools I never leave home without. I am thrilled to share this with you and am looking forward to your reaction. @indigoferajeans #californiafieldatlas

Behind the Scenes

There are some relationships that not only define your life but are open enough and elastic enough in just the right way to forever resist stasis and always surprise with freshness. When you find them, these treasured avenues of inter-personal connection, the life you know from there is effortlessly collaborative. Communication in these relationships is adaptive, rising from a true voice that is accepting, critical and caring. These relationships burn with an original fire that will burn for at least the rest of your life. These relationships maybe your family, maybe not, maybe your career, maybe not, probably not your job and probably not your hobby. I’ve got fewer relationships in my life like this than I do fingers on one hand — and I am damn lucky. I’ve got my immediate family, I’ve got my publisher, I’ve got a few friends I’d take a bullet for, and I’ve got Indigofera.

I met Mats Andersson, founder and lead designer of INDIGOFERA (@indigoferajeans), about five years ago at a tradeshow in NYC – he was attracted to my art as much as I was attracted to the character of his style. A uniquely deep and creative kinship quickly bloomed. INDIGOFERA magnetically drew me into its oeuvre with unparalleled quality in architecture and classic engineering, presenting a wardrobe always elegantly lined, economically aesthetic and tough as dirt.  Our first collaboration launched in the Fall of 2017, the same month as my first book, THE CALIFORNIA FIELD ATLAS, was published. The title of that first capsule collection was THE CALIFORNIA HIKING SERIES and was built around my life: a naturalist-painter and a backpacker of California’s backcountry. The keystone piece, the California Hiking Jacket, a white linen sport coat, was INDIGOFERA’s first shot at such a traditionally stuff garment but was unique in that among other innovations, had side-slits for a backpack belt to fit through under the buttons.

Fast forward a couple of years and I find myself on the rainy, Swedish coast — the whiskey bottle had long been emptied but it was still going to be a few hours until we were going to stumble to our tents. The rain came down hard on our tarp while the four of us huddled around the lantern as I tried to capture the ideas, scratching notes through was to another fruitful and creative night. That night, we had found our vision and it was clear that this new collaboration between me, COYOTETHUNDER and the gentlemen of INDIGOFERA was going to be way more than just art on garments as some kind of graphic decoration – this was going to be about adventure, and this was going to be about fun. Sleepless and high from the insight, the possibility and the outpouring of expression which echoed in our booming laughter, now a troop of old friends, we were drawing a new map to a definitive, career-marking project on a sojourn we’ll surely remember for the rest of our days. The whole road trip around and across the Southern Swedish summer had been set up to be conducive for exactly this type of vibe: from cabins deep in the dark spruce forests to campsites on the windy bluffs above the Baltic coast, we explored remote, Scandinavian haunts where we would feel free to whittle and milk the night for all the laughter and good company it could afford. Our main focus, the whole goal of the epic trip, was to design a collaborative capsule line of rugged men’s apparel, a series that could capture and reflect our own lives and our long friendship.

Indigofera camp, FORESTCITY collaboration, Sweden, summer 2018

Whatever the second incarnation, the second series was to be, we knew it would only be made clear after long strategy sessions – not conference room, design sessions, but gatherings around campfires walks through forests followed with cold beer and hot food. “What this collection will rely on is more cowbell.” Referencing the classic Saturday Night Live sketch, Mats explained this to me on a sunny afternoon hike down some rocky cliffs on Sweden’s west shore, the day after I arrived. He was making a reference to that classic Saturday Night Live skit. “Obi, you have a weird job: you do it in the woods, painting, and mapping, and yet you also have a city life. It is unique. You live your life from trails to cocktails. In the Forest and in the City.”

“Let’s call the collaboration FORESTCITY.” I chimed in. “Good for both. Simple and evocative. Honest and novel. What we’re describing is my uniform. I need one outfit in my life.”

After a few more days of rambling, we made it back to INDIGOFERA headquarters in Stockholm, where we spend the remainder of my time in Sweden at the studio.  Mats there explained “Every brand is now expected to do collaborations, but really, the emperor has no clothes. Most brand collaborations are largely superficial. Superficial to such a degree that they can hardly be called collaborations at all.”

By the time I had to say goodbye, I knew what we were making was interesting enough that the process itself, regardless of the final product, had changed me. The trip. The whiskey. The friendship, all coalesced in me as something great. Something bigger than we could have ever done on our own, something truly representative of potential – the very heart of collaboration.

Portfolio 001: The accessories – EYE OF THE FOREST BLANKET, bandana and patches

“The Eye of the Forest” design by Obi Kaufmann, produced by INDIGOFERA. now available at http://www.californiafieldatlas.com. Price includes tax, domestic shipping and a signed copy of the California Field Atlas. The mastery with which my work is translated to this high-quality, 100% Norwegian-wool textile is incomparable. The blanket does it for me aesthetically as well as functionally. I’ve used it a few times instead of a sleeping bag on summer hikes. Swipe to check out the original painting. I only have a few and am very proud to offer it here. @indigoferajeans

Portfolio 002: The Parsons Jacket

The Parsons Lodge, Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite National Park

Portfolio 003: Vest and the Granite shirt – inspired by the moss and pink granite of Sweden’s west coast

The Wendell Pant – named for and inspired by the agrarian, American author Wendell Berry, here shown at his writing desk in the 1950’s.

Obi Kaufmann wearing the FORESTCITY collaboration with INDIGOFERA in Sierraville, California, May 2018.

The FORESTCITY collection is currently on sale in North America and Europe including these excellent stores: HEPCAT (Malmo, Sweden), STATEMENT (Munich, Germany), BLUEOWL (Seattle, USA), PONCHO AND LEFTY (Sweden), STANDARD AND STRANGE (Oakland, California), BURG & SCHILD (Berlin, Germany), JAMES DANT (Indianapolis, USA), DENIM HEADS (Prague, Czech Republic).

Animal Heart Portfolio of Original Paintings

I’ve assembled a portfolio of sixty-seven original paintings made over the past three years and am presenting them here as a single presentation. Many of these paintings were published in either of my two books as yet, The California Field Atlas and The State Of Water — a few of them will be published in books to come. I shot them today in my studio and am leaving them unaltered in this exhibit. I love the light in my studio and my camera phone captures the right texture and saturation of the paper and the color of the paint. I will be bringing the physical portfolio with me, this weekend when I go to Monterey to attend and be an instructor at WILD WONDER Nature Journaling Conference 2019. One day, I will surprise myself by painting a line so elegant, a line so poetically economical, a line so gracefully rendered that I may just evaporate with delight there, in that satisfaction. I secretly harbor dread for that day and often work to sabotage my most-fortunate brushwork while I am sprinting towards its master. -Obi Kaufmann 09/11/19

Climate Breakdown in California and the Ethical Value of Complexity

by Obi Kaufmann

We should call it Climate breakdown[1]. Climate change is so disingenuous a term. The myopic argument that the world’s climate has always been changing[2] is abhorrently lazy. It isn’t that the climate is changing that is the novelty of today, it is the alarming and obvious rate[3] that, warmed by the atmospheric products[4] of human industry, the machine[5] of global climate is breaking down. The fingerprints of climate breakdown brought on by global warming are everywhere. California is writhing under chaotic amplitudes of the increased intensity of deluging, seasonal rain events[6] and also, perhaps counterintuitively, a marked increase in seasonal aridity, contributing to what are now year-long fire seasons[7]. Additionally, the regular patterns of both coastal and valley fog as vital contributors of moisture and temperature regulation to their respective ecosystems have begun to shut down and disappear[8]. No stranger to lightning, California is now weathering a 12 percent increase in ground strikes[9] increasing tropospheric ozone, a potent greenhouse gas, and the probability of initiating wildfires. While we can’t pin 100 percent these anomalies on climate breakdown, we can point to it as a factor that bears much of their causal weight.

In the complexity of the system collapse[10] itself is the hope by which, not only might we survive the emerging bottleneck[11] but can carry a good amount of an intact biosphere with us to a brighter dawn. There is a wave coming to cool the bright, burning light that is our global economy — an economy that acts with historical arrogance to only every increase in consumptive value without renewal or reset[12]. This coming wave will push us into a new era of non-retributive, ecological atonement[13], a post-carbon economy[14] in a world that only vaguely resembles the one we live in now. I am not talking about the end of the world. The world doesn’t end, that is not how the world works. I am talking about a paradigm[15] shift that changes the story we tell ourselves about our relationship to nature.

butterfly and moth biodiversity, painting by Obi Kaufmann

When I use the word we, I mean it in the inclusive sense, not the exclusive. I don’t have a political agenda with this argument.  I find the baiting mouths and minds that bark on monitors daily, the dinning legion of opinion that fill media outlets with perpetual content, work at little but divisive rhetoric to poison true discourse. Corporate agendas and political posturing tirelessly work at keeping us attacking one another. The truth is far calmer. The truth is that there are no villains and there are no heroes. The truth is that there is no one to blame.

I watch the symptoms of climate breakdown spread across my beloved California like a disfiguring pathogen[16], in step with human development, population, and pollution[17]. My human affectations, my proclivities towards stewardship as a pervading ethic, cry in despair at night, alone in the dark. I know yours do too. We know the truth is nuanced and that wisdom is scarce. We feel in our hearts that the momentum of this human fire (not fires that we’ve made but the fire that we are) is too hot to contain and must only continue to burn. The forests of the world are not on fire[18], we are the fire that burns the world.

nature journal, Obi Kaufmann, 2019

I’ve been walking the California backcountry my whole life. I have an intimate relationship with the natural world of the place. I have translated that love I have for this place, namely the California Floristic Province[19] and the Mojave, the Great Basin, and the Colorado deserts that lie just outside of that province but within the political borders of the state, into a career of writing and painting about its workings. I consider the physiography of the state to be analogous to the physiology of a single entity[20]. My work acknowledges the hyper-object[21] that is California to be a contained, living body whose ecosystems employ ancient, complex tools of resiliency[22]. I know California to be very tough. I also know that we have broken and continue to mindlessly break those tools that the natural world uses, exposing the vulnerable heart of the state’s ecological connectivity[23] to a bevy of terrible threats from within[24] and without[25].

California is immortal — at least as far as we can conceive. Despite our seemingly depthless array of extractive technologies, both gross[26] and subtle[27], California will endure. It has survived and will survive worse. In the seven million years or so since the late-Miocene era when California began to resemble it current, tectonic configuration[28], California has deftly worked the wonder that is island biogeography[29] to invent a portfolio of endemic[30] biodiversity that today puts it in a small, elite class of global hotspots[31] where more species exist than in any other locale. In the past one hundred seventy years since the gold rush, the coursing throng of civilization has pushed every one of California’s natural vegetation types[32] to either a threatened or an endangered status[33]. Today, all of California’s habitat types teeter on the brink of oblivion and suffer under ruthless regimes of fragmentation[34], biological invasion[35], and simplification[36]. And yet, with a less than 1% extinction rate[37], they are all still here. I am not saying that we have any laurels at all to stand on — when it goes, it is going to go hard, but what I am saying is that simply, again, it is all still here.

Sunset over the Sonoma Coast, Northern California, photo by Obi Kaufmann

Over the past century, California has kept pace with the rest of the planet in that the atmospheric temperature has locally increased on an annual basis by 1 degree Celsius[38]. Reacting to that warming, the forests of California are retreating in a number of ways, doing their best to respond, as fast as they can. All forest types are retreating to higher elevations to escape the heat. In the past thirty years, dominant plant species across Southern California’s Santa Rosa mountains have moved upslope by an average of 200 feet[39]. Ponderosa Pine forests have retreated upslope by several miles across the southern Sierra Nevada, and the subalpine forests, above 7,500 feet are smaller and denser as they crowd towards the colder peaks[40]. In wildlife, range shifts north have observed in 74% of small mammal species, and 84% of bird species[41]. Beetles and arboreal pathogens are reveling in a warmer California, and several outbreaks are among the largest single events of such infestations in history[42] — classified as megadisturbances[43] that are contributing to the largest, ongoing tree die-off that California has seen in millennia[44]. Across the state, invasive agricultural pests, buffeted by temperature increase as it is the single most important factor governing insect behavior, are responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars in crop losses[45]. Everywhere in the over-dammed water system of California’s reservoirs, harmful algal blooms are propagating widely and successfully with increased water temperatures and levels of carbon dioxide, threatening fisheries and depleting oxygen[46]. It’s everywhere and it is touching everything. I could go on, but I won’t.

I grew up on Mount Diablo, in the East Bay, about 30 miles east of San Francisco. From the peak of this 3,849-foot mountain, you can see most of California’s central valley. The valley represents both the blessing and the curse of California’s great, natural wealth. Over millions of years, the soil of this valley was fed by anadromous salmon returning upstream, climbing beaver-made[47] ladders to spawn and die at the headwaters of their birth, giving their bodies to transform into millions of tons of nutrients[48] that was then washed down and evenly distributed in flood season where the Sacramento River might expand to be 30 miles wide. Of course, with only 13 inches of rain on the valley floor, to farm that land, 20th-century civilization needed to irrigate the valley, and to do so, we built the most elaborate machine ever invented to do such a thing: The California State Water Project[49]. We also knowingly were spending this singular, natural legacy in order to do so.

painting by Obi Kaufmann

With the advent of this age of climate breakdown, the best, future-policy we can negotiate is the restoration and conservation of as much of our intact forests as we can across hundreds of square miles of mountainous watersheds. Reintroducing Beaver and reestablishing Salmon habitat to bolster biodiversity and preserve connective habitat is the best shot we’ve got at preserving the quality of our continued human residency here. We don’t need to fully understand the complexity of the system — it may be too complex to fully understand. For example, we know that in a tablespoon of forest soil, more micro biotic organisms exist than people alive in the world today[50]. Ecologists argue today about how forests work, how they communicate, how they compete, and how they cooperate on a fundamental level[51]. We don’t need to know right now. All we need to acknowledge is the importance of the complexity itself and restore the conditions where endemic forces of complexity can persist.

I present my work up and down the state, and I talk about climate breakdown, and I talk about the importance of restoration, and I get asked again and again, what can we do? My answer is not about joining a political movement, and it is certainly not about assigning blame. We are all at “fault” (if such an easy thing exists) and none of us are. I encourage my audience to go inwardly to work outwardly — turn up your kindness, turn up your compassion, turn up your attention to the legacy of the natural world. Consider the story you are telling yourself about how you relate to nature and how nature relates to you. The imaginative capacity of the world to adapt and invent solutions and adaptations to a tomorrow that is more rich, and more beautiful, is infinite and you are an important part of that story.

portrait of the author in studio, Berkeley, Calif. 2019

Notes, sources, and further reading. All web sources accessed in summer 2019.

[1] One of the first thinkers to use the phrasing climate breakdown was professor Jem Bendell at England’s University of Cumbria; https://www.minnpost.com/earth-journal/2018/10/new-outlook-on-global-warming-best-prepare-for-social-collapse-and-soon/.

[2] NPR’s Ari Shapiro talks with climate scientist Stephanie Herring about why the argument “the climate is always changing” is problematic in explaining the temperature changes around the world today; https://www.npr.org/2018/12/12/676198899/climate-scientist-says-argument-the-climate-is-always-changing-is-wrong.

[3] The rate of climate change in several key statistics as reported by NASA; https://climate.nasa.gov/.

[4] Analysis of emissions, Center for Climate and Energy Solutions; https://www.c2es.org/content/international-emissions/.

[5] Climate change feedback loops as explained by the Guardian; https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/jan/05/climate-change-feedback-loops.

[6] More rain in California despite global warming; https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/09/180904150403.htm.

[7] Yearlong fire seasons in California as reported by the Bloomberg report; https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-01-17/california-fires-burn-all-year-as-drought-left-state-a-tinderbox.

[8] The disappearance of California fog; https://www.climatecentral.org/news/california-winter-fog-disappear-17526.

[9] Increase in California lightning; https://news.berkeley.edu/2014/11/13/lightning-expected-to-increase-by-50-percent-with-global-warming/.

[10] Complexity theory in climate change;  https://www.stockholmresilience.org/research/research-news/2008-11-26-complexity-theory-for-a-sustainable-future.html.

[11] Biological bottleneck and its effect on genetic diversity; https://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/news/120301_chipmunks.

[12] No system is endless, an economical perspective on capitalism and globalization; https://www.resilience.org/stories/2017-08-03/global-capitalism/.

[13] I understand the religious intonation of my phrasing here, and I don’t mean to do so. I wish to use the word atonement as a coming together of ethics and purpose.

[14] Intro to the post-carbon economy; https://www.postcarbon.org/about-us/.

[15] Paradigm shift; Kuhn, Thomas S. 1962. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

[16] Climate Change Contribution to the Emergence or Re-Emergence of Parasitic Diseases; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5755797/.

[17] I might have included all of the acronym HIPPO: Habitat loss, Invasivity, Population, Pollution and Overharvesting; https://www.e-education.psu.edu/geog30/node/394.

[18] Fires around the world; https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/global-maps/MOD14A1_M_FIRE.

[19] The California Floristic Province; https://www.cepf.net/our-work/biodiversity-hotspots/california-floristic-province.

[20] Definition of life, a working definition; https://www.nasa.gov/vision/universe/starsgalaxies/life’s_working_definition.html.

[21] Hyper-object as proposed by Timothy Morton — a quasi-thing/concept that transcends human sensorial immediacy. https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/hyperobjects.

[22] Rethinking Ecosystem Resilience in the Face of Climate Change; https://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.1000438.

[23] California essential habitat connectivity project; https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/Conservation/Planning/Connectivity/CEHC

[24] Climate threats from within California; https://www.energyupgradeca.org/climate-change/

[25] Threats from outside of California — global scenarios; https://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-california-state-climate-change-assessment-20180827-story.html.

[26] Gross extractive technologies; https://psmag.com/environment/gross-society-entering-age-energy-impoverishment-79381.

[27] Subtle extractive technologies; https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/05/five-ways-in-which-technology-will-change-the-extractive-industries/.

[28] The geological history of California; https://geologycafe.com/geologic_history/index.html.

[29] California, as an ecological island separated from the North American floristic province by the Sierra Nevada mountains. Island biogeography; https://web.stanford.edu/group/stanfordbirds/text/essays/Island_Biogeography.html.

[30] Endemic; native to only one area, existing in the wild in no other location.

[31] Biodiversity hotspots; https://www.sciencedaily.com/terms/biodiversity_hotspot.htm

[32] Natural vegetation types in California; https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/Data/VegCAMP/Natural-Communities

[33] Landscape types are not legally thought of as endangered or threatened. California’s threatened vegetation; http://vegetation.cnps.org/overview/conservation

[34] Fragmentation, or dysconnectivity; http://conservationcorridor.org/tag/fragmentation/

[35] Biological invasivity;  Joan G. Ehrenfeld. 2010. Ecosystem Consequences of Biological Invasions”, Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics, 41: 59–80

[36] Ecological simplification; https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/65/11/1057/374172.

[37] California’s 1% extinction rate; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC123238/.

[38] 1 degree Celsius; https://climateanalytics.org/briefings/global-warming-reaches-1c-above-preindustrial-warmest-in-more-than-11000-years/.

[39] Milanes, C., Kadir, T., Lock, B. Monserrat, L., Pham N., Randles K., Indicators of Climate Change in California. 2018. Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, California Environmental Protection Agency. Sacramento: CA. s-10

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid. S-11

[42] The largest beetle and pathogen infestation in history; https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/sep/19/tree-death-california-hawaii-sudden-oak

[43] Megadisturbances; https://www.fs.fed.us/psw/publications/millar/psw_2015_millar002.pdf.

[44] The largest tree die-off; https://www.pe.com/2019/02/11/18-6-million-trees-died-in-california-in-2018-forest-service-survey-finds/

[45] Along with pesticide costs to fight them, the number is $44 to $176 million per year; California Department of Food and Agriculture, 2008.

[46] Algal blooms; https://www.latimes.com/environment/story/2019-08-14/everything-you-need-to-know-about-toxic-algae-blooms

[47] As many beaver as a few per mile of watercourse; https://nrm.dfg.ca.gov/FileHandler.ashx?DocumentID=78258&inline=1

[48] Million of tons of nutrients from salmon; http://www.pebblescience.org/salmon_ecology.html

[49] State Water Project; https://water.ca.gov/Programs/State-Water-Project

[50] Soil biology; https://www.soils4teachers.org/biology-life-soil

[51] The ecological debate; https://forestsnews.cifor.org/61480/why-theres-more-to-ecological-restoration-than-ecology?fnl=en



by Obi Kaufmann

For RANGE magazine

It was probably Homo erectus, our ancestor species, who first learned the secret of the campfire 1.5 million years ago. Whether they learned how to create the spark themselves, or control a small, natural blaze is debatable. Evidence of fire scars on rocks in East Africa date back that far, symbolizing what may be the very first anthropogenic carbon emission. Homo sapiens didn’t arrive on the scene for another million years.

In the interim, I bet gathering around the campfire is what ultimately led us to where we are as a species today. That meditation on the campfire, the circling of a human community to prepare food and strengthen social bonds, led us to and through the so-called Cognitive Revolution, when art and fiction first appeared in our evolutionary history about 100,000 years ago.

Fire is as important to human life, society and history as water. Its ability to transform food through cooking, light up our night communities at night and be manipulated into more complicated versions of itself to meet our needs has made modern society possible.

In the western U.S., specifically among the Indigenous people of California, fire has a history of being used for prescriptive burns to stoke the annual production of food. Those ways are largely lost behind a contemporary hubris of control: fire as an undeniable force, does not abide.

In this age of climate crisis, itself spawned from our relationship with fire, wildland fire threateningly creeps toward our human sprawl from all vectors, now in all seasons. In the west, we have unwisely built our patterns of suburban growth into long trains of fuel for fire to consume. It is the double-edged sword that our knowledge of fire, as energy unleashed, has been alternatively mastered and foolishly managed, depending on your ecological perspective of history.

Now, as we watch our homes burn because of our mismanagement of local wildscapes and firesheds, we wonder if it is too late to reset the clock — or how many coming-decades of inferno do we have to endure until it resets itself?

Fire can be a great ally and teacher, and it plays an important role in creating healthy, natural landscapes. It is by walking with fire through history that we became human at all. When we look into the ephemeral flames of a campfire, we see ourselves, dancing and reaching for the sky with what little fuel we are given.

OBI KAUFMANN, naturalist , poet and painter, is the author of the bestselling California Field Atlas (HEYDAY, 2017). His latest book, The State of Water, Understanding California’s Most Precious Resource (HEYDAY, 2019), continues his investigation into the confluence of art and science towards a more complete understanding of the natural world.

Water’s New Story

Water’s New Story by Obi Kaufmann

The big secret about this book is that it is not about what you might think it is about. The State of Water – Understanding California’s Most Precious Resource (HEYDAY, 2019) was always meant to be an interim chapter in a much larger story that will ultimately encompass a six-book series. This overarching design will capture not only the primary subject of my study: the systemic, perennial character of California’s natural world, but will also offer a context for observing and interpreting the forces that define it. I hadn’t originally planned on there being six books. All I have ever known, all I have ever had, is this love – this deep sense of belonging and of identity that has developed from a lifetime of embedding my creative world, my voice an artist, within this universe that is California’s natural world. With the success of The California Field Atlas (HEYDAY, 2017), I was afforded the opportunity to continue my study, barely understanding the prolific depth of my subject. If I could, I would paint a hundred maps a day of nature in California, for the rest of my life and never tell all the story I know there is to tell.

Finding the personal impetus, the drive and the inspiration to continue this journey was not difficult. When I then coupled it with and augmented it with the cry from what I know from my forever-travels across my growing community, the book became inevitable. That cry I listen to and feel so acutely, is the desirous change of some fundamental precepts within the story of how we talk to each other and build ideas around what nature is and our relationship to it. The cry is the revelation that California does not belong to us, but isn’t it the case finally, that we belong to it? And if that’s is how we feel, let’s restructure our relationship with this grand array of ecographies across this most-beautiful-of-all-places to mirror that impulse, and to lead us out from the inevitable collapse of this fossil-fuel fed fantasy.

The State of Water
is not about policy-making in that it is not about money. California’s water goes where the money flows. To address core issues of accessibility and reliability, the larger problem exists that both seniority rights and allocations need to be addressed, and my book does neither of those things. The aspect of my book that does approach policy is in my fair bit of writing about conservation – the state’s official policy on water use. We have made great strides in conservation strategies over the past few decades, although we still have a lot of work to do in this arena across the urban sector and certainly in agriculture. Having lived through the historic droughts of the 70’s and 80’s, my own relationship to water spending is like my grandfather’s relationship to money having grown up in the depression: precious stuff not to be idly wasted. Conservation wrapped up in technology, water management, recycling and new strategies of underground storage, replenishment and restoration are necessary implementations but they’re all symptom-treating. The core issue is our relationship to water in the story we’ve built around its capture and its utility.

As an environmentalist, or perhaps more relevantly, a post-environmentalist, I get regularly asked how I avoid engaging in the so-called water wars across California. I have two different strategies there: the first is that I believe we have been sold a set of false equivalencies based in a corporate-serving agenda between rural or agricultural politics, and between urban or municipal needs for growth. The divisive agenda does nothing but pit Californian versus Californian. When you are talking water in California, you were talking about worldview – my worldview is a unifying vision with a human core based on a California character that is not afraid of hard work, and we’ve got plenty of hard work to do… together. The second strategy I have to avoid the water wars is to focus my area of study and to keep it concise. I present my work at every stop along my book tour too many people. I have found that because my subject in this book is potentially a niche subject, most who attend my events are probably, or even certainly, more knowledgeable, and exhibit more expertise in their local water than what I’ve got. I trust and I respect their expertise and so I keep my conclusions simple and broad-based, operating in a philosophy that 1) looks to a future of societal equilibrium with the natural world, working backwards from that and 2) believes that it is not scarcity of water that is the problem, but scarcity of a trust in common story about water and it transcendence (at the core of all living systems) from a mere resource/commodity to something of intrinsic value.

The subtitle of the book is Understanding California’s Most Precious Resource. The understanding that I’m striving for is an applicable analysis of the interface between human water infrastructure and California’s natural water-scape as an ancient living network at the bottom of so many integral ecosystems – if not all of them. What the Precious Resource that I am looking to understand in this book may, or may not be, water itself. Perhaps it isn’t water that is California’s most precious resource but the quality of the human mind, with its capacity to understand itself in a historical context, to shape the reality of the natural world and to tell itself a story to justify that reshaping. And if that’s the case, do we have the capacity to change the change the story to avoid the coming calamitous state of affairs so often predicted by the world media and experts alike? What would that story look like?

While my book on understanding California Water is not about policy, it is about ethics. The ethics that I am interested in emerge as themes throughout the book and I believe there are two of them. The first is political ethics – in this I draw the line between what I right is and what a responsibility is. For every right that we enjoy, as invented under this liberal, humanist regime, the flowering of which corresponded with the invention of the steam engine in the late 18th century, there is and must be a corresponding responsibility. Freedom is not being able to do whatever you want – freedom is showing up for your personal responsibility.

The second, ethical theme in the book is a more subtle and ultimately aesthetic theme, and it has to do with associating natural systems with living systems and attributing to those living systems the right to exist. Ultimately, this is the worldview that my books striving towards -the crux of the larger story that I’m trying. For the most part, contemporary legal systems work as if there’s two entities in the universe: humans that have rights and everything else that does not. There is outlying precedence for particular species to not the exposed to torture, for example, but what I’m talking about is Water, Fire and other natural forces to have a voice in our human world and in our collective narrative. Who speaks for the Watershed’s right to be kept clean, to support its ancient ecosystem and to exist in a normalized fire regime? If we able to change our core story and manifest this kind of ecological democracy, would not our own species realize profitable and sustainable dividends under such a narrative?

The California dream has forever run tandem with, and been subject to the search for abundant and reliable water. The degree to which we have changed the water-scape of California over the past 170 years of our statehood is a transformation so grand, vast and complete, that it will only be matched by the transformation it again goes under over the next one 170 years. As our story changes, our traditions will change, our economy will change, and our relationship with water will change with it and be better for it.

To order THE STATE OF WATER, Understanding California’s Most Precious Resource, visit


The Nature of Understanding California Water – a Further Perspective

The Nature of Understanding California Water – a Further Perspective

by Obi Kaufmann

I am writing this essay in May 2019 – the twelfth rainiest May in Northern California since record keeping began in 1849, and the Sierra Snowpack is at about 200% normal. Most of the State Water Project’s reservoirs are full and I am about to embark on tour to support my new book: The State of Water, Understanding California’s most Precious Resource. The book is going to be in bookstores across California on June 1st, and I can’t help but wonder what audience reaction might have been like if, as in more years than not, this May had little or no statewide precipitation at all.

Obi Kaufmann begins a book tour supporting his latest work on Sunday, June 2nd, 2019 in Truckee, California

The first word of the subtitle of my book is Understanding, and what is actually being understood is key to appreciating my perspective. This is not a comprehensive survey. This is not a textbook. The focus of my book is not necessarily, human usage at all. Although calculating surface storage in the first half of the 21st century and extrapolating future usage across sectors is a large bit of the information presented, I am more interested in the human relationship to water in California – and that is the Understanding I am talking about and wish to investigate further. The State of Water is not wholly, an ecological investigation, nor is it void of political inclination. Although I wrote this book was to be as resilient as it could be to political ebb and flow, the people of California take water very personally, as they should.

The following bullet points reflect, what I see are relevant notes in any discussion of contemporary, Californian, water-usage but have been largely excluded from the book. For mainly, editorial reasons I felt that they all either fall outside of this book’s concise purview, will be addressed in a future book, or deal mainly with human power structures and belong in a textbook about such things. I’ve come up with this list for two reasons: 1, to respect my evolving relationship with this book itself and its subject, and 2, to anticipate audience interaction and maybe preemptively address some concerns. Talking about water can be stressful – I hear the question often: should we be worried about water? Instead of tackling the question like a journalist or a politician, I would like to answer the question as a fellow member of your community. To do so, I would need to ask who is the we in the question? And on a deeper, philosophical level, I would need to ask what is the value of worry? Perhaps the prescription to alleviate worry is understanding. See how that word keeps popping up?



Other than its persistent aridity, the other two, potentially major catastrophes facing our modern society in California are our more-common, mega-wildland fires and climate breakdown. Although I use climate change in the book, I am moving to calling this phenomenon, climate breakdown. I believe it is a stronger way of describing the effects of average, atmospheric temperature rise than is climate change. Climate breakdown carries more political meaning with its sense of palpable, virulent unpredictability.

California has had two seasons this year: rain & fire. To understand fire, it is important to understand water. In the State of Water, I address climate breakdown in regard to models predicting water storage capacity, but I don’t mention it in regard to fire. Does more rain mean more fire danger? While it is true that rain means more potential fuel, the moisture content of the forests, across all ecographies in both the flora and the soil, is higher and thus it turns out that there is statistically less chance of mega-fires in years such as this one. I will dedicate a book’s worth of research to this subject: The State of Fire, Understanding Where, How and Why California Burns will be published by HEYDAY BOOKS (fall 2021).


The State of Water does not dwell too long on money. Not because it is not important to understanding California Water, but because it is not interesting to me. If you are a dedicated student of California water policy as either an academic or a political interest, you must be versed in not only how the water flows, but how the money does as well. People and ecosystems are living and dying because of the economic notions of who pays for what. Water quality, water conveyance, water allocation, land subsidence, groundwater management and the future of the Central Valley’s industrial future all come together in a complex, scenario outside of the scope of The State of Water. Of course, aspects of these themes are addressed in the book, but only in how they affect the more-than-human world, my primary field of interest.

Problems of greed and generosity within human society, and how they relate to how money is spent is core to understanding how water moves and how it is available and how it is treated. With the scope of this book, I am woefully unable to tackle that story. For one example of the depth of this problem: according to the California State Water Control Board, more than 300 public water systems, most of which are in the Central Valley (and across the Mojave Desert) are serving unsafe drinking water. One million Californians every year are exposed to unsafe water. Governor Newsom wants to add a tax of $1 a month to urban water use to raise $100 million and update these systems. This is a very important issue, and I could point to fifty others, none of which I engage.


Although I am very critical of how our surface-water storage infrastructure is so massively, ecologically destructive and how it is quickly moving towards obsolescence, I am not anti-dam on principal. Because aquifers occur in many different, geologic substrates across the state and because different communities have different attitudes towards their underground-water resources, California will be unable to get out of the business of surface-water storage for the next century or so.

Because of a lack of funding and because of a thick, clay layer, municipalities in the southern, Central Valley have largely done a poor job managing their aquifers. By only withdrawing water and with little attention to recharge, these communities are unwisely using this water as a one-time spend. For decades, the community around San Jose has been building and monitoring the recharge of massive, percolation pools as a renewable source of underground-water storage and because of it, have now completely recovered from the massive drought that dominated the second decade of this century.


The State of Water is built around nine-examples of how California’s natural water courses are utilized, through human infrastructure to store and move water. The analysis of its impact on both the environmental and the human ecology of California is largely based on the physicality of diversions and not on the subtle, all-encompassing, chemical nature of pollution. How human industry (fracking for example), municipalities (non-point-source runoff), or society (plastics and atmospheric pollutants), is a larger system of influence than this book was ever designed to address.


Another huge set of topics that gets precious, little attention in The State of Water is alternative technologies. Each, individual technology deserves broad consideration in just how far their beneficial yield might carry us into the future. To list but a few: wastewater reclamation and recycling; solar shields on reservoirs; energy-efficient desalinization; porous concrete building materials and storm-water catchment devices.


In the year since I penned the first draft of The State of Water, we’ve elected a new governor and there have been some modifications to our water policy, with specific reference to surface-storage. Los Vaqueros dam in Contra Coast County is being raised to increase storage in its reservoir and Pacheco Pass Reservoir is going ahead with construction. There is a new push to build more off-stream reservoirs and because of it, Sites Reservoir (page 66 in The State of Water) may be going forward. An off-stream reservoir implies that it does impact water course inflow – it certainly will. Also, with the new governor, The California Water Fix and Eco-restore (page 84 in The State of Water) was been reduced by over half its designed, conveyance capacity.

In other local news, The Carmel River reroute around the San Clemente dam has been a huge success. The reservoir, silted-up and at the end of its useful life, has been bypassed and because of it, the steelhead are returning. This precedent marks a milestone for what I have called in other essays, the coming paradigm of restoration that we will see played out again and again as California wakes up to the power of conservation and value of our natural legacy.

As we consider 22nd century needs and look back on the ethical implications of what we built in the 20th century, 21st century California is faced with some big decisions. It is answering that call that compelled me to write this book. The State of Water attempts, if nothing else, to demonstrate the economic and ecological magic that conservation theory represents. For example, instead of building a dam, how about we use that money and encourage people to take replace their lawns (half of urban water use is outdoor landscaping) and to install low-flow toilets and washing machines. The magic of conservation makes good fiscal sense: Delta water is $400/acre-foot, conservation water is $100/acre-foot.

I wrote The State of Water, as what will be the second in a six book series exploring my journey to a fuller understanding of the natural forces that coalesce to define the natural world of California. The first book was the California Field Atlas. The third, fourth and fifth books will be the California Lands Trilogy: The Forests of California (spring 2020), The Coasts of California (fall 2020) and The Deserts of California (spring 2021). The final book will bookend The State of Water and be called The State of Fire; Where, How and Why California Burns (fall 2021). Although my recent writing reacts mainly to observations I’m making on anthropogenic climate breakdown and extractivist culture, I’m most-moved by resilient systems within adaptive cycles across ecographic regions and how they, like the organisms they provide habitat for, seem to operate as single, coherent entities, and perhaps should be respected as such.

I am not terribly interested in debating water policy; I want to talk about water-story. How do we save everything we want to save? I want to sensibly discuss nimble and efficient strategies across a whole portfolio of approaches. Although it is a season of rain we know that with anthropogenic, climate breakdown we will (perhaps counter-intuitively) see years of both increased aridity and we will see the increased frequency of seasons filled with deluge. I would like to suggest, as a final thought, that California’s Most Precious Resource that I would like to get a better understanding of, isn’t necessarily water but the quality of the character inside everyone of us to come together and decide what is best for our extended stewardship of this, most-beautiful of places.

to order The State of Water


to find Obi’s Book Tour schedule


Obi Kaufmann 05/26/2019