An Evolving Energy and a Desperate Question

An Evolving Energy and a Desperate Question

by Obi Kaufmann

10.16.18

I am inviting an evolving energy, an emerging, anxiousness from the community when I present my work on tour. This new character of question, an expectant tone, skirts desperation and is often accompanied with a shaking tone of voice and pleading eyes. Where does humanity fit into my work, this future vision of California? What does reconciliation between industry and the natural world look like? With the legion of tragic, environmental conundrums that face our beleaguered spirit, how do we rediscover ecological equilibrium?

My standard answers are broken. I often stumble through piecemeal solutions about deficient policies or about new technologies that promise to fix our troubles. I am wrong in this approach on two fronts: 1) No one person has all the answers to the incredibly complex, positive feedback loops of degradative forces that currently threaten the workings of the biosphere. This work, my passion’s only contribution is the engaging and activation of a democratic literacy towards a better common understanding of geography and conservation, and 2) The dream of the world is unfolding exactly as it always have, and exactly as it should. We either work to balance our rights and our responsibilities with great love, compassion and vision, or we do not. Our best moments of problem solving will not come from fretful desperation, but by a contemplative course of action. Maybe it is like orienting on a map without a trail, only a heading.

I am an artist and my business is world-building. Every minute that you proceed through the California Field Atlas, I am asking you to accept this, my view of the natural world based on my inspiration, on my appreciation and on my experience as an explorer. My work is not a work of straight science. Of course, the maps I present in the California Field Atlas are data-driven but for the most part, quantifiable detection, measurement and consensus are three necessary concepts science requires that my work does not. My work depends on an emotional plea, and because of it, the community brings their passionate cry, their longing concern.

I believe that the great, sustaining systems of the natural world are not only alive, but intelligent. There is mind, systems of thinking, networks of advanced awareness infused everywhere in the natural world. Mind is not the abject province of humanity in its solitude, but rather a function of the breathing biosphere itself. When in wild places, open to wilder modes, thoughts sharpen as if the ideas there are not ours to claim spontaneously generated, but as if they exist independently of ourselves and enter us through our body. The synthesis (not the analysis) of this connected and holistic view on the ecological nature of mind speaks my truth to this, my life-long, ever-evolving epiphany.

At dawn, my eyes are some new variety of rose opening violet petals over heaven. I spend my waking, walking days tracking the oldest forests and let them track themselves through me. 200 million years before these mountains dreamed themselves to rise, this forest was already ancient. Carboniferous secrets, so often only considered bones and blood for human utility, spell an emerging and dangerous age of simplification for the citizen conifer. In the next one hundred millennia, new diversity will return to this mosaic habitat as the script of fire regime, atmospheric chemistry and hydrologic replenishment work to erase the scars of our petroleum print. I’ll leave my flowered-eyes on this mountain to watch that cycle happily reset.

The underlying plea I hear from this activated and concerned community I encounter up and down the state, seems to be those virtues that might illicit core-transformation in human, industrial thought. I would list them as grace, truth, insight, and wisdom – the great aspirations. The elixir that promises from this point onward our collective-life, our society will be defined by that which has come before and what now we are on the trail forward. When we have lost or have become lost to our former selves and merge with the greater forces of the world, we are found as an extension of those forces. Our left hand becomes our west hand and our right hand becomes our east hand.

My work has led me to the conclusion that our own species continued existence in what will certainly be a coming, post-carbon society (either imposed on us from without, or positively generated by us from within) will be made possible only by preserving as much biodiversity as we possibly can. Ecological simplification is a perilous trajectory, like a cloth that gets too worn and thin. The interlacing dynamics of the rapidly changing, delicate and yet resilient natural world are the course of my passion and present an ethical agenda in demonstrating how biodiversity works on connectivity, not isolation or sequestration. If we are not talking about the preservation, rehabilitation, stabilization, restoration, conservation, development and reconstruction of the world’s rich treasure of biodiversity and its habitats, we are not having a good conversation.

I am so humbled and grateful to have the opportunity to field these fears and to become, myself an audience to the transformative vision they represent. I think these are the very best questions that we could be asking: where is ecological peace in this overpopulated world? How do we serve the restoration of biodiversity? Can we change society? Simply by asking the question, the clay of collective-thought is working into new forms.

All there is, is process. Restoration is not a destination. Conservation is not a goal. The inspiration of our work is in recognizing the majesty of all species in all wild places as a spiral of biodiversity, free from commodification and free of disposability. We acknowledge all natural systems as alive and recognize them all to retain and hold their right to exist as a living system to protect and encourage. We support and draft policies that encourage resource replenishment over nonrenewable extraction, and we foster a singular, concurrent responsibility in tandem with every human-right we hold self-evident. We understand that there is a community-based functionality of a more-than-human society surrounding our progressive efforts and absolutely supports the culture of our species. We recognize this, our earthly progress, our continued terrestrial residency, as a temporal gift that graciously and necessarily demands reciprocation.

Fighting tragedy with love is the bravest effort we can give. The answer to the nihilistic question of whether or not we have a place, or worse, deserve to exist in this beautiful world, must be an axiomatic: we do. We are an invention of the earth. We are not separate from the earth. We are an aspect of nature. To survive the bottleneck of our own species’ adolescence, we must work on forging a new ecological paradigm. If we unable to will it, it will be imposed on us. I don’t have prophetic answers and I need to stop trying to give them. That work is not for me. My work is in the beautiful and nutritious mud, where water and sunlight give seed purchase. My work is about exposing the natural world for all the inspiration and meaning it holds and then cherishing those rare and precious moments when it can bring people together in the appreciation for how that world sustains us all.

California’s Natural World; Conservation & Restoration

Presention by Obi Kaufmann

California Native Plant Society – Yerba Buena Chapter

July 05, 2018

San Francisco, California

(begin)

O1. POPPY

Thank you all so much for having me. As a naturalist, how could you not be a fan of that which is rare in the natural world? Rare means precious. Rare means value. Rare means a moral imperative to protect. In the year of my birth, 1973, The California Native Plant Society, already having existed for eight years, and having published California’s Rare Plant Index five year before, collaborated with the Smithsonian to review the national list of plants and found that California holds populations of a third of all plants on that list. Monumental, industrial work towards restoration and stewardship is the hallmark of the California Native Plant Society and supporting and participating in their efforts is my distinct honor and pleasure.

01a, flowers

Plant lovers, flower friends, tree huggers are a very special vintage of person. They certainly are their own kind, a type. It is not a temporal aspect of personality, it is not a phase, it is a pillar of character, it can be a calling, like being an artist or some other vocation to which one is bound, to which one is committed with a ferocity of love that is normally reserved to family. The academic manifestation of that love, those burning decades of focus, can be a proficient lyricism with among other thing, Latin and the accompanying binomial nomenclature used to name species; alas, this lyric ability is wasted on mixed company where in all but the most specific social situations, you are guaranteed blank stares should you find yourself indulging an expression of the obsession.

(02 Condor Map)

I am really, quite sure that the lay people, ordinary folk who aren’t called to the niche-specialized work that the good folks at the CNPS do, day in and day out, get bored so quickly at the professional talk of dendrology and angiosperm diversity, is because of its lack so often of human context, of human story. We, the naturalist community, are mostly just happy to let the plants be the plants; they aren’t resources, they aren’t commodities. Our internal resonance, our appreciation of them, and with the natural world in general is best expressed by our study of it. We find a community, however insular, however exclusive, and we become experts, and we work on a dangerous fulcrum of being not-understood, of being dismissed, of our work being too esoteric to be relevant. I think that this conundrum – and I do think it is a conundrum, not a criticism – is symptomatic of a larger issue now, in contemporary political culture. Our work, more than ever, is being politicized, that rapacious form of appropriation where to preserve biodiversity, for example, is wrapped up in a whole bundle of ideologies, of agendas, of what I believe and what you believe. And it doesn’t matter what it true. It doesn’t matter that we know science is not a belief-system. What does matter is that we are in a torpor of narrative, a gravity-well of story where what we hold most dear: the nuanced interdependence of all living networks is not real to the experience of so many.

(03 FOREST)

Tonight’s presentation will not be me getting too preachy about what we need or need not do to combat, or to defend, or to even change anyone’s mind about anything. Lord knows those roads have been mapped, ad nauseum, by those more qualified than myself. I believe, at the core of my process, that with the right attitude, with the right quality, with the right language, paradigms crack and slip, almost tectonically, unintentionally, by a function of what can be described as a physical dimension to human, conscious thought. Tonight, I am going to walk you through an introduction of my work, where I have been, how I got there and where I think it all might be going. Tonight, I am going to work through some process of my own voice ascending these stairs to what it aspires to be: a more explicit demonstration of my love for California’s natural world. Given that I believe my creative, mortal purpose is the joyful participation in all the world has for us to witness, my vision is ultimately and necessarily inclusive.

(04 BOOK)

With that, I would like to present the California Field Atlas. I am very proud where the book has gone in the past ten months since its first printing, as we are now already in its fourth. It has won three awards: the first was for the unfinished manuscript, my publisher submitted it for the Phelan Award for California writing, the second was the book of the year by the Northern California Book Sellers Association and the third was the gold medal for significant contribution to publishing from the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco.

(05 Ten Months)

It’s been ten months since the publication of the California Field Atlas. Ten months since I left this box of flowers at the garden gate. Ten months on tour up and down, left to right, traveling through and across the human ecology of California. More rewarding than presenting the work itself is the audience I am able to become before this electric network, a community ready for this nature-first narrative. I listen to the choir of neighbors ready to be counted in a nation that draws its strength from a healthy relationship with all systems of the natural world. In the next one hundred years, as our society turns from extraction to replenishment as the primary attitude toward this giving-land of plenty, into a post-carbon economy, we will reject more and more the rhetorical miasma set as a divisive agenda upon us from the swarm of professional politicians. The solutions to all manner of our ecological dilemmas are already on the table. Disregarding the vocal extremes, we are one and we are not afraid of the work it will take to continue this, perhaps the most important conversation we can have.

(06 prismagraphic)

Perhaps you know what the book is, perhaps you don’t. Let me summarize it this way: several hundred, hand-painted maps and wild life renderings describing how the natural world works around California. A little bit deeper, I could describe it this way: an introductory handbook and inventory of conservation, in celebration of California’s natural history. It also is a Field Atlas, a genre of my own invention, that describes those living systems that have influenced and supported, continue to influence and support, and will always influence and support ecosystems across California’s physiogeography regardless of the contemporary urban veneer, the jacketing tyranny of concrete and plastic that we have so successfully imposed. Whatever modicum of success the book is enjoying, I owe it all to what I think more and more is an electric-network of citizens ready for this nature-first kind of narrative. How do we begin to reconcile this ache we have in our bones that California does not belong to us, but rather the reverse: we belong to this place, and more so, that this place is alive.

(07 Biogeochemical Cycles)

The condition of life, of being alive is an important thing to summarize, as I do spend most of my working hours deliberating it. I start my book with the one assumption, well actually two assumptions, but I’ll start with the first one now: that every natural feature of California is alive and deserves an emancipated rebirth from the old human paradigms of utility and extraction without reciprocation and gratitude. If I were to rewrite that assumption now, two years after I initially drafted it, I would exchange the word feature with the word system – Every natural system is alive. It’s more concise language to express an idea that carries the larger message of my life’s work. All systems within the biosphere, that gloriously thin belt of roiling biotic and abiotic systems, that global conversation of biogeochemical cycles that makes all complex organisms possible – those systems that have not been rendered sterile through human artifice – all contain properties and exhibit behaviors, at relative scale, that arguably not only mimic life, but are life itself.

(08 Black Holes and Warped Spacetime)

Quantifiable detection, measurement and consensus are the three necessary concepts that science requires, that my work does not. I am an artist, and every minute that you hold this book in your hand, I am asking you to accept my view of the natural world based on my inspiration, on my appreciation and on my experience as an explorer. I am very sensitive in drawing a line between what I do and what scientists do – I grew up with it. Both my parents were scientists of sorts: my mother, Dr. Jeffre Talltrees is a clinical psychologist and my father, Dr. William John Kaufmann, III, was an astrophysicist. Here is a copy of one the eighteen books he wrote before his death, 24 years ago today. Black Holes in Warped Spacetime. The blurb on the cover reads “From star birth to star death… to the final cosmic reality where fact and fantasy merge.” I am sure he did not write that.

(09 Iris)

Throughout high school, my after school regimen was three hours of math homework a night before dinner. Stack of paper, cup of sharp pencils. I still work that way, now often with a brush in hand. I believe my father was attempting to instill in me the discipline of math and science as the language of empirical truth-to-inquiry into the fundamental nature of the cosmos. This far from those days, still quite clearly having some type of conversation with my father’s intellectual legacy, I see now that what I actually gained in those endless man-hours of calculus practice was a larger appreciation with I would call the aesthetics of systems theory. All I see, all I was trained to see, is a pervading grace that when matched with my own proclivities towards the arts and the humanities, amounted to a kind of philosophical liberation, a scientific backbone where I now am licensed to take my inventions: my invented geography, my elemental-narrative of earth, air, fire and water and exhibit them freely as working extrapolations that offer truth in an interpersonal context.

(10 Klamath River)

The river doesn’t care if you think it is alive or not. At that scale, the Klamath River will look like how I’ve painted it here, a thousand years from now – long after all of our roads have returned to the dust from which they are made. The tools we use to describe our instincts: words and art and the invention of fiction that were gifted to our species during the cognitive revolution more than 70,000 years ago are best used for society’s long term well-being when they are used in the service of Stewardship of the natural world. This is now a lost sentiment, after Watt’s 1774 invention of the oil powered steam engine, a date uncoincidentally aligning with the revolution that spawned the world’s first major democratic, governing power. We now live in Bill Mckibben’s world: the end of nature – a book I have a lot of problems with – when every bit of the biosphere was touched by the atmospheric spread of humanity’s first, global-altering emission, cementing our legacy of detritus and pollution in the visible, geologic strata.

(11 forest)

In the industrial world, in the grips of the industrial world’s ethical paradigm, it is nearly impossible to imagine stillness, or balance is probably the better word, on a cultural level. Even those among us who wish to see a restored ecography – some new version of society where a balance is attained between the extraction and replenishment of our copious natural resources – are attempting to envision a machine that puts the proverbial toothpaste back in the tube. That is not to say that we’ve not made great strides towards reconciling the known threats. The invention of Public lands, a bit more than a century ago, was a great step towards identifying our right to develop with our responsibility to set aside. It helped us to realize what the author Gretel Ehrlich calls the Solace of Open Spaces, a necessary driver of sanity in our body and our collective mind. Fifty years ago, The Golden Age of Environmental legislation did what it could to unite us in our efforts to remediate the terrible poisons we injected willfully into our shared environment and threatened the longevity of the legacy that is our natural world, opened up to us by such author’s as Rachel Carson.

(12 POST)

Despite potentially being threatened to whatever degree by any given executive administration and their unwise policies, there are certain core bits of knowledge that we’ve attained to the betterment of our natural world. An obvious example for this crowd might be the acknowledgement that the willful introduction of alien species into any given ancient ecosystem always disrupts the productive equilibrium of that community. But we are still so far from realizing a day when we transform our hearts from reclamation to restoration, that relieved cessation to manifest destiny, when the exponentially spiraling, positive-feedback loops are tamed. We do not yet know what we do not know. We are still in the wave of industrial progress, and when that wave moves through us, either by its own momentum or by our choice to restructure it, our society will be left with a new paradigm, and the structure of that paradigm will be ecological.

(13 Water)

I have now just finished up my second book in this series which will ultimately be a five series set. This second book is a bit of an outlier to the other four: it is about water. This first book, the California Field Atlas is an elemental tour of the big, macro-networks of Earth, Air, Fire and Water are there relative influence across the topography, largely irrespective of humanity. The following trilogy: The California Lands Trilogy will consist of three books to come out in 2019 and 2020, again published by HEYDAY called The Forests of California, The Coasts of California and the Deserts of California. First though, I had to get my head around Water – the single most altered aspect of California’s large and natural systems of life. The book is called the State of Water, a field atlas to the conservation of California’s most precious resource.

(14 Rivers)

We enjoy water now in California as a generously available commodity derived from, at different scales, a finite resource. After enough numbers have been considered, and after enough resources have be reconciled between what we use, what there is and what we need, I am always amazed by how far we’ve extended the natural limits of the sheer volume of water in this arid paradise. The next one hundred years, like the last one hundred years in California history, will be defined by water. The premise of the book, if there is an agenda to it at all is that if we’re not talking about conservation, we are not have a good debate about water. Better pour another drink, because as Mark Twain (probably never) said: “whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting.”

(15 Salmon)

I pick my fights carefully in this thin book. Like my other books, it is a systems theory, a personal journey through art and analysis that is about more than what it is actually about. The infrastructure of California water, specifically surface water systems – a braided knot, an artifact of superimpositions over the state’s natural circulatory network that is as dazzling as it might be precarious. My focus is on the riparian ecosystems that harbor so much endangered, endemic life and my relationship to it, not only as a thirsty artist (pun intended) with so many of his own opinions, but a citizen involved in unpacking the truth. Sometimes the process appears as a fight, at other times a celebration.

(16 coyote)

When I wrote the California Field Atlas, the political climate of the country was much different. As I am working on the follow-ups, I am tracing a very delicate line between activism and celebration, between ire and ecstasy, between agenda and observation. Ultimately, the primary dynamic in my systems analysis is scale, through both time and across space. The political reality of the moment does not necessarily have any more or any less a catastrophic effect on the wild character of California, than the last five hundred, or even ten thousand years, the history of human residency in this place. The avalanching effect on patterns of endemic life that society has, is coming sharply into focus as the most important issue of our day.

(17 Map 01)

In my work, I do not recount a doom and gloom philosophy, listing emergency calls-to-action, but I also strive to not suffer the foolish policies of the unwise interests at the helm of any given governmental administration.

In my work, I examine the relationship between art and science, which in my mind is the play between meaning and truth and apply that research to one object-field-system of study: California. The course of my study is mechanically, a puzzle of endless depth, width and breadth despite the topographic finiteness of the land area itself. The end of my work is societal atonement with California’s natural world; an equilibrium between human extraction and replenishment based on more-than-knowledge, but a deep understanding rooted in love to protect and restore. To give back the gift.

(18 Map 02)

I have a lot of faith in the idea of Geographic literacy, but I have a hard time pinning down exactly what it is. It is certainly not only the rote ability to read a map. It is more than the ability of being able to read the land. It is more than knowing what is where. Geographic literacy is wrapped up in the qualitative function of how – how do systems relate and support life.

(19 Owl)

Let’s go with that: Geographic Literacy is the interdisciplinary study and appreciation of living patterns across a specific landscape. Geographic literacy is not only the study of ecology, the study of the relationship between biotic and abiotic forces, but the understanding of how macro-networks of a given province (be it a watershed, a fireshed, a carbonshed, a viewshed) are influenced by physiography, hydrology, climate, soil, pollution and other elemental, shaping forces that influence biodiversity at any moment on the ecosystem’s adaptive cycle, its successive life cycle.

(20 Adaptive Cycle)

All living networks share the same adaptive cycle regardless of scale. New growth always evolves into mature forms of conservation within the system-body. This inevitably leads to the release of stored energy at the opposite side of the diagram from the generation of it. The decimation releases resources that makes way for the reorganization of those structures that define the function of the system itself and extend through time to both the beginning and the end of terrestrial life.

(21 flowers)

Ascribing power of self-generation and renewal, or purpose, to a natural system is to see that system as alive – a being unto itself. Or at least, this reach to understanding set some parameters to better understand our role in the functioning of that system. If all natural systems are living systems, the moral perspective shifts and we become responsible to recognize our integral relationship to it. Systems of nature are now legally considered property: resources and commodities. The economics that we’ve built around this system of law – capitalism – depends on the myth of resource scarcity, it is the driving force of supply, demand, investment and return. I am not decrying the evils of our legal system or even capitalism itself, I don’t have a prescription about how it will play out. I am suggesting that when we shift the perspective, when the paradigm begins to slip, when we see the world as a living thing that exists in cycles of rebirth and redefinition, we see our own society susceptible to the same kind of evolution. And then, we can begin to talk about how the land sustains and renews itself – we move from the realm of scarcity into the realm of plenty.

(22 River Otter)

The next several hundred years will be the age of ecology. We will learn how remediation becomes restoration and moves to stewardship for the conservation and preservation of biosphere-system-balances that make human life possible. Since the late 18th century when we entered the era of the carbon economy and began the veiling of the whole surface of the planet in a thin layer of combustion’s residue, then again in 1945 when we upped the ante on the process and deposited another layer of strata in the form of radioactive particles that marked the beginning of humanity’s nuclear age, we entered a new, geologically detectable age of the Holocene, the Anthropocene, or as E.O.Wilson warns, the age of loneliness. If in fact it is to be an age of loneliness, as the so-called sixth massive extinction that is proceeding at a rate corresponding directly with the exponential growth of our species, we will only witness its beginnings and not its far reaching effects as our existence is supported by a network of all life that reaches to touch all pieces of the biosphere. With collective vision, we are together drawing another path through this labyrinth, one that is at least locally alive more now than it was fifty years ago. From this context, a painting of a river otter, and relating a simple tale of their precarious resurgent population across the San Francisco Bay Delta, is far more than just a cute, aquatic predator regaining a foothold – it is a symbol of us recognizing the way to our future legacy is by examining, supporting and reinforcing the legacy of nature’s past. As much habitat as we can afford to return to wild, endemic patterns is investment into our own, rich and resilient future.Intro

The Living Forest Body

The Living Forest Body

by Obi Kaufmann

What is a Forest? A terrestrial forest is a living network process of ecological functions whose health revolves around cycles of succession, as dictated by the fire regime as negotiated by the woody plants present. A forest is also a discreet physiographic area, within one or spread over many watersheds, defined by one or more keystone species of woody plant that principally governs the primary biogeochemical cycles presently sustaining the localized ecology. The first definition describes a forest by its relationship to fire, while the second describes a forest by its relationship with water. Both definitions necessarily include the presence of woody plants. Woody plants are vascular, perennial, botanicals that most often includes trees, shrubs and vines (but can also include cactus, e.g. Joshua Tree and Saguaro) who all produce wood (or similarly fibrous material) as their structural core.

 

The forest-body can be modeled as a single entity and should be thought of as alive itself. The life cycle of the forest is not fundamentally different than the mortal and corporeal life cycle our own bodies experience. Every forest is a single, biochemical system containing a multitudinous plethora of relationships between biological functionaries whose collective industry measurably dictates the health of the system. The ecosystem that is the forest-type is dependent on thousands of unique and specialized exchanges between energetic units that have evolved over millions of years in an adaptive cycle of growth, conservation, release and reorganization.

Terrestrial forests of every type exist everywhere and are all dependent upon both fire and water cycles to maintain and feed different, vital components at different stages of the adaptive cycle. A forest is not an orchard, nor is a suburban development with lots of trees, and an urban forest is not a forest. A kelp forest is an aquatic ecosystem bound to a different set of resource cycles that the terrestrial forest is not. A forest can exist within many different scales of biodiversity, from the relatively simple to the extremely complex. Temperate and low-lying forests tend toward more complexity and niche redundancy given nutrient abundancies and the general mildness of climate, while arid and alpine forests tend toward reduced quantities of speciation and biomass given more stringent conditions. The sheer amount of photosynthesis and evapotranspiration that takes place within any one of the world’s major forests radically influences water and climate patterns across the planetary atmosphere.

Forests all exhibit strata of life categories, sub-ecosystems that interact with other levels of the forest to varying degrees. These strata may include 1) subterranean and soil systems of mycorrhizal, nutrient-delivery 2) Floor habitat, surface mulch, under growth, and where liquid water may be present 3) an understory that may be of an entirely different character than the canopy – in dense, temperate forests, understory trees and shrubs may contain broad leaves to catch more sunlight filtered through the canopy trees above, 4) a canopy that may represent the most, total living space in the forest, where the dominant, or keystone species expresses its fullest capacity to produce, and 5) the emergent layer where exceptional species may poke through the canopy’s shaded ceiling to take advantage of the unhindered light above.

The function of the adaptive cycle within all forests is the tendency towards equilibrium. Equilibrium is best thought of as a homeostasis between nutrient expenditure, production and management within the ecosystem. Forests exist and thrive within their own strategic set of time and space-based operations based on the different qualities of their keystone trees. At different stages of the adaptive cycle, or after surviving many successive turns around the adaptive cycle, a forest might exhibit different qualities of character that can be described many ways. A climax forest is a forest that has remained undisturbed by invasiveness or fire for a period long enough for the dominant, climax species of tree to perhaps be vulnerable to one of the many triggers of succession, i.e. a closed canopy that amounts to an invitation of pioneering, shade-tolerant plants that begin to crowd saplings and begin the process from succession to conversion. An old growth forest is a forest that has attained an equilibrium such that the relationships across the complete spectrum of trophic interaction within the ecosystem are minimally affected by any given, naturally occurring disturbance and may have existed unchanged for millennia. Second growth forests are forests that have been harvested for timber and do not exhibit the qualities of habitat abundance and niche opportunities that define old growth.

Between us and our conceptualization of what a forest is, there are layers of meaning that at once inform and interrupt our better understanding of it. On an evolutionary level, have developed our brains on the savannah over a period of millions of years, we have a hard time with forests. They aren’t very good areas of food production for us and having long ago traded in our primate-ability to climb trees, we feel vulnerable. We have built our civilization by using the so-called renewable energy of the forest, thinking it an infinite well of fuel and timber, while not accounting for the many subtle functions that these large organs of the biosphere take care of routinely. The restoration and immediate cessation of all old-growth logging must be a priority of our species. The preservation of the biodiversity in the world’s last, untouched forests may be directly linked to the larger living network across the planet that sustains us.  A forest is not an object, it is a network-process of relationships that exhibits such a resemblance to a single-living entity that it seems to breathe, react, think, reproduce, strategize, move, die, and if we are wise and open enough, we can discern its ability to express love.

Cycles in Geographic Literacy

Look at nature enough and cycles begin to dominate. Folding back in, recycling, reforming and being spat back out in some transformed configuration is the closed course of all elemental function. All energetic-source vectors follow in the shape of the globe and head far off toward some vector of their own invention and momentum to only come back around again. Ecologists describe energy as a consumable force that is unidirectional – a giving momentum from one trophic level to the next until it is spent. The spending of energy is better thought of as a release of constituent components, mineral and abiotic units that are always recycled and used again.

In my work, I examine the relationship between art and science, which in my mind is the play between meaning and truth and apply that research to one object-field-system of study: California. The course of my study is mechanically, a puzzle of endless depth, width and breadth despite the topographic finiteness of the land area itself. The end of my work is societal atonement with California’s natural world; an equilibrium between human extraction and replenishment based on more-than-knowledge, but a deep understanding rooted in love to protect and restore. To give back the gift.

I have a lot of faith in the idea of Geographic literacy, but I have a hard time pinning down exactly what it is. It is certainly not only the rote ability to read a map. It is more than the ability of being able to read the land. It is more than knowing what is where. Geographic literacy is wrapped up in the qualitative function of how – how do systems relate and support life.

Let’s go with that: Geographic Literacy is the interdisciplinary study and appreciation of living patterns across a specific landscape. Geographic literacy is not only the study of ecology, the study of the relationship between biotic and abiotic forces, but the understanding of how macro-networks of a given province (be it a watershed, a fireshed, a carbonshed, a viewshed) are influenced by physiography, hydrology, climate, soil, pollution and other elemental, shaping forces that influence biodiversity at any moment on the ecosystem’s adaptive cycle, its successive life cycle.

All living networks share the same adaptive cycle regardless of scale. New growth always evolves into mature forms of conservation within the system-body. This inevitably leads to the release of stored energy at the opposite side of the diagram from the generation of it. The decimation releases resources that makes way for the reorganization of those structures that define the function of the system itself and extend through time to both the beginning and the end of terrestrial life.

note: this diagram of my own invention is a symbolic approximation of a very complex and subtle system-cycles, collectively known as the biogeochemical cycles. The most misleading aspect of this diagram is the idea that these recycling systems move in linear narrative or a consistent arch, when actually the cycles reconfigure themselves from multiple origin points to multiple chemical outcomes.

The characters at play in this drama do not change, although the scenarios they exist in, namely the rate of change in ecosystem quantities at scale does. Through the abiotic theaters of life on earth: the lithosphere (earth), the hydrosphere (water) and the atmosphere (air), biogeochemical cycles run their endless loops. The runners of these loops are the nutrients themselves: carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, oxygen and sulfur are the big ones.

The major abiotic ecological cycles
  1. The Carbon cycle describes the process by which carbon enters the atmosphere (in the form of Carbon Dioxide) through respiration and combustion and is then reabsorbed biologically through photosynthesis and passed along through the cycle by consumption of plants. It is important because photosynthesis (sugar derived in plants through sun-energy) is the source of all ecology and Carbon Dioxide is necessary in the formula for plants to produce sugar.
Carbon Geography: Carbon exists in the ecosystem in locations called Stores (oceans, forest, and such). The Store can either be a Sink (absorbing more carbon than it gives off), or a Source (giving off more carbon than it absorbs.)
  1. The Nitrogen cycle describes the process by which atmospheric Nitrogen becomes available to ecosystems to produce and decompose. The first step in this extracting atmospheric Nitrogen is bacterial. Bacteria transform nitrogen into Ammonia to make it available for plants in a step called Assimilation. Plants and animals use ammonia to make amino acids and DNA, i.e. growth. When the plant or animal dies, ammonification is how bacteria collect the nitrogen for reuse. Denitrification is the reduction of the nitrogen back to gas.
Nitrogen Geography: Ecosystems and biodiversity increase with nitrogen fertilization, but a tipping point occurs when Nitrogen saturation is attained and begins to damage all biological processes. The process of Nitrogen Pollution is a positive feedback cycle that cause decreased biodiversity and extensive eutrophication in fresh and saltwater systems.
  1. The Nutrient cycle describes the process by which all life-in-matter within the ecosystem is produced. The Nutrient cycle encompasses aspects of all the mineral cycles: Carbon, Nitrogen, Sulfur, Phosphorus, Oxygen and water and requires an equilibrium of these other cycles to efficiently produce healthy ecosystems. Biomass becomes litter which decomposes and with rock, becomes soil. Soil produces plant and life to again become biomass.
Nutrient Geography: 100% of all energy and nutrients is any ecosystem is used again and again indefinitely. This closed loop recycling is always dependent on 1) the protection of biodiversity 2) Access to renewable energy and 3) the recycling of plants.
  1. The Oxygen cycle describes the process, by which photosynthesis as its main agent transports oxygen between the atmosphere and the biosphere. Photosynthesis is responsible for most of the atmosphere’s free oxygen, or that oxygen not locked up in water and other chemicals. Oxygen is also cycled through the Biosphere and the lithosphere through the weathering of calcium carbonate shells of marine organisms.
Oxygen Geography: Atmospheric oxygen has led to the formation of the ozone layer which protect all terrestrial life from ultraviolet radiation and affords the biosphere its current habitable condition.
  1. The Phosphorus cycle is the process by which Phosphorus, a key-component to building biomolecules is processed through rocks and minerals and utilized by biologic agents. As in the Nitrogen cycle, mycorrhizal fungi broker phosphorus between soil and plants in exchange for sugar.
Phosphorus Geography: an over-abundance of Phosphorus in a marine or freshwater ecosystem will cause a choking bloom of algae, which leads to quicker rates of eutrophication. Phosphorus rarely occurs in a gas form but exists in the earth and thereby makes this cycle, by existing on the geologic timeline, the longest, potential timeframe for a revolution of any of the major mineral cycles.
  1. The Sulphur cycle, in terms of its ecological relevance, is the process by which this essential element, used in the production of proteins is recycled through plant uptake, or used by plants in its atmospheric form, Sulphur Dioxide and then returned to the earth through plant residue and other biosolids.
Sulfur Geography: the amount of Sulphur in the atmosphere always increases because of volcanic activity and the human burning of coal. Sulphur is intrinsic in the production of Fossil Fuels. When Sulfur is released through the burning of fossil fuels it enters the water cycle and transforms rain water to a pH level of 4.3 or lower, acid rain.
  1. The Rock cycles describes how magma from the crust crystallizes to become igneous rocks on the surface. Erosion than transforms those rocks by means of sedimentation into sedimentary rocks. The processes of plate tectonics, by means of tectonic burials, transform those rocks into metamorphic rocks by means of melting back to magma.
Rock Geography: called geology, is the study of the components of all land-type constituents and their chemical make-up across topographies.
  1. Also called the Hydrologic cycle, is the process by which liquid water condenses into the atmosphere by the processes of evaporation and evapotranspiration (the breathing of plants) to come back to the earth in the form of precipitation.
Water Geography: physiographic processes that are included in the water cycle are volcanic steam, sublimation (ice becoming steam without becoming liquid), desublimation (atmospheric water becoming ice without becoming liquid), surface runoff, fog drip, ice and snow, snowmelt runoff, soil infiltration, groundwater flow, groundwater storage, streamflow, freshwater, plant uptake, dew, springs, seepage, flora and fauna, vents and volcanoes and oceans.

Ascribing power of self-generation and renewal, or purpose, to a natural system is to see that system as alive – a being unto itself. Or at least, this reach to understanding set some parameters to better understand our role in the functioning of that system. If all natural systems are living systems, the moral perspective shifts and we become responsible to recognize our integral relationship to it. Systems of nature are now legally considered property: resources and commodities. The economics that we’ve built around this system of law – capitalism – depends on the myth of resource scarcity, it is the driving force of supply, demand, investment and return. I am not decrying the evils of our legal system or even capitalism itself, I don’t have a prescription about how it will play out. I am suggesting that when we shift the perspective, when the paradigm begins to slip, when we see the world as a living thing that exists in cycles of rebirth and redefinition, we see our own society susceptible to the same kind of evolution. And then, we can begin to talk about how the land sustains and renews itself – we move from the realm of scarcity into the realm of plenty.

Blazing a New Trail

Obi Kaufmann in his Oakland studio, shot by @thisismaiphotography for @clutchmagazinejapan.

Review By Paul Saffo.

John Muir would have loved “The California Field Atlas,” a compellingly poetic exploration of the living environment of his beloved adopted state. Muir famously observed that, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” The “Field Atlas” is organized around the deep interconnections of life, geography and climate, echoing Muir’s intuition. As author Obi Kaufmann writes in his introduction, “I want to coax this single piece of the universe into opening up its secrets.”

Like Muir, both Kaufmann and his “Field Atlas” defy categorization. Muir was a naturalist, writer, geologist, botanist, inventor, engineer and environmentalist. Kaufman is a painter, poet, topographer, natural historian, activist and one-time tattoo artist who happens to have a love of science and a knack for calculus. Oh, and he’s a clothing designer, too (he’s selling a nifty tweed field coat straight from the 19th century). Like Muir, Kaufmann is a passionate hiker and explorer of California’s back country. “Field Atlas” draws from Kaufmann’s watercolors, maps and writings assembled over 20 years of his explorations.

The result is a book I can’t quite describe — and also can’t put down. And I am not alone; the entire 8,000-copy first printing of “Field Atlas” sold out in a matter of weeks after its November release, no small feat for a book that weighs two pounds and costs $45. A second printing was rushed out even as copies were being resold online for prices ranging from $145 to $1,500.

It is clear what this book is not. It is chockful of critter illustrations, but it most definitely is not a wildlife guide. The maps in the “Field Atlas” put trails front and center, but lack the detail to help a backpacker recover from a missed turn. “Field Atlas” is too heavy to carry on a day hike, much less on a through-hike on the Muir Trail. It is also too general to advise a hiker wondering about the name of a peak on the horizon or how to identify a bird flitting around a campsite. And, by the way, there is not a single road depicted on any map in the “Field Atlas,” so don’t count on it to help you get from home to your favorite trailhead.

This is a book about systems. Its chapters are organized around systems: of water and rivers, of wind and weather, of fire and forests, of deserts and wildlife. Humans are not excluded, but the “Field Atlas” exhibits a certain ambiguity regarding the human presence in California. Kaufmann notes that humans have been present in California for at least 15,000 years and expresses the expectation that they will be present for at least another 15,000 years. An entire chapter of the “Field Atlas” is devoted to a county-level description of California’s natural environment. But one cannot escape the sense that Kaufmann would be happier if everyone who headed toward California after 1530 had turned back.

The “Field Atlas” is a book best read at home while contemplating the subtle interdependencies of California’s wildlands or planning one’s next backpacking trip. It will also fit nicely in a glove compartment, at the ready to reveal the deep story behind the landscape on the other side of the windshield. The “Field Atlas” won’t help the lost find their way home, but it might lead them to realize they were never lost to begin with.

There is one question I can’t shake. Is the “Field Atlas” a one-off, or the first exemplar of a new genre? I suspect that it is the latter, a tome that will inspire others to follow the trail Kaufmann has blazed. California has a proud history of birthing new environmental genres, including the legendary “California Water Atlas” (published in 1979) and the extraordinary series of coffee table books published by the Sierra Club in the late 1960s, which individually led to the creation of new national monuments and collectively helped launch the modern environmental movement. Leafing through Kaufmann’s “Field Atlas,” I can’t help but wonder who it will inspire and what will follow. 

Page 159 of Clutch Magazine Japan, June 2018 – the first inprint mention of the California Lands Trilogy – coming 2019

 

 

The Field Atlas – Focusing the Creative Intent

When I started to write the first Field Atlas, the California Field Atlas, the only strategy I had was to pull as many maps together as I could to see what patterns might fall out. There were two major hemispheres of work in the creation of the world that is the Field Atlas: the drafting followed by the editing. Analyzing these modes, these creative environments is key to understanding not only how this book got made, but how the process might be replicated, or at least re-approached.

The Field Atlas is not a Field Guide. The Field Atlas works in the context of natural history but is not a document of natural history. Field guides are tools to describe the what of something, not the how. What is a question of object, how is a question of system. Systems thinking is the level of conceptualization that the Field Atlas works best at. How do the underlying, elemental, shaping forces of the largely abiotic forces in any given ecosystem, on whatever scale, coalesce and interact to create the physical and chemical geography of that ecosystem.

The Field Atlas cannot be separated from its art. If it were it would not be the Field Atlas. Ultimately, this work is literary contrivance, not a scientific one and there are two, primary reasons for this: one is the nature of consensus, and the other is the nature of invention. Where it might seem that an editor is like a peer-review, they are not. Scientists do not have the luxury of creative license. On a pure level, the scientist can only react to measured data, while the artist (or the Field Atlas author more specifically) is shielded by vocation to extrapolate whatever derivations work toward the harmonious execution of the piece.

It might be that the Field Atlas’ greatest success its singular presentation of California as the subject, perhaps even a symbolic metaphor, of and about my love for the natural world, and the blending of that effort with one that is at its core, data-driven. The Field Atlas works to integrate the humanities and the sciences on a geographic scale and that is the philosophical sphere of meaning. One of the most notable features of the Field Atlas is what it doesn’t feature: Humanity. There are towns and the occasional border, road, facility, et al. but they are mostly there for orientation, not for context. Humanity is a secondary character, analogous to a fire or a flood – a maker of scars that will heal across the land-body once the source of the infliction moves on.

When putting together the first draft of the California Field Atlas, I didn’t know what core systems I wanted to describe. Earth, Air, Fire and Water – the core organization of the book’s first half, describe the most empirical subjects in the book. Those classifications did not come about until late in the drafting process. I see now, there is a shift, albeit a subtle one, in thematic tone from the first five chapters of the book and the last five. Not just in nature of content, but in editorialized attitude. Chapters six through nine (not including chapters one and ten, really as they represent bookends for the larger piece) act almost as appendices to the first half. Even the big chapter on counties, chapter nine, seems like it takes California and divides it up into almost arbitrary jigsaw pieces, and from those pieces, I take what I please and leave the rest.

This process, of inventing geography, of playing with cartographic power, of manipulating boundaries not based on core-ecological systems, but contemporary political zonations, isn’t necessarily a negative. Ultimately, my plan as described by the two presumptions at the front of the book (paraphrased: 1. All natural systems are living systems, and 2. There is both a scientific and an artistic agenda at work) serve this course. I set out to make a new genre: The Field Atlas. The success of that genre will ultimately be determined in an almost Darwinian manner, its reproducibility. As I venture to make the next books – The California Lands Trilogy, HEYDAY BOOKS, 2019 – I am advantaged with being able to leverage this hindsight and liberated in being now able to exploit the higher functioning aspects of my work to reveal ever deeper cycles of geographic ecology. – Obi Kaufmann, Author of the California Field Atlas.

to purchase a personalized copy of the CALIFORNIA FIELD ATLAS directly from the author, go to californiafieldatlas.com.

A New Vision for Restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley

The following presentation was made at the Restore Hetch Hetchy fundraising event at the Berkeley City Club on Saturday, March 17th, 2018 by Obi Kaufmann:

Making good sense of anything in these long days of miasmic political gridlock seems Herculean, or maybe Sisyphean – pick your ancient myth, or more probably in this crowd, your tragedy. The compass spins and any orientation to such basic civic discourse about what is reasonable? What is compassionate? What is ethical? is lost to the ceaseless torpor of argument. We are gathered here tonight to support RESTORE HETCH HETCHY, and I believe with all my heart that this project is the jewel in the crown of a new majestic day for California – the bravest opportunity to present to the whole world the gift of an emancipated Hetch Hetchy as a symbol of who we are, as Californians, and in our most solemn posture to present a unity of identity – one that understands that all the rights we enjoy are met with equal responsibilities. Despite the daily tweeting of old hearted, corporate mouth pieces who sow conflict, we continue our march toward a new reality. A reality whereby putting aside some indulgences of consumerist modernity, with its artificial contrivances of the red versus blue disparity, and we take to investing in great acts of restoration, we will continue our state’s legacy of standing up for what is right and in doing what just makes plain, good sense.

In truth, this obfuscating cloud that spews from professional politics and media punditry is something that we’ve all been sold, and we have all willingly bought. Those who continue to sell us that refrain of endless calamity and unrest are beginning to make some unwise moves in their game against us in their drive for endless profit. An almost seismic event has occurred and continues its up thrust right now through the bedrock of what it is to be a Californian, today, in the last days of winter, 2018. Like the Sierra Nevada and its 200-million-year quest skyward to wrestle its westward slope into an isolated paradise, a move that set California toward its own evolution of endemic identity, we are taking back what it is to be unified as Californians. I’ve been on book tour for the past six months and I’ve seen it from San Diego, to Fresno, to Quincy, to Arcata – we are waking up to the responsibilities that complement every single right that we enjoy, living in this, the most beautiful of all the world’s corners.

The California Field Atlas, my first major publication, has now sat in the number one bestseller position for paperback nonfiction across Northern California for ten weeks. In this reference book of several hundred of my hand-painted maps of the what I call the living networks of earth, air, fire and water, I present an inventory of conservation based on my five decades of hiking, dreaming, sweating, loving, and living in the state of my birth. If I could draw a hundred maps a day of California for the rest of my life, I would still be unable to tell the whole story that I want to tell, I could not sing all of California’s song of glory. I will go as far as I can: I’ve just signed into contract with HEYDAY books for the making of three more Field Atlases, to be called the California Lands Trilogy – the Forests of California will be here in the Fall of 2019 and then the Coasts of California and lastly the Desert of California will come a year after. Before I could get to those books, books that will go into unprecedented detail about the natural world of California – where it has been, where it continues, and where it will always be despite our successfully implemented, urban and agricultural veneer – I had a fourth book in me that needed to come out first: THE STATE OF WATER – a conservation Field Atlas to California’s most precious resource, and it will come out next spring.

I needed to get this book out first because 1) I needed to get it right in my mind and heart and 2) the world of California water deserves a new manifesto; how humans use California water can be terribly confusing as it exists in a labyrinth of convoluted allocations that are certainly, intentionally circuitous. I madly took it on myself to present a democratized reference book for the lay-person. I was talking with my editor about the book the other day, when we decided that it would come out next spring, and he suggested that I might need amend it, given how quickly the news changes these days. I told him that I am not going to need to – for those of us who study California water and California climate, and as it is, the idea behind my pending book: the next one hundred years are going to go one way and new water projects (of which we’ve got four proposed: 1. The Sites Project in the Sacramento Valley’s northwest corner 2. The Millennium Dam on the overtaxed Bear River 3. Temperance Flat on the San Joaquin and 4. The Governor’s so-called Water Fix – the Delta tunnels, or tunnel as it stands now) are not going to help. With one time-tested concept, we can enjoy the three pillars of water use (1. Agricultural, 2. Municipal and 3. Environmental) in this state long into the future – that concept is conservation. In THE STATE OF WATER, I take the seven key examples of how we have divvied California’s waterscape, how we dole it out, and even suggest a moderate plan for working it into a more efficient version of itself to better serve 22nd century needs.

Number one, I discuss the remove of the four dams on the Klamath river and its implications toward the recovery of our salmon populations. Number two, I discuss the Sacramento River, the dangerous, aging infrastructure of its tributaries and how an illegal move to raise the Shasta Dam by 18 feet should be met with fierce resistance. Number three, I discuss the San Joaquin River Restoration Project and how because of its efforts, we witnessed spring run Chinook Salmon spawn south of Friant dam for the first time in 60 years. Number four, I discuss the State water and the Central Valley projects as a networked system, who uses it and how we might be able to trim several million-acre feet from its per annum usage based on conservation technologies and practices. Number five, I discuss the Colorado River and the playground policies that govern its straggled and diminishing flow. Number six, I call the Salton Sea our State’s number one mess – our single most costly and important remediation emergency. And then number seven, unique in all the history of California Water, I call for the restoration of Hetch Hetchy Valley as the most symbolically important restoration project on the table today.

I foresee O’Shaughnessy Dam breached in my lifetime. I see San Franciscans embracing the water security offered by an already augmented San Pedro Dam, while rejecting the modicum of power offered by the three existing powerhouses upriver from San Pedro as falsely green as they have already been rejected as being ineligible for Governor Brown’s 2045 clean power mandate. I see San Francisco reclaiming its title, its identity as a truly green city, perhaps the first, historically self-identified green city, by throwing off this hypocrisy that it has lazily enjoyed for so long. I see the National Park Service supporting a no-brainer investment towards a pending windfall with this now uncovered treasure. Most importantly, in the restoration of Hetch Hetchy, I see the exciting work of hope kindled in a citizenry unafraid and un-shy to take back its legacy, uniting in a single voice to this keystone moment, indicative even of greater things to come.

I told my editor when we were talking about the book that one of the reasons that within two years, we won’t need a new amendment to the factual statements in the book, I thought of two metaphors – 1) that constantly paying mind to the deafening cycles of media news is akin to listening to the chatter of termites, behavior that might drive the bear mad were she not able to get to them. And 2) that we are talking about moving rivers – deep, long-cut entrenchments in the most incalcitrant landscapes of our society, and moving rivers takes time. One day you find that your maps are outdated, that public paradigms have pushed the old fences out to disfunction and we are then made free to enjoy the new freedoms of a restored landscape, both inner and outer, towards our relationship with each other, with the land and towards both the past and the future.

It is going to take a lot of work, but we are Californians and we are not afraid of work. I would like to offer one last metaphor before my parting words and I would like to offer it as a toast. Please raise you glass. Reaching the top of the mountain is a mixed victory, from up here we can see how far we have come, and yet we can also see how far we have to go. To all the mountain tops. Cheers.

I will leave you tonight with a brief poem I wrote backpacking the high country in Yosemite last year. I post a poem nearly every day, along with a painting or a picture of the landscape that I am in at COYOTETHUNDER on instagram.

It has been a hundred years that my heart was buried in the still water. Every evening at sunset I see a thousand cranes rise from the reservoir and on their wings, the valley empties. In the morning, the bear’s dream of their return with sapphire eyes uncut on salmon’s tooth. In a thousand years, the liquid granite will begin to forget the thirst stains marring the holy bowl across the outstretched song of the river, beneath the arboreal pulse of the restored place that was meant for sky, not flood.

Restore Hetch Hetchy, painted by Obi Kaufmann