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
by Obi Kaufmann
We should call it Climate breakdown. Climate change is so disingenuous a term. The myopic argument that the world’s climate has always been changing is abhorrently lazy. It isn’t that the climate is changing that is the novelty of today, it is the alarming and obvious rate that, warmed by the atmospheric products of human industry, the machine 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 and also, perhaps counterintuitively, a marked increase in seasonal aridity, contributing to what are now year-long fire seasons. 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. No stranger to lightning, California is now weathering a 12 percent increase in ground strikes 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 itself is the hope by which, not only might we survive the emerging bottleneck 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. This coming wave will push us into a new era of non-retributive, ecological atonement, a post-carbon economy 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 shift that changes the story we tell ourselves about our relationship to nature.
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, in step with human development, population, and pollution. 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, we are the fire that burns the world.
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 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. My work acknowledges the hyper-object that is California to be a contained, living body whose ecosystems employ ancient, complex tools of resiliency. 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 to a bevy of terrible threats from within and without.
California is immortal — at least as far as we can conceive. Despite our seemingly depthless array of extractive technologies, both gross and subtle, 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, California has deftly worked the wonder that is island biogeography to invent a portfolio of endemic biodiversity that today puts it in a small, elite class of global hotspots 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 to either a threatened or an endangered status. Today, all of California’s habitat types teeter on the brink of oblivion and suffer under ruthless regimes of fragmentation, biological invasion, and simplification. And yet, with a less than 1% extinction rate, 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.
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. 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. 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. In wildlife, range shifts north have observed in 74% of small mammal species, and 84% of bird species. Beetles and arboreal pathogens are reveling in a warmer California, and several outbreaks are among the largest single events of such infestations in history — classified as megadisturbances that are contributing to the largest, ongoing tree die-off that California has seen in millennia. 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. 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. 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 ladders to spawn and die at the headwaters of their birth, giving their bodies to transform into millions of tons of nutrients 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. We also knowingly were spending this singular, natural legacy in order to do so.
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. Ecologists argue today about how forests work, how they communicate, how they compete, and how they cooperate on a fundamental level. 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.
 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/.
 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.
 Analysis of emissions, Center for Climate and Energy Solutions; https://www.c2es.org/content/international-emissions/.
 Climate change feedback loops as explained by the Guardian; https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/jan/05/climate-change-feedback-loops.
 More rain in California despite global warming; https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/09/180904150403.htm.
 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.
 The disappearance of California fog; https://www.climatecentral.org/news/california-winter-fog-disappear-17526.
 Increase in California lightning; https://news.berkeley.edu/2014/11/13/lightning-expected-to-increase-by-50-percent-with-global-warming/.
 Complexity theory in climate change; https://www.stockholmresilience.org/research/research-news/2008-11-26-complexity-theory-for-a-sustainable-future.html.
 Biological bottleneck and its effect on genetic diversity; https://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/news/120301_chipmunks.
 No system is endless, an economical perspective on capitalism and globalization; https://www.resilience.org/stories/2017-08-03/global-capitalism/.
 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.
 Paradigm shift; Kuhn, Thomas S. 1962. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
 Climate Change Contribution to the Emergence or Re-Emergence of Parasitic Diseases; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5755797/.
 Fires around the world; https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/global-maps/MOD14A1_M_FIRE.
 The California Floristic Province; https://www.cepf.net/our-work/biodiversity-hotspots/california-floristic-province.
 Definition of life, a working definition; https://www.nasa.gov/vision/universe/starsgalaxies/life’s_working_definition.html.
 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.
 Rethinking Ecosystem Resilience in the Face of Climate Change; https://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.1000438.
 California essential habitat connectivity project; https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/Conservation/Planning/Connectivity/CEHC
 Threats from outside of California — global scenarios; https://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-california-state-climate-change-assessment-20180827-story.html.
 Gross extractive technologies; https://psmag.com/environment/gross-society-entering-age-energy-impoverishment-79381.
 Subtle extractive technologies; https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/05/five-ways-in-which-technology-will-change-the-extractive-industries/.
 The geological history of California; https://geologycafe.com/geologic_history/index.html.
 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.
 Endemic; native to only one area, existing in the wild in no other location.
 Biodiversity hotspots; https://www.sciencedaily.com/terms/biodiversity_hotspot.htm
 Natural vegetation types in California; https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/Data/VegCAMP/Natural-Communities
 Fragmentation, or dysconnectivity; http://conservationcorridor.org/tag/fragmentation/
 Biological invasivity; Joan G. Ehrenfeld. 2010. Ecosystem Consequences of Biological Invasions”, Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics, 41: 59–80
 Ecological simplification; https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/65/11/1057/374172.
 California’s 1% extinction rate; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC123238/.
 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
 Ibid. S-11
 The largest beetle and pathogen infestation in history; https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/sep/19/tree-death-california-hawaii-sudden-oak
 Megadisturbances; https://www.fs.fed.us/psw/publications/millar/psw_2015_millar002.pdf.
 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/
 Along with pesticide costs to fight them, the number is $44 to $176 million per year; California Department of Food and Agriculture, 2008.
 As many beaver as a few per mile of watercourse; https://nrm.dfg.ca.gov/FileHandler.ashx?DocumentID=78258&inline=1
FIRE; ITS ORIGIN IN NARRATIVE CONSCIOUSNESS
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 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
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.
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?
- FIRE & CLIMATE BREAKDOWN
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).
- MONEY IN THE CENTRAL VALLEY
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.
- AQUIFER & UNDERGROUND STORAGE
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.
- WATER PROJECT UPDATES
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
I could actually be not more pleased with the feature on me and my work in the new issue of Sunset Magazine (JUNE 2019) – on shelves now. I am deeply thankful to all those who had a part in helping tell this story: @sunsetmag @sunsetphoto @indigoferajeans @kamenroad @filson1897 @jamcollective @heydaybooks -Obi
Link here to preorder The State of Water by Obi Kaufmann
- Ditch the car. “The panoply of nature doesn’t reveal itself at 65 miles per hour. Walking is important, stopping even more so. I backpack at an ambling rate. I’ve been on so many treks with hikers who feel like it is some kind of race. It really isn’t. Stop by the creek and study the birds. Break out the journal and the binoculars often. Record your impression. Allow yourself to be astonished. Enjoy a couple of light lunches and see how many flowers you can count. Try drawing a fern leaf and let the process be more important than the product. With fifteen minutes in a wildflower meadow, I have never not been amazed at what I found. The more you look, the more there is. Nature is magic like that.”
- Watch for patterns. “Nature is arranged into apprehendable patterns. Our minds were built by evolution to appreciate and know these patterns. My books aren’t arranged like field guides, I don’t explain what you are looking at. I explain how these larger, living forces work together and coalesce to form nature’s bigger drama. If you want to learn natural history, for example, start with a family of plants or birds, don’t start with an individual species. Widen the lens, investigate larger trends in the ecology around you. The bigger picture will always reveal more that the little picture and is a better path to understanding than memorizing specific details.”
- Read a book. “Spend at least as much time reading as doing any other activity. More than walking, more than painting, I read. Books are trails that uncover the nature of thought itself. The unraveling of the contemporary mind away from the ability to concentrate in extended periods of focus. Alive today are some of the best nature writers in history and I hang on their every word like its food. Some of my favorite, working authors on your local bookstore right now are, in no particular order, David Rains Wallace, Gretel Ehrlich, Terry Tempest Williams, Rebecca Solnit, Gary Snyder, Naomi Kline, Barry Lopez, Diane Ackerman, Wendell Berry, Robert Macfarlane, David George Haskell, and Edward O. Wilson.”
- Join a Land Trust. “The Land Trust movement is growing at an amazing rate. This apolitical network of good people working to preserve the natural character of millions of acres of land across the west, is direly important to support. Is there a local patch of habitat you are concerned about? chances are that one of several hundred, local land trusts is working to keep it safe. You can support land trusts, not only with dollars, but by volunteering. Getting out and doing some trail work, cleaning up a trashed site, or some other communal work is about as satisfying a day in nature as can be had.”
- Don’t Panic. “More and more, when I present my work to the public, I find people who, with wild and yet exhausted eyes, ask me desperately what they can do to help the unraveling world they perceive as falling apart around them. I know this feeling well and I am very sympathetic to it. My first response is to ask the person who asked when the last time they went camping was? The number one thing you can do to help defend the intact, wild spirit of nature is to take care of yourself. So many people spend hours a day in their car and then spend the rest of the day staring at a computer. This is not how to engage in the movement. The movement needs you rested, grounded and connected. Go outside. Go outside for a good long while. Take off your shoes. Feel the grass in your toes. Drink water. Breathe deep. Eat well. Do this every day. Do this several times a day. The days of our existential alienation from nature will end soon enough. The post-carbon economy is on its way. Imagine that day is today. Take a moment to observe the bird, or the flower, or the passing cloud and marvel that you are the eye of the living universe perceiving the thing of the living universe. You, yourself are the natural world.”
Obi Kaufmann’s next book “The State of Water, Understand California’s Most Precious Natural Resource” is available now for preorder through heydaybooks.com and will be everywhere on June 1st. Obi will be going on an extensive book tour that begins in Truckee on June 2nd at Word after Word books, with a San Francisco launch at FILSON on June 6th. For details, go to www.californiafieldatlas.com. For information of the FORESTCITY collaboration, go to www.indigoferajeans.com and to order the COYOTETHUNDER FIELD BAG, go to www.kamenroad.com. Follow Obi on instagram @coyotethunder
This essay was originally published in Zyzzyva magazine, issue 113, Fall 2018. The theme of the issue was Restoration and I was invited to also contribute a portfolio of paintings to decorate it throughout – the paintings are interspersed in this reprint of the original version of the text. – Obi
The Evolving Language of Conservation
The Post-Environmental Movement
By Obi Kaufmann
Words and painting are all I have. They are all any of us have. Since the cognitive revolution, seventy thousand years ago at the dawn of art, at the dawn of fiction, humanity finally exchanged its true instinct, its connection with the natural world for the transcendent ability to deposit that instinct outside the body into words and painting, into narration. The Sixth Extinction, as defined as the world-wide collapse of biodiversity, the likes of which has only happened five times before in the three and a half billion-year history of life on earth, started about then too. The unprecedented, weaponized ability to construct the verbal and pictorial concepts is at the causal core of both our alienation from and our license to decimate those bits of nature that don’t offer immediate utility. It may be this same ability that steers us away from inducing some manner of ecological collapse we can’t escape from. It may be that with the right configuration of this, the most powerful of human tools – the ability to convey and to receive meaning – we might be able to reverse the unraveling that had begun so very long ago. This uniquely human ability is not only our best tool, it is our only tool.
We don’t generally believe that it happened in one day, sometime in our distant ancestry that words spontaneously fell out of some early-person’s mouth. Most traits, including neural processes, only emerge over great expanses of evolutionary time. That be said, we don’t know for sure. What if it was the lightning bolt? What if it was some psychotropic, fungal reaction that prompted the first poem to be uttered, the first song to be song, the first story to be told? Maybe the origin of communication, regardless if it happened quickly or not, wasn’t from without but from within? Is it really a reach to imagine such a historical event? In these days, just an eyelash of geologic time from not only the agricultural revolution but the industrial revolution, we stand in an onslaught of raining paradigms, and we are capable of understanding and internalizing all of them. Our minds are that fluid and that able. There are so many new paradigms, so many emerging worldviews popping and pinging around the media universe that the effect is like so many flash bulbs attempting to capture the celebrity of absolute truth as she aloofly meanders down the red carpet. If one of these paradigms, these exclusive systems of linguistic truth that define the norms of our culture, were to catch, and if this new story was about living in ecological accord with the carrying capacity of our natural world, might we then find ourselves in a post-consumer society, full of restored ecologies free of industrial-age pollution?
New paradigms reveal themselves as revolutions – fundamental shifts in the way humans organize and govern themselves and their resources. The three major, historical revolutions that have determined our course as the world-changing species that we are have been the cognitive, the agricultural and the industrial. One way or another, we will soon be ensconced in the fourth great paradigm-shift: the ecological. It will be a new world view that we realize and thrive in, or it will be a time of unilateral destruction. I certainly don’t mean to offer some doom and gloom prophecy, nor do I want to necessarily echo the end-times scenarios that the environmentalists have been going on about for decades. My concern is with the linguistic and pictorial mechanisms that trigger the deepest shifts in our collective psyche. Is it possible to clear the fog of alienation from the natural world that has plagued our society for so many thousands of years? I think the possibility is there and I have found an orientation through this dense forest. It is a simpler path than you might think, dependent on a linguistic determinism, or how the words people use determines the way people think.
I realize I am being rather absolutist when I’m talking about one cultural paradigm, one societal relationship with the natural world. There are certainly different degrees, most notably among indigenous cultures around the globe and across millennia who never experienced, or were delayed in experiencing, or for whatever local reason didn’t need the agricultural revolution, for example. Although I reject the outright idea that somehow indigenous cultures, as a rule, are somehow more in tuned to nature. There are valid examples, even arguably more examples of the rule than exceptions to it, where an indigenous mindset created a local culture where resource extraction doesn’t exceed the natural processes of replenishment within that system – perhaps the single-most qualifiable metric for a society in tune with nature – but I am not concerned with the past on this micro-geographic, societal level. I am concerned with the larger, macro-patterns across the global-human phenomenon. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a consciousness singularity, a unity of culture, despite the form of language and tradition, is more possible now than ever. Above and perhaps even because of the rhetoric, the political vitriol, and the polarized attitudes that exist within any given, contemporary culture, the trajectory towards the next tipping point is coming into focus.
With the world’s current world population of humans at 7.6 billion, we are seeing something unexpected: the diminution of many of the social plagues that have hounded humanity since the birth of civilizations. Most notably, these trends are evidenced in two areas: global war and global poverty. Both these terrible forces seem to be ebbing in the decades since World War Two. It is doubtful that the concurrent facts of both an extended period of statistically relative, worldwide peace and the downward trend of extreme poverty are both anomalies. What is clear is that the modernist paradigm of economic affluence is based on resource extraction, both energetically and materially. The way that both these agreeable trends will end is over the systemic inability to satisfactorily allocate natural resources to the ever-upward, exponential growth of our population.
If you face one direction, you can hear humanity’s cry of despair – a common lament, based in a pervading fear that seems hardwired into the human condition, that all society is inevitably headed to the eschaton. There is a cry even that we have the license to strip the last of the world’s otherwise pristine, living systems and all the treasure they hold, on our way down into the pit. It is as if there is a cultural pathos, perhaps rooted in capitalism ideology, that whatever we can take, we should take. You can hear the indulgent and unwise voices gather in a chorus against the possibility of a vibrant, and abundantly biodiverse future – that the world is not alive unto itself but a pool of material for us to burn, to continue this illusion of plenty, where we can forever keep our lights inefficiently bright, and our cars unreasonably thirsty for gas. This is the dark, shadow story of who we are and what we deserve. This is the world’s worst story.
I am a child of the west, specifically California. I was born in 1973, the same year as the passing of the Endangered Species Act, in a brief time in the early 1970’s called by some “the Golden Age of Environmental Legislation.“ Since then, in my country, I’ve watch the slow estrangement of one half (the Republican party) of our government turn from any policy deemed environmental. And I ‘ve witnessed the other half (the Democratic party) co-opt the environmental movement, glomming it into a so-called Leftist agenda, adopting a no-compromise, line-in-the-sand posture. The whole dysfunctional system resembles a family squabble and the entrenched vocabulary we use to describe the political dynamic exacerbates the situation, infecting it to such a degree that often arguments, rooted in punditry, become an ineffectual din for only the deaf.
The language of this cultural polarization which has trickled down from our government, particularly with respect to all things having to do with the environment, is rooted in capitalist salesmanship. The relativism of the moral context, where all evil is defined by what may undermine any special interest, is exploited by professional politicians to the detriment of the common good. The core idea that the health, robustness, and resiliency of the natural world inexorably means the same for the human world is so basic an idea that to argue it politically is to expose a system, so laden with an obsession for fractionating profit, that its heart must be rotten and deserves to be cut out. We begin with the words and the art; remember, they are all we’ve got. Two words need to be remade: both Environmentalism and Sustainability have been appropriated by the antagonists of what the words signify. The (the environmental and the coming post-environmental) movement itself needs to abandon them. They now are employed as dog-whistle words for propaganda against the movement to designate a whole set of dogmatic baggage unrelated to the movement itself. To again approach the moral imperative of how to best steer the ship away from the tyranny of its extraction-over-replenishment vector, we (all of us) need to uncouple the movement from any other order of the day.
The legacy of one hundred thousand years of storytelling is reflected in both, our individual minds and the collective mind we each tap whenever we speak, create and love. Our society is built on stories. A story, either composed of words or pictorially rendered in art, transmits apprehendable information – a flower well rendered in paint, for example, transmits viable immediate beauty, everything a human could know, or at least needs to know to identify and appreciate the reality of that flower on some, almost metabolic level; something core revealed and celebrated – a communion and an atonement with that flower’s world. We change the story, we change the world. Depending on how we fare the coming, inevitable paradigm shift, we will be charting a course not only of our continued human residency here over the next one hundred or five hundred years, but over the next ten thousand years. Let’s go ahead and trust each other enough to begin that conversation.