By Obi Kaufmann
Delivered Saturday 10.14.17, the Armory, Ashland, Oregon
First, thank you, people of Oregon and perhaps some here, people of Northern California and perhaps even others, refugees and emigrants from parts elsewhere. Thank you for having me, a guy who was born and spent his whole life, except for one wild year in Portland about fifteen years ago, traipsing around the California hinterlands and working on simultaneously, a dual career: one, my own art – calligraphy, painting and mapmaking and two, land conservation. I donate my time and money to over two dozen organizations up and down the west who seem to tirelessly hold the line against those who see habitat and wildlands as mere commodity, and I don’t hesitate to say KSWild is one of my favorite. The work that the Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center does is close to my heart and I am proud to stand with them again and again on issue after issue – giving voice to the so often voiceless forces of wilderness – standing up for biodiversity, standing for resistance against the endless corporate interests of extraction at the cost of our natural world and family.
Tonight’s theme is resilience and I’ve quite a yarn I could chew, whether we are talking about circles radiating out from the personal to the interpersonal, the transpersonal, to the bioregional, to the network of larger living systems that all hold each other in the basket of life our beautiful globe enjoys. Immediately though, I am drawn to pause at the human toll, as residents of the west, that we’ve endured this past year and continue to endure. I am moved to mention this, and what I am speaking about is of course – fire, because right now my home-region, San Francisco’s Bay Area is currently suffering California’s October flame, and it is certainly common ground for us as neighbor states to commiserate there upon. For those of you who may still be working on recovering from either September’s massive fires, or I am sure many of you remember the Buzzard Complex Fire near Burns in 2014 at almost 400,000 acres – or maybe, being here in Ashland you remember the Long Draw Fire in 2012 to our east at well over 500,000 acres – or the Biscuit Fire of 2002, perhaps the fire most associated with the area of land KSWild concerns themselves with, again at over 500,000 acres – or maybe the Chetco Fire at about 200,000 acres, both deep in the Siskiyou and Klamath Mountains and Kalmiopsis knot. To those of you affected by those fire, I am sorry – you are resilient, and I freely dedicate my words to you.
I could give this talk every year. It comes with the territory, doesn’t it? Our land speaks in fire and that language is evolving. If you listen too much to the media, or the president, you begin to think that Chicken Little may have been right – between the hurricanes and the fires, our nation takes it hard every year from both cardinal directions. And while it is true that something unprecedented is happening at scale from the regional to the global – that all systems are being directly influenced by a myriad of human factors from fossil fuel to population – it is also true that the west has never known stasis in these matters and that by a certain kind of knowledge, a knowledge I refer to as a primary agenda in my Field Atlas: a geographic literacy, I posit that it is not only an inner-kind of peace you can make with all this horribleness, but that there are real solutions there too that come when the citizenry shares a common reference, even a common reality based on the ebb and flow of nature’s resources and shaping forces.
The California Field Atlas has been out now for about a month and my wife Alli and I have been dragging our happy little dog Gordy all around the Golden State on an incredible book tour that I can only begin to describe as, as least as gratifying as it is intense. I see so many people’s eyes light up when it dawns on them what this book is – I see so much thirst for this nature-first kind of story. Especially in these days of political miasma, when people are so easily triggered by everything on both sides of any national or regional issue, there is a certain kind of peace that comes from rooted-ecological thinking and pattern-making across thousands of miles and thousands of millions of years. This book and the kind of dialogue it affords and inspires, warms the human heart to its own resiliency by reminding us that we are from the natural world and it is to the natural world we always return.
I am most commonly asked three questions about how and why I wrote the California Field Atlas. The first is did you do both the illustrations and the writing? And when I answer yes, the second question usually follows: how long did it take you? And then the third question is usually either, depending on how deep a thinking person they are – did you write this in the woods? A surprisingly common question to which the truthful answer, no, because while I have spent most of my life walking the backcountry of California, I did need a computer’s help in this huge effort – usually comes as a disappointment. What was your inspiration or why did you write it at all?
Last year, when I was still writing the thing, I was announced as the winner of the San Francisco Foundation’s Phelan award for California Literature, and at the awards dinner I met Gary Snyder – shown here at left. Gary Snyder, and for those of you who don’t know it, wrote among other great works: Mountains and Rivers Without End – a most-interesting and poetic treatise on the resiliency of the mountain forest chains that extend both inward and outward alike. Anyway, I won the award, I think more than anything because it was being published by Malcolm Margolin of Heyday Books out of Berkeley – Here I am also with the artist Tom Killion, who is a huge inspiration of my work. Standing there with Gary, after he reviewed my work and looking up asked me “But Obi, what is California?” Now that is a question. I am glad that I had a modicum of wits about me when I could only reply after taking a deep breath “well, to me Gary, right now California is both Heaven and Hell.”
To Gary’s point, California doesn’t exist as a static thing, a discreet system like a garden or a zoo – there is no element of domesticity there to be detected at all, still, despite even the 21st century veneer, this concrete jacket that we’ve successfully and assuredly momentarily imposed across the west. It remains a living thing, resistant to disease, even if that disease is in human form and wishes to too quickly alter its way and its means – for it will defend itself from the interloper and burn us off like a fever defending the body if we are not careful.
So what does being careful mean? Well we are clearly still working that out and I’ve got little as far as prophetic answers go. But I do have a heading. I can discern orientation in these woods. Being careful, in whatever social system, is always about being respectful. And being respectful is about being able to read the situation of any given community, and being able to read the normal workings of that community. There is a ritual to all ecological workings and that ritual uses living systems that disclose to us clues about when and where to step.
You might have noticed, I use that word a lot: living, or the act of being alive. It is core to the character of the natural world I describe in my book – that all, natural systems are living systems and deserve an emancipated rebirth from the old human paradigms of utility and extraction without reciprocation and gratitude. If you get this point, you see why I left roads and other such things out of my book. This is what the Klamath River will look like in 1,000 years long after our concrete dams have returned to the dust and silt from which they were made. That blue line cutting through those mountains is the line we should learn from – that is the line we should understand.
When you being to accept my assumption that all, natural systems are alive, they being to make a bit more sense and human activity and contrivance begins to make a little less. And I am not shy about it when I say yes, even systems of fire are living networks based on ecological regimes – ecologies that are both adaptive and dependent on it for succession, proliferation and health. I would be remiss to not mention that for over 15,000 years, indigenous cultures of the west have understood how fire regimes may be mitigated over grand swathes of topography. And it is of course in our best interest to again consider the urban/wildlands interface in that regard, as far as prescribed burning and settlement, along with an intimate and practical understand of how invasive botanicals alter the regime in any give locale.
It is my core belief that when and if we can learn, and come to a common vocabulary, a vocabulary robust with respect and acknowledgement, we may yet just survive, as a species, our adolescence. Perhaps then we can trust each other enough to not only begin the conversation about how our continued residency in the west might extend for not only another hundred years, but maybe another thousand or even ten thousand years.
To conclude, I thought I would end with a quick Gary Snyder poem – one that gets to the beating heart of what it means to be counted among a truly sustainable community, or at least one that wishes to be so – this is from “Mountains and Rivers without End” and I like to think that maybe he wrote it in some beautiful moment deep in the Klamath Know, perhaps in the Marble Mountains or the Trinities… it is called “Old Bones.”
Out there walking round, looking out for food,
A rootstock, a birdcall, a seed that you can crack
Plucking, digging, snaring, snagging,
Barely getting by,
No food out there on dusty slopes of scree –
Carry some – look for some,
Go for a hungry dream.
Deer bone, Dall sheep,
Bones hunger home.
Out there somewhere
A shrine for the old ones,
The dust of the old bones,
Old songs and tales.
What we ate – who ate what –
How we all prevailed.