Behind the making of the California Field Atlas
Let me start with this image – a “What I think I do” meme – they were popular a couple of years ago, but the joke holds. We’ve got veils – curtains behind what we are and who we are perceived to be – if you look at my feed on Instagram @coyotethunder, you might think that I am all John Muir all the time – that I somehow live the California Wilderness life all year long and I forever eat berries and sleep under trees – I do that, but not as much as you might be tempted to believe by my front.
My mother has always been encouraging of me as an artist. Her name is Jeffre Talltrees and she lives at 7,000 feet above Lake Tahoe and after being a clinical psychologist for 30 years, is now an energy healer and an avid skier. She likes to tell the story of when speaking with my father shortly after my birth they were musing about what I was going to do. And my father, having earned his PHD in astrophysics at 22 years old was sure that I was going to beat that somehow in academic accomplishment – my mother quipped that she bet I was going to be a potter living on Venice Beach. The humor there being a spectrum between two contrasting identities, well I landed exactly in the middle.
My dear publisher, Heyday books, the brave and stalwart crew that has been such a cornerstone of California publishing for over 40 years, took such a chance on this poet adventurer. I can’t imagine the wringing of hands and the pulling of hair in anxious anticipation of what might, or might not, have been. What a thing to take on this book! What is this thing? This Field Atlas? Who is Obi Kaufmann? Some super tramp who sweet talked his way into a book deal. Well, yes and no.
What I really do day in and day out is work. I like to joke that I am both a farmer and a father, but I have no land and I have no children, so this book is the result of all that displaced energy funneled into about 42 hundred man-hours of drawing, painting and writing – then voila, the California Field Atlas.
I am often asked, and I can hardly remember how or when I came up with the nugget of inspiration that slowly accumulated into the grand snowball becoming the California Field Atlas. It is as if everything that I have ever been interested in, all my hobbies, all my vocations, all my professional or otherwise misbegotten careers, all my political inclinations, and all my scientific aspirations all conspired to manifest this thing as a cornerstone of my identity – certainly the most important, potentially culturally-enduring, hopefully society-serving piece of art I’ve ever constructed. From where I see it, more and more I am drawn to think this book is more about me than it is about California, or anything else.
Let’s consider now the conceptual space of the book’s theme and subject matter – its impetus and its ethics. What is the source of its voice? And through that voice, what does it want to express? As we unpack the very basic perspective the truth becomes equivocal and ultimately, every map reveals the same thing, at least in apprehendable thematic content – the spirit is consistent.
By design, the sliver of personal truth revealed through The California Field Atlas is an interwoven array of what can be called the science of aesthetics and the aesthetics of science. The ethical poetry at play is not concerned with “what” – as in what is this butterfly? what is that stone? much in the way a field guide might work – it is not interested in “why” – as in why do the larger shaping forces of the nature world present themselves in a sequential manner? And why even is California, for example, shaped the way that it is? I am not searching for historical truth. It is not concerned, perhaps surprisingly for something calling itself an Atlas, with “where” – as in where am I right now? And what is the best route to an imagined Point B?
The Field Atlas is most concerned with “How”. How do Earth, Air, Fire and Water interact to dynamically shape our collective experience of place? How does the effect of these systems on one another speak to our place in that larger context? How do I make sense of this place I love so much and maybe even more importantly, how does whatever level of proficiency in this kind of Geographic Literacy work to coalesce and sustain my community – whether it be my humanity or what is often called by folks who are like-minded, the more-than-human community?
When I was 16, I was involved for many months in the organized, national boycott of General Electric because of their contract with the Department of Energy to build the neutron trigger which detonates every single one of the estimated thousands of nuclear weapons our country has at its government’s dreadful employ. I remember one sunny, Friday afternoon in 1989 standing in front of Bulfing’s Hardware, a neighborhood store that closed a few years back on College Avenue in Berkeley’s Elmwood neighborhood collecting signatures from those dedicated to pressuring General Electric out of their weaponized contracts – when Old Man Bulfing himself came out of the store holding a broom like a bat, looking like he was ready to pop this little punk for disrupting his business.
What he said to me then really shook me and affected my attitude towards politicized, social action forever. In a yelling voice, he said “you can’t affect change by telling other people what to do! You can only work on yourself!” And then he told me to get the hell off his stoop and I did before he needed to demonstrate his willingness to swing the bat. I don’t know if I would have written the California Field Atlas if Mr. Bulfing nearly didn’t clock me that day, having said what he said. I let that philosophy of working on myself as means to changing the world, as a governing tenant to my relationship by which I can affect change at all. To put Mr. Bulfing’s lesson into some phrasing that I’ve carried around in my proverbial pocket these last 25 years: “turn the key inside your own heart and you turn the world.”
My life in the wilderness, as a walker of California, a lazy reader of flowers and a determined avoider of mountain peaks, says a couple of key things in my relationship to the natural world. I think most believe that living in nature is tough – that threats exist around every corner and that one’s guard must always be up in the deep wilderness – away from help, away from roads – what are we but thin-skinned, slow, pink mammals with no natural weaponry to defend ourselves. All these fears fall away quickly in the California Backcountry, where the weather is predictable and despite the biting flies in the central coast ranges, the insects are largely negligible.
When I was 13, I visited an uncle of mine living in Florida named Captain Rich Ankerson, a commercial pilot for over forty years. He told me that in his long career flying the big planes around the world, that he never had one emergency. When he would regal younger pilots with this, simplest of all stories and he would often be scoffed at – like it was a deficiency in his portfolio of experience – the younger pilots’ first inclination was to dismiss Captain Ankerson as a less-than-expert because of his lack of emergency-tested prowess. My uncle Rich was quick to correct the young pilot: that emergencies only happen to the unprepared, and those who lack the knowledge of this whole bevy of variables that come with flying and that every conceivable emergency doesn’t have to become an emergency if you know the patterns of technology, nature, teamwork, and the deep-science that make the whole thing possible. This scored me profoundly, and again set up a narrative course by which the California Field Atlas would never have been written if I hadn’t received Uncle Rich’s story.
I love the California Backcountry more than anything in the world – I love to be in it for weeks on end and when I am not in it, I am always planning my escape back to it. I love to let it surround me, I love to make it my whole world, I let the wild beings I know become me and I them and I take great flights of leaping romance into a dreamlike reality that I feel safe in, always. This is because I am prepared, because I know the variables I am dealing with. The only emergencies that arise in the wilderness come from not being familiar with the native forces of that wilderness.
I’m not talking about physical accidents that require medical attention – I’m not talking about good fortune. I am talking about preparing one’s self, stocking the brain with a lexicon of endemic patterns that reveal the truth about your environment – if you are literate to the physical geography and the natural history of any given locale or ecotype you begin to subscribe to a greater liberation, the dream unfolding and opening up to you, to your community and to a greater sense of involvement in the natural world – an involvement that I posit, is the responsibility of every citizen of California, going forward to foster and nurture. On one very subtle level, the California Field Atlas is a handbook to assist in the sublimation of a cultural fear that we carry around toward the very idea of wilderness. My work attempts to lay bare the darkest, most fretted corners of the wilderness, where there are no ghosts and there are no emergencies. There is only you and it, and the relationship between the two.
Ever since I was a young boy, I knew I was a painter. It was my first identity and it will be my last. I always wished I was a singer, but my voice is somehow nasally and shrill at the same time. In my adult life I recognize that all art is ultimately the same if it comes from the same grounded philosophy of aesthetics. The best and most basic theory of aesthetics was given to us by James Joyce who worked it out in the early part of the 20th century when he described the Eye of the Universe perceiving the thing of the Universe.
The beautiful stasis in that state of arrest attained by the beholder after viewing and apprehending a fortunately executed piece of art– a flower perfectly rendered, for example, transmitting 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.
I was 19 years old in 1992 when I took my first painting course with Ciel Bergman at the University of California at Santa Barbara where I would later earn my degree in 1995. I am sorry to say that Ciel died this year in Santa Fe. She moved there the late 90’s because she fell in love with the New Mexican sky. This makes sense I suppose, because she was, at one point in the sixties, mentored by Georgia O’Keefe and the Southwest desert spoke to her in paint and she spoke back.
She told me one evening, as we were sharing a hand-rolled cigarette and some sweet bourbon on the porch of her light blue studio shack on the northern slope of Mount Pedernal near Abiquiu, New Mexico, in the dying light of day as the Coyote chorus in the nearby arroyo was beginning to spark its nightly, sweet dissonance, that “Painting and writing were really the same thing. Fluid paint moves to influence our cognition on the most fundamental level. To paint the mountain, to write about the mountain, or to map the mountain all can lead to the same projected experience of the mountain. Beauty is equivocal and a necessary antidote to all the media poison we are fed.”
I will never forget that night, awake under the way too bright road of the Milky Way blaring at me like a cosmic signboard toward my own future path – that the way of ecology and the way of art were bridged by a delicate harmony in what is intrinsically beautiful – it occurred to me that night that phenomenological truth is by its nature, beautiful. This subtle and fundamental truth, it is my conviction, does not occur to most people automatically or instinctually, and needs to be mapped out as any other basic thing in the world. I believe Ciel Bergman will be remembered as one of the great painters of our age.
The next big key marker in the road to getting to where we are with the completion of this book occurred many, many years after my revelation in the New Mexican desert. I went onto live in the Northwest, get married, get divorced, move back to my hometown of Oakland California – fall in love again – all the while, keep painting keep walking, keep Wilderness Talking, keep believing in turning the key in me, finding the beauty that would heal the world. It took torturous detours – the archetype of the wounded shaman flared, and I took gnarly dark roads to truth. I was drugging too much, and my oil paintings were of little more than werewolves. It was a single, stark image that I haphazardly encountered on an adventure once that broke that horrible armor that I had maybe unconsciously had been building.
It was in Modoc County way in northeastern California – it was fall, I was driving by myself – it was late afternoon. At 45 miles an hour or so I saw out of the corner of my eye something that made me pull the car over. I couldn’t even register what I was looking at – something on a fence in the twilight – something beyond my history, something I couldn’t register because I have no experience with it – with killing, with blood, with the direct power of nature it took at such a display. What I was looking at was six young adult coyotes nailed through their face to a cedar fence.
It looked like the scene had happened just that day – the coats where red and full and free of mange – the coyotes (not shot, maybe poisoned) were well fed and their paws still had mud on them, their faces covered in blood. I wept there hard for quite a time – weeping not only for the poor fellow land walkers, so loathed and discarded to be displayed as garish trophies, a tortured victory over wild nature – but I wept that kind of stomach-cinching tears that make men swear oaths. I swore an oath that day – I guess it was about 15 years ago now – to re-find in me that old vision of healing, of atonement with the nature world, the beautiful key that if I turn it, the world could not help but be turned itself. Before I left the horrific scene, I thanked that anonymous coyote killer for setting me on this new path of fire and vision.
I was telling this story a year or two later to, of all people, Dana Gleason – who is a legend in the outdoor world of backpacking. My first pack was made by Dana Designs, his company in the 70’s and 80’s – and now Dana’s backpacks are the only kind the US military uses. Dana is cowboy, of sorts. When I use the word cowboy, I mean a particular kind of man, and on occasion woman, that every westerner is familiar with. We don’t get them too much in California anymore, but the identity is alive and well in Montana, where Dana is from.
Dana does not believe that canids of any sort, of which Coyote are one, have any business in the modern world, and if they do, that business needs to be far away from any work human endeavor. “It is a war” I remember him telling me – incidentally over a cocktail in Midtown Manhattan where we both were attending the same men’s style tradeshow – “There will never be peace between wolves, coyotes, or whatever, and cowboys until they are all gone. The rancher who nailed those coyotes to the fence didn’t think a damn thing about it.” I like Dana. He is an intelligent guy – I just fall way on the other side of the line as far as wildlife conservation is concerned. I remember he seemed to conclude our conversation later as we went back and forth with the warning: “You want to know the quickest way to get the shit kicked out of you in any bar in Montana? Bring up wolf conservation.”
The cowboy’s aversion to coexisting with wildness is not monolithic, I only bring it up because we, the people who would like to get it right with the land, beyond seeing the whole network of the natural world as a falsely-infinite well of extractable resources, contend with the living spirit of manifest destiny every day. This anachronistic, Abrahamic world view that IT is all for us, is ultimately the world’s number one bad story. To get right with the world of wilderness, you are going to have to understand death on a different level. You spend enough time in nature, you watch its patterns, you see how energy is not kept, but flows from one network, one personal-biome to the next and you get right with death, or at least you come to recognize it as a transforming force that is all about the giving and taking circle. Not dying and not pain, but with the unbearable fact of it. This is the most subtle and underserved point in the rewilding movement – which is a big preoccupation of mine in that I see it as a path forward into a more-sustainable culture for California and frankly the rest of humanity, agreeing now with E.O.Wilson, head of biology at Harvard, in his call to conserve one half of the world for wilderness as being a necessary key to our continued abundant way of life – and for preserving a good bit of this world’s biodiversity in the wake of the currently engaged Anthropocene extinction.
But what do I mean when I say that we need a new story about death? What do I mean when I say we’ve got to get right with it? I think the best answer here is to consider what I mean by life, or the state of being alive, or of living. A few years back I was backpacking deep in the San Rafael Wilderness about fifty miles north of Santa Barbara near the Sisquoc Condor sanctuary. I was doing some trail maintenance with the Los Padres Forest Association and we were deep in bear country.
The coastal ranges of the southern Los Padres National Forest have a lot of bears – you see their tracks everywhere in the mud. This one time, I was there in late April when you would see a cub every couple of hours, always holding your breath to make sure you weren’t between it and its mom. Included in my crew was the wilderness perfumer of Juniper Ridge Hall Newbegin, the outfit I worked for at the time, and his daughter Jane, who if memory serves was about 7 years old at the time. As you can imagine, Jane had fallen in love with every cute teddy bear cub we encountered on this trek – we never did see a mother on that trip, and I am just fine with that.
On the final morning of the trek we were hiking out of the canyon and, while marching through a thick grove of live oak trees in a garden decorated by tall, bright blue Larkspur wildflowers we stepped into a very odd zone of silence. The early morning, springtime oak forests of the Sierra Madre Mountains are a noisy place – from bees and flies to hawks and frogs, it was startling how silent it immediately became – in the next fifteen seconds we found the source of the anomaly. Before us, just five or so feet off the trail, was what took us a moment to recognize as a bear cub carcass. The fur had been pulled up from the rear of the cub over the entire length of its body like it was skinned for its jacket, in one fluid motion.
What struck me immediately were two things: first, the bright red color of its exposed musculature and second, the lack of a smell. Dead things always smell and are never vividly colored. Hall and I looked first at each other and realized there is one creature this deep in the wilderness who works this way – the mountain lion – and two, that this kill probably happened in the last ten minutes – the yellow jackets had yet to descend and the forest seemed frozen with the violent act. We were probably just a few yards from the big cat and didn’t know it. I’ve had several encounters with Mountain Lions in my tenure across the California Backcountry and the one constant is that when you are around them, you are not in control of the situation – the situation will play out exactly as the mountain lion chooses.
You might think that I am putting the dramatic point of the story on my emotions about seeing this event played out, about how I was scarred – I wasn’t. This lion was just waiting for us to move on. The thing that crushed me then, and still does to this day, was thinking of little Jane standing over the skinned cub. I walked on a little bit and turned to see Hall put his arm around his then openly crying daughter. We all left the scene quickly and back into the buzzing forest that so quickly flooded in just a few yards past. What an amazing way to learn about death in the wild? It isn’t fun, it doesn’t make sense – but it is true, and Jane’s life will be forever informed by this deeply profound and immediate experience – the kind of experience that rips through all virtual facsimiles. The kind of experience that is so beautiful and so terrible that it, 1) cannot help but contribute to the forging of one’s deepest character, and 2) sets up in that character, a system of values based on respect for the nature world. That baby bear’s energy was given to the mountain lion, there is a greater management system at work in the goings-on in the forest that is alive and self-regulating and full of checks and balances – there is a network of reciprocation. This I suppose is what I mean by getting right with death. This is the immediate lesson of the real and the wild world.
So, after so many adventures and being lost in a world of my own making, full of art, beauty and the most basic terrible and beautiful truths – when I was approached by Lindsie Bear, the then nature editor for HEYDAY books, about a book – Lindsie, being a kind of exploratory editor – into the literary wilderness she goes! Searching and mapping in a style all her own – the truth is, I wasn’t sure if this book was ready to come forth before her confidence in me about it. I remember in one of our first meetings when I was explaining this things I have, these stories I carry – how maps would tie to narrative: The textbooks of my father, the wisdom-healing-teaching of my mother, the political action of my youth, my want to diffuse the fear of wilderness in the modern mindset as one might wish to dispel some pathos from a suffering patient, the aesthetic philosophies bestowed to me from the southwest desert masters, the convicted judgement that our society suffers from a fundamental lack of “Story” to quote the word in almost parody, resulting from some misconceptions about what death actually is, and how to get right with place, how to get at the root of our geographic illiteracy and how to cure it, like as I say, it was a disease.
I think Lindsie, as graceful and witty as ever was not taken aback at all. We got to know each other well in the process of conceiving this tome. She learned that I speak elvish, as well as anyone I suppose – based on Tolkien’s writing in Lord of the Rings, and that I am a huge fan of Frank Herbert’s Dune-series and she encouraged me to take this book there; Make the world my own – only to veer away from falsity. A bit larger than life was cool, but the road I had to take to find my own story was long – the editing process of the book was at least as challenging as the drafting of it.
During the writing of the book, me in my artistic bubble, toiling day after day, largely rudderless and with only my tiny dog to keep me company, I met with Lindsie every six weeks or so for coffee at the little place down the street from where the Heyday office used to be. When we were well in to naming conventions and how they would work throughout the book, I ran into what I still think of in my mind as the native-language-problem.
One of my very favorite mountains in California, not only because I’ve had the honor of climbing to its peak, but because of what it exhibits in habitat for endemic flora and fauna, can now be found on conventional maps as being called Junipero Serra Peak. The tallest peak in all the Coastal Ranges of California from Mountain Piños in the south, up to Snow Mountain past the Bay, in the North, Junipero Serra Peak has known many names: before being named after the father of California’s 18th century missions, it was known as Santa Lucia Peak, and before that, and what Wikipedia still says to this day: the Salinian people called the peak PIMKOLAM. I was happy to present in my book the restored word – and then I came to Heyday and my education about the native-language-problem began.
It was at last year’s Heyday Holiday party that I met Gregg Castro, a Salinian teacher, that I found out that Pimkolam merely means “mountain” and that the true name of this peak was more of a sentence than a word. When relating this story to Lindsie, she, as always in the most reassuring manner told me that “restoring the original – or the first, human names to these places is not for me or this book to take on – that plainly: that is not my story.” I still wrestle with this subtle philosophical point that she presented. How far does my authority extend as an historian? As a cartographer? As a naturalist? When do I have to put the brakes on calling myself, for example, a scientist? And how far can I get on being an artist? An author? Time will tell I suppose. All these questions, laid out like so much meat in the hot and wasting sun threatened to take me down – and then I met the man who it would turn out to be was the last piece of the puzzle in getting this book written. It was when I met Malcolm Margolin.
Malcolm had already become the Publisher Emeritus at Heyday by the time I came on board, but his spirit lingered like a kind of flavor in the air, a perfume really. How could it not? He had been running Heyday for more than 40 years and now mine was going to be the first major title without him at the helm? Dicey situation indeed. I don’t remember shaking his hand for the first time, but I do remember our first hike. It was with Lindsie, at the Runnymede Sculpture Gardens in Los Altos in May of 2016 – I was already four or five months into the more-than-full-time job of writing the book. At once we were shockingly candid with each other, and I was really surprised out how refreshingly foul I found the guy to be. I remember confiding in him as we strolled through some flowers alone, and I felt license that I could disclose such base-things as pronouncing “I am so in love with California right now, that I wish she could be my lover.” Feeling exposed I quickly added “I don’t think that will make it into the introduction.” Malcolm looked at me with a trademark twinkle in his eye and said softly “I wish it would.”
That was the opening of the floodgate – that was the origin of the first line of the book – that this is a love story. In a hundred subsequent talks with Malcolm I became looser with my whole attitude toward the book – I became freer with my power.
I know that this is good. I know we are working here on a sustainable vision for the future. I know that this will grow out and up from me and my mortal efforts. He would later question if he ever actually said this to me, but with just a bit of prodding, I got it out of him: Malcolm once told me that he didn’t care about books. “It is not the product that is the truest source of the story, but the process by which it gets made.” In an amendment he would later add that “the book is nothing more than the stone for the stone soup around which people gather.” I couldn’t think of any better concluding words for this yarn – we have here a collection of maps that amount to, I submit, a workable model for a sustainable citizenry.
Our society is built on stories – from the fiction that is money to the transcendent assumptions of collective reality – from the illusion that death might just be – to the falsity of danger in wild, savage, natural world. In my most perfect dreams, I map California as a circle as big as the horizon that we might all be able to fit into – us and the ghosts of those who have come before and who will come after. In my most realized process I am 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.
The California Field Atlas
is available from the author at
or from the Publisher HEYDAY at
Email Obi at firstname.lastname@example.org