by Sophia Markoulakis

On the morning of Oct. 11, Obi Kaufmann was wrapping up the first leg of his book tour en route to the Lost Coast. Days later, he gave the keynote address to the annual fundraising dinner for the Klamath Siskiyou Wildland Center while his beloved Bay Area was burning. The theme of the evening was resiliency. Most would say his new book, “The California Field Atlas” (Heyday; $45), carries a similar ethos.

 When I first spoke with Kaufmann, a month before fire ravaged over 100,000 acres in Northern California, we talked about the state’s ability to heal itself. Today, the landscape is forever changed and he’s steadfast in his views on how to live within the state’s ecosystem, saying that, “The book works best as a manual of conservation, a handbook to the deep, long-term and ancient ecological mechanisms of the state and its themes are not swayed by the events, terrible or otherwise, that play themselves out year after year across California’s rich and vital topography.”

 

Kaufmann, 44, grew up in the shadows of Mount Diablo, where he was more at home with the mountain’s sage and oak than he was with the suburban streets. As the child of an astrophysicist and psychologist, he was accustomed to a certain level of intellectual levitation and spent his formative years juggling both his love of nature and aptitude for academics. A marriage of the two resulted in a degree in fine art. He worked as a gallery artist until 10 years ago, when he recommitted himself to California’s trails and traded his oils for a more portable medium (watercolor). His introspective first book of art, poetry and prose is a result of his circuitous journey through the state’s varied regions.

“It’s my love story to California,” he says of his tome. “I’ve been walking California my whole life, and this book represents years of exploring and painting, organizing it and putting it all down on paper,” he says.

This phase of Kaufmann’s artistic expedition, culminating in a dense state atlas the size of a car’s glove compartment, began when Kaufmann met Heyday’s acquisitions editor, Lindsie Bear, through friends two years ago.

“I was already familiar with his work and admired his tremendous vision and perspective, so when I met him, I casually asked if he ever thought of writing a book,” Bear says of their first conversation.

“He said, very intensely, ‘I’ve been waiting for someone to ask me that, and I’ve had a vision for a book for 20 years. It will be 600 pages, include 300 hand-drawn maps, and if I stop everything I’m doing, I think I can complete it in a year.’ My reaction was, ‘Wow, OK, send me some samples and we’ll see.’” A week later, according to Bear, Kaufmann delivered a polished book proposal that her colleagues described as a “unicorn” title that you see once a decade. “We thought, this is a massive undertaking and he’s the guy to get this done,” she says.

The book, released in early September, has become Heyday’s best-selling first printing of any book in the Berkeley publishing house’s history. Copies of the first printing sold out before its release.

Though Kaufmann describes the book as an indispensable road-trip companion, there are no actual roads in the book. It won’t help you find your way out of the woods, but it will provide you with a greater appreciation for the state’s ecological jewels and landmarks. Kaufmann’s writing offers up hope during this trying time for conservationism and climatic pushback.

The first eight chapters represent Kaufmann’s idea of ecological parallel groupings. Chapter titles like “Of Earth and Mountains” and “Forest and Fires” detail corresponding geography and history, and stress nature’s resourcefulness and responses to its power. “We were looking for a different kind of mapping companion, full of these bridges that connect aesthetics and ecology,” he says. “The redwood tree’s toolbox allows it to live for 2,000 years. What calamities would you encounter if you lived that long? Floods, fire and mudslides … and you need a strategy to survive.”

Chapter nine is dedicated to the state’s counties, illustrated through roadless maps with graphic icons that correspond to geographical landmarks. “These are not Google maps. They’re full of paint, which is an anathema to today’s graphics. Ultimately, the user is rewarded once they are deciphered. They open up like a rose, and the text is sublimated by understanding them,” Kaufmann explains.

In addition to hiking California, his other pursuits — tattoo art, poetry, and being the former chief storyteller for fragrance line Juniper Ridge — hint at a person who is so deeply connected to his purpose here on earth that he’s unabashedly unaware of his effect on others. “My work always gravitates towards synthesis, not analysis,” he says.

Experiencing a commonality with others on his hiking expeditions is a highlight for Kaufmann. When Mats Anderson of the Swedish denim brand Indigofera, whom he met through Juniper Ridge, joined him on a previous backpacking trip, they formed a friendship. When Anderson learned of the book deal, he was inspired to create a capsule collection of clothes called the California Hiking Series in honor of it and its message of conservation.

Anderson describes the collaboration as a merging of the minds. “People like Obi help me paint the picture of Indigofera in a way that I can’t do myself,” he said via email. “We had been on the trail together several times, sharing an interest in nature and wanting to be dressed for the occasion.”

Anderson considered Kaufmann’s penchant for painting en plein air when he designed large pockets on the vest and jacket. Natural fabrics like cotton, linen, hemp and wool were used, reflecting both men’s distaste for synthetic materials that make one stand out instead of blend in with the environment.

“When you look at my Instagram, some might say I look like a mountain man, but I’m actually more town and country,” Kaufmann says of his desire to look properly dressed for a hike or a drink in town after. “I love the idea of owning fewer, better things. These clothes are made for today and are constructed to last.”

The capsule includes a banded, long-sleeve shirt, a field vest and a heavy linen jacket. There’s also a graphic Norwegian-sourced lambswool blanket with Kaufmann’s Coyote and Thunder logo. The pieces, available exclusively at Oakland’s Standard & Strange, render a John Muir-like image of 19th century gentlemen’s attire. “Nature refuels our battery, resets our clock — so why not be dressed for it,” he says.

Kaufmann’s cautious optimism and appeal is undeniable as people search for authenticity — in nature, in fashion, in literature and art. His commitment to California makes us all want to tread lighter on a place that gives us so much. “We have to look at nature as living networks, systems that play out despite the 21st century’s urban veneer that humanity has successfully imposed across the West. The ultimate goal of the book is one full of hope, course and vision — a welcome antidote in these days of endless political miasma on a national scale,” he says.

Sophia Markoulakis is a Peninsula freelance writer. Email: style@sfchronicle.com.

“The California Field Atlas” is available at www.heydaybooks.com, and via https://coyoteandthunder.com.

Kaufmann’s next reading is 6-8 p.m. Nov. 24 at Oakland Yard Wine Shop, 420 40th St., Oakland.

all photos of Obi by Paul Collins @paulnemirahcollins