The Field Atlas – Focusing the Creative Intent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Categories: ESSAYS