California’s Natural World; Conservation & Restoration

Presention by Obi Kaufmann

California Native Plant Society – Yerba Buena Chapter

July 05, 2018

San Francisco, California



Thank you all so much for having me. As a naturalist, how could you not be a fan of that which is rare in the natural world? Rare means precious. Rare means value. Rare means a moral imperative to protect. In the year of my birth, 1973, The California Native Plant Society, already having existed for eight years, and having published California’s Rare Plant Index five year before, collaborated with the Smithsonian to review the national list of plants and found that California holds populations of a third of all plants on that list. Monumental, industrial work towards restoration and stewardship is the hallmark of the California Native Plant Society and supporting and participating in their efforts is my distinct honor and pleasure.

01a, flowers

Plant lovers, flower friends, tree huggers are a very special vintage of person. They certainly are their own kind, a type. It is not a temporal aspect of personality, it is not a phase, it is a pillar of character, it can be a calling, like being an artist or some other vocation to which one is bound, to which one is committed with a ferocity of love that is normally reserved to family. The academic manifestation of that love, those burning decades of focus, can be a proficient lyricism with among other thing, Latin and the accompanying binomial nomenclature used to name species; alas, this lyric ability is wasted on mixed company where in all but the most specific social situations, you are guaranteed blank stares should you find yourself indulging an expression of the obsession.

(02 Condor Map)

I am really, quite sure that the lay people, ordinary folk who aren’t called to the niche-specialized work that the good folks at the CNPS do, day in and day out, get bored so quickly at the professional talk of dendrology and angiosperm diversity, is because of its lack so often of human context, of human story. We, the naturalist community, are mostly just happy to let the plants be the plants; they aren’t resources, they aren’t commodities. Our internal resonance, our appreciation of them, and with the natural world in general is best expressed by our study of it. We find a community, however insular, however exclusive, and we become experts, and we work on a dangerous fulcrum of being not-understood, of being dismissed, of our work being too esoteric to be relevant. I think that this conundrum – and I do think it is a conundrum, not a criticism – is symptomatic of a larger issue now, in contemporary political culture. Our work, more than ever, is being politicized, that rapacious form of appropriation where to preserve biodiversity, for example, is wrapped up in a whole bundle of ideologies, of agendas, of what I believe and what you believe. And it doesn’t matter what it true. It doesn’t matter that we know science is not a belief-system. What does matter is that we are in a torpor of narrative, a gravity-well of story where what we hold most dear: the nuanced interdependence of all living networks is not real to the experience of so many.


Tonight’s presentation will not be me getting too preachy about what we need or need not do to combat, or to defend, or to even change anyone’s mind about anything. Lord knows those roads have been mapped, ad nauseum, by those more qualified than myself. I believe, at the core of my process, that with the right attitude, with the right quality, with the right language, paradigms crack and slip, almost tectonically, unintentionally, by a function of what can be described as a physical dimension to human, conscious thought. Tonight, I am going to walk you through an introduction of my work, where I have been, how I got there and where I think it all might be going. Tonight, I am going to work through some process of my own voice ascending these stairs to what it aspires to be: a more explicit demonstration of my love for California’s natural world. Given that I believe my creative, mortal purpose is the joyful participation in all the world has for us to witness, my vision is ultimately and necessarily inclusive.

(04 BOOK)

With that, I would like to present the California Field Atlas. I am very proud where the book has gone in the past ten months since its first printing, as we are now already in its fourth. It has won three awards: the first was for the unfinished manuscript, my publisher submitted it for the Phelan Award for California writing, the second was the book of the year by the Northern California Book Sellers Association and the third was the gold medal for significant contribution to publishing from the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco.

(05 Ten Months)

It’s been ten months since the publication of the California Field Atlas. Ten months since I left this box of flowers at the garden gate. Ten months on tour up and down, left to right, traveling through and across the human ecology of California. More rewarding than presenting the work itself is the audience I am able to become before this electric network, a community ready for this nature-first narrative. I listen to the choir of neighbors ready to be counted in a nation that draws its strength from a healthy relationship with all systems of the natural world. In the next one hundred years, as our society turns from extraction to replenishment as the primary attitude toward this giving-land of plenty, into a post-carbon economy, we will reject more and more the rhetorical miasma set as a divisive agenda upon us from the swarm of professional politicians. The solutions to all manner of our ecological dilemmas are already on the table. Disregarding the vocal extremes, we are one and we are not afraid of the work it will take to continue this, perhaps the most important conversation we can have.

(06 prismagraphic)

Perhaps you know what the book is, perhaps you don’t. Let me summarize it this way: several hundred, hand-painted maps and wild life renderings describing how the natural world works around California. A little bit deeper, I could describe it this way: an introductory handbook and inventory of conservation, in celebration of California’s natural history. It also is a Field Atlas, a genre of my own invention, that describes those living systems that have influenced and supported, continue to influence and support, and will always influence and support ecosystems across California’s physiogeography regardless of the contemporary urban veneer, the jacketing tyranny of concrete and plastic that we have so successfully imposed. Whatever modicum of success the book is enjoying, I owe it all to what I think more and more is an electric-network of citizens ready for this nature-first kind of narrative. How do we begin to reconcile this ache we have in our bones that California does not belong to us, but rather the reverse: we belong to this place, and more so, that this place is alive.

(07 Biogeochemical Cycles)

The condition of life, of being alive is an important thing to summarize, as I do spend most of my working hours deliberating it. I start my book with the one assumption, well actually two assumptions, but I’ll start with the first one now: that every natural feature of California is alive and deserves an emancipated rebirth from the old human paradigms of utility and extraction without reciprocation and gratitude. If I were to rewrite that assumption now, two years after I initially drafted it, I would exchange the word feature with the word system – Every natural system is alive. It’s more concise language to express an idea that carries the larger message of my life’s work. All systems within the biosphere, that gloriously thin belt of roiling biotic and abiotic systems, that global conversation of biogeochemical cycles that makes all complex organisms possible – those systems that have not been rendered sterile through human artifice – all contain properties and exhibit behaviors, at relative scale, that arguably not only mimic life, but are life itself.

(08 Black Holes and Warped Spacetime)

Quantifiable detection, measurement and consensus are the three necessary concepts that science requires, that my work does not. I am an artist, and every minute that you hold this book in your hand, I am asking you to accept my view of the natural world based on my inspiration, on my appreciation and on my experience as an explorer. I am very sensitive in drawing a line between what I do and what scientists do – I grew up with it. Both my parents were scientists of sorts: my mother, Dr. Jeffre Talltrees is a clinical psychologist and my father, Dr. William John Kaufmann, III, was an astrophysicist. Here is a copy of one the eighteen books he wrote before his death, 24 years ago today. Black Holes in Warped Spacetime. The blurb on the cover reads “From star birth to star death… to the final cosmic reality where fact and fantasy merge.” I am sure he did not write that.

(09 Iris)

Throughout high school, my after school regimen was three hours of math homework a night before dinner. Stack of paper, cup of sharp pencils. I still work that way, now often with a brush in hand. I believe my father was attempting to instill in me the discipline of math and science as the language of empirical truth-to-inquiry into the fundamental nature of the cosmos. This far from those days, still quite clearly having some type of conversation with my father’s intellectual legacy, I see now that what I actually gained in those endless man-hours of calculus practice was a larger appreciation with I would call the aesthetics of systems theory. All I see, all I was trained to see, is a pervading grace that when matched with my own proclivities towards the arts and the humanities, amounted to a kind of philosophical liberation, a scientific backbone where I now am licensed to take my inventions: my invented geography, my elemental-narrative of earth, air, fire and water and exhibit them freely as working extrapolations that offer truth in an interpersonal context.

(10 Klamath River)

The river doesn’t care if you think it is alive or not. At that scale, the Klamath River will look like how I’ve painted it here, a thousand years from now – long after all of our roads have returned to the dust from which they are made. The tools we use to describe our instincts: words and art and the invention of fiction that were gifted to our species during the cognitive revolution more than 70,000 years ago are best used for society’s long term well-being when they are used in the service of Stewardship of the natural world. This is now a lost sentiment, after Watt’s 1774 invention of the oil powered steam engine, a date uncoincidentally aligning with the revolution that spawned the world’s first major democratic, governing power. We now live in Bill Mckibben’s world: the end of nature – a book I have a lot of problems with – when every bit of the biosphere was touched by the atmospheric spread of humanity’s first, global-altering emission, cementing our legacy of detritus and pollution in the visible, geologic strata.

(11 forest)

In the industrial world, in the grips of the industrial world’s ethical paradigm, it is nearly impossible to imagine stillness, or balance is probably the better word, on a cultural level. Even those among us who wish to see a restored ecography – some new version of society where a balance is attained between the extraction and replenishment of our copious natural resources – are attempting to envision a machine that puts the proverbial toothpaste back in the tube. That is not to say that we’ve not made great strides towards reconciling the known threats. The invention of Public lands, a bit more than a century ago, was a great step towards identifying our right to develop with our responsibility to set aside. It helped us to realize what the author Gretel Ehrlich calls the Solace of Open Spaces, a necessary driver of sanity in our body and our collective mind. Fifty years ago, The Golden Age of Environmental legislation did what it could to unite us in our efforts to remediate the terrible poisons we injected willfully into our shared environment and threatened the longevity of the legacy that is our natural world, opened up to us by such author’s as Rachel Carson.

(12 POST)

Despite potentially being threatened to whatever degree by any given executive administration and their unwise policies, there are certain core bits of knowledge that we’ve attained to the betterment of our natural world. An obvious example for this crowd might be the acknowledgement that the willful introduction of alien species into any given ancient ecosystem always disrupts the productive equilibrium of that community. But we are still so far from realizing a day when we transform our hearts from reclamation to restoration, that relieved cessation to manifest destiny, when the exponentially spiraling, positive-feedback loops are tamed. We do not yet know what we do not know. We are still in the wave of industrial progress, and when that wave moves through us, either by its own momentum or by our choice to restructure it, our society will be left with a new paradigm, and the structure of that paradigm will be ecological.

(13 Water)

I have now just finished up my second book in this series which will ultimately be a five series set. This second book is a bit of an outlier to the other four: it is about water. This first book, the California Field Atlas is an elemental tour of the big, macro-networks of Earth, Air, Fire and Water are there relative influence across the topography, largely irrespective of humanity. The following trilogy: The California Lands Trilogy will consist of three books to come out in 2019 and 2020, again published by HEYDAY called The Forests of California, The Coasts of California and the Deserts of California. First though, I had to get my head around Water – the single most altered aspect of California’s large and natural systems of life. The book is called the State of Water, a field atlas to the conservation of California’s most precious resource.

(14 Rivers)

We enjoy water now in California as a generously available commodity derived from, at different scales, a finite resource. After enough numbers have been considered, and after enough resources have be reconciled between what we use, what there is and what we need, I am always amazed by how far we’ve extended the natural limits of the sheer volume of water in this arid paradise. The next one hundred years, like the last one hundred years in California history, will be defined by water. The premise of the book, if there is an agenda to it at all is that if we’re not talking about conservation, we are not have a good debate about water. Better pour another drink, because as Mark Twain (probably never) said: “whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting.”

(15 Salmon)

I pick my fights carefully in this thin book. Like my other books, it is a systems theory, a personal journey through art and analysis that is about more than what it is actually about. The infrastructure of California water, specifically surface water systems – a braided knot, an artifact of superimpositions over the state’s natural circulatory network that is as dazzling as it might be precarious. My focus is on the riparian ecosystems that harbor so much endangered, endemic life and my relationship to it, not only as a thirsty artist (pun intended) with so many of his own opinions, but a citizen involved in unpacking the truth. Sometimes the process appears as a fight, at other times a celebration.

(16 coyote)

When I wrote the California Field Atlas, the political climate of the country was much different. As I am working on the follow-ups, I am tracing a very delicate line between activism and celebration, between ire and ecstasy, between agenda and observation. Ultimately, the primary dynamic in my systems analysis is scale, through both time and across space. The political reality of the moment does not necessarily have any more or any less a catastrophic effect on the wild character of California, than the last five hundred, or even ten thousand years, the history of human residency in this place. The avalanching effect on patterns of endemic life that society has, is coming sharply into focus as the most important issue of our day.

(17 Map 01)

In my work, I do not recount a doom and gloom philosophy, listing emergency calls-to-action, but I also strive to not suffer the foolish policies of the unwise interests at the helm of any given governmental administration.

In my work, I examine the relationship between art and science, which in my mind is the play between meaning and truth and apply that research to one object-field-system of study: California. The course of my study is mechanically, a puzzle of endless depth, width and breadth despite the topographic finiteness of the land area itself. The end of my work is societal atonement with California’s natural world; an equilibrium between human extraction and replenishment based on more-than-knowledge, but a deep understanding rooted in love to protect and restore. To give back the gift.

(18 Map 02)

I have a lot of faith in the idea of Geographic literacy, but I have a hard time pinning down exactly what it is. It is certainly not only the rote ability to read a map. It is more than the ability of being able to read the land. It is more than knowing what is where. Geographic literacy is wrapped up in the qualitative function of how – how do systems relate and support life.

(19 Owl)

Let’s go with that: Geographic Literacy is the interdisciplinary study and appreciation of living patterns across a specific landscape. Geographic literacy is not only the study of ecology, the study of the relationship between biotic and abiotic forces, but the understanding of how macro-networks of a given province (be it a watershed, a fireshed, a carbonshed, a viewshed) are influenced by physiography, hydrology, climate, soil, pollution and other elemental, shaping forces that influence biodiversity at any moment on the ecosystem’s adaptive cycle, its successive life cycle.

(20 Adaptive Cycle)

All living networks share the same adaptive cycle regardless of scale. New growth always evolves into mature forms of conservation within the system-body. This inevitably leads to the release of stored energy at the opposite side of the diagram from the generation of it. The decimation releases resources that makes way for the reorganization of those structures that define the function of the system itself and extend through time to both the beginning and the end of terrestrial life.

(21 flowers)

Ascribing power of self-generation and renewal, or purpose, to a natural system is to see that system as alive – a being unto itself. Or at least, this reach to understanding set some parameters to better understand our role in the functioning of that system. If all natural systems are living systems, the moral perspective shifts and we become responsible to recognize our integral relationship to it. Systems of nature are now legally considered property: resources and commodities. The economics that we’ve built around this system of law – capitalism – depends on the myth of resource scarcity, it is the driving force of supply, demand, investment and return. I am not decrying the evils of our legal system or even capitalism itself, I don’t have a prescription about how it will play out. I am suggesting that when we shift the perspective, when the paradigm begins to slip, when we see the world as a living thing that exists in cycles of rebirth and redefinition, we see our own society susceptible to the same kind of evolution. And then, we can begin to talk about how the land sustains and renews itself – we move from the realm of scarcity into the realm of plenty.

(22 River Otter)

The next several hundred years will be the age of ecology. We will learn how remediation becomes restoration and moves to stewardship for the conservation and preservation of biosphere-system-balances that make human life possible. Since the late 18th century when we entered the era of the carbon economy and began the veiling of the whole surface of the planet in a thin layer of combustion’s residue, then again in 1945 when we upped the ante on the process and deposited another layer of strata in the form of radioactive particles that marked the beginning of humanity’s nuclear age, we entered a new, geologically detectable age of the Holocene, the Anthropocene, or as E.O.Wilson warns, the age of loneliness. If in fact it is to be an age of loneliness, as the so-called sixth massive extinction that is proceeding at a rate corresponding directly with the exponential growth of our species, we will only witness its beginnings and not its far reaching effects as our existence is supported by a network of all life that reaches to touch all pieces of the biosphere. With collective vision, we are together drawing another path through this labyrinth, one that is at least locally alive more now than it was fifty years ago. From this context, a painting of a river otter, and relating a simple tale of their precarious resurgent population across the San Francisco Bay Delta, is far more than just a cute, aquatic predator regaining a foothold – it is a symbol of us recognizing the way to our future legacy is by examining, supporting and reinforcing the legacy of nature’s past. As much habitat as we can afford to return to wild, endemic patterns is investment into our own, rich and resilient future.Intro