Transcript: December 05. 2019. Contra Costa Watershed Symposium. Keynote by Obi Kaufmann
Good morning. I am very grateful to Elissa and all those at the Contra Costa County Resource Conservation District for inviting me here today to open this event. I entitled this address with the aptly vague and evocative title Unity and Vision: an ecological tour of Contra Costa County’s future, to capture in general, my themes when I give talks to all levels of informed, uninformed or more-increasingly, misinformed communities all over the state. And although I’ve learned to spit a good game, I myself regularly identity as being inside one of those three camps of the informed, the uninformed or the misinformed. I am Coyote. I’ll spin a yarn, but I am outside of policy and I am outside of published science, and I am very clear, and I am very sensitive to both of those positionings. My strengths, these days come from my most general observations — for example, now to allude back to the title of this morning’s address, I don’t have the prophet’s hold on how time will affect our shared, local ecology but I do know that its fate is tied to the larger living system, and I intentionally refer to it in the singular tense — of California — not the political identity, but probably more accurately, the floristic province by the same name.
When I first was invited to give the Keynote at this excellent event, I imagined developing a kind of quick overview of creek shed-restoration projects or delving into the portfolio of projects currently underway across this place. I do have over forty years of personal experience, adventuring in, studying and painting Contra Costa County’s backcountry, so I immediately got excited to get really nerdy about this advance or that innovation… and then I remembered who I was actually addressing — you all. I painted this map yesterday — a map that doesn’t really exist as such anywhere online. I should say this is arguably, the most important vision of the county — and I was researching all the good work that the CCCRD was doing, and I wouldn’t say I got nervous, I’ve been talking about the natural world of California for a couple of years now since the California Field Atlas became a best seller and I am happy to talk all day about whatever issue in whatever community, but I would say that I took pause.
It is the holiday season and I’ve got family on my mind. We all do. The pause I was given yesterday when I sat down to make that map was I realized that I was addressing family. There are so many of you here, soldiers in stewardship, priests of preservation, colonels of conservation, warriors of the watershed (!) who frankly know so much more than I do about everything that I could talk about, I knew that to speak to you here this morning, I should put down all my tools and just speak to my family. We are all family here today and being in a family takes vulnerability to new ideas. Being in a family means that we work together. Being in a family means that we are dependent on a network of trust. Even if I don’t know your name, I know that by being here today, I know that you know this place, that you identify this place as the place of your family — I know that you know this place as our common home, and I am going to trust you with that concept — I am going to trust you with that love.
I’ve got buckets of hope. As our systems get more efficient and we rely less on the extraction of our local and limited resources to sustain our growing population, we are watching a trend to greater opportunities in ecological stewardship and restoration. We are thrilled to witness modest yet growing populations of some of our most precious biodiverse species including Osprey, river otters, beaver, red-legged frogs, great horned owls, white-tailed kites, steelhead, and rainbow trout. The challenges are legion, but the opportunities rise up to meet them.
When I wrote my second book, which is still on the San Francisco Chronicle’s bestseller’s list, the State of Water, Understanding California’s Most Precious Resource, I had thought that what the subtitle referred to, the most precious resource should be axiomatically, water — the substance itself. It is not. Our most precious resource and I learned this through an evolution of my relationship to the greater, human-community of California that I got to know on tour in support of the book, is our ability and willingness to trust one another with the Story. That story is often boiled down to the interpretation of Data based on personal or cultural bias, but I think, especially in relation to the natural world and our place in it, the better story, the one that requires the most trust is how we better manage the balance of our rights versus our responsibilities.
In modern society, a discussion of worldview often comes down to a discussion of Freedom. There are different definitions of freedom, I believe that most of us operate under the largely false assumption that freedom is doing whatever you want. This is wrong, this is a child’s definition of freedom. Freedom in a society is the agency to attend to your social responsibilities without a governmental entity telling you what those responsibilities are.
With the accelerating momentum of so many stressors on our local ecology, how do we identify the most efficient way forward, through the din of disunity, to a collective vision of connectivity and restoration — one that will best ensure the legacy of our home region’s rich, natural world? We put our science-based strategies into place, we make the law and we wait to enjoy their fruit. When I first started backpacking, it was in Big Sur and it was in the 80’s. I thought I had missed so much. I thought I was born too late. There were no condors, there were no whales, there were no otters, there were no Tule elk, there were no white-tailed kites. Now all of these species are increasing in population. This is because of the right negotiation of legislation, science, responsibility, and love for family.
When you are talking about Water in California, you are not talking about water, you are talking about worldview. John Wesley Powell, our nation’s first director of the USGS, was the first to declare that water will always dictate all aspects of life in the West — a declaration as prescient and indeed salient in 1861 as it will be in 2061. In the emerging era of rainbombs and snowdrought, we will increasing rely on our most innovative and nimble minds to not only do more with less but insure that the more we are talking about includes a plan for the more-than-human family we are actively engaged and beholden to a certain level of management, through the foreseeable future. That future will be us doing our best to find the most adaptive and resilient systems of cohabitation within a larger network of biodiversity based on our responsibilities to each other in the face of a warming planet and a climate that is breaking old, reliable cycles.
We are not going back. There is no reason why we need to give a single inch toward further degradation as we are now engaged in new modes of urbanization and development that include conservation and preservation as core values, as necessary as shelter itself. There will be no going back. We will continue our remediation and we will continue to forge a vision of entering the 22nd century with a more-complex and healthier local ecosystem than the one we entered with at the start of the 21st century. It all begins with protecting the watershed, the circulatory system of the natural world.
We are about to spend a billion dollars to get other 100,000-acre feet out of Los Vaqueros reservoir, and I have to say, of all the dams in California, I think Los Vaqueros is my favorite. I know that land well, There is a lot of quality habitats afforded that place and I stand with the Nature Conservancy, Audubon California, and Defenders of Wildlife in support of its expansion. I am not anti-dam, I am anti-dumb-dam and the illegal raising of Shasta Dam is one that I would put into that latter category, but maybe not for the reasons you think. There is a lot of money involved in keeping us divided. Divisiveness is so common, it is, well… like water. And there is a lot of money being made at keeping us separated in our agendas: north and south, urban and rural, blue and red and even human and other-than-human. It is going to be hard work coming together, and we are fighting in new arenas, like social media, that are deleterious to our finding common ground. But then, it has always been difficult. Humans are very good at finding solutions to problems and I won’t bet against them.
I find despair boring. Hope is so much more exciting. As long as there is time, there is hope. We have a miracle happening around us right now. That miracle is that despite all of our efforts to milk California and to fundamentally transform its ecology to our own benefit, it is all still here. Despite every one of our several hundred, natural-landscape-types being threatened or endangered, we have a very low extinction rate. Exactly 32 animal species in the past 170 years — that is less than 1% of our portfolio. There are no laurels to rest on — the reasons why species go extinct are very complex and it seems as though many species are headed towards the extinction vortex. But the point is, they are all still here. So let’s call out local family here today and celebrate their existence and let’s work to keep the trophic structure from cascading into a negative fall. Let’s work for the fairy shrimp, the bald and the golden eagles, the Alameda whipsnake, the western pond turtle, The California tiger salamander, The California red-legged frog, The San Joaquin kit fox, and even our friend, the San Francisco dusky-footed wood rat, Neotoma fuscipes. Let’s acknowledge them in all of our work as being part of our family and deserving of habitat. And let’s trust each other enough to have an inclusive conservation about the ecological health of Contra Costa County into the future. I certainly give that to you, gathered here today. The power is yours and I thank you from my heart for rising to accept it. Thank you.