(Raw text interview from DARK MOUNTAIN, Issue 17. published 2020. Obi Kaufmann X Neale Inglenook)
Neale Inglenook: Do you mind if we start with your background, and how you came to painting?
Obi Kaufmann: Sure, sure. My father was an astrophysicist. He was the director of Griffith Observatory down in Los Angeles for a few years in the seventies, and then we moved to Northern California, Mt. Diablo to be specific – the great mountain where I cut my teeth as a naturalist. I just played a lot there, you know climbing waterfalls and playing with tarantulas, mapping sage mazes. Really tied to that mountain. That mountain became my axis Mundi. Especially in light of what my father was teaching me, with his scientific ways and his willy mathematics. Every day after school in high school it was a big ream of white paper and a sharp can of number two’s and we were doing calculus homework all afternoon before he set me free to play on the mountain. And so that was my training. And of course for all of his efforts he made a painter.
I went to UC Santa Barbara as a biologist, but I quickly fell in love with the art paintings of the Chumash, which covered the Santa Inez mountains, of the southern Los Padres National Forest. I went backpacking every weekend while I was in school to go find these art sites. There are hundreds of them still that are off-trail, unmapped and unprotected, just covering the landscape. You might pull back a bush of ceanothus and find a ten-foot condor painted on the underside of a sandstone wind-cave. And that condor might have sort of a lizard tail and maybe a little centipede motif, a human foot. I don’t know the story, but the impression on me was that here’s the human capacity to engage nature in this mythic landscape, using a very sophisticated visual language that was deeply rooted in tradition and worldview.
Now on the cover of the Field Atlas, I’ve got a red hawk there, and its wing is cut off in a funny way, for like a graphic conceit. But your mind is putting that together because you are of the same culture that I am, this European three-dimensional visual language that we have. Playing with that has always been a core interest to me. Through the art and science, and the visual language, I’m trying to tell this very basic story, giving it all back to the thing that I love most, which is the natural world of California.
NI: And you’ve really made contact with that landscape, by walking.
OK: Walking is very important. It’s a mode of learning itself. As if walking and reading are somehow equivalent knowledge sources. As if the day of walking is a narrative unfolding, a beginning, middle, and an end, replete with characters, drama, beauty, epicness, adventure, romance. And a book is not unlike a hike. What are books but trails to understanding thought? You need a book, frankly, to get your head out of your computer.
NI: These days.
OK: With your two-hundred-forty characters or whatever. Human stories need to unravel over miles of pages. You would think that we would get better at beautiful aesthetic traditions where the economy of the word is essential.
NI: Because of the concision necessary on the internet?
OK: Right, you would think that we would appreciate that, but you know the opposite is true. With the technology of transportation, we’ve gotten used to going from A to B faster than humans have ever gone before and our language needs to keep up with that. We’ve got this whole emerging lexicon that means nothing to somebody if they aren’t exactly of right now because it’s changing by the day.
NI: Interesting that everyone would be focusing so intently on these quick developments, as opposed to changes going on in the non-human.
OK: It’s never not happened quickly. About a hundred thousand years ago, there was this phenomenon called the cognitive revolution, which was probably even more important than the agricultural revolution, or the industrial revolution, or what I think is coming next which is the ecological revolution. But the cognitive revolution where we invented fiction, where we invented art, which is a completely globe-changing phenomenon.There were many other types of humans on the planet, but we had an advantage in that we were able to capitalize on this opportunity which was the technology of story, this world-breaking technology, this world-making technology. Never before in the history of all zoology has any creature been able to remove their nature from their bodies and pass it to someone. That’s what story does, I’m able to give you my nature. And that is a profound power.
So that’s what I’m engaged in now. When I’m talking about the world of California nature, I’m talking about me perceiving it, about us perceiving it. So these books are more about me, about us, on some level, than they are actually about nature.
NI: At the same time that you’re communicating towards other humans and passing on this certain view, I also get the sense, whether it’s a portrait of California as a landscape, or a portrait of a coyote or a condor, that you’re speaking to that place, that animal, empathizing with it, and taking from it a sense of its own internal life.
OK: I don’t think I’m taking anything from it and I don’t think I’m speaking to it. What I think I’m doing is just speaking to myself. I let you as my audience build the image in your mind. You know I can just wash the paint around, and you can say, ‘Oh that’s sky,’ or ‘That’s a wing. Those are feathers.’ You’re building that in your mind because we share all this cultural information.
I really want to resist the metaphysical. I think it’s all very much here and now. We have our capacity to crack our hearts open for a deeper understanding of our connection to place, and that story that we can collectively tell, about our responsibilities balancing out those rights, towards all of biodiversity. This is the pathway to healing these wounds, this psychological trauma that we have endured at the hands of industrial capitalism for hundreds of years, where all of nature is commodity, all of nature is only for us taking. That is largely an Abrahamic worldview, that this was all set here for you. Now what do we do, we just keep eating our own foot until we’ve eaten our own body?
One of my big influences is J.R.R. Tolkien. In fact when I pitched my book ‘California Field Atlas’, I had his hand-painted drawing of Middle Earth, and I’m like I want to do this for California. This place of more romance and epic adventure than Middle Earth could ever have [laughs]. But in the history of the elves, there is this primordial spider, and she was so hungry all the time that she ended up eating herself. And I feel like humanity in our crazy quest for ever-increasing GDP, we never let the forest fire cleanse the forest of our economy at all. We just keep growing, and that’s not how anything in nature works.
NI: I think that’s an interesting part of your work, that it’s a presentation of what is there.
OK: There’s nothing metaphysical here. But I do think that there’s an aesthetic theory. I think that a guy who got aesthetic theory right for us was James Joyce, in ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ when he talked about the experience of ‘aesthetic arrest,’ when we are not being sold anything. That’s how you know you are in the presence of art, as opposed to for instance advertising, which is not proper art according to Joyce. When you are still, when you are the eye of the universe perceiving the thing of the universe, and both are made one.
NI: Do you ever experience that same feeling in coming in contact with the non-human as well as with art?
OK: For sure. In the natural world, it’s the interpretation or the absorption of the sublime. My books are not neutral books. They’re works of art, they’re not works of science. I’m not making textbooks. Even though they sort of appear like they might want to be.
NI: It’s a very particular object you’ve made, in this collision of fine art, cartography, guide-book-like form, and essays ranging from the scientific to the philosophical, all the way over to poetry.
OK: I really love the idea of how the story evolves and I’m letting it evolve. ‘The California Field Atlas’ was my first book, and it opens with the line, ‘This is a love story.’ I put in these passionate feelings and invented geographies and everything that I knew and felt.
But then I move through to ‘The State of Water,’ my second book, and it kind of reads like a math problem. It’s about usage, storage, and conveyance of this substance, water, around the state. Trying to get that right in my own mind. Almost a reaction to that divisive rhetoric that we’re sold every day. Looking at it from an ecological point of view, what do we need to keep this biodiversity intact? Water is the circulation, water is all the life.
Salmon, for example, have seen a steep decline over the past hundred years. And we knew that when we built some of these larger dams, that this was the end of the salmon. We were trading salmon for agriculture. They said that explicitly, back when the spring run of the Chinook salmon up the Sacramento River was six-hundred-thousand fish, making their way to their headwaters, depositing hundreds of thousands of metric tons of calcium, phosphorus, nitrogen, across the watershed. This was how the forests got fed. And now we’re starving our forests.
As much math as there is in ‘The State of Water,’ there’s also a lot of poetry. Now it’s more prose poetry, and they’re usually inspired by a particular animal, as you make your way through the book.
NI: The one that touched me recently was the tule fog. There’s the sensibility of the tule fog itself, and it mourning the lost elk. And the fact that it is disappearing as warmer temperatures come.
OK: There are fewer and fewer days of that breath that fills the Central Valley, through the mouth of the San Francisco Bay, across the body of California. There’s something very physiological, humanly figurative about our State. You could almost see Yosemite as a heart. Maybe something like the incredibly biodiverse mountains of the Klamath are equivalent to some sort of brain.
We’ve got all of these living networks, this incredibly complex cat’s cradle between so many fingers, how all these different living systems work. Now I’m not an ecologist. I’m a naturalist, I’m a painter, I’m a walker, I’m a systems-researcher. I’m really interested not in the ‘where’ of things, which is funny for a thing calling itself an atlas. I’m not telling you how to go anywhere or do anything, at any location. What I’m talking to you about is the ‘how’ of things. How these systems coalesce to present this reality, this most beautiful of all corners of the globe.
NI: And your own particular sense of connection and contact.
OK: It’s got to be that. But all of my books are part of a bigger effort related to the subtitle of ‘The State of Water’ book, which is, ‘Understanding California’s Most Precious Resource.’ It implies that water is our most precious resource. But I think now, two years on from having written this book, and having toured the state, and having seen the electric passion of the citizenry, that our most precious resource is actually this ability to trust one another with this very powerful technology of story, which will determine our future, more so than water.
In the past one hundred years, we’ve really transformed California’s waterscape in such a way that it rivals anything humans have ever done with anything anywhere. The infrastructure, the machine of water that we’ve built, is remarkable. But I say that it is rivaled only by how much it will again transform in the next one hundred years. So we’ve got a lot of decisions to make. We’re talking about balancing rights and responsibilities, to one another, to this place.
I’m not here telling you what the answer is. I’m not going to tell a farmer how to farm. I will lose before that argument even begins. I don’t ever want to place myself in the pundit’s chair, like a talking head on TV that says ‘I’ve got answers!’
NI: The definition of disembodied.
OK: All ecological truths, as all political truths, are incredibly nuanced. And you have to be sensitive to traditions, and to people’s lives. We’re talking about life and death. When you’re talking about water in California, you’re talking about worldview. What could be more interesting in this life, than to talk about the substance that makes us go.
NI: And launching from that, you have this question of restoration, renewal, conservation, all of those words.
OK: I love all those words.
NI: They come up a lot in your work.
OK: Preservation. Connectivity. You can’t talk about restoration without connectivity, you can’t talk about connectivity without conservation. All of these are certainly political postures. I don’t talk a lot about policy, especially in my ‘Water’ book. I don’t get terribly deep into allocations, seniority rights…
NI: The bureaucratic level…
OK: The bureaucratic level, but it’s also an economic level. When you’re talking about policy about water, you’re talking about money. California, the only place where water can flow uphill towards money. I’m more interested in the ethical story, of what responsibility means living in a free society, who are we responsible to, when do we get to stop being immigrants into this place, and start calling this our home. Not something we are dominating, but something we are living in harmony with. Our neighbors that provide so many services. Services that we don’t even understand yet. We understand the nature of cascading effects within biodiverse ecosystems. How it’s this Jenga tower, where you remove these species and you’re talking about weakening the foundation of it all.
We’ve moved from twentieth-century conservation policies, that gave us things like national parks, which was a good start, but we’re finding that they are woefully insufficient for the challenges of the twenty-first and into the twenty-second century. We have to get the story right about the importance of biodiversity, keeping all of the pieces on the board. This gets into the larger idea of hope: for every point of despair, there’s at least one point of hope. Although all of our natural ecosystems are either threatened or endangered, we have a very low extinction rate in this state, less than one percent. It’s all still here. Including the salmon.
Now there are no laurels to rest on. When it’s going to go, it’s going to go hard. So it’s the time for vigilance and reprioritization, and that is all about the story. I think we have a better story. I think that’s how you change things, get in there with your hands into that living soil, and change that paradigm. And it’s happening fast. It was only fifty years ago that Robert MacArthur and E. O. Wilson wrote ‘A Theory of Island Biogeography,’ which was the first time that Darwinian principles were really applied to ecological theory at all, that ecosystems evolved.
NI: Kind of stunning actually…
OK: This is something that people understand intuitively, but they found the scientific language to say, ‘These systems are living. ’ It was only fifty years ago. So it’s actually changing at a breakneck speed.
We’ve got young people, like the Sunrise Movement and Greta Thunberg, who are in our faces, rightly so, and saying ‘You’ve got to go faster.’ And my response is, it’s going as fast as it can. Despite the hype, despite the fits of these dark-souled capitalists who are all about exploitative profit, and the big reaction against them. It’s like we’re pounding against the seawall. But it’s going to change. And if we can’t find a way to do it, it’s going to be imposed on us anyway. The post-carbon economy is coming, one way or another – let’s get on board.