The Forest of My Relations


I begin to present am an edited version of this essay live via facebook, hosted by Oakland Rotary, July 23rd, 2020. Jump to 14:20 for my introduction.



The relationship that every author has with their work evolves over time. The publishing of a book, from conception to content creation, through the editing process and finally to design, printing, and distribution is a long enough calendrical arc that the creator finds themselves in a new space, often with a new relationship to the material. The author starts in one place and down the long course of the research, over the marathon of manuscript manufacturing, and finally to the tactile experience of holding the finished book, the entity that is the work, now expelled and liberated from its host, goes on its own journey. I am sure that this experience is inevitable through all artistic media. The painter, left with the painting, sees their rendered subject spanning its picture plane as the residue of a creative journey now forsaken. The actor, following the performance, evaluates the decisions made at the moment and balances their execution with their expectation, based on their mastery. The book, as a medium, is unique in its ability to hold an extreme quantity of narration (is there any other art that takes the audience so long to consume and to fully apprehend?) and because of it, the author is left wondering what was actually made, what the effect of its quality might actually convey.


My third book, The Forests of California, is now being printed and will be put out into the world, this September 2020, from Heyday books. As I write these words, this is happening in a scant six weeks. My first two books, The California Field Atlas, and The State of Water, Understanding California’s Most Precious Resource, were both bestsellers and although I am thrilled to say that this next book is expected to also do very well, I am terrified. The feeling of this one is bigger, riskier, and certainly more bold than my previous work and as I am doubling down on a single idea, the concept of the Field Atlas, I am again pushing all of my chips to the center of the table. Whatever the case, I know that my life will never be the same after its release. I can plot the trajectory of my transformation, a metamorphosis that I am very much still experiencing, back to the last days of 2015, when I began the ascent towards the peak of producing the first book, to now as I am embarking on my fourth book, The Coasts of California, due for publication next year, fall 2021. This collection, this series of books: 1) the Atlas, 2) Water, 3) Forests, 4) Coasts, will ultimately be a closed circuit of six books with the final two being The Deserts of California (fall 2022) and the State of Fire, Understanding how, where, and why California burns (fall 2023). The secret course of their inspiration, the design-thread that guides my confidence in their creation is that these are not science textbooks filled with art, but rather are books of paintings informed by science. Of course, that dynamic is an off-center bowl full of water that goes back and forth and constantly threatens to spill everywhere. I keep it in check with clear parameters and, in theory, have no problem moving those parameters should the philosophical need arise. And arise, it always does.


In 2015, I swung for the fences with the California Field Atlas. I had a simple enough concept: make several hundred, hand-painted maps of how California’s natural world functions and thereby produce a work of geographic literacy. My publisher encouraged me to not make a book that was at all neutral and to sing my song as loud as I could. I started the book with the line proclaiming that “This is a love story.” And that became my north star. I invented my place and I took responsibility for it, carrying out the vision in what was ostensibly a firehouse of energy. I didn’t have a format; I didn’t have an organizational structure. What I did have was a good metaphor for the subject of my practice: California became immortal and beautiful, a living lattice of systems that may be momentarily scarred by nearly four hundred years since European settlement, but a being that will survive our meteoric impact to eventually reinvent itself after we have our day of delirious and blind consumerism. It was in that kernel that I knew there were more books in me, that California’s natural portfolio is so deep that it is, for all intents and purposes, limitless. I was working to define this genre of my invention, the Field Atlas, as a device to describe a specific quality of California: that which has always been, continues to be, and that will always exist, despite our excess of development, our glut of extraction, and our waste of preciousness. The tall order didn’t organize itself well until deep in the editing phase that I realized the book would by most-elegantly presented in terms of earth, air, fire, and water. With my mission, my vision, and my values in place, I wrote that “The California Field Atlas presumes 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.” The system I was studying, the massive hyperobject that is California was closer to me now than ever. I had walked through the fire with that first book, and I came through with a license and a shield to however righteously, continue the forward push, to continue exploring my relationship to this place, to continue to invent this place.


My next book, The State of Water, was never supposed to be a book at all. I thought my next book was going to be The Forests of California, but the infrastructure that is the water-scape, the single-most altered aspect of Californian topography, stood in my proverbial way. I needed to get my mind around it: the immensity of water’s history in California, the context that led to the current, massively integrated system of usage, storage, and conveyance. I need to figure this out before I could run back into the woods. I thought it was going to be an essay, but a thousand words turned into twenty thousand words, and my publisher, knowing there was a book there, made it so. When you are talking about water in California, you are not talking about water, you are actually talking about worldview. What are your values? How do you balance your rights with your responsibilities? How do those responsibilities contest with the rights of the natural world to remain intact for not only future generations of humanity but for its own intrinsic worth? Are we spending our grandchildren’s future on an overtaxed system where the natural world of riverine and riparian ecology is disregarded and wasted? The subtitle of the book is Understanding California’s Most Precious Resource — the implication being that water is that resource. A year on from its publication, after touring the book up and down the state, I acutely understand that it is not water that is our most precious resource, but our ability to connect on that aforementioned worldview, to tell a common story about the common good at all.


Where the California Field Atlas was a sprawling epic that was happy to splashback and forth inside of its deep bowl between science and art, The State of Water was a tight little number that bounced back and forth between the underlying math problem of solving for California’s water infrastructure, it present and its future, and the poetic underpinnings of my own reactive mind, its reflective and inspired polyforms. Armed with those two books done and on the best-sellers list, the degree to which I bumbled into the formation of my next manuscript, what would ultimately become the Forests of California, was shocking in its misfired brilliance. I thought I had a great idea, and I thought I had the knowledge to back it up. I was wrong on both fronts. To understand the depth of my miscalculation we have to dig into the depths of my personal history, my relationship to art, science, and California itself, and to understand how I recovered from the aborted first draft to present the finished book we have today, we will need to examine the winding road that is my evolving relationship to the study of ecology, and how I figured out how to balance my rights with my responsibilities as a storyteller.


I was born in Southern California, Hollywood specifically.  My first memories of the natural world are Griffith Park in the mid-’70s. My father, an astrophysicist, was the director of the Griffith observatory until, when I was five, we move to the East Bay. I grew up on Mount Diablo, a jewel of biodiversity that sticks out like a thumb into the central valley from Northern California’s central ranges and catches all the flower seeds from the temperate northwest forests to the arid southwest deserts. Mount Diablo became the center of my universe, still is. Throughout high school and college, I logged hundreds and hundreds of miles backpacking around the state. Here is the first full paragraph from The Forests of California:


“I’ve explored the forests and they have explored me. In all my decades walking the California backcountry, I always find the same thing and I always feel the same way — I am of these forests and they are of me. In the bright and hot September sun of the High Sierra at over twelve thousand feet, I’ve studied the foxtail pine and felt compelled to paint it again and again because I found it to be the most beautiful being I had ever seen. I’ve practiced the same thing, with similar results, in the gray and damp April mist of the Redwood Coast, dancing with my paint under the tallest trees on the planet. I’ve known the pleasure of walking for weeks along with the southern ranges, deep in the wilderness where I used the water from trout-filled creeks to happily paint the infinite wildflowers of spring. I’ve had the honor to traverse California’s northern volcanoes and paint antelope in their ancient range as the December snow began to fall. Under California’s giving sky, alongside the ponderosa, the redwood, and the valley oak, I’ve gathered my ancient relatives to explore the past, present, and future ages of California’s natural world. This is that story.”


With that, I worked backward to find the first line of this, my second major work. You’ll recall that the first line of the first book was “This is a love story.” The first line of the second book is “This is a family album.” Just as human love springs from romance and infatuation and matures into families and relationships, so did and does my understanding of this all-encompassing feeling, this mighty wave that has consumed my creative life. I was faced then, and continue to work through the arduous task of translating that understanding into a utilizable and relevant piece of academic work, a work of naturalism that transcends the potential pitfall of being either another ecology textbook or a field guide. I don’t want to make either of those — I circumvent what has been done before by not dwelling on the what or even the where of nature — funny thing for something calling itself an atlas. I don’t technically describe, for example, how to go anywhere. I concern myself with the how of nature. How these larger forces coalesce to create this most beautiful corner of the planet in the course of my vocation.


Armed then with all the confidence in the world, more confidence than precise knowledge, I strode into the manuscript of Forests ready to reinvent the map of California’s ecological topography. My first manuscript was predicated on a conceit of my own invention: the dividing of California into over one hundred units, defined by watersheds and other zonations that described distinct units, called ecographies, or spatial ecologies to describe dozen of interrelated phenomena. I was out to tell a new story and present a new brand for this California’s natural world. I was out to tell a new story. What I found was the limitations of my own agency to do so. What I found that what I had created was at best unnecessary and at worst, wrong. After showing the work to many editors, scientists, and naturalists, I was shocked at the feedback. What I had described was something not incorrect but faulty and limited. My reviewers were having a hard time finding their California in my work and that was the revelation that sent me back to the drawing board.


Understand that I don’t shirk from confrontation, I mean I did just write a book on water in California. Confrontation doesn’t scare me, getting into a confrontation for the wrong reasons, for simple derision, or to play a rhetorical game is what I am to avoid. I knew that when I went on a book tour to promote The State of Water, that if I found myself arguing with someone in the audience about worldview, for example, I would have already lost that argument. That is not the story I wish to tell. My idea of California is big enough, has existed long enough, and will exist long after any hot coals stoked by current, political divisiveness has grown cold. I aim to tell a better story because I think stories are the only functional device we have to change anyone’s mind. Arguments and talking heads in the media are designed not to come together, but to divide, not to build resiliency, not to find the best way forward, but to stall in contention.


It is difficult to describe my gratitude towards this reset, now called the second draft of the manuscript. I was now armed with 1) honoring the vision I had originally cast in the Field Atlas, that of a non-neutral position towards the conservation, preservation, and restoration of California’s natural world, given twenty-first and even twenty-second-century demands, and 2) to robustly describe a California that is familiar to its most strident champions so they would find many easy inroads to this new paradigm. These are big words for a book about arboreal ecosystems across the state, but presented in the right way, I was sure we could get there. I start by always defining who I am, where my voice comes from, and what this book aims to do. That sets up a quality of negative space around my expression and guides expectations and heads off criticisms.


I am not a research scientist, and this is not a book that leaves you alone with facts and figures based on the analysis. This book is a synthesis of research and conceptualization of habitat spaces as I know them, after decades of studying and painting the backcountry. I find a world of fertile hope in the idea of geographic literacy. The more we know California, the more we recognize every piece of biodiversity as a cog in an interdependent, living machine, the more we will learn to love it. The more we love it, the more we will care for it. I maintain that it is the responsibility of every citizen who loves this place, or who is falling in love with it, to learn perhaps more than a bit of its functioning ecology. People protect what they love, and love what they know.


Highlighting, organizing, and clearly presenting California’s preciousness and its biological and ecological diversity is the beating heart of the book. As Edward Abbey said, there is California and then there is reality… Everything here is superlative. Although California only accounts for three percent of the land area of the United States, more than 30 percent of all plant and vertebrate species in the nation find habitat here. Presenting this living wealth is then presented in the book based on a nested concept of concentric circles representing how the arboreal world seems to arrange itself in patterns. The smallest circle represents arboreal associations, the most simple ways of looking at forest-habitat structure. An arboreal association is how one, well-known trees, like a sycamore, or redwood, or a valley oak, is more likely to be found in the vicinity of a cadre of usual suspects. This book covers ninety-six common association types. The next nest circle is the habitat type. This scaled look at local ecology zooms out to form an expanding mosaic of associations over a larger area. Sometimes, an association, like white fir, might be monotypic-enough that it is not only an association but a habitat itself. This book covers thirty of the state’s most common arboreal habitats. The largest of the three circles is the forest itself and for this, I used legal designations of parks and national forests to finish the puzzle. All told, this book covers thirty-seven forests of this type. Together the matrix explores hundreds of different configurations, demonstrating the structure of support systems of ecology in California.


Not just a treatise on trees, this book addresses the evolutionary and environmental context, in the field of history that has to lead us to this moment. And this moment is tough. Large proportions of our forests are generally in ragged shape. Trending towards simplification, fragmentation, and general state of unhealth exacerbated by climate breakdown, bad governance, and a cadre of other stressors, each of which I detail at length in the book, the forests of California themselves, require an army of informed citizens to work on their behalf towards better stewardship. While it is my contention that we have the ability to leave the twenty-first century with California’s natural world in better shape than how we left it in the twentieth century, our collective will is the single most important factor in making that a reality. And in order to generate that will, an expression of that united front, a spearhead, a clarion call must be answered by the engaged citizenry. If you are reading this, you are in that fight.


I started the second draft as I started the first book: with a core presumption. In the California Field Atlas, I stated with that previous quote about no utility and extraction without reciprocation and gratitude. In the Forests of California I begin by stating “The Forests of California presumes that the intrinsic value of biodiversity outweighs the capital value of its dismantlement and that by conserving the resource mechanisms of habitat biogeography, we protect the natural systems of resiliency that human society depends on.” The keyword in this presumption is value. Value, in this case, is a moral argument, a quality of worth that leads to the greatest benefit for the largest amount of people over time. The psychological dilemma that presents itself when we talk about intrinsic value over utilitarian value is that we have to let two things be true at the same time: nature has to be treated as a precious and limited set of resources, defined by known constraints, but also it is promised to be a source of limitless abundance. Ecological services, the single most important influence of globally-measured domestic product, inform and support every level of industry in every society around the world. Providing resilient stewardship towards their own agency and continued functionality is our top mission.


Understanding connectivity is the key to survive the approaching bottleneck. Connectivity in California must work on two levels: between habitat spaces and between human minds. Managing to agree that the resiliency of our own society is dependent upon defending biodiversity (and the systems that support biodiversity) may be as big a project as the actual expertise and physical work needed to restore habitats and create habitat bridges and corridors. A decision that the focus of our resource allocation must be shared with the more-than-human world leads us to what may be some tough truths, including that the conservation policies of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries are not sufficient protection in light of the realities of the present and near future.


When I grew up backpacking in Big Sur in the eighties, I had a sense that I’d missed it—that so many beautiful wonders of nature had already passed. In all my miles spent over months of wandering, I never had a sighting of a condor, a whale, an otter, or elk. Now condors are not an uncommon site along California’s central coast, we can spot whales spouting offshore on their seasonal migratory routes, sea otters are in kelp beds, visible from the pine-forested shore, and over five thousand more tule elk roam the Coast Ranges than when I was young. The work isn’t done: the condor is still critically endangered, and every whale species is at risk from ocean pollution, plastic waste, fishing gear entanglement, military operations, ship strikes, oil drilling, and food source loss and other effects of changing oceans due to climate breakdown. The endangered southern sea otter rebounded but their vulnerable numbers have declined in the past few years. These are the up and down results of advocacy, regulation, protection of species and their habitats, and ongoing problems such as deregulation, development, industry, competition for resources, and pollution. There are few laurels to rest on, but the larger point is made: we know that conservation laws can work when the laws themselves are defended and enforced in tandem with good science and energetic people invested in both.


Focused activism can turn the tide of political will, and the progressive, strategic policy that can come because of it is the best tool we collectively share to defend our forest strongholds of life from the legion of challenges ahead. Perhaps the momentum of the extraction paradigm that has pervaded our society is shifting—as it should. Restoration, for example, of watershed forest habitat patterns and reduction of fuel loads, prescribed fire, and moderation of fire return intervals across landscape-scale fire regimes are critical and doable priorities for foresters and communities across the state. In California, healthy forests have widely spaced, large-diameter trees and reduced fuel loads in the understory so that fires can burn at lower, beneficial intensities and open patches of the canopy in cycles of restorative disturbance. A healthy forest works for us all by storing carbon, creating oxygen, cycling freshwater, limiting catastrophic fires, and supporting biodiversity.


My creative and professional voice is so completely stitched to and woven around this place that my process of understanding California has become the process of understanding myself. I’m happily swallowed and so wholly taken by its biography and its habitat diversity that my ability to take the measure of what is beautiful in this world, my aesthetic sense of judgment, is based on my appreciation of California’s natural world. With the salmon, I move down the river, from the headwaters of my birth to the ocean, and if I am lucky, back again. The river moves through a watershed, the watershed is defined by two ridgelines, one is hope and the other is truth. The ridgelines determine the course of the river. Out here in the wild watershed, there is time. There isn’t any time in the city. Everything in the city is right now and that is poison for our perspective. If there is time, there is hope. In wilderness then, there is hope.


All there is, is process. Restoration is not a destination. Conservation is not a goal. The inspiration of our work is in recognizing the majesty of all species in all wild places as a spiral of biodiversity, free from commodification and free of disposability. I’ll end with the declaration that you—that perfect, unique, and specialized balance of sky, mud, old trees, and salamanders—you yourself are the beautiful forest by which the whole world breathes, dances, and realizes itself.



Categories: WILDERNESS