Home of the California Field Atlas and the work of Obi Kaufmann
The California Field Atlas has won the 2018 Gold Medal for Notable Contribution to Publishing by the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco. I am so proud and grateful to receive and share this award with my excellent publisher, HEYDAY BOOKS. My great hope is that this book stands with the larger vanguard of inspired voices rising across California and beyond, that share a vision for an emergent culture built on values of ecological restoration over reclamation and resource replenishment over endless extraction. United, we can usher in a new age of greater abundance while preserving the superlative portfolio of biodiversity that California enjoys for generations to come. (obi)
The big secret about this book is that it is not about what you might think it is about. The State of Water – Understanding California’s Most Precious Resource (HEYDAY, 2019) was always meant to be an interim chapter in a much larger story that will ultimately encompass a six-book series. This overarching design will capture not only the primary subject of my study: the systemic, perennial character of California’s natural world, but will also offer a context for observing and interpreting the forces that define it. I hadn’t originally planned on there being six books. All I have ever known, all I have ever had, is this love – this deep sense of belonging and of identity that has developed from a lifetime of embedding my creative world, my voice an artist, within this universe that is California’s natural world. With the success of The California Field Atlas (HEYDAY, 2017), I was afforded the opportunity to continue my study, barely understanding the prolific depth of my subject. If I could, I would paint a hundred maps a day of nature in California, for the rest of my life and never tell all the story I know there is to tell.
Finding the personal impetus, the drive and the inspiration to continue this journey was not difficult. When I then coupled it with and augmented it with the cry from what I know from my forever-travels across my growing community, the book became inevitable. That cry I listen to and feel so acutely, is the desirous change of some fundamental precepts within the story of how we talk to each other and build ideas around what nature is and our relationship to it. The cry is the revelation that California does not belong to us, but isn’t it the case finally, that we belong to it? And if that’s is how we feel, let’s restructure our relationship with this grand array of ecographies across this most-beautiful-of-all-places to mirror that impulse, and to lead us out from the inevitable collapse of this fossil-fuel fed fantasy. The State of Water is not about policy-making in that it is not about money. California’s water goes where the money flows. To address core issues of accessibility and reliability, the larger problem exists that both seniority rights and allocations need to be addressed, and my book does neither of those things. The aspect of my book that does approach policy is in my fair bit of writing about conservation – the state’s official policy on water use. We have made great strides in conservation strategies over the past few decades, although we still have a lot of work to do in this arena across the urban sector and certainly in agriculture. Having lived through the historic droughts of the 70’s and 80’s, my own relationship to water spending is like my grandfather’s relationship to money having grown up in the depression: precious stuff not to be idly wasted. Conservation wrapped up in technology, water management, recycling and new strategies of underground storage, replenishment and restoration are necessary implementations but they’re all symptom-treating. The core issue is our relationship to water in the story we’ve built around its capture and its utility.
As an environmentalist, or perhaps more relevantly, a post-environmentalist, I get regularly asked how I avoid engaging in the so-called water wars across California. I have two different strategies there: the first is that I believe we have been sold a set of false equivalencies based in a corporate-serving agenda between rural or agricultural politics, and between urban or municipal needs for growth. The divisive agenda does nothing but pit Californian versus Californian. When you are talking water in California, you were talking about worldview – my worldview is a unifying vision with a human core based on a California character that is not afraid of hard work, and we’ve got plenty of hard work to do… together. The second strategy I have to avoid the water wars is to focus my area of study and to keep it concise. I present my work at every stop along my book tour too many people. I have found that because my subject in this book is potentially a niche subject, most who attend my events are probably, or even certainly, more knowledgeable, and exhibit more expertise in their local water than what I’ve got. I trust and I respect their expertise and so I keep my conclusions simple and broad-based, operating in a philosophy that 1) looks to a future of societal equilibrium with the natural world, working backwards from that and 2) believes that it is not scarcity of water that is the problem, but scarcity of a trust in common story about water and it transcendence (at the core of all living systems) from a mere resource/commodity to something of intrinsic value.
The subtitle of the book is Understanding California’s Most Precious Resource. The understanding that I’m striving for is an applicable analysis of the interface between human water infrastructure and California’s natural water-scape as an ancient living network at the bottom of so many integral ecosystems – if not all of them. What the Precious Resource that I am looking to understand in this book may, or may not be, water itself. Perhaps it isn’t water that is California’s most precious resource but the quality of the human mind, with its capacity to understand itself in a historical context, to shape the reality of the natural world and to tell itself a story to justify that reshaping. And if that’s the case, do we have the capacity to change the change the story to avoid the coming calamitous state of affairs so often predicted by the world media and experts alike? What would that story look like?
While my book on understanding California Water is not about policy, it is about ethics. The ethics that I am interested in emerge as themes throughout the book and I believe there are two of them. The first is political ethics – in this I draw the line between what I right is and what a responsibility is. For every right that we enjoy, as invented under this liberal, humanist regime, the flowering of which corresponded with the invention of the steam engine in the late 18th century, there is and must be a corresponding responsibility. Freedom is not being able to do whatever you want – freedom is showing up for your personal responsibility.
The second, ethical theme in the book is a more subtle and ultimately aesthetic theme, and it has to do with associating natural systems with living systems and attributing to those living systems the right to exist. Ultimately, this is the worldview that my books striving towards -the crux of the larger story that I’m trying. For the most part, contemporary legal systems work as if there’s two entities in the universe: humans that have rights and everything else that does not. There is outlying precedence for particular species to not the exposed to torture, for example, but what I’m talking about is Water, Fire and other natural forces to have a voice in our human world and in our collective narrative. Who speaks for the Watershed’s right to be kept clean, to support its ancient ecosystem and to exist in a normalized fire regime? If we able to change our core story and manifest this kind of ecological democracy, would not our own species realize profitable and sustainable dividends under such a narrative?
The California dream has forever run tandem with, and been subject to the search for abundant and reliable water. The degree to which we have changed the water-scape of California over the past 170 years of our statehood is a transformation so grand, vast and complete, that it will only be matched by the transformation it again goes under over the next one 170 years. As our story changes, our traditions will change, our economy will change, and our relationship with water will change with it and be better for it.
To order THE STATE OF WATER, Understanding California’s Most Precious Resource, visit
The Nature of Understanding California Water – a Further Perspective
by Obi Kaufmann
I am writing this essay in May 2019 – the twelfth rainiest May in Northern California since record keeping began in 1849, and the Sierra Snowpack is at about 200% normal. Most of the State Water Project’s reservoirs are full and I am about to embark on tour to support my new book: The State of Water, Understanding California’s most Precious Resource. The book is going to be in bookstores across California on June 1st, and I can’t help but wonder what audience reaction might have been like if, as in more years than not, this May had little or no statewide precipitation at all.
The first word of the subtitle of my book is Understanding, and what is actually being understood is key to appreciating my perspective. This is not a comprehensive survey. This is not a textbook. The focus of my book is not necessarily, human usage at all. Although calculating surface storage in the first half of the 21st century and extrapolating future usage across sectors is a large bit of the information presented, I am more interested in the human relationship to water in California – and that is the Understanding I am talking about and wish to investigate further. The State of Water is not wholly, an ecological investigation, nor is it void of political inclination. Although I wrote this book was to be as resilient as it could be to political ebb and flow, the people of California take water very personally, as they should.
The following bullet points reflect, what I see are relevant notes in any discussion of contemporary, Californian, water-usage but have been largely excluded from the book. For mainly, editorial reasons I felt that they all either fall outside of this book’s concise purview, will be addressed in a future book, or deal mainly with human power structures and belong in a textbook about such things. I’ve come up with this list for two reasons: 1, to respect my evolving relationship with this book itself and its subject, and 2, to anticipate audience interaction and maybe preemptively address some concerns. Talking about water can be stressful – I hear the question often: should we be worried about water? Instead of tackling the question like a journalist or a politician, I would like to answer the question as a fellow member of your community. To do so, I would need to ask who is the we in the question? And on a deeper, philosophical level, I would need to ask what is the value of worry? Perhaps the prescription to alleviate worry is understanding. See how that word keeps popping up?
FIRE & CLIMATE BREAKDOWN
Other than its persistent aridity, the other two, potentially major catastrophes facing our modern society in California are our more-common, mega-wildland fires and climate breakdown. Although I use climate change in the book, I am moving to calling this phenomenon, climate breakdown. I believe it is a stronger way of describing the effects of average, atmospheric temperature rise than is climate change. Climate breakdown carries more political meaning with its sense of palpable, virulent unpredictability.
California has had two seasons this year: rain & fire. To understand fire, it is important to understand water. In the State of Water, I address climate breakdown in regard to models predicting water storage capacity, but I don’t mention it in regard to fire. Does more rain mean more fire danger? While it is true that rain means more potential fuel, the moisture content of the forests, across all ecographies in both the flora and the soil, is higher and thus it turns out that there is statistically less chance of mega-fires in years such as this one. I will dedicate a book’s worth of research to this subject: The State of Fire, Understanding Where, How and Why California Burns will be published by HEYDAY BOOKS (fall 2021).
MONEY IN THE CENTRAL VALLEY
The State of Water does not dwell too long on money. Not because it is not important to understanding California Water, but because it is not interesting to me. If you are a dedicated student of California water policy as either an academic or a political interest, you must be versed in not only how the water flows, but how the money does as well. People and ecosystems are living and dying because of the economic notions of who pays for what. Water quality, water conveyance, water allocation, land subsidence, groundwater management and the future of the Central Valley’s industrial future all come together in a complex, scenario outside of the scope of The State of Water. Of course, aspects of these themes are addressed in the book, but only in how they affect the more-than-human world, my primary field of interest.
Problems of greed and generosity within human society, and how they relate to how money is spent is core to understanding how water moves and how it is available and how it is treated. With the scope of this book, I am woefully unable to tackle that story. For one example of the depth of this problem: according to the California State Water Control Board, more than 300 public water systems, most of which are in the Central Valley (and across the Mojave Desert) are serving unsafe drinking water. One million Californians every year are exposed to unsafe water. Governor Newsom wants to add a tax of $1 a month to urban water use to raise $100 million and update these systems. This is a very important issue, and I could point to fifty others, none of which I engage.
AQUIFER & UNDERGROUND STORAGE
Although I am very critical of how our surface-water storage infrastructure is so massively, ecologically destructive and how it is quickly moving towards obsolescence, I am not anti-dam on principal. Because aquifers occur in many different, geologic substrates across the state and because different communities have different attitudes towards their underground-water resources, California will be unable to get out of the business of surface-water storage for the next century or so.
Because of a lack of funding and because of a thick, clay layer, municipalities in the southern, Central Valley have largely done a poor job managing their aquifers. By only withdrawing water and with little attention to recharge, these communities are unwisely using this water as a one-time spend. For decades, the community around San Jose has been building and monitoring the recharge of massive, percolation pools as a renewable source of underground-water storage and because of it, have now completely recovered from the massive drought that dominated the second decade of this century.
The State of Water is built around nine-examples of how California’s natural water courses are utilized, through human infrastructure to store and move water. The analysis of its impact on both the environmental and the human ecology of California is largely based on the physicality of diversions and not on the subtle, all-encompassing, chemical nature of pollution. How human industry (fracking for example), municipalities (non-point-source runoff), or society (plastics and atmospheric pollutants), is a larger system of influence than this book was ever designed to address.
Another huge set of topics that gets precious, little attention in The State of Water is alternative technologies. Each, individual technology deserves broad consideration in just how far their beneficial yield might carry us into the future. To list but a few: wastewater reclamation and recycling; solar shields on reservoirs; energy-efficient desalinization; porous concrete building materials and storm-water catchment devices.
WATER PROJECT UPDATES
In the year since I penned the first draft of The State of Water, we’ve elected a new governor and there have been some modifications to our water policy, with specific reference to surface-storage. Los Vaqueros dam in Contra Coast County is being raised to increase storage in its reservoir and Pacheco Pass Reservoir is going ahead with construction. There is a new push to build more off-stream reservoirs and because of it, Sites Reservoir (page 66 in The State of Water) may be going forward. An off-stream reservoir implies that it does impact water course inflow – it certainly will. Also, with the new governor, The California Water Fix and Eco-restore (page 84 in The State of Water) was been reduced by over half its designed, conveyance capacity.
In other local news, The Carmel River reroute around the San Clemente dam has been a huge success. The reservoir, silted-up and at the end of its useful life, has been bypassed and because of it, the steelhead are returning. This precedent marks a milestone for what I have called in other essays, the coming paradigm of restoration that we will see played out again and again as California wakes up to the power of conservation and value of our natural legacy.
As we consider 22nd century needs and look back on the ethical implications of what we built in the 20th century, 21st century California is faced with some big decisions. It is answering that call that compelled me to write this book. The State of Water attempts, if nothing else, to demonstrate the economic and ecological magic that conservation theory represents. For example, instead of building a dam, how about we use that money and encourage people to take replace their lawns (half of urban water use is outdoor landscaping) and to install low-flow toilets and washing machines. The magic of conservation makes good fiscal sense: Delta water is $400/acre-foot, conservation water is $100/acre-foot.
I wrote The State of Water, as what will be the second in a six book series exploring my journey to a fuller understanding of the natural forces that coalesce to define the natural world of California. The first book was the California Field Atlas. The third, fourth and fifth books will be the California Lands Trilogy: The Forests of California (spring 2020), The Coasts of California (fall 2020) and The Deserts of California (spring 2021). The final book will bookend The State of Water and be called The State of Fire; Where, How and Why California Burns (fall 2021). Although my recent writing reacts mainly to observations I’m making on anthropogenic climate breakdown and extractivist culture, I’m most-moved by resilient systems within adaptive cycles across ecographic regions and how they, like the organisms they provide habitat for, seem to operate as single, coherent entities, and perhaps should be respected as such.
I am not terribly interested in debating water policy; I want to talk about water-story. How do we save everything we want to save? I want to sensibly discuss nimble and efficient strategies across a whole portfolio of approaches. Although it is a season of rain we know that with anthropogenic, climate breakdown we will (perhaps counter-intuitively) see years of both increased aridity and we will see the increased frequency of seasons filled with deluge. I would like to suggest, as a final thought, that California’s Most Precious Resource that I would like to get a better understanding of, isn’t necessarily water but the quality of the character inside everyone of us to come together and decide what is best for our extended stewardship of this, most-beautiful of places.
The ecological truth is that California is not burning, and it hasn’t burned for a long time. Science is uncovering an unlikely pattern emerging across the ecological mosaic of our state’s floristic province, west of the Sierra Nevada. While California has experienced its most costly and most massive fires in recorded history over the past few years, California, as an aggregate system of fire-evolved landscapes, is woefully fire-deficient. The Fire Return Index shows that most of the state’s forestland has burned 67% less than its historic fire regime. For millions of years, California’s wildlands have been evolving with fire, the patterns of its Mediterranean climate and the structure of it physiogeography have not only made it so, fire is the language that it speaks. The forest is not only able to deal with fire, it needs fire. The forest here IS fire, fire held in a stasis of conservation as potential energy, waiting to burn.
The ecological truth is that without fire, California is not California. In the terrible and beautiful moment before the hammer strikes, in the autumn it is the season of fire and in the spring, it is the season of flood, when we stand both made and unmade, holding hands and holding the line, always relearning how to let go. A lesson that will get more intense in the century to come. How do we let go of our absolutes, in both politics and wildland management? Our pain comes from the nature of our human form, our mind and our sensibility, unable to reconcile with the larger scale of the living networks that are always imploring us to look deeper into the secrets of health and resiliency in the forest and to take our cue from there. It is estimated that 4.5 million acres burned annually in California prior to European settlement. Most of those fires, that routinely averaged about 500 acres for a single fire-event, had high-severity burn patches of about 10 acres. The Rim Fire near Yosemite in 2013 had a high-severity burn patch of 30,000 acres. We want to find the answer to the question why? As if burning is a problem to be solved, as if with enough will, things could be somehow better.
The ecological truth is the logging makes wildland fires worse. Thinning a forest through logging does not remove the fire threat, but by adding slash and post-cut debris, we increase the combustible surface area of particulate fuel. Logging and burning clear the forest in different ways. Logging takes the biomass that does not burn and leaves what does, fire takes the debris and leaves what does not burn. While there is a cocktail of prescriptions necessary to defend development, and that does, at times and in strategic locations include burning, grazing, thinning chipping, masticating, greenbelting, and even logging, forest management employs more tools than chain saws.
The ecological truth is that these devastating fires are anthropogenic. It is nothing that nature is doing, we have done it and are doing it to ourselves. And although we are doing it to ourselves, blame does lie solely with the governance of public agency. The source of the Why in this complex algorithm is deeply ingrained through the fabric of our modern, nuclear culture. From trimming the rainy season with a regimen of global, carbon emissions over two and a half centuries, to changing the profile of the California Floristic Province since the time of El Camino Real, nearly two centuries before that. To most perniciously deadly of all: paying utility companies to deliver an unlimited amount of poorly insulated energy, without pause through a teetering infrastructure across the forest canopy throughout autumn’s season of fire. Human dwellings are not meant to burn, but when they do, they burn easily. The forests of California are meant to burn, and when they do, they recover quickly with vigorous regrowth. The green trees are not the real fuel at this curtain between town and the wild. It is out built environment and the cultural patterns that developed it.
The ecological truth is that a changing climate presents far more of a long-term threat to the forests of California than even the most massive forest fires. Over the past one hundred year, policies of fire exclusion have created crowded forests and crowded forests are not resistant to the long-term effects of drought which seriously account for the rise of disease and beetle infestation. In the 1970’s, 12 million trees died from bark beetles – between 2010 and 2017, 129 million trees died. The historic drought contributed most to this vulnerability and was exacerbated by compromised forest health. Over the next ten years, it is expected that without massive restoration, we may lose over six million acres of our treed landscape to climate-spurred, arboreal pathogens.
The ecological truth is that there a more trees now in California than there have ever been. Sometimes you hear the bumper-sticker-philosophy rallying cry that “Trees are the answer!” And while the sentiment is good, it is not entirely accurate. Young trees crowd a forest with surface fuel that when released through fire, transforms the woodland into a net-positive carbon source – trees are not the answer here. What is needed is old growth, carbon sinks. We need our forests healthy and resistant to the effects of climate change, which include temperature rise, greater insect and disease threat, and higher wildland fire risk. We need our forests protected from fragmentation and simplification to best provide interconnected habitat for all trophic levels of the ecosystem. We can realize these new, resistant and restored forest-types with sustained and serious, stewardship investment. CalFire is asking to, and planning on the restoration of 500,000 acres of non-federal, forest land per by 2030. The average now is about 35,000. The return will vastly offset the spend.
The ecological truth is that more than human world of California does not care about humanity being in the way of fire. I hold my breath between moments of deluge and moments of inferno, all the human world of California does. We know these rolling catastrophes are coming, they always come. Our human minds go to the evocation of this imagery to describe its apocalypse, panicked and written across the red sun at noon through the smoke. We get scared, we get scarred, we let the gray rivers of silt cut clean trails down our cheeks. We love our California forest and our California weather, we don’t blame them for their release, we are always ready to pay the price. We trust that today’s disasters at the urban-wildland interface, clothe tomorrow’s children in wisdom and strategy.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
With the selling out of the first printing of the book, I’ve needed to postpone a few dates on my continuing book tour to support and celebrate the California Field Atlas. The dates at both the Coloma Grange and the Burlingame Library are postponed until the New Year. As for these other dates, I am not actually certain there are too many copies of the book left so please be punctual to maximizing your chances of getting a copy. I am so appreciative of your support and the love that you’ve shown me and this project. If you would like to get on the backorder list for one of the first copies of the second printing which will be here on January 1st, please email me at email@example.com -Obi
My first best-seller list! The California Field Atlas comes in at No.3 for Northern California Trade Nonfiction as reported by Bay Area News Group. Thank you friends, for all of your support with this project. There are no more copies of the first printing available online from me or my publisher, HEYDAY. I am saving the final 50 copies of the first printing for my appearance at Patagonia, Palo Alto, next Saturday (12/02) 6pm – 8pm. There are only a few copies left available in bookstores around the Bay Area. If your local independent bookstore doesn’t have any left, try Barnes & Noble. Amazon is selling a few copies of the sold-out first printing for a couple of hundred dollars. If you buy those, I will send you a card inscribed any way you want that you can put in the book. I went City Lights Books tonight to see if my book was on the selves of that San Francisco temple, a life-long dream of mine, but they told me that they can’t keep it in stock and they sold their last copy yesterday. What a delightful problem. I thank you all dearly for your excellent support of this, my love letter to this place I love. #californiafieldatlas
I am offering hand-painted reproductions of your favorite maps from the California Field Atlas. I work by commission so you tell me what you want. The paintings are $150, including tax, mounting and shipping. They measure 5.5″ wide by 7.5″ tall and are on 120# watercolor paper. I can reproduce any of your favorite #trailpaintings from the book also. I’m booked for a week or two, so to get them before the holidays, I need your order now. Email me and we can talk about it. I want to hear your stories. Thank you, Obi firstname.lastname@example.org #californiafieldatlas
Let me start with this image – a “What I think I do” meme – they were popular a couple of years ago, but the joke holds. We’ve got veils – curtains behind what we are and who we are perceived to be – if you look at my feed on Instagram @coyotethunder, you might think that I am all John Muir all the time – that I somehow live the California Wilderness life all year long and I forever eat berries and sleep under trees – I do that, but not as much as you might be tempted to believe by my front.
My mother has always been encouraging of me as an artist. Her name is Jeffre Talltrees and she lives at 7,000 feet above Lake Tahoe and after being a clinical psychologist for 30 years, is now an energy healer and an avid skier. She likes to tell the story of when speaking with my father shortly after my birth they were musing about what I was going to do. And my father, having earned his PHD in astrophysics at 22 years old was sure that I was going to beat that somehow in academic accomplishment – my mother quipped that she bet I was going to be a potter living on Venice Beach. The humor there being a spectrum between two contrasting identities, well I landed exactly in the middle.
My dear publisher, Heyday books, the brave and stalwart crew that has been such a cornerstone of California publishing for over 40 years, took such a chance on this poet adventurer. I can’t imagine the wringing of hands and the pulling of hair in anxious anticipation of what might, or might not, have been. What a thing to take on this book! What is this thing? This Field Atlas? Who is Obi Kaufmann? Some super tramp who sweet talked his way into a book deal. Well, yes and no.
What I really do day in and day out is work. I like to joke that I am both a farmer and a father, but I have no land and I have no children, so this book is the result of all that displaced energy funneled into about 42 hundred man-hours of drawing, painting and writing – then voila, the California Field Atlas.
I am often asked, and I can hardly remember how or when I came up with the nugget of inspiration that slowly accumulated into the grand snowball becoming the California Field Atlas. It is as if everything that I have ever been interested in, all my hobbies, all my vocations, all my professional or otherwise misbegotten careers, all my political inclinations, and all my scientific aspirations all conspired to manifest this thing as a cornerstone of my identity – certainly the most important, potentially culturally-enduring, hopefully society-serving piece of art I’ve ever constructed. From where I see it, more and more I am drawn to think this book is more about me than it is about California, or anything else.
Let’s consider now the conceptual space of the book’s theme and subject matter – its impetus and its ethics. What is the source of its voice? And through that voice, what does it want to express? As we unpack the very basic perspective the truth becomes equivocal and ultimately, every map reveals the same thing, at least in apprehendable thematic content – the spirit is consistent.
By design, the sliver of personal truth revealed through The California Field Atlas is an interwoven array of what can be called the science of aesthetics and the aesthetics of science. The ethical poetry at play is not concerned with “what” – as in what is this butterfly?what is that stone? much in the way a field guide might work – it is not interested in “why” – as in why do the larger shaping forces of the nature world present themselves in a sequential manner? And why even is California, for example, shaped the way that it is? I am not searching for historical truth. It is not concerned, perhaps surprisingly for something calling itself an Atlas, with “where” – as in where am I right now? And what is the best route to an imagined Point B?
The Field Atlas is most concerned with “How”. How do Earth, Air, Fire and Water interact to dynamically shape our collective experience of place? How does the effect of these systems on one another speak to our place in that larger context? How do I make sense of this place I love so much and maybe even more importantly, how does whatever level of proficiency in this kind of Geographic Literacy work to coalesce and sustain my community – whether it be my humanity or what is often called by folks who are like-minded, the more-than-human community?
When I was 16, I was involved for many months in the organized, national boycott of General Electric because of their contract with the Department of Energy to build the neutron trigger which detonates every single one of the estimated thousands of nuclear weapons our country has at its government’s dreadful employ. I remember one sunny, Friday afternoon in 1989 standing in front of Bulfing’s Hardware, a neighborhood store that closed a few years back on College Avenue in Berkeley’s Elmwood neighborhood collecting signatures from those dedicated to pressuring General Electric out of their weaponized contracts – when Old Man Bulfing himself came out of the store holding a broom like a bat, looking like he was ready to pop this little punk for disrupting his business.
What he said to me then really shook me and affected my attitude towards politicized, social action forever. In a yelling voice, he said “you can’t affect change by telling other people what to do! You can only work on yourself!” And then he told me to get the hell off his stoop and I did before he needed to demonstrate his willingness to swing the bat. I don’t know if I would have written the California Field Atlas if Mr. Bulfing nearly didn’t clock me that day, having said what he said. I let that philosophy of working on myself as means to changing the world, as a governing tenant to my relationship by which I can affect change at all. To put Mr. Bulfing’s lesson into some phrasing that I’ve carried around in my proverbial pocket these last 25 years: “turn the key inside your own heart and you turn the world.”
My life in the wilderness, as a walker of California, a lazy reader of flowers and a determined avoider of mountain peaks, says a couple of key things in my relationship to the natural world. I think most believe that living in nature is tough – that threats exist around every corner and that one’s guard must always be up in the deep wilderness – away from help, away from roads – what are we but thin-skinned, slow, pink mammals with no natural weaponry to defend ourselves. All these fears fall away quickly in the California Backcountry, where the weather is predictable and despite the biting flies in the central coast ranges, the insects are largely negligible.
When I was 13, I visited an uncle of mine living in Florida named Captain Rich Ankerson, a commercial pilot for over forty years. He told me that in his long career flying the big planes around the world, that he never had one emergency. When he would regal younger pilots with this, simplest of all stories and he would often be scoffed at – like it was a deficiency in his portfolio of experience – the younger pilots’ first inclination was to dismiss Captain Ankerson as a less-than-expert because of his lack of emergency-tested prowess. My uncle Rich was quick to correct the young pilot: that emergencies only happen to the unprepared, and those who lack the knowledge of this whole bevy of variables that come with flying and that every conceivable emergency doesn’t have to become an emergency if you know the patterns of technology, nature, teamwork, and the deep-science that make the whole thing possible. This scored me profoundly, and again set up a narrative course by which the California Field Atlas would never have been written if I hadn’t received Uncle Rich’s story.
I love the California Backcountry more than anything in the world – I love to be in it for weeks on end and when I am not in it, I am always planning my escape back to it. I love to let it surround me, I love to make it my whole world, I let the wild beings I know become me and I them and I take great flights of leaping romance into a dreamlike reality that I feel safe in, always. This is because I am prepared, because I know the variables I am dealing with. The only emergencies that arise in the wilderness come from not being familiar with the native forces of that wilderness.
I’m not talking about physical accidents that require medical attention – I’m not talking about good fortune. I am talking about preparing one’s self, stocking the brain with a lexicon of endemic patterns that reveal the truth about your environment – if you are literate to the physical geography and the natural history of any given locale or ecotype you begin to subscribe to a greater liberation, the dream unfolding and opening up to you, to your community and to a greater sense of involvement in the natural world – an involvement that I posit, is the responsibility of every citizen of California, going forward to foster and nurture. On one very subtle level, the California Field Atlas is a handbook to assist in the sublimation of a cultural fear that we carry around toward the very idea of wilderness. My work attempts to lay bare the darkest, most fretted corners of the wilderness, where there are no ghosts and there are no emergencies. There is only you and it, and the relationship between the two.
Ever since I was a young boy, I knew I was a painter. It was my first identity and it will be my last. I always wished I was a singer, but my voice is somehow nasally and shrill at the same time. In my adult life I recognize that all art is ultimately the same if it comes from the same grounded philosophy of aesthetics. The best and most basic theory of aesthetics was given to us by James Joyce who worked it out in the early part of the 20th century when he described the Eye of the Universe perceiving the thing of the Universe.
The beautiful stasis in that state of arrest attained by the beholder after viewing and apprehending a fortunately executed piece of art– a flower perfectly rendered, for example, transmitting viable immediate beauty, everything a human could know, or at least needs to know to identify and appreciate the reality of that flower on some almost metabolic level – something core revealed and celebrated – a communion and an atonement with that flower’s world.
I was 19 years old in 1992 when I took my first painting course with Ciel Bergman at the University of California at Santa Barbara where I would later earn my degree in 1995. I am sorry to say that Ciel died this year in Santa Fe. She moved there the late 90’s because she fell in love with the New Mexican sky. This makes sense I suppose, because she was, at one point in the sixties, mentored by Georgia O’Keefe and the Southwest desert spoke to her in paint and she spoke back.
She told me one evening, as we were sharing a hand-rolled cigarette and some sweet bourbon on the porch of her light blue studio shack on the northern slope of Mount Pedernal near Abiquiu, New Mexico, in the dying light of day as the Coyote chorus in the nearby arroyo was beginning to spark its nightly, sweet dissonance, that “Painting and writing were really the same thing. Fluid paint moves to influence our cognition on the most fundamental level. To paint the mountain, to write about the mountain, or to map the mountain all can lead to the same projected experience of the mountain. Beauty is equivocal and a necessary antidote to all the media poison we are fed.”
I will never forget that night, awake under the way too bright road of the Milky Way blaring at me like a cosmic signboard toward my own future path – that the way of ecology and the way of art were bridged by a delicate harmony in what is intrinsically beautiful – it occurred to me that night that phenomenological truth is by its nature, beautiful. This subtle and fundamental truth, it is my conviction, does not occur to most people automatically or instinctually, and needs to be mapped out as any other basic thing in the world. I believe Ciel Bergman will be remembered as one of the great painters of our age.
The next big key marker in the road to getting to where we are with the completion of this book occurred many, many years after my revelation in the New Mexican desert. I went onto live in the Northwest, get married, get divorced, move back to my hometown of Oakland California – fall in love again – all the while, keep painting keep walking, keep Wilderness Talking, keep believing in turning the key in me, finding the beauty that would heal the world. It took torturous detours – the archetype of the wounded shaman flared, and I took gnarly dark roads to truth. I was drugging too much, and my oil paintings were of little more than werewolves. It was a single, stark image that I haphazardly encountered on an adventure once that broke that horrible armor that I had maybe unconsciously had been building.
It was in Modoc County way in northeastern California – it was fall, I was driving by myself – it was late afternoon. At 45 miles an hour or so I saw out of the corner of my eye something that made me pull the car over. I couldn’t even register what I was looking at – something on a fence in the twilight – something beyond my history, something I couldn’t register because I have no experience with it – with killing, with blood, with the direct power of nature it took at such a display. What I was looking at was six young adult coyotes nailed through their face to a cedar fence.
It looked like the scene had happened just that day – the coats where red and full and free of mange – the coyotes (not shot, maybe poisoned) were well fed and their paws still had mud on them, their faces covered in blood. I wept there hard for quite a time – weeping not only for the poor fellow land walkers, so loathed and discarded to be displayed as garish trophies, a tortured victory over wild nature – but I wept that kind of stomach-cinching tears that make men swear oaths. I swore an oath that day – I guess it was about 15 years ago now – to re-find in me that old vision of healing, of atonement with the nature world, the beautiful key that if I turn it, the world could not help but be turned itself. Before I left the horrific scene, I thanked that anonymous coyote killer for setting me on this new path of fire and vision.
I was telling this story a year or two later to, of all people, Dana Gleason – who is a legend in the outdoor world of backpacking. My first pack was made by Dana Designs, his company in the 70’s and 80’s – and now Dana’s backpacks are the only kind the US military uses. Dana is cowboy, of sorts. When I use the word cowboy, I mean a particular kind of man, and on occasion woman, that every westerner is familiar with. We don’t get them too much in California anymore, but the identity is alive and well in Montana, where Dana is from.
Dana does not believe that canids of any sort, of which Coyote are one, have any business in the modern world, and if they do, that business needs to be far away from any work human endeavor. “It is a war” I remember him telling me – incidentally over a cocktail in Midtown Manhattan where we both were attending the same men’s style tradeshow – “There will never be peace between wolves, coyotes, or whatever, and cowboys until they are all gone. The rancher who nailed those coyotes to the fence didn’t think a damn thing about it.” I like Dana. He is an intelligent guy – I just fall way on the other side of the line as far as wildlife conservation is concerned. I remember he seemed to conclude our conversation later as we went back and forth with the warning: “You want to know the quickest way to get the shit kicked out of you in any bar in Montana? Bring up wolf conservation.”
The cowboy’s aversion to coexisting with wildness is not monolithic, I only bring it up because we, the people who would like to get it right with the land, beyond seeing the whole network of the natural world as a falsely-infinite well of extractable resources, contend with the living spirit of manifest destiny every day. This anachronistic, Abrahamic world view that IT is all for us, is ultimately the world’s number one bad story. To get right with the world of wilderness, you are going to have to understand death on a different level. You spend enough time in nature, you watch its patterns, you see how energy is not kept, but flows from one network, one personal-biome to the next and you get right with death, or at least you come to recognize it as a transforming force that is all about the giving and taking circle. Not dying and not pain, but with the unbearable fact of it. This is the most subtle and underserved point in the rewilding movement – which is a big preoccupation of mine in that I see it as a path forward into a more-sustainable culture for California and frankly the rest of humanity, agreeing now with E.O.Wilson, head of biology at Harvard, in his call to conserve one half of the world for wilderness as being a necessary key to our continued abundant way of life – and for preserving a good bit of this world’s biodiversity in the wake of the currently engaged Anthropocene extinction.
But what do I mean when I say that we need a new story about death? What do I mean when I say we’ve got to get right with it? I think the best answer here is to consider what I mean by life, or the state of being alive, or of living. A few years back I was backpacking deep in the San Rafael Wilderness about fifty miles north of Santa Barbara near the Sisquoc Condor sanctuary. I was doing some trail maintenance with the Los Padres Forest Association and we were deep in bear country.
The coastal ranges of the southern Los Padres National Forest have a lot of bears – you see their tracks everywhere in the mud. This one time, I was there in late April when you would see a cub every couple of hours, always holding your breath to make sure you weren’t between it and its mom. Included in my crew was the wilderness perfumer of Juniper Ridge Hall Newbegin, the outfit I worked for at the time, and his daughter Jane, who if memory serves was about 7 years old at the time. As you can imagine, Jane had fallen in love with every cute teddy bear cub we encountered on this trek – we never did see a mother on that trip, and I am just fine with that.
On the final morning of the trek we were hiking out of the canyon and, while marching through a thick grove of live oak trees in a garden decorated by tall, bright blue Larkspur wildflowers we stepped into a very odd zone of silence. The early morning, springtime oak forests of the Sierra Madre Mountains are a noisy place – from bees and flies to hawks and frogs, it was startling how silent it immediately became – in the next fifteen seconds we found the source of the anomaly. Before us, just five or so feet off the trail, was what took us a moment to recognize as a bear cub carcass. The fur had been pulled up from the rear of the cub over the entire length of its body like it was skinned for its jacket, in one fluid motion.
What struck me immediately were two things: first, the bright red color of its exposed musculature and second, the lack of a smell. Dead things always smell and are never vividly colored. Hall and I looked first at each other and realized there is one creature this deep in the wilderness who works this way – the mountain lion – and two, that this kill probably happened in the last ten minutes – the yellow jackets had yet to descend and the forest seemed frozen with the violent act. We were probably just a few yards from the big cat and didn’t know it. I’ve had several encounters with Mountain Lions in my tenure across the California Backcountry and the one constant is that when you are around them, you are not in control of the situation – the situation will play out exactly as the mountain lion chooses.
You might think that I am putting the dramatic point of the story on my emotions about seeing this event played out, about how I was scarred – I wasn’t. This lion was just waiting for us to move on. The thing that crushed me then, and still does to this day, was thinking of little Jane standing over the skinned cub. I walked on a little bit and turned to see Hall put his arm around his then openly crying daughter. We all left the scene quickly and back into the buzzing forest that so quickly flooded in just a few yards past. What an amazing way to learn about death in the wild? It isn’t fun, it doesn’t make sense – but it is true, and Jane’s life will be forever informed by this deeply profound and immediate experience – the kind of experience that rips through all virtual facsimiles. The kind of experience that is so beautiful and so terrible that it, 1) cannot help but contribute to the forging of one’s deepest character, and 2) sets up in that character, a system of values based on respect for the nature world. That baby bear’s energy was given to the mountain lion, there is a greater management system at work in the goings-on in the forest that is alive and self-regulating and full of checks and balances – there is a network of reciprocation. This I suppose is what I mean by getting right with death. This is the immediate lesson of the real and the wild world.
So, after so many adventures and being lost in a world of my own making, full of art, beauty and the most basic terrible and beautiful truths – when I was approached by Lindsie Bear, the then nature editor for HEYDAY books, about a book – Lindsie, being a kind of exploratory editor – into the literary wilderness she goes! Searching and mapping in a style all her own – the truth is, I wasn’t sure if this book was ready to come forth before her confidence in me about it. I remember in one of our first meetings when I was explaining this things I have, these stories I carry – how maps would tie to narrative: The textbooks of my father, the wisdom-healing-teaching of my mother, the political action of my youth, my want to diffuse the fear of wilderness in the modern mindset as one might wish to dispel some pathos from a suffering patient, the aesthetic philosophies bestowed to me from the southwest desert masters, the convicted judgement that our society suffers from a fundamental lack of “Story” to quote the word in almost parody, resulting from some misconceptions about what death actually is, and how to get right with place, how to get at the root of our geographic illiteracy and how to cure it, like as I say, it was a disease.
I think Lindsie, as graceful and witty as ever was not taken aback at all. We got to know each other well in the process of conceiving this tome. She learned that I speak elvish, as well as anyone I suppose – based on Tolkien’s writing in Lord of the Rings, and that I am a huge fan of Frank Herbert’s Dune-series and she encouraged me to take this book there; Make the world my own – only to veer away from falsity. A bit larger than life was cool, but the road I had to take to find my own story was long – the editing process of the book was at least as challenging as the drafting of it.
During the writing of the book, me in my artistic bubble, toiling day after day, largely rudderless and with only my tiny dog to keep me company, I met with Lindsie every six weeks or so for coffee at the little place down the street from where the Heyday office used to be. When we were well in to naming conventions and how they would work throughout the book, I ran into what I still think of in my mind as the native-language-problem.
One of my very favorite mountains in California, not only because I’ve had the honor of climbing to its peak, but because of what it exhibits in habitat for endemic flora and fauna, can now be found on conventional maps as being called Junipero Serra Peak. The tallest peak in all the Coastal Ranges of California from Mountain Piños in the south, up to Snow Mountain past the Bay, in the North, Junipero Serra Peak has known many names: before being named after the father of California’s 18th century missions, it was known as Santa Lucia Peak, and before that, and what Wikipedia still says to this day: the Salinian people called the peak PIMKOLAM. I was happy to present in my book the restored word – and then I came to Heyday and my education about the native-language-problem began.
It was at last year’s Heyday Holiday party that I met Gregg Castro, a Salinian teacher, that I found out that Pimkolam merely means “mountain” and that the true name of this peak was more of a sentence than a word. When relating this story to Lindsie, she, as always in the most reassuring manner told me that “restoring the original – or the first, human names to these places is not for me or this book to take on – that plainly: that is not my story.” I still wrestle with this subtle philosophical point that she presented. How far does my authority extend as an historian? As a cartographer? As a naturalist? When do I have to put the brakes on calling myself, for example, a scientist? And how far can I get on being an artist? An author? Time will tell I suppose. All these questions, laid out like so much meat in the hot and wasting sun threatened to take me down – and then I met the man who it would turn out to be was the last piece of the puzzle in getting this book written. It was when I met Malcolm Margolin.
Malcolm had already become the Publisher Emeritus at Heyday by the time I came on board, but his spirit lingered like a kind of flavor in the air, a perfume really. How could it not? He had been running Heyday for more than 40 years and now mine was going to be the first major title without him at the helm? Dicey situation indeed. I don’t remember shaking his hand for the first time, but I do remember our first hike. It was with Lindsie, at the Runnymede Sculpture Gardens in Los Altos in May of 2016 – I was already four or five months into the more-than-full-time job of writing the book. At once we were shockingly candid with each other, and I was really surprised out how refreshingly foul I found the guy to be. I remember confiding in him as we strolled through some flowers alone, and I felt license that I could disclose such base-things as pronouncing “I am so in love with California right now, that I wish she could be my lover.” Feeling exposed I quickly added “I don’t think that will make it into the introduction.” Malcolm looked at me with a trademark twinkle in his eye and said softly “I wish it would.”
That was the opening of the floodgate – that was the origin of the first line of the book – that this is a love story. In a hundred subsequent talks with Malcolm I became looser with my whole attitude toward the book – I became freer with my power.
I know that this is good. I know we are working here on a sustainable vision for the future. I know that this will grow out and up from me and my mortal efforts. He would later question if he ever actually said this to me, but with just a bit of prodding, I got it out of him: Malcolm once told me that he didn’t care about books. “It is not the product that is the truest source of the story, but the process by which it gets made.” In an amendment he would later add that “the book is nothing more than the stone for the stone soup around which people gather.” I couldn’t think of any better concluding words for this yarn – we have here a collection of maps that amount to, I submit, a workable model for a sustainable citizenry.
Our society is built on stories – from the fiction that is money to the transcendent assumptions of collective reality – from the illusion that death might just be – to the falsity of danger in wild, savage, natural world. In my most perfect dreams, I map California as a circle as big as the horizon that we might all be able to fit into – us and the ghosts of those who have come before and who will come after. In my most realized process I am charting a course not only of our continued human residency here over the next one hundred or five hundred years, but over the next ten thousand years. Let’s go ahead and trust each other enough to begin that conversation.
The California Field Atlas is a love story. California is the land where I was born and having spent a happy life walking through its forests and sleeping out under its stars, I hope to someday die, far off trail under some unnamed sequoia. My spirit is of this place and to sing of its living spirit is to sing the most interesting song I’ve ever heard. Although I’m confident that I understand California’s puzzle-like personality as well as I have ever known anything, I still feel like a novice, an infatuated child, a lost and humbled beggar for its natural wisdom. I want to hold the whole thing in my hand, like a diamond or like a spinning top, a single piece of the universe to coax into opening up its secrets. In this book, I am participating in the wild reimagining of the place, past the scars inflicted over the past two hundred years and revealing a story about what has always been here and what will remain long after our residency is through. I am a poet and I am painter whose work is based on a mode of naturalist interpretation that builds from hard science to focus the inner lens of truth. With the publication of the California Field Atlas, I present a new portfolio of invented geography laden with a balance of ecology and aesthetics as driving and orienting forces. – Obi Kaufmann
I have been working on this book my whole life. Many of these maps were sketched ten years ago on scraps of paper and have changed little since while some have gone through ten versions in the last six weeks. The editing process has been at least as challenging as the drafting process, as the refinement of the presented material is at least as valuable as the raw information itself. Each map is a puzzle, but a puzzle meant to be read more than solved. Sit with each map for a moment before you begin to unravel it. Digest the layout and bring the pattern of the information in. I started this project dreaming of presenting California in a compendium of symbols and names; a delivery system of geographic knowledge that is tuned to such a high and efficient frequency that the transmission of knowledge becomes effortless and the information can be more absorbed than interpreted. I have always imagined that with the right lexicon, the knowledge itself might be immediately appreciable, like a rose or a painting. -Obi Kaufmann
Home of the California Field Atlas and the work of Obi Kaufmann