Category: ESSAYS

The rest of my career will be about drawing connections. Analysis, the process of dissection, is only of limited value to my mission. Synthesis is my vocation. More than any other kind of thinking, systems strategy, specifically of course in reference to California ecology, is where I find the answers to the questions I am asking. How do the orienting, elemental forces of the natural world inform the shape and function of my local and global realities? They come by considering the wider implications of externalities and how the sum effect of its fitness outweighs the aggregated product of the constituent properties. The study of ecology is the study of economics. The only difference between the two is the object of currency and the subject of society. (obi)

FIRE; ITS ORIGIN IN NARRATIVE CONSCIOUSNESS

FIRE; ITS ORIGIN IN NARRATIVE CONSCIOUSNESS

by Obi Kaufmann

For RANGE magazine

It was probably Homo erectus, our ancestor species, who first learned the secret of the campfire 1.5 million years ago. Whether they learned how to create the spark themselves, or control a small, natural blaze is debatable. Evidence of fire scars on rocks in East Africa date back that far, symbolizing what may be the very first anthropogenic carbon emission. Homo sapiens didn’t arrive on the scene for another million years.

In the interim, I bet gathering around the campfire is what ultimately led us to where we are as a species today. That meditation on the campfire, the circling of a human community to prepare food and strengthen social bonds, led us to and through the so-called Cognitive Revolution, when art and fiction first appeared in our evolutionary history about 100,000 years ago.

Fire is as important to human life, society and history as water. Its ability to transform food through cooking, light up our night communities at night and be manipulated into more complicated versions of itself to meet our needs has made modern society possible.

In the western U.S., specifically among the Indigenous people of California, fire has a history of being used for prescriptive burns to stoke the annual production of food. Those ways are largely lost behind a contemporary hubris of control: fire as an undeniable force, does not abide.

In this age of climate crisis, itself spawned from our relationship with fire, wildland fire threateningly creeps toward our human sprawl from all vectors, now in all seasons. In the west, we have unwisely built our patterns of suburban growth into long trains of fuel for fire to consume. It is the double-edged sword that our knowledge of fire, as energy unleashed, has been alternatively mastered and foolishly managed, depending on your ecological perspective of history.

Now, as we watch our homes burn because of our mismanagement of local wildscapes and firesheds, we wonder if it is too late to reset the clock — or how many coming-decades of inferno do we have to endure until it resets itself?

Fire can be a great ally and teacher, and it plays an important role in creating healthy, natural landscapes. It is by walking with fire through history that we became human at all. When we look into the ephemeral flames of a campfire, we see ourselves, dancing and reaching for the sky with what little fuel we are given.

OBI KAUFMANN, naturalist , poet and painter, is the author of the bestselling California Field Atlas (HEYDAY, 2017). His latest book, The State of Water, Understanding California’s Most Precious Resource (HEYDAY, 2019), continues his investigation into the confluence of art and science towards a more complete understanding of the natural world.

The Evolving Language of Conservation

This essay was originally published in Zyzzyva magazine, issue 113, Fall 2018. The theme of the issue was Restoration and I was invited to also contribute a portfolio of paintings to decorate it throughout – the paintings are interspersed in this reprint of the original version of the text. – Obi

The Evolving Language of Conservation

or

The Post-Environmental Movement

By Obi Kaufmann

Spring 2018

 

Words and painting are all I have. They are all any of us have. Since the cognitive revolution, seventy thousand years ago at the dawn of art, at the dawn of fiction, humanity finally exchanged its true instinct, its connection with the natural world for the transcendent ability to deposit that instinct outside the body into words and painting, into narration. The Sixth Extinction, as defined as the world-wide collapse of biodiversity, the likes of which has only happened five times before in the three and a half billion-year history of life on earth, started about then too. The unprecedented, weaponized ability to construct the verbal and pictorial concepts is at the causal core of both our alienation from and our license to decimate those bits of nature that don’t offer immediate utility. It may be this same ability that steers us away from inducing some manner of ecological collapse we can’t escape from. It may be that with the right configuration of this, the most powerful of human tools – the ability to convey and to receive meaning – we might be able to reverse the unraveling that had begun so very long ago. This uniquely human ability is not only our best tool, it is our only tool.

We don’t generally believe that it happened in one day, sometime in our distant ancestry that words spontaneously fell out of some early-person’s mouth. Most traits, including neural processes, only emerge over great expanses of evolutionary time. That be said, we don’t know for sure. What if it was the lightning bolt? What if it was some psychotropic, fungal reaction that prompted the first poem to be uttered, the first song to be song, the first story to be told? Maybe the origin of communication, regardless if it happened quickly or not, wasn’t from without but from within? Is it really a reach to imagine such a historical event? In these days, just an eyelash of geologic time from not only the agricultural revolution but the industrial revolution, we stand in an onslaught of raining paradigms, and we are capable of understanding and internalizing all of them. Our minds are that fluid and that able. There are so many new paradigms, so many emerging worldviews popping and pinging around the media universe that the effect is like so many flash bulbs attempting to capture the celebrity of absolute truth as she aloofly meanders down the red carpet. If one of these paradigms, these exclusive systems of linguistic truth that define the norms of our culture, were to catch, and if this new story was about living in ecological accord with the carrying capacity of our natural world, might we then find ourselves in a post-consumer society, full of restored ecologies free of industrial-age pollution?

New paradigms reveal themselves as revolutions – fundamental shifts in the way humans organize and govern themselves and their resources. The three major, historical revolutions that have determined our course as the world-changing species that we are have been the cognitive, the agricultural and the industrial. One way or another, we will soon be ensconced in the fourth great paradigm-shift: the ecological. It will be a new world view that we realize and thrive in, or it will be a time of unilateral destruction. I certainly don’t mean to offer some doom and gloom prophecy, nor do I want to necessarily echo the end-times scenarios that the environmentalists have been going on about for decades. My concern is with the linguistic and pictorial mechanisms that trigger the deepest shifts in our collective psyche. Is it possible to clear the fog of alienation from the natural world that has plagued our society for so many thousands of years? I think the possibility is there and I have found an orientation through this dense forest. It is a simpler path than you might think, dependent on a linguistic determinism, or how the words people use determines the way people think.

I realize I am being rather absolutist when I’m talking about one cultural paradigm, one societal relationship with the natural world. There are certainly different degrees, most notably among indigenous cultures around the globe and across millennia who never experienced, or were delayed in experiencing, or for whatever local reason didn’t need the agricultural revolution, for example. Although I reject the outright idea that somehow indigenous cultures, as a rule, are somehow more in tuned to nature. There are valid examples, even arguably more examples of the rule than exceptions to it, where an indigenous mindset created a local culture where resource extraction doesn’t exceed the natural processes of replenishment within that system – perhaps the single-most qualifiable metric for a society in tune with nature – but I am not concerned with the past on this micro-geographic, societal level. I am concerned with the larger, macro-patterns across the global-human phenomenon. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a consciousness singularity, a unity of culture, despite the form of language and tradition, is more possible now than ever. Above and perhaps even because of the rhetoric, the political vitriol, and the polarized attitudes that exist within any given, contemporary culture, the trajectory towards the next tipping point is coming into focus.

With the world’s current world population of humans at 7.6 billion, we are seeing something unexpected: the diminution of many of the social plagues that have hounded humanity since the birth of civilizations. Most notably, these trends are evidenced in two areas: global war and global poverty. Both these terrible forces seem to be ebbing in the decades since World War Two. It is doubtful that the concurrent facts of both an extended period of statistically relative, worldwide peace and the downward trend of extreme poverty are both anomalies. What is clear is that the modernist paradigm of economic affluence is based on resource extraction, both energetically and materially. The way that both these agreeable trends will end is over the systemic inability to satisfactorily allocate natural resources to the ever-upward, exponential growth of our population.

If you face one direction, you can hear humanity’s cry of despair – a common lament, based in a pervading fear that seems hardwired into the human condition, that all society is inevitably headed to the eschaton. There is a cry even that we have the license to strip the last of the world’s otherwise pristine, living systems and all the treasure they hold, on our way down into the pit. It is as if there is a cultural pathos, perhaps rooted in capitalism ideology, that whatever we can take, we should take. You can hear the indulgent and unwise voices gather in a chorus against the possibility of a vibrant, and abundantly biodiverse future – that the world is not alive unto itself but a pool of material for us to burn, to continue this illusion of plenty, where we can forever keep our lights inefficiently bright, and our cars unreasonably thirsty for gas. This is the dark, shadow story of who we are and what we deserve. This is the world’s worst story.

I am a child of the west, specifically California. I was born in 1973, the same year as the passing of the Endangered Species Act, in a brief time in the early 1970’s called by some “the Golden Age of Environmental Legislation.“ Since then, in my country, I’ve watch the slow estrangement of one half (the Republican party) of our government turn from any policy deemed environmental. And I ‘ve witnessed the other half (the Democratic party) co-opt the environmental movement, glomming it into a so-called Leftist agenda, adopting a no-compromise, line-in-the-sand posture. The whole dysfunctional system resembles a family squabble and the entrenched vocabulary we use to describe the political dynamic exacerbates the situation, infecting it to such a degree that often arguments, rooted in punditry, become an ineffectual din for only the deaf.

The language of this cultural polarization which has trickled down from our government, particularly with respect to all things having to do with the environment, is rooted in capitalist salesmanship. The relativism of the moral context, where all evil is defined by what may undermine any special interest, is exploited by professional politicians to the detriment of the common good. The core idea that the health, robustness, and resiliency of the natural world inexorably means the same for the human world is so basic an idea that to argue it politically is to expose a system, so laden with an obsession for fractionating profit, that its heart must be rotten and deserves to be cut out. We begin with the words and the art; remember, they are all we’ve got. Two words need to be remade: both Environmentalism and Sustainability have been appropriated by the antagonists of what the words signify. The (the environmental and the coming post-environmental) movement itself needs to abandon them. They now are employed as dog-whistle words for propaganda against the movement to designate a whole set of dogmatic baggage unrelated to the movement itself. To again approach the moral imperative of how to best steer the ship away from the tyranny of its extraction-over-replenishment vector, we (all of us) need to uncouple the movement from any other order of the day.

The legacy of one hundred thousand years of storytelling is reflected in both, our individual minds and the collective mind we each tap whenever we speak, create and love. Our society is built on stories. A story, either composed of words or pictorially rendered in art, transmits apprehendable information – a flower well rendered in paint, for example, transmits 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. We change the story, we change the world. Depending on how we fare the coming, inevitable paradigm shift, we will be 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 Living Forest Body

The Living Forest Body

by Obi Kaufmann

What is a Forest? A terrestrial forest is a living network process of ecological functions whose health revolves around cycles of succession, as dictated by the fire regime as negotiated by the woody plants present. A forest is also a discreet physiographic area, within one or spread over many watersheds, defined by one or more keystone species of woody plant that principally governs the primary biogeochemical cycles presently sustaining the localized ecology. The first definition describes a forest by its relationship to fire, while the second describes a forest by its relationship with water. Both definitions necessarily include the presence of woody plants. Woody plants are vascular, perennial, botanicals that most often includes trees, shrubs and vines (but can also include cactus, e.g. Joshua Tree and Saguaro) who all produce wood (or similarly fibrous material) as their structural core.

 

The forest-body can be modeled as a single entity and should be thought of as alive itself. The life cycle of the forest is not fundamentally different than the mortal and corporeal life cycle our own bodies experience. Every forest is a single, biochemical system containing a multitudinous plethora of relationships between biological functionaries whose collective industry measurably dictates the health of the system. The ecosystem that is the forest-type is dependent on thousands of unique and specialized exchanges between energetic units that have evolved over millions of years in an adaptive cycle of growth, conservation, release and reorganization.

Terrestrial forests of every type exist everywhere and are all dependent upon both fire and water cycles to maintain and feed different, vital components at different stages of the adaptive cycle. A forest is not an orchard, nor is a suburban development with lots of trees, and an urban forest is not a forest. A kelp forest is an aquatic ecosystem bound to a different set of resource cycles that the terrestrial forest is not. A forest can exist within many different scales of biodiversity, from the relatively simple to the extremely complex. Temperate and low-lying forests tend toward more complexity and niche redundancy given nutrient abundancies and the general mildness of climate, while arid and alpine forests tend toward reduced quantities of speciation and biomass given more stringent conditions. The sheer amount of photosynthesis and evapotranspiration that takes place within any one of the world’s major forests radically influences water and climate patterns across the planetary atmosphere.

Forests all exhibit strata of life categories, sub-ecosystems that interact with other levels of the forest to varying degrees. These strata may include 1) subterranean and soil systems of mycorrhizal, nutrient-delivery 2) Floor habitat, surface mulch, under growth, and where liquid water may be present 3) an understory that may be of an entirely different character than the canopy – in dense, temperate forests, understory trees and shrubs may contain broad leaves to catch more sunlight filtered through the canopy trees above, 4) a canopy that may represent the most, total living space in the forest, where the dominant, or keystone species expresses its fullest capacity to produce, and 5) the emergent layer where exceptional species may poke through the canopy’s shaded ceiling to take advantage of the unhindered light above.

The function of the adaptive cycle within all forests is the tendency towards equilibrium. Equilibrium is best thought of as a homeostasis between nutrient expenditure, production and management within the ecosystem. Forests exist and thrive within their own strategic set of time and space-based operations based on the different qualities of their keystone trees. At different stages of the adaptive cycle, or after surviving many successive turns around the adaptive cycle, a forest might exhibit different qualities of character that can be described many ways. A climax forest is a forest that has remained undisturbed by invasiveness or fire for a period long enough for the dominant, climax species of tree to perhaps be vulnerable to one of the many triggers of succession, i.e. a closed canopy that amounts to an invitation of pioneering, shade-tolerant plants that begin to crowd saplings and begin the process from succession to conversion. An old growth forest is a forest that has attained an equilibrium such that the relationships across the complete spectrum of trophic interaction within the ecosystem are minimally affected by any given, naturally occurring disturbance and may have existed unchanged for millennia. Second growth forests are forests that have been harvested for timber and do not exhibit the qualities of habitat abundance and niche opportunities that define old growth.

Between us and our conceptualization of what a forest is, there are layers of meaning that at once inform and interrupt our better understanding of it. On an evolutionary level, have developed our brains on the savannah over a period of millions of years, we have a hard time with forests. They aren’t very good areas of food production for us and having long ago traded in our primate-ability to climb trees, we feel vulnerable. We have built our civilization by using the so-called renewable energy of the forest, thinking it an infinite well of fuel and timber, while not accounting for the many subtle functions that these large organs of the biosphere take care of routinely. The restoration and immediate cessation of all old-growth logging must be a priority of our species. The preservation of the biodiversity in the world’s last, untouched forests may be directly linked to the larger living network across the planet that sustains us.  A forest is not an object, it is a network-process of relationships that exhibits such a resemblance to a single-living entity that it seems to breathe, react, think, reproduce, strategize, move, die, and if we are wise and open enough, we can discern its ability to express love.

The Field Atlas – Focusing the Creative Intent

When I started to write the first Field Atlas, the California Field Atlas, the only strategy I had was to pull as many maps together as I could to see what patterns might fall out. There were two major hemispheres of work in the creation of the world that is the Field Atlas: the drafting followed by the editing. Analyzing these modes, these creative environments is key to understanding not only how this book got made, but how the process might be replicated, or at least re-approached.

The Field Atlas is not a Field Guide. The Field Atlas works in the context of natural history but is not a document of natural history. Field guides are tools to describe the what of something, not the how. What is a question of object, how is a question of system. Systems thinking is the level of conceptualization that the Field Atlas works best at. How do the underlying, elemental, shaping forces of the largely abiotic forces in any given ecosystem, on whatever scale, coalesce and interact to create the physical and chemical geography of that ecosystem.

The Field Atlas cannot be separated from its art. If it were it would not be the Field Atlas. Ultimately, this work is literary contrivance, not a scientific one and there are two, primary reasons for this: one is the nature of consensus, and the other is the nature of invention. Where it might seem that an editor is like a peer-review, they are not. Scientists do not have the luxury of creative license. On a pure level, the scientist can only react to measured data, while the artist (or the Field Atlas author more specifically) is shielded by vocation to extrapolate whatever derivations work toward the harmonious execution of the piece.

It might be that the Field Atlas’ greatest success its singular presentation of California as the subject, perhaps even a symbolic metaphor, of and about my love for the natural world, and the blending of that effort with one that is at its core, data-driven. The Field Atlas works to integrate the humanities and the sciences on a geographic scale and that is the philosophical sphere of meaning. One of the most notable features of the Field Atlas is what it doesn’t feature: Humanity. There are towns and the occasional border, road, facility, et al. but they are mostly there for orientation, not for context. Humanity is a secondary character, analogous to a fire or a flood – a maker of scars that will heal across the land-body once the source of the infliction moves on.

When putting together the first draft of the California Field Atlas, I didn’t know what core systems I wanted to describe. Earth, Air, Fire and Water – the core organization of the book’s first half, describe the most empirical subjects in the book. Those classifications did not come about until late in the drafting process. I see now, there is a shift, albeit a subtle one, in thematic tone from the first five chapters of the book and the last five. Not just in nature of content, but in editorialized attitude. Chapters six through nine (not including chapters one and ten, really as they represent bookends for the larger piece) act almost as appendices to the first half. Even the big chapter on counties, chapter nine, seems like it takes California and divides it up into almost arbitrary jigsaw pieces, and from those pieces, I take what I please and leave the rest.

This process, of inventing geography, of playing with cartographic power, of manipulating boundaries not based on core-ecological systems, but contemporary political zonations, isn’t necessarily a negative. Ultimately, my plan as described by the two presumptions at the front of the book (paraphrased: 1. All natural systems are living systems, and 2. There is both a scientific and an artistic agenda at work) serve this course. I set out to make a new genre: The Field Atlas. The success of that genre will ultimately be determined in an almost Darwinian manner, its reproducibility. As I venture to make the next books – The California Lands Trilogy, HEYDAY BOOKS, 2019 – I am advantaged with being able to leverage this hindsight and liberated in being now able to exploit the higher functioning aspects of my work to reveal ever deeper cycles of geographic ecology. – Obi Kaufmann, Author of the California Field Atlas.

to purchase a personalized copy of the CALIFORNIA FIELD ATLAS directly from the author, go to californiafieldatlas.com.

My Favorite Books of the Year

My favorite books of the year
By Obi Kaufmann
12/30/2017

I started this list (or is it an essay?) with some rules in mind, and now I think I am about to break them all. The nine books I’ve chosen are not even my favorite books that I’ve read this year, thus the careful naming of this essay, these are my favorite books published with a 2017 copyright that delighted me so that I was able not only to get all the way through each of them, but cherish my copy of each now in my library.  I was so sure that this list would contain ten books (I mean who ever heard of a top nine list?) alas, I was apparently too distracted by other great reads from previous years that sitting down to write this, I only came up with nine. I am just going to have to live with that.

These other titles that I proudly devoured this year, but were exempt from this list because of the year they were written:

1) Trees in Paradise by Jared Farmer (2013, Norton, New York) – a surprisingly vibrant history of California from the perspective of four tree types: Redwood, Palm, Citrus and Eucalyptus.

2)  Let the Mountains Talk, Let the Rivers Run by David Brower (1995, Harper Collins, New York) – David Brower did as much good for the modern environmental movement as any American ever has and this thin, thoroughly entertaining book is his story and one to go back to again and again.

3) Assembling California by John Mcphee (1993, Farrar, New York) – The first two-thirds of this book is classic Mcphee: as inspired and fun as it is educational and researched. The book spends too much time for me on personal accounts of earthquakes towards the end, but how well it puts together the geological history of California in narrative form to start the book is well worth it.

4) The Lariat and other writings by Jaime De Angulo (2009, Counterpoint, Berkeley) – how I have lived my whole life in California and am just now learning about Jaime De Angulo is beyond me; the first Big Sur tramp who lived with many different native Californian tribes at the turn of the last century, and who had the heart of a poet and the mind of a scientist. The old-timey language can get wearisome and some of the racial talk is a bit dated, but beyond that, this work paints a picture of California lost but easily remembered.

5) Half-Earth by E.O.Wilson (2016, Norton, New York) – this is the one where he says that we need to preserve half the globe to defend against the further decline of world-wide biodiversity. E.O.Wilson tends to stick to about four themes in his books, and radiates out from there but only ever slightly. Familiar themes trace through from earlier work to defend his most recent idea: the one presented. Always a deeply satisfying and provoking experience that echoes out for months after reading.

6) The Moon by Whale Light by Diane Ackerman (1991, Vintage Books, New York) – Last year’s number one favorite was The Human Age, Ackerman’s most recent book, and going back to this one reveals her earliest inspirations as an adventure naturalist and poet biologist.

7) The Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry (1977, Sierra Club, San Francisco) – if I were a high school teacher, or maybe even a college professor, I would want to teach a whole, semester-long class on this book. The themes of community, work and stewardship of land are prescient and as relevant today as the day they were written forty years ago.

8) Sowing Seeds in the Desert by Masanobu Fukuoka (2012, Chelsea Green, White River) – the basic premise and heart of this thin and fantastic little book, that food security is possible and about how we can get there, reads like an instruction manual as much as a story. Being a guerilla farmer? Sounds like a great idea – my big issue with the book is the premise that the desert is not beautiful and complete in its own way, an ecosystem that does not need improvement.

9) Mountains and Marshes by David Rains Wallace (2015, Counterpoint, Berkeley) – David Rains Wallace is one of my favorite writers of all time. The Klamath Knot and the Articulate Earth were both two works that changed me forever. In this book, Wallace explores the natural history of my home, the San Francisco Bay Area and I couldn’t be more happy or excited by the result.

I have been drawn lately to a certain kind of book. Or, in the whole spectrum of genres and styles available, I am happy in my wavelength. I suppose that wavelength is akin to the kind of thing I do, or imagine that I do, having just written the California Field Atlas and going back in for three more books on over the next year on a similar theme. I like nonfiction. I like prose with a nod to the poetic, and I like the really-long form essay. I like nonfiction so deep that it easily bounces back and forth from a philosophical context to a human-scale context – I feel most satisfied with a book when I glean something eternal from something profane. The subject of the books I like most is nature: the science of it, the history of it and the beautiful patterns in it. Give me Evolutionary Biology, Natural History, and Darwinian theory and sprinkle over it the spice of personal mythology. I want to hear the echo of the author’s soul and I want it to be big. I need a dramatic tension that unfolds from a life’s work that has only emerged from under the most personal type of introspection – give me a writer who has lived many lives and worked many professions: artist, scientist, and adventurer, ready to give it all with nothing to hold back.

My favorite books of 2017

9) Wildflowers of the Trinity Alps by Ken Decamp (2017, Backcountry Press, Kneeland) – despite my declarations in that last paragraph, I am going to start my list my pick for the best field guide of the year. Naturalist and photographer Ken Decamp presents an unparalleled portfolio of exquisite photography and documentation that will aid me in my wildflower identification obsession for years to come. I am so proud to be among the first to own this new work that contains over 700 full color photos of such excellent and clear quality, organized by flower color, detailing the flowering botany of one of the most bio-rich corners of California.

8) The Moth Snowstorm by Michael McCarthy (2015, New York Review Books, New York) – two rules broken in as many entries, oh well. This book came out a couple of years ago and I bought it at the beginning of 2017, and have just recently finished it. The ripples from this stone tossed into my pond where so resonant that I am justifying its inclusion into this list. British naturalist Michael McCarthy writes with such a delicate and haunting voice that I nearly had to abandon further reading as my heart was breaking again and again. The light he turns on in the darkness of account of human action upon the natural world is eye-opening but not unreasonable, it is as considerate, even meditative as it is important. About half way through the book he finds joy, or he points the many ways, some even biologic, that our relationship to nature is rooted in it and from there to the end of the piece he considers a potential coming into a reconnection with nature our culture needs.

“Our bond with nature may be hidden for much if not most of the time, it may be a signal engulfed by noise, it may lie buried under five hundred generations’ worth of urban living, but it is stronger than those experiences, for it was forged by fifty thousand generations of living in the natural world before the farmers broke the sod and hacked down the forest and imposed a new order on humankind; and underneath everything, it endures. It is unbreakable. Nor does it belong just to him, or to her; it is the inheritance of every single one of us, it is part of what it means to be human, and it can be found within us – not always clearly – and it can be understood, and it can be made the basis of our defense of the natural world in the terrible century to come. So let us leave them behind, the unbearable losses, and go where the bond can be found: let us journey into joy.” – Michael McCarthy

7) How a Mountain was Made by Greg Sarris (2017, Heyday, Berkeley) – okay, now I am three for three with breaking any kind of rules that I had set up for myself. This book is not non-fiction, per se, nor is it about nature, again – kind of. This book is the closest I get to including a book of poetry on my list. That is because the voice and narrative patterns presented break all the norms of regular language in such a sumptuous and satisfying way that I think of a horn-of-plenty spilling these stories out, full of fruit and wildflowers, to the consuming delight of our many senses. Greg Sarris, chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, presents a series of tender stories from the Coastal Miwok of Northern California that all center around Sonoma Mountain. Most of the stories include Coyote as either the protagonist or the antagonist depending on either what character he feels like that day, or conversely how events conspire against him, painting him into any role. Transcending some kind of ethnographic documentation, this book become a classic in the making – a source of timeless wisdom, full of humor and love.

“Coyote laughed and tossed his bead into the air. Then Ant and everyone else tossed their beads into the air like Coyote. All at once, the beads became prisms of light, and these words fell from the sky:

Seeing Forever
My eyes, my eyes
I offer you.

Seeing Truth
My eyes, my eyes
I offer you.

Seeing Lies
My eyes, my eyes
I offer you.

Seeing Forever
This song, this song
I sing for you.”

-Greg Sarris

6)  Tracks along the Left Coast by Andrew Schelling (2017, Counterpoint, Berkeley) – Before the great California writers of the 50’s (you know all their names), there was Jaime De Angulo. An immigrant who arrived in San Francisco the day before the 1906 earthquake, De Angulo was to become known for his talents as a cowboy, a cattle rancher, a horse-tamer, a medical doctor, a psychologist and a linguist. He spent decades with the Achumawi, Pomo, Karok, Modoc and Miwok tribes – he learned their culture and documented their languages and translated it, determined to tell the real history of California. A complex biography, well-written and full of nuance, the book presents us with a driven, creative genius who is as troubled as he is ahead of his time.

De Angulo: “I weaved in real Indian stories with the Tras-Tras; stories I was collecting in the field in connection with my work in Indian Linguistics – that’s how the whole thing got started, and of course friends of ours used to borrow the stories to tell them to their own children, and also in those days of the prohibition era when our house in Berkeley was sort of headquarters for all the young men and University students who were rebels – in those days we kept open house and there was always a crowd of ten to fifteen people sleeping it off here and there on the porch, in the childrens’ room, everywhere, and arguing for those were the good days (but too much drinking) and complete thorough sexual freedom they called it Jaime’s Gang and I was accused of every crime. All those stories about me, only one-third were true, and how the University hated me!”

5) Coast Range by Nick Neely (2016, Counterpoint, Berkeley) – In my review of Greg Sarris’ book, I said that it was probably the only book of poetry I included in this list. I’ve changed my mind, I think this book has equal parts poetry as well. Neely plays with the essay-format so ferociously that I feel confident enough to say that. Neely ‘s language is always measured and considerate, and his sense of connection to this place (most of the book was written near the Rogue River in Oregon) comes through strongly and with great purpose. The subjects he focuses on are always timely and from a unique perspective whether it be a conservationist guide to managing coyote populations or following a salmon from hatching to dinner plate. I kept coming back to this collection of essays, month after month, this year so although it technically was published at the end of 2016, I am including it here.

“The whole meadow, I realized, was papered with words, with stories and sketches and histories, and I would add a few. You can build a shelter from words. The poems stapled in the cabin would eventually cover the walls, like the thinnest of cedar shakes, and become a cabin themselves. And when the bear clawed or nuzzled into that house, it would return to the clay of vocabulary, become a madrone, drift again.” – Nick Neely

4) Nature Love Medicine, essays on Wildness and Wellness, edited by Thomas Lowe Fleischner (2017, Torrey House, Salt Lake City) – at first the name horrified me, like some terrible eat pray love cliché. My fear evaporated at first sitting. In fact, I finished the book in a single night and then came back to read it it again and again. This is a marvelous collection of essays by 24 writers and I loved nearly every piece, which is rare for me, as I tend to hate anthologies of any sort. My favorite essays were Laura Sewall’s “New Words, Lost Words and Terms of Endearment” where she frets that the loss of a breadth of scientific vocabulary in our culture represents “from a psychological perspective, this form of dumbing down could be cast as a crippling trajectory into a de-animated and self-referenced world, lacking in either perceived of conceptual diversity or abundance.” I agree. I was also particularly impressed with Mitchell Thomashow’s essay “Nature. Love. Medicine. Healing. Reciprocity. Generosity.” Thomashow prescribes a simple but powerfully poetic methodology by which our culture must go through to transform our view to the natural world. Think of the very definition of the word Reciprocity: “literally defined, reciprocity is the practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit.” In a human culture fixed on preserving the ecological environment, this means that you leave things better than you found them. My favorite essay is by one of my favorite authors, Robin Wall Kimmerer, whose book Braiding Sweetgrass continues to be a guide for me and my life. In “Heal-All”, Kimmerer again deftly balances her scientific background with sublime insight into the creative forces at work in the natural world to suggest, among other things, that we alter our use of pronouns in the English language to be more inclusive of entities in the more than human world. “The language of animacy, of kinship, can be medicine for a broken relationship. I imagine it could be dosed out, pronoun by pronoun, ki and kin, word by word until it infiltrated our very being.”

3) Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, edited by Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan, Nils Bubandt (2017, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis) – this erudite, unique and brave work is one of those books that I will have and cherish for the rest of my life. Divided into two halves: Ghosts & Monsters, the book itself turns around so you read it from both sides. Are we haunted by our unraveling landscapes? Do ecologies of nothingness torment our dreams? Are we being stalked by some hunting force in ourselves that won’t let us be? What are Necropolitics and how do we exercise such a baleful process? These deeply artful questions are tilled again and again in this surprisingly coherent work of art by nearly two dozen contributing artists. I am not going to pick apart quotes from this book in this quick review. I need more time with it. I’m not even fully done with the book. It is so delicious and powerful that I need to take my time with it. I may write another entry just about it and it alone. These mythologic forces keep me up at night and I can’t help but feel a bit emancipated simply by this work’s existence.

2) The Songs of Trees, by David George Haskell (2017, Penguin Random House, New York) – the straightforward voice of Haskell is a welcome relief, and a new poetic addition to the archives of naturalists who have struggled to clearly communicate the processes of the natural world with love and respect. Haskell is one of the very best the world has ever known. I was blown away by his last book, the Forest Unseen, which is an absolute must for anyone even remotely interested in how nature in North America works. In this book, he examines the ecology of the senses that surround twelve different tree species. He goes to the places where these trees live and he observes their texture, the quality of the wind in their leaves, the taste of the air, the smell of the bark. Fearlessly in love with all manner of forests, Haskell’s work will be remembered as a landmark and for us, his fans, we can’t wait to read what he writes next.

“In all these places, tree songs emerge from relationship. Although tree trunks seemingly stand as detached individuals, their lives subvert this atomistic view. We’re all – trees, humans, insects, birds, bacteria – pluralities. Life is embodied network. These living networks are not places of omnibenevolent Oneness. Instead, they are where ecological and evolutionary tensions between cooperation and conflict and negotiated and resolved. These struggles often result not in the evolution of stronger, more disconnected selves but in the dissolution of the self into relationship.”

1) The Origins of Creativity by E.O.Wilson (2017, Liveright, New York) – The was the year of E.O.Wilson for me. I can’t actually get enough. In the centuries to come, Wilson will be remembered as pivotal in whatever comes next. Should things go the way that he prescribes, he will be remembered for the hero he is, or if not, he will be remembered as the guy that gave us our best plan that we then ignored. The best thing about this plan he proposes is its inevitability. Just as Darwinian, Evolutionary biology necessarily infiltrates all theoretical and empirical models of the history of life, Wilson’s ideas of Biophilia, social evolution and biodiversity will come to infiltrate all the like-models of mind and humanity. In this book, Wilson unites the humanities and the hard-sciences to present the coming way of what he calls the Third Enlightenment – a science-based, humanist mindset that exists in a set of common truths about the interdependent meaning of all life on earth and our place in it.

“Scientists and scholars in the humanities, working together, will, I believe, serve as the leaders of a new philosophy, one that blends the best and most relevant from these two great branches of learning. If so, it will bring our species closer to realizing the prayer for reason inscribed by Diogenes and still visible in original form on the Oinoanda stoa in the ancient Greek region of Lycia.

Not least for those who are called foreigners,

For they are not foreigners. For, while the various segments of Earth

Give different people a different country, the whole compass of this world

Gives all people a single country, the entire earth, and a single home, the world”

 

Circular Reoccurrence in the Anthropocene

Circular Reoccurrence in the Anthropocene: Eight recent books authored by women that address the most important themes of our time

by Obi Kaufmann

The trust I afford the long-narrative form of the book to be a source of authority and information is reliably superior to any other media platform. It never fails to astonish, how the alchemical process of understanding any given topic takes shape through the hours it takes to receive an author’s transmission, as if illumination itself were a flower blooming, or a tide coming in. When not adventuring, I read in the same comfortable chair in a well-lit corner of my home every morning and every evening for an hour or two each sitting, and I’ve learned that it takes me about two weeks to finish a regularly sized book. Lately, I have been fascinated by non-fiction works that unravel the sticky issues of our time: the ones that really matter with profound global resonance. I noticed a pattern in the books I’ve most recently read and a chorus of voices has emerged in my mind, guiding me toward an aesthetic integration of what might otherwise be disparate questions: how does the role of beauty work to heal, both the isolated, inner world of self and in the communally-damaged, outer world of the world’s ecology in the twenty first century? Who are the teachers of the teachers we can trust to tell the stories of history that will lead us out of the thorny now?

The fact that the last eight titles sitting on my book stand were all authored by women dawned on me slowly. Mining this intellectual vein, this network of authors who are all at once storytellers (Camille Paglia, Joan Didion, Terry Tempest Williams), scientists (Diane Ackerman, Laura Cunningham, Robin Wall Kimmerer), and journalists (Naomi Kline, Elizabeth Kolbert) it occurs to me that any attempt to categorize the voice of any one is a discredit to the whole. One theme I encounter again and again – and it may be related to the nature of the engendered voices gathered in this collection of authors – is the idea of cyclical reoccurrence itself. Throughout these books, there is the pervading sense that history moves in a circular trajectory, both an embrace and a resignation towards the providence of retread ground being the path from and the path to. By acknowledging and analyzing this mode of potentially transcending a chaotic, linear view of our common story, we might navigate a course from the noisy and often dark waters upon we which our collective boat now sails and into would could be a bright and fruitful future.

#8 – Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer (Milkweed, Minneapolis, 2014)

Although a botanist by vocation, Kimmerer’s voice moves with a calm and holistic tone, almost like the water-searching roots of her subject to break up the dense earth of some basic misconceptions. In Kimmerer’s world view, all of nature speaks with a language of generosity and wisdom that is open to interpretable study despite our callous, modern deafness. The subtitle of the book is “Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants”, and if I were to add one more leg to this three-part prescription it might be that she suggests a “restoring the balance of justice to the nature world.” Of course my language here is not smooth but I do find in Kimmerer’s work a backdrop of morality and deliverance from old wounds that calls out to us for compensation, remediation or both.

 

Kimmerer invokes the myth of Windigo, a ravenous spirit that infects the soul of the people to be a metaphor for the kind of blind, consumerist madness that seems to have taken over the modern mind. “Some folks argue that we need to do nothing at all – that the unholy coupling of greed and growth and carbon will make the world hot enough to melt the Windigo once and for all. Climate change will unequivocally defeat economies that are based on constant taking withough giving in return. But before Windigo dies, it will take so much that we love along with it. We can wait for climate change to turn the world and the Windigo into a puddle of red-tinged meltwater, or we can strap on our snowshoes and track him down.”

#7  – Where I was From by Joan Didion (Vintage, New York, 2003)

Didion’s voice is among the great angels of western literature: Stegner, Abbey, Snyder, et al. who have forged warm, fluid identity from cold stone. What is the West? What is California? There is almost an effortlessness here in her subject matter that arrests me with such aesthetic power that we are all made a bit more whole for it just existing at all in our subtle memory.

“For most of my life California felt rich to me: that was the point of it, that was the promise, the reward for having left past the Sweetwater, the very texture of the place. This was by no means to say that I believed all or even most Californians to be rich, only to suggest that the fact of having no money seemed to me to lack, in California, the immutable gravity that characterized the condition elsewhere. It was not designed to be a life sentence. You were meant, if you were Californian, to know how to lash together a corral with bark, you were meant to know how to tent a raft and live on a river, you were meant to show spirit, kill a rattlesnake, keep moving.” – Joan Didion

#6 – Break, Blow, Burn – Camille Paglia reads forty-three of the world’s best poems by Camille Paglia (Pantheon, New York, 2005)

This may be the best and only book on poetry you need. Each of the poems is presented cleanly on the page for your easy digestion and then presented with a scalpel-like analysis that is always rather dizzying with its knockout erudition. I’ve been picking this book up again and again for the past ten years, and every time I do, the smell of roses fills my lungs and I feel a bit drunk.

Regarding Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy”, Paglia writes “Garish, sarcastic, and profane, “Daddy” is one of the strongest poems ever written by a woman. With driving power of voice, it marries the personal to the political against the violent backdrop of modern history. Like Emily Dickinson, another shy New Englander, Sylvia Plath challenges masculine institutions and satirizes outmoded sexual assumptions. But the energies aroused by “Daddy” ultimately become self-devouring. The poem is so extreme that nothing can be built upon it. Plath has had many imitators, but she may have exhausted her style in creating it.”

#5 – This Changes Everything by Naomi Kline (Simon and Schuster, New York, 2014)

The maelstrom of noise and disinformation circling the American mind regarding the complex and largely abstract concept of Global Warming and Climate Change is tragic. It is that perhaps our inability to come together – as Americans, as one of a few industrial players in the world – and acknowledge and attack the problem adequately is as tragic as the phenomenon itself.  Kline’s voice is a welcome respite from both the doomsayers and the deniers. She blows them all away in the deft manner that she unpacks the data and proposes some ground-shaking ideas: Can unregulated capitalism, or market fundamentalism, save us from the largest threat our species has ever collectively faced? Her answer is no, and she defends her position with profound ability.

“The massive global investments required to respond to the climate threat – to adapt humanely and equitably to the heavy weather we have already locked in, and avert the truly catastrophic warming we can still avoid – is a chance to change all that; and to get it right this time. It could deliver the equitable redistribution of agricultural lands that was supposed to follow independence from colonial rule and dictatorship; it could bring the jobs and homes that Martin Luther King dreamed of; it could bring jobs and clean water to native communities; it could at last turn on the lights and running water in every South African township. Such is the promise of a Marshall Plan for the Earth.” -Naomi Kline

#4 – The Hour of Land by Terry Tempest Williams (Sarah Crichton Books, New York, 2016)

Every time Williams writes a book, she hits it out of the park – what she hits is a fireball of eloquent rage and elucidated wisdom. The subtitle of the book is “A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks” and she opens it by stating in the first sentence, that “Language and landscape are my inspiration.” While those two ideas might be her inspiration, the product is work largely centering around the people and their relationship to the land, specifically National Parks and what that designation means to the larger conservation movement.

One passage has her merging the destructive zeitgeist of contemporary man, in specific reference to wasteful, land-resource extraction methodology, with suggest the merger with the landscape of Utah’s Canyonlands as a mode of atonement – typical of her eloquence: “These acts of greed would come at the expense of a geography so stark and arresting that it renders one mute. The hands of erosion cut windows in sandstone; a spire, an arch, or a natural bridge framing a sunset. The curvature of the Earth is not only seen but felt. Burnished and bronzed through time, this geologic architecture has inspired our American character, where self-reliance is predicated on humility, not arrogance

#3 – The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert (Picador, New York, 2014)

There are few subjects as potentially sorrowful as the current state of the biosphere – that thin, living blue line that separates the earth from black space. There are also few subjects more important to bravely face and wrestling understanding from than the Sixth Extinction, at this, the dawn of what geologists and ecologists are referring to as the Anthropocene. Extinction is the fate of all species, and a global extinction is when a large swath of the world’s taxonomic genera disappears in a geologically insignificant period of time. The history of life in the world can be drawn as a pulse of extinction events that extend back to when land plants first pushed onto land nearly five hundred million years ago in the Ordovician period. We know live in what has been called the most-lyrical time for life on the planet. There are more species now than ever before. And we are the meteor to disrupt that lyrical state in the most terrible manner. At least knowing, or coming to terms with the historical manner that this has happened before, that it is a core function of life itself, brings a modicum of reassurance – especially when it is all laid out, as clearly as Kolbert does here.

In her introduction, Kolbert observes that “No creature has ever altered life on the planet in this way before, and yet other, comparable event have occurred. Very, very occasionally in the distant past, the planet has undergone change so wrenching that the diversity of life has plummeted. Five of these ancient events were catastrophic enough that they’re put in their own category: the so-called Big Five. In what seems like a fantastic coincidence, but is probably no coincidence at all, the history of these events is recovered just as people come to realize that they are causing another one.

#2 – A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California by Laura Cunningham (Heyday, Berkeley, 2010)

I have a few books in my library that I consider true prizes; pieces of history or artifacts that carry such aesthetic significance and cultural worth that I hold them up as testament to our collective potential – books that represent profound symbols of hope, and this book is one of them. Cunningham is as gifted a writer as she is a poet as she is a scientist. The triple threat her talent represents is as entertaining as it is academic. The journey she takes us on is the story of California over the past 15,000 years or so, in a period of time known as the Recent Interglacial Period of the Holocene. There is a dreamy reverie present throughout this book, ever-present in her immaculately rendered paintings and her lucid writing style. Instead of picking a particular quote to demonstrate this lucidity, let’s consider the painting on page 247, “In the past, a jaguar stalks through a coast live oak woodland in central California among sword ferns, poison oak, and hazelnut. Oil on paper, 8 x 6 inches, 2005.”

#1 – The Human Age by Diane Ackerman (Norton & Company, New York, 2014)

Ackerman coined the term “scientifically accurate poetry” and is presently one of the world’s great voices. In this book, an endlessly recommendable book that presents an unquenchably positive vision of humanity’s function in the larger dream of the world, Ackerman presents a parade of prose that unpacks like a poem. Full of nuance, Ackerman’s voice skates through paradox and dilemma with an authority that feels so badly needed. What are the global machines, the algorithms that have been set in ancient history that we are living out today? What new machines are being born today that will impact the deep future? For surely the other side of destruction is always, inexorably creation.

“I began writing this book because I was puzzled by certain questions, such as: Why does the world seem to be racing under our feet? Why is this the first year that Canada geese didn’t migrate from many New England towns, and why have so many white storks stopped migrating to Europe? The world is being ravaged by record heat, drought, and floods – can we fix what we’ve done to the weather? What sort of stewards of the future planet will today’s digital children be? What will it mean to travel when we can go anywhere on our computers, with little cost or effort? With all the medical changes to the human body – including carbon blade legs, bionic fingers, silicon retinas, computer screens worn over one eye with the ability to text by blinking, bionic suits that make it possible to life colossal weights, and a wonderland of brain enhancers to improve focus, memory, or mood – will adolescents still be asking, “who am I?” or “What am I?” How will cities, wild animals, and our own biology have changed in fifty years?”

 

 

 

The Top Five Unfolding Threats to National Environmental Protections

Ten days into the new presidential administration and it is already hard to tell which way is up. The new American president has shoved through so many surprise executive orders in such a short period of time that priorities get confused and it seems to be deliberately obfuscating, from the top down. I see the politicians and the private businessmen appointed to political positions now acting in their own best interest, whether consolidating their own power or padding their wallet, all under a guise of what is good for the people. I am a citizen, for whom conservation is the number one concerning issue. Conservation of wildlands, resources and environmental quality are, to me core American ethics and these issues hold a moral-human imperative and don’t belong to one party or the other.

The Top Five unfolding threats to National Environmental Protections and Wildland Conservation

  1. The wholesale of Public Land to Private Industry. Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz’s bill, HR 261, identifies 3.3 million acres across 10 states to be ‘disposed of’ and sold off to private energy extraction interests, just a few days after the House passed a rules package that makes such land seizure plans easier to execute. We urge congress to vote NO on HR 261 and keep public lands public.

hr6212. The gutting of the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA is tasked with enforcing laws to reduce pollution, and with the nomination of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to lead the agency, the administration has announced that this is not a priority. Pruitt is an enemy of measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and has aligned himself with oil and gas companies and other industrial interests that he will be asked to regulate. Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson’s former company, ExxonMobil CEO,spent decades avoiding action on climate change; if confirmed, he would exercise great influence over America’s international climate efforts. We urge congress to reject the administration’s nominations of Scott Pruitt and Rex Tillerson.

risks-fullsize3. The war on Biodiversity. The former head of Trump’s EPA transition team, Myron Ebell, has called for theEndangered Species Act to be drastically overhauled, with many of the key provisions completely scrapped. The 1973 act was created to prevent the extinction of hundreds of species – however Ebell insists the act is a “political weapon” that does little to protect wildlife. While he’s not a current member of Trump’s team, his words should worry anyone who cares about conservation, because they seem to be in line withGOP lawmakers set on repealing the law. We urge congress to protect this vital law and to stand for wildlife protection across the country.

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4. The unmitigated approval of Oil Pipeline constructions. Intent to reject moratoriums on new coal leases or other energy production on public lands, the administration plans to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and wants to increase offshore drilling. His Energy nominee, Rick Perry, has consistently championed fossil fuel development over all else. The new administration has revived the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, showing that the administration’s energy agenda will be pulled from the oil and gas industry’s wish list, despite the objection of native nations, local communities and millions of concerned Americans. We urge congress to reject the nomination of Rick Perry to head the Department of Energy.

npca5. Dismantling the Antiquities Act and our National Parks. Interior nominee Ryan Zinke has promoted the myth that the Obama administration waged a “war on coal” and touted coal as an important energy source in the future. The new president has said he will “open federal lands for oil and gas production,” and Interior nominee Ryan Zinke has emphasized the importance of energy development on public lands. Zinke, a former Montana state lawmaker serving his first term in the House, will hold powerful sway over the fate of America’s public lands, at a time when the president has said he plans to roll back regulations in order to unleash a wave of fossil-fuel energy production. We urge congress to reject the nomination of Ryan Zinke as Secretary of the Interior.

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