I am humbled and I am elated. I’ve been announced as the winner of the 2016 James D. Phelan literary award on behalf of the San Francisco Foundation for California authors after the submission of my manuscript for the California Field Atlas. My work will be archived at the Bancroft library, California’s premier historical library and for this, I could not be more grateful. I could not be more appreciative. Click here for the announcement.
The following is an excerpt of the original interview with me, Obi Kaufmann of @coyotethunder by Daniel Crockett for the new Gestalten Publication WILDSIDE, due out in 2017.
What is coyote thunder?
@coyotethunder is my Instagram handle. Coyoteandthunder.com is my website, the hub of me online. It is also a couple of words I have tattooed on my left hand. The American essayist Barry Lopez wrote a compendium of amazing stories called Giving Birth to Thunder, Sleeping with his daughter, Coyote Builds North America. I first picked this book up thirty years ago and still carry a copy of it around with me. I do so largely because of how baffling the character of Coyote is: both creator and trickster, genius and fool, good and evil. I think the Coyote character, panculturally across indigenous American mythology, is certainly as sophisticated and as poetic as any character inhabiting Shakespeare’s universe.
Tell me more about your Californian Field Atlas project?
I’ve been walking and painting California my whole life. I’ve been a willing subject to a lifelong parade of massive, heady doses of all the beauty that the California wilderness has to offer and now I am ready to give it all back. In order to transmit this love for the larger story of these spiraling landscapes, my once and forever home, I am retreading all those steps: hundreds perhaps thousands of foot miles rendered, mapped, and painted. This is the spirit of the California Field Atlas. It will be published by Heyday Books in 2017.
The California Field Atlas is the ultimate road trip guide, as exhaustive as it is lyrical. Every inch of the state is detailed and every page drips in soul and color. I see evidence for a deep narrative of Californian ecology that transcends its present human occupants. This ancient and enduring system defines the wild character of California, which is never static and remains intact, steadfast despite the stresses imposed by contemporary human ecology. The California Field Atlas describes my journey towards understanding California as a single breathing, moving, living system that holds one epic narrative: a thread of natural history bright, poetic and undeniable.
The Field Atlas is a compendium of hundreds of hand-painted maps and trail paintings. My mission is to compose what is a love letter to the land of gold, oak, condor and granite. Every map sings in the poetry of place. Every painting reads with a novel, topographic integrity that haunts with deeper truths. Every mote of knowledge playfully addresses how California, while being a land of superlatives, is governed by the most subtle of relationships.
Are we as humans experiencing a widespread disconnection from nature and how is this affecting our society?
It is easy to fret about society and it is easy to feel disconnected from nature. In fact to do both of these things defines our modern world. My attitude is a bit different. I believe that all of our works are ultimately, the works of nature herself. We are currently climbing the exponential slope of population growth, as species who have managed to exploit a particularly advantageous niche do. That is the most natural thing in the world. There are rough times ahead. There are rough times behind. There may be nothing but rough times. The answers to connection, sustainability, and community within a larger ecology lay in history. The truth of life is a temporal cycle in that the distant future always looks similar to the distant past. I see as much connection as I do disconnection.
Are you following a heritage with your trail paintings, who were your inspirations?
The trail paintings exist in a larger context of wilderness poetry. Each work is a snap shot of time, color, mood and place, like a poem or an essay. Both of which often accompany the visual work I produce. I am inspired by California’s frontier naturalists as much as I am by its artists and writers. I think of men from David Douglas to John Muir who were the first to approach the extreme west with a respectful, discerning eye. I believe Wallace Stegner is the greatest novelist in the West, and his prose continues to inspire me on a daily basis. The poetry of Gary Snyder moves me deeply, helping me draw quiet, zen calligraphy across this quiet landscape. The wit and critical thinking of Joan Didion is always a wonderful insight into California and her attitude to it often mirrors my own. I respond to writers and naturalists who endeavor to see things as they are, and it may be unexpected that I find more inspiration there than I so often do in my fellow painters.
On Bottling Nature, by Obi Kaufmann of Juniper Ridge in Mohawk Quarterly. Click below to enlarge.