My study has always been love. Press me and I begin to murmur things like how my work is not science, but the subject of my work is data-driven biodiversity. I study patterns of habitat. To be more specific, I am a student of the beauty and history of biological evolution in morphological architecture and its application to fitness strategy across living systems. In my art and writing about ecology, I am more satisfied with the exploration of the best. most simple and elegant question than I am with any righteous, vocational answer. Where the #californiafieldatlas was a love story, my next books are becoming family albums. (obi)

The Pandemic and the Paradox

The Pandemic and the Paradox

by Obi Kaufmann


Corvid: a member of the Corvidae (crow) family of birds which includes the raven, a mythological archetype that appears in pan-global mythology as often both a creator and a trickster.

COVID: a coronavirus disease

New language enters our popular lexicon: Coronavirus. Social Distancing. Shelter in place. Our minds react to the disturbance and we adapt, we rationalize, and we wrestle with our emotional core — a chief component of our inner-agency that has proceeded, largely unchanged since the paleolithic era. Psychic landscapes twist as opportunities and expectations crumble. Just like how the cupped, human hand can hardly hold a few tablespoons of water, we watch our projections of the immediate future slip through our fingers. Unexpectedly, might we also witness a new sunrise? From the complex, dancing landscape of possibilities, might we consider new modes of interfacing between human society and the natural world? Might we be building a new paradigm that rises from this uncertainty like a lightning bolt illuminating a shadowed path? If so, the truth of this paradox lies in our ability to imagine one story as representing two separate yet simultaneous truths. In this time of contemplation, we can afford to optimize the nimbleness of our minds, expand our inner worlds and conceive of fundamental course-corrections, many of which are long overdue.

Today is a couple of things. It is the first day of the order to shelter in place as given by county health officers across the San Francisco Bay Area. It is also a particularly gorgeous day in the middle of March, two days before the vernal equinox. We may be in the middle of what weather forecasters call a Miracle March when following a drier than normal February, Northern California receives enough precipitation to alleviate immediate drought concerns, assisting our snowpack towards an adequate, multi-year average. The rain brings a welcome extension of the seasonally thick blanket of green grass to the hills of the Bay Area, along with profuse wildflower blooms, and clear, long views through a local atmosphere scoured of its regular haze. In the more-than-human world, the world of the otter and the oak tree, it is a time of plenty. A time of uncertainty unfolds inside the inner (and the inter) world of humanity, the psychological space that our species shares, that threatens at once to become a time of full-blown panic and a time of fundamental revaluation.

We are in the grip of a pandemic. As I write this, there are nearly 182,000 people who have contracted COVID-19, a particularly potent virus, and over 7,000 have died worldwide. COVID-19 (an abbreviation, short for Coronavirus Disease 2019) is caused by what is popularly called the coronavirus, but what in actuality is a coronavirus[1]. A coronavirus is part of a large family of zoonotic viruses[2] (transmitted from animals to people) that share the same chemical structure and appear similarly when viewed under an electron microscope.

The pandemic represents a disturbance to the human ecology and while we fret, large swaths of the more-than-human world (for the moment) relaxes. A disturbance within any ecosystem is an event that not only alters the normal flow of energy within that ecosystem but presents an opportunity for new energetic processes to emerge. Just like how in California, a wildfire may be a progenerating catalyst for arboreal regeneration, a disturbance can be a reset that brings on a resurgence of life[3]. In the couple of weeks that we have toned down the industrial force of both our outer and our inner, human ecologies, the natural world has surprised us with some regenerative activity. It may be that because of this activity, the human lives lost by the pandemic might be offset by what is in effect, services reinvigorated. For example, in February, across the regularly polluted province of Hubei in China, there was a reported increase of 21.5% “good quality air days[4].” It is impossible to immediately extrapolate what this might mean for the health of people living in Hubei, but can you imagine if 20% cleaner air becomes a baseline? I realize that clean air days doesn’t necessarily correspond to air pollution fatalities — these numbers are subject to incredibly complex systems but nonetheless, 7 million people a year die globally from particulates in air pollution. 20% of 7 million means 1.4 million lives saved. Ostensibly saved by COVID-19. The argument that the trend might lead to this kind of outcome should not be dismissed out of hand.

In our attempt to slow the worst effects of the disease we’ve entered a period of sequestration where we’ve decided to shelter in place (at least in the San Francisco region, but it looks like such policy is spreading as quickly as the virus itself) and limit our interaction with the larger, outer-world — a world not only replete with potential, physical contagion, but also full of cognitive paradox and perhaps even, spiritual revelation. I don’t ever use the word spiritual, lightly. I find it to be a word that for the most part, is useless at best and meaningless at worst. My encounters with the mystery of existence tend towards the aesthetic — towards poetry and towards metaphor. When what is spiritual becomes metaphoric of the capacity of our imagination to transform one thought into another thought, I understand the poetic leap on an emotional, and maybe even a mythological level that unites my personal experience with a process that is as old as humanity and its ability to produce cohesion within society. When we are discussing issues of spirituality, we are discussing personal truths, not objective truths, although we may be discussing universal metaphors. When the two, distinctly different types of truth begin to bleed into one another we are faced with the opportunity to expand philosophical categories… always a dangerous business.

In a similar way to how spirituality, as a psychological process can evade easy categorization, the classification of a virus as either a living entity in its own right or not, continues to confound researchers[5]. A virus is a discreet bit of genetic material that has no conscious intention (i.e. the virus does not wish to do harm) but proceeds nonetheless with a ruthless, procreative agenda. Are not ecosystems subject to the same polarized nature: both living and not living? It is as if we, humans, are not readily able (on all scales of being) to apprehend any state other than the absolute state of this or that, inside or outside, me and you. I am reminded of the twentieth-century religious scholar, Joseph Campbell who in conversation, said “God is a thought, but its reference is to something that transcends all thought. (…) God is beyond the category of being and non-being, both is and is not…[6]

Whether or not you as an individual get or have this novel disease that has us all inside today, you are part of a generation-defining event that has captured (I want to use the word infected, but I will shy from it) part of your mind and part of your spirit. Today we move inside a paradox, finding ourselves more of this world and more removed from it than we ever have been before. What if we were to let go of the boundless drive we have for economic growth, even for a few weeks a year (preferably without a pandemic), to lessen our impact on the more-than-human world, such that in turn, it may serve us better? My work, the books I write and the art I make, are all predicated on two emerging premises: 1) that every feature of the natural world is alive — a perspective that only you (as a human of great creative potential) can know, as you are both a part of nature and apart from nature. And, 2) that consilient[7] theory between disciplines can lead to a greater ecological understanding between personal and objective truths.

[1] Center for Disease Control “Coronavirus”

[2] World Health Organization “Coronavirus”

[3] Clark, James S. “Ecological Disturbance as a Renewal Process: Theory and Application to Fire History.” Oikos 56, no. 1 (1989): 17-30. Accessed March 18, 2020. doi:10.2307/3566083.

[4] CNN, Ivana Kottasová, “China’s coronavirus lockdown curbs deadly pollution, likely saving the lives of tens of thousands, says researcher” March 17, 2020

[5] Villareal, Luis P. “Are Viruses Alive? Although viruses challenge our concept of what “living” means, they are vital members of the web of life” Scientific American (2008);

[6] Bill Moyers in conversation with Joseph Campbell “Ep. 2: Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth — ‘The Message of the Myth’”June 22, 1988

[7] “Consilience” Wikipedia

the Ecology of Truth, Trust, and Hope

Transcript of Keynote delivered 02.01.20, Night of Ideas, San Francisco, Calif. Obi Kaufmann


It may or it may not come as a surprise to you that tonight we are engaged in an ancient ritual, perhaps the oldest ritual our species knows — a ritual that seems to well up from the substrate matrix upon which our consciousness arises. The ritual is community building. Tonight, right now, right here, we are building community. We have together begun the telling of a story that binds us to this place and this time and that unites us in memory and vision. Tonight we are pulling a blanket around ourselves, tonight we are in a huddle and the opponent we face is despair. The tool we are armed with against this ever-encroaching enemy of powerlessness and paralyzed agency is hope itself. Hope in the human mind, is a function of time. If there is time, there is hope. And tonight we’ve got time.

If I were to name tonight’s address, I would call it the Ecology of Truth, Trust, and Hope. I have given my professional career as an artist and as a naturalist to the study of that thing I love most in this universe, the natural world of California. California is a very complex system. So complex in fact, that I use it as a metaphor for so many narratives — I use it to tell so many different stories about the nature of history, the nature of humanity, and the nature of ethics in the face of right now, a time of unparalleled transformation and disturbance.

We call it the Night of Ideas, but ideas don’t exist independently, springing forth from a vacuum. Ideas grow from the fertile ground of Story — Story with a capital S — which I think is different than storytelling. Story is the technology we use to perform the ancient ritual of community building. Story is the thing we have — and it is about 100,000 years old, being the marker of what anthropologists call the Cognitive Revolution — the dawn of fiction, the dawn of art. Story is the device that we use, the pervading narrative upon which, our social conquest of the earth complete. It is perhaps our most important evolutionarily endowed gift, rivaling the opposable thumb or even bipedalism — Story enabled us, the weakest and most physically helpless of all the great apes to do all the sublime, awesome work that we have done. Our species is unique in the history of the life on earth of being able to embody our animal natures outside of our physical selves and transfer that nature to other members of our communities in the form of Story.

If we are to survive the pending bottleneck represented by so many real threats to the status quo of the Biosphere, if we’re going to tell ourselves better Story, Story that connects us to the resilient, living systems and patterns within the Earth we’d better always start (and finish) with the basics. A couple years on from writing my first book and now in the weeds with the series that it has become, I believe now that I am writing these books to track three things – three ethical courses that are in short supply in the din of the very bad Story that this carbon economy tells itself about what is good and what is right.

These three, little items are none other than truth, trust, and hope. In the pre-carbon and what will be the post-carbon economies, those three things arise solely as a function of community. In the era of the internet and mass media, we are not fed any of those vital, ethical paradigms. They are each attained only by an endless and exhausting hunt. The assumption seems to be that they are innate to the human condition, and therefore don’t need to be popularly addressed, and I’m not convinced of that. We’ve abdicated too much of this responsibility to a virtual machine-world fundamentally unable to deliver these psycho-spiritual nutrients towards a sustainable healthy worldview.

I think we feel it every day — the scarcity of those three ideas in our culture: truth, trust, and hope. As we are barraged routinely with divisive rhetoric from corporate powers that would love to keep us isolated and scared, and there is a lot of money being made right now to keep us believing the story of division between us — members of our species and the between us and the natural world.  This rhetoric is exposed with quasi-legal arguments like “it is their fault…” or “if only they would be something different…” That is the contrivance of imposed tribalism, another mode of Story that we are particularly receptive to, but tribalism is not community. Tribalism is the basis for war, Community is the basis for truth, trust, and hope.

Human-community is a very specific thing, and it is a thing that we all long for on par with our animal needs of water, food, and shelter. We are so desperate for community that we are willing to acquiesce what we innately know about how community forms, functions, lives, dies and renews itself. In the technological flood of this late-stage capitalist society that has been so deftly sold to us, we associate community with consumerism and advertisement and let it bleed all together to form a super-entity, a hyper-object called the media. What a revelation it would be if we had wise leaders that were able and willing to address fundamental issues of connectivity and restoration not only in ecological terms — which is the course of my work — but between human circles. What if our leaders were able to rightly point out that it’s not fake news we’re listening to, it’s fake community!

The history of California in the last 170 years since that guy found that pretty rock in that river near what was to become Sacramento, has been economically perpetuated by the agendas keeping us at each other’s throats. We are all guilty of buying into it: dividing and judging based on the labels of Northern or Southern, Urban or Rural, Blue or Red. What if we could muster the compassionate wisdom to consider that there is no one at so-called fault. The right-hand sells to the left, and back again. From so many perspectives, it is clear that the fits and panicked lashings that fly out from those who would greedily hold onto the old stories are just that. The bad stories are bridges of rotten sugar in rain and melt as we awaken every day to new storms beating and threatening us with the wonderful new beginning we yearn for and deserve.

Truth, whether objective, political, or personal comes from Trust and together deliver hope. We give so much energy to believing that social media can be a surrogate for real community are we’re often not recognizing some basic societal truths about human psychological development — all truth seems to be dependent on confirmation bias, all Trust seems to be politically tribal in nature and all hope seems tempered by the constant drum of despair and panic.

However the next century tumbles together or falls apart, the deep future of California’s ecology will resemble the deep past. If we could observe the forests as a system of relationships, themselves made visible, or tangible or even merely apprehendable, we would see the forces that sustain them and what sounds like riddles now, would be laid bare as truths: 1. (Earth) The largest living entities in the forest, the mycorrhiza, are also the smallest, being microscopic in architecture —the service they provide is rivaled only by the sun. 2. (Fire) Trees, the woody body of the forest, are so intrinsically linked to the process of burning that they can be thought of as an expression of fire itself —trees are fire, waiting to burn. 3. (Air) No single organism, with the exception of blue-green algae at the dawn of the Great Oxidation event, 2.4 billion years ago, has manipulated the chemistry of the atmosphere as humanity —every ecosystem is now subject to our legacy for the foreseeable future. 4. (Water) A biotic strategy towards perpetual, ecological sustainability is conceivable with the state-wide, habitat restoration of  two types of animal, the salmon, and the beaver —let the circulatory systems of our watercourses teem with nutrients and witness the resurgence of biodiversity. Recognizing the grand machine, the simple wheel, the riddle solved is the trailhead, but it is not the journey itself and it is ultimately not enough. All ecological truths exist within an onion of layered complexities and paradoxes, and their applications are bereft in sacrifice and compromise. Time and space themselves, in terms of processes that were set in motion long ago, become to these ends, both our ally and our enemy.

Picture this, It is two hundred years from now, or maybe it is two hundred years ago. I am in the water, in a river, there are mountains on both sides. It is the Sacramento River. I can’t see how wide it is, but somehow I know that it is flooded and wild, thirty-five miles wide. It must be spring, it is always spring, or fall, maybe both. The sky is not shadowed by clouds but by birds on the flyway, their non-descript forms touching the edge of the troposphere. The river is writhing blanket of glinting nickels, a million people-sized chinook headed in the same direction I am going. I walk up a side canyon headed east towards the melting snow and the muddy ground is tilled with the raking prints of hundreds of grizzlies.

From that earth, activated as it is by our returned friend Ursus arctos californicus, California’s lost bear, a blinding spray of orange and purple in the full sun and blue dots in the shade under the budding oaks erupts in botanical delight, a cape for a thousand species of pollinators — One for each flower.

Up the staircase of beaver terraces – two or three per kilometer —Engineered ponds of exquisite efficiency and lavish abundance, the gathering place of the forest where even the trees come to work in a unionized factory whose only product is biodiversity, where the dance of cooperation and competition is a niche market so detailed, so complex and so ancient that its structure has no obligation for my apprehension. Finally, the dream ends in the cold, clear and clean, perfectly graveled headwaters, where the old fish have come to claim their prize, their immortality. Their immortality, offered in reciprocation for their mighty gift, the hundreds of thousands of metric tons of phosphorus and nitrogen offered to the arboreal, carbon sink.

How terrifying and exciting must it have been in the first revolution-of-mind, the cognitive revolution, one hundred thousand years ago when the very idea of fiction itself, perhaps a precursor to art, leaped from the warmth of shared fire into our common mind. From there we eventually reinvented our relationship to the world through agriculture and then did it again through industry. Now, at the pending phase threshold to what can certainly be a post-industrial age of abundance, we consider not extraction but replenishment as a guiding ethos. Resources, accessible to the clever and the compassionate, like knowledge itself, embedded in the self-perpetuating and non-linear patterns of nature may just be scattered like a field of stars across this terrestrial paradise.

Emergence from complexity (feather to wing to flight, or seed to tree to forest, or gene to phenotype to consciousness) may be the defining concept that will frame a coming ecological revolution — a bold and probably necessary trajectory for our species. How resilient systems, whether they are social, economic, political, physical, ecological, or biological arise from diversity, connection, interdependence, and adaptation (the four pillars of complexity theory) is an inroad to understanding how we survive what may be a future, evolutionary bottleneck.

I didn’t expect to find that this subject matter that I present —nature, is as much about the miracle of humanity as it is about anything else. It may be an unpopular position, in fact, it kind of surprised the hell out of me that I’ve found this to be true. I spent large swaths of my youth resentful of fouler men and spent seasons in the dark throes of misanthropy. I spent most of my life believing that humanity was outside of nature like we are something imposed onto it —like we, and everything we’ve ever thought and done, or even could think or do, is not fundamentally of the same origin as everything else on this earth. I’ve been on tour for a couple of years, dipping into and working with communities here and there from San Diego to Crescent City and back again. I find the same thing, again and again, on whatever scale we consider: an electric network of engaged citizens, inquisitive and open, ready and willing. I see solutions being presented and I see compromises emerging. It is always a fight, It is always a war —issues of sustainability, ecology, industrialization, and the rest are all unprecedented and seemingly too large to easily comprehend at all… and yet, and yet! The solutions, the map to the way out of every labyrinth is right here, in your hands. It is not somebody’s fault we are in this or that mess —there is only one unfolding dream and it can be frightening, change always is.

Tonight we’ve got buckets of these precious resources… Truth, trust and hope because tonight we have community. I would encourage us tonight to consider inclusive compassion in your deliberations as we are not here to argue, and we are not here to convince each other of one thing or the other – that is not how community works. The only thing that can change anyone’s mind, in fact, the only thing that ever has, is the proper delivery of better Story. Through better Story rooted in truth and received in trust, hope is transmitted. As I began talking about our clear opponent tonight, despair and isolation, I prescribe then, a vision of unity, based on a clear understanding of what that opponent is made up of. The only opponent, the only enemy is us and our unwillingness to together write better Story.

Obi Kaufmann at Night of Ideas by Litquake, San Francisco Public Library, February 02, 2020


Coyote Valley, a story of hope

Gearing up for my first major event of 2020, in support of the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) and in celebration of their securing the perpetual conservation of Coyote Valley, a locally essential wildlife corridor – I will be participating in Art & Nature: A New Year’s Gathering. Saturday night, January 4th, in San Jose at FORAGER @sjforager Tasting Room & Eatery. 6pm. I’ll be addressing the crowd at 7:15. I will also be showing and selling a new portfolio of trail paintings and POST will be giving free bandanas, of my design, at the door. Other artists exhibiting include @inkdwell @bobodesignstudio @camer1sf and Music will be performed by @sunnystatemusic and @sweethayah. The South Bay loves @peninsulaopenspacetrust and I could not be more proud to be part of this amazing crew and contribute however I can to the telling of their amazing story of involved, activist conservationism. I’ve been alerted that 500 people have already RSVP’d so come promptly because although the venue is huge, the space will fill up. Thank you for your support and happy New year!

Tonight, we celebrate. Coyote Valley, a last-chance frontier, a critical, habitat corridor of 1,000 acres between the Santa Cruz mountains of the San Francisco peninsula and the Diablo Range will remain protected from development thanks to the efforts of the Peninsula Open Space Trust and the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority. This victory represents the way forward on so many fronts. This victory represents a triumph at the confluence of good science and good policy that generated a good strategy and coalesced into a story that fueled a community-driven, grassroots efforts to not waste the preciousness of what has been given, the preciousness of our natural world. Coyote Valley is a symbol of stewardship that the Bay Area can be proud of. Not only do we all own this victory, but so too do our grandchildren of tomorrow.

Coyote Valley is a discreet physical place, it is not an abstract, hyper-object, like clean water or the fire threat, and because of it, represents an inroad to how we might address those other, more existential threats. Keep your promise to the land, manage its ability to take care of itself, defend its biotic richness, value biodiversity, and the land will heal itself and our community will be stronger and more resilient to whatever the future may tell.

California so often seems like a microcosm for the whole world. A tumbling mass of humanity doing its best to manage the growth of its swelling human populace. Two things happened this week: one, For the second year in a row, the CDFW (the California Department of Fish and Wildlife) in its annual fall midwater trawl survey of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, in 2019 found zero Delta smelt during the months of September, October, November, and December. Two, the Board of Forestry approved and certified the Environmental Impact Report of the state’s Habitat Clearance program plan — this Proposed Vegetation Treatment Program proposed by Governor Newsom and Cal Fire call for the destruction of 20 million acres of native habitat by burning, grinding, and spraying herbicides. Both of these stories, one of water, one of fire, represent misalignments that yield missteps in our bigger vision of keeping all the pieces on the table — the biodiversity that holds the secret patterns of our human ecology and its resiliency. These two unfolding debacles represent failings in connectivity between science, policy and the popular culture that they both serve. These two unfolding disasters represent bad story. Extant smelt are indicators of good water, letting them go means cascading effects we can’t predict. Destroying natural woodland and chaparral habitat in California is not good silviculture and will only work to make the larger, endemic forest-ecologies more vulnerable to future catastrophe.

Models of climate breakdown are all replete with tipping points and negotiating the moment the bomb goes off does not focus on the solvable crisis. It leads to condemning species to extinction before they are even gone. It leads to despair. What the protection of Coyote Valley represents chiefly, in addition to the preservation of space, is the preservation of time. If there is time and if there is habitat-space, then there is hope.

What do we need hope for? We need hope that the work that we have done will snowball into a better story, a story that leaves California at the end of the twenty-first century in better shape than we left it at the end of the twentieth. A story by which we instill our practices of good governance with a scientific standard that hold common principles of growth tempered within systems of resiliency. This growing story of communal resiliency will yield policy-systems where replenishment is the priority before extraction. This growing story, embodied in the triumph at Coyote Valley, is the way forward for California and it is the way forward for the world.





Unity and Vision: Keynote delivered at Watershed Symposium

Transcript: December 05. 2019. Contra Costa Watershed Symposium. Keynote by Obi Kaufmann

Good morning. I am very grateful to Elissa and all those at the Contra Costa County Resource Conservation District for inviting me here today to open this event. I entitled this address with the aptly vague and evocative title Unity and Vision: an ecological tour of Contra Costa County’s future, to capture in general, my themes when I give talks to all levels of informed, uninformed or more-increasingly, misinformed communities all over the state. And although I’ve learned to spit a good game, I myself regularly identity as being inside one of those three camps of the informed, the uninformed or the misinformed. I am Coyote. I’ll spin a yarn, but I am outside of policy and I am outside of published science, and I am very clear, and I am very sensitive to both of those positionings. My strengths, these days come from my most general observations — for example, now to allude back to the title of this morning’s address, I don’t have the prophet’s hold on how time will affect our shared, local ecology but I do know that its fate is tied to the larger living system, and I intentionally refer to it in the singular tense — of California — not the political identity, but probably more accurately, the floristic province by the same name.

When I first was invited to give the Keynote at this excellent event, I imagined developing a kind of quick overview of creek shed-restoration projects or delving into the portfolio of projects currently underway across this place. I do have over forty years of personal experience, adventuring in, studying and painting Contra Costa County’s backcountry, so I immediately got excited to get really nerdy about this advance or that innovation… and then I remembered who I was actually addressing — you all. I painted this map yesterday — a map that doesn’t really exist as such anywhere online. I should say this is arguably, the most important vision of the county — and I was researching all the good work that the CCCRD was doing, and I wouldn’t say I got nervous, I’ve been talking about the natural world of California for a couple of years now since the California Field Atlas became a best seller and I am happy to talk all day about whatever issue in whatever community, but I would say that I took pause.

It is the holiday season and I’ve got family on my mind. We all do. The pause I was given yesterday when I sat down to make that map was I realized that I was addressing family. There are so many of you here, soldiers in stewardship, priests of preservation, colonels of conservation, warriors of the watershed (!) who frankly know so much more than I do about everything that I could talk about, I knew that to speak to you here this morning, I should put down all my tools and just speak to my family. We are all family here today and being in a family takes vulnerability to new ideas. Being in a family means that we work together. Being in a family means that we are dependent on a network of trust. Even if I don’t know your name, I know that by being here today, I know that you know this place, that you identify this place as the place of your family — I know that you know this place as our common home, and I am going to trust you with that concept — I am going to trust you with that love.

I’ve got buckets of hope. As our systems get more efficient and we rely less on the extraction of our local and limited resources to sustain our growing population, we are watching a trend to greater opportunities in ecological stewardship and restoration. We are thrilled to witness modest yet growing populations of some of our most precious biodiverse species including Osprey, river otters, beaver, red-legged frogs, great horned owls, white-tailed kites, steelhead, and rainbow trout. The challenges are legion, but the opportunities rise up to meet them.

When I wrote my second book, which is still on the San Francisco Chronicle’s bestseller’s list, the State of Water, Understanding California’s Most Precious Resource, I had thought that what the subtitle referred to, the most precious resource should be axiomatically, water — the substance itself. It is not. Our most precious resource and I learned this through an evolution of my relationship to the greater, human-community of California that I got to know on tour in support of the book, is our ability and willingness to trust one another with the Story. That story is often boiled down to the interpretation of Data based on personal or cultural bias, but I think, especially in relation to the natural world and our place in it, the better story, the one that requires the most trust is how we better manage the balance of our rights versus our responsibilities.

In modern society, a discussion of worldview often comes down to a discussion of Freedom. There are different definitions of freedom, I believe that most of us operate under the largely false assumption that freedom is doing whatever you want. This is wrong, this is a child’s definition of freedom. Freedom in a society is the agency to attend to your social responsibilities without a governmental entity telling you what those responsibilities are.

With the accelerating momentum of so many stressors on our local ecology, how do we identify the most efficient way forward, through the din of disunity, to a collective vision of connectivity and restoration — one that will best ensure the legacy of our home region’s rich, natural world? We put our science-based strategies into place, we make the law and we wait to enjoy their fruit. When I first started backpacking, it was in Big Sur and it was in the 80’s. I thought I had missed so much. I thought I was born too late. There were no condors, there were no whales, there were no otters, there were no Tule elk, there were no white-tailed kites. Now all of these species are increasing in population. This is because of the right negotiation of legislation, science, responsibility, and love for family.

When you are talking about Water in California, you are not talking about water, you are talking about worldview. John Wesley Powell, our nation’s first director of the USGS, was the first to declare that water will always dictate all aspects of life in the West — a declaration as prescient and indeed salient in 1861 as it will be in 2061. In the emerging era of rainbombs and snowdrought, we will increasing rely on our most innovative and nimble minds to not only do more with less but insure that the more we are talking about includes a plan for the more-than-human family we are actively engaged and beholden to a certain level of management, through the foreseeable future. That future will be us doing our best to find the most adaptive and resilient systems of cohabitation within a larger network of biodiversity based on our responsibilities to each other in the face of a warming planet and a climate that is breaking old, reliable cycles.

We are not going back. There is no reason why we need to give a single inch toward further degradation as we are now engaged in new modes of urbanization and development that include conservation and preservation as core values, as necessary as shelter itself. There will be no going back. We will continue our remediation and we will continue to forge a vision of entering the 22nd century with a more-complex and healthier local ecosystem than the one we entered with at the start of the 21st century. It all begins with protecting the watershed, the circulatory system of the natural world.

We are about to spend a billion dollars to get other 100,000-acre feet out of Los Vaqueros reservoir, and I have to say, of all the dams in California, I think Los Vaqueros is my favorite. I know that land well, There is a lot of quality habitats afforded that place and I stand with the Nature Conservancy, Audubon California, and Defenders of Wildlife in support of its expansion. I am not anti-dam, I am anti-dumb-dam and the illegal raising of Shasta Dam is one that I would put into that latter category, but maybe not for the reasons you think. There is a lot of money involved in keeping us divided. Divisiveness is so common, it is, well… like water. And there is a lot of money being made at keeping us separated in our agendas: north and south, urban and rural, blue and red and even human and other-than-human. It is going to be hard work coming together, and we are fighting in new arenas, like social media, that are deleterious to our finding common ground. But then, it has always been difficult. Humans are very good at finding solutions to problems and I won’t bet against them.

I find despair boring. Hope is so much more exciting. As long as there is time, there is hope. We have a miracle happening around us right now. That miracle is that despite all of our efforts to milk California and to fundamentally transform its ecology to our own benefit, it is all still here. Despite every one of our several hundred, natural-landscape-types being threatened or endangered, we have a very low extinction rate. Exactly 32 animal species in the past 170 years — that is less than 1% of our portfolio. There are no laurels to rest on — the reasons why species go extinct are very complex and it seems as though many species are headed towards the extinction vortex.  But the point is, they are all still here. So let’s call out local family here today and celebrate their existence and let’s work to keep the trophic structure from cascading into a negative fall. Let’s work for the fairy shrimp, the bald and the golden eagles, the Alameda whipsnake, the western pond turtle, The California tiger salamander, The California red-legged frog, The San Joaquin kit fox, and even our friend, the San Francisco dusky-footed wood rat, Neotoma fuscipes. Let’s acknowledge them in all of our work as being part of our family and deserving of habitat. And let’s trust each other enough to have an inclusive conservation about the ecological health of Contra Costa County into the future. I certainly give that to you, gathered here today. The power is yours and I thank you from my heart for rising to accept it. Thank you.


THE MOUNTAINS MARCH OVER ME is certainly one of the most beautiful projects I have been or will ever be a part of. All of my heart is here on display. Filmed last spring in the Sierra Valley and up over the Yuba Pass, this 8-minute film is a deep dive into my work, the nature of my love and the focus of my passion. Calle Stoltz @calle_stoltz, Robert Andersson @doprobertandersson, Mats Andersson @mats_arne and the team at both INDIGOFERA and REDWING have pulled off a miracle and I’m forever humbled and eternally grateful. This project was born in love, friendship, a spirit of adventure and a genuine kinship with the natural world. In the film, I am wearing selections from the FORESTCITY collaboration that I conceived with I am also wearing the “Obi” hat profile by @havstadhatco, the Coyotethunder Field Bag by @kamenroad, and the #climberboot by @redwingheritage – tools I never leave home without. I am thrilled to share this with you and am looking forward to your reaction. @indigoferajeans #californiafieldatlas

Behind the Scenes

There are some relationships that not only define your life but are open enough and elastic enough in just the right way to forever resist stasis and always surprise with freshness. When you find them, these treasured avenues of inter-personal connection, the life you know from there is effortlessly collaborative. Communication in these relationships is adaptive, rising from a true voice that is accepting, critical and caring. These relationships burn with an original fire that will burn for at least the rest of your life. These relationships maybe your family, maybe not, maybe your career, maybe not, probably not your job and probably not your hobby. I’ve got fewer relationships in my life like this than I do fingers on one hand — and I am damn lucky. I’ve got my immediate family, I’ve got my publisher, I’ve got a few friends I’d take a bullet for, and I’ve got Indigofera.

I met Mats Andersson, founder and lead designer of INDIGOFERA (@indigoferajeans), about five years ago at a tradeshow in NYC – he was attracted to my art as much as I was attracted to the character of his style. A uniquely deep and creative kinship quickly bloomed. INDIGOFERA magnetically drew me into its oeuvre with unparalleled quality in architecture and classic engineering, presenting a wardrobe always elegantly lined, economically aesthetic and tough as dirt.  Our first collaboration launched in the Fall of 2017, the same month as my first book, THE CALIFORNIA FIELD ATLAS, was published. The title of that first capsule collection was THE CALIFORNIA HIKING SERIES and was built around my life: a naturalist-painter and a backpacker of California’s backcountry. The keystone piece, the California Hiking Jacket, a white linen sport coat, was INDIGOFERA’s first shot at such a traditionally stuff garment but was unique in that among other innovations, had side-slits for a backpack belt to fit through under the buttons.

Fast forward a couple of years and I find myself on the rainy, Swedish coast — the whiskey bottle had long been emptied but it was still going to be a few hours until we were going to stumble to our tents. The rain came down hard on our tarp while the four of us huddled around the lantern as I tried to capture the ideas, scratching notes through was to another fruitful and creative night. That night, we had found our vision and it was clear that this new collaboration between me, COYOTETHUNDER and the gentlemen of INDIGOFERA was going to be way more than just art on garments as some kind of graphic decoration – this was going to be about adventure, and this was going to be about fun. Sleepless and high from the insight, the possibility and the outpouring of expression which echoed in our booming laughter, now a troop of old friends, we were drawing a new map to a definitive, career-marking project on a sojourn we’ll surely remember for the rest of our days. The whole road trip around and across the Southern Swedish summer had been set up to be conducive for exactly this type of vibe: from cabins deep in the dark spruce forests to campsites on the windy bluffs above the Baltic coast, we explored remote, Scandinavian haunts where we would feel free to whittle and milk the night for all the laughter and good company it could afford. Our main focus, the whole goal of the epic trip, was to design a collaborative capsule line of rugged men’s apparel, a series that could capture and reflect our own lives and our long friendship.

Indigofera camp, FORESTCITY collaboration, Sweden, summer 2018

Whatever the second incarnation, the second series was to be, we knew it would only be made clear after long strategy sessions – not conference room, design sessions, but gatherings around campfires walks through forests followed with cold beer and hot food. “What this collection will rely on is more cowbell.” Referencing the classic Saturday Night Live sketch, Mats explained this to me on a sunny afternoon hike down some rocky cliffs on Sweden’s west shore, the day after I arrived. He was making a reference to that classic Saturday Night Live skit. “Obi, you have a weird job: you do it in the woods, painting, and mapping, and yet you also have a city life. It is unique. You live your life from trails to cocktails. In the Forest and in the City.”

“Let’s call the collaboration FORESTCITY.” I chimed in. “Good for both. Simple and evocative. Honest and novel. What we’re describing is my uniform. I need one outfit in my life.”

After a few more days of rambling, we made it back to INDIGOFERA headquarters in Stockholm, where we spend the remainder of my time in Sweden at the studio.  Mats there explained “Every brand is now expected to do collaborations, but really, the emperor has no clothes. Most brand collaborations are largely superficial. Superficial to such a degree that they can hardly be called collaborations at all.”

By the time I had to say goodbye, I knew what we were making was interesting enough that the process itself, regardless of the final product, had changed me. The trip. The whiskey. The friendship, all coalesced in me as something great. Something bigger than we could have ever done on our own, something truly representative of potential – the very heart of collaboration.

Portfolio 001: The accessories – EYE OF THE FOREST BLANKET, bandana and patches

“The Eye of the Forest” design by Obi Kaufmann, produced by INDIGOFERA. now available at Price includes tax, domestic shipping and a signed copy of the California Field Atlas. The mastery with which my work is translated to this high-quality, 100% Norwegian-wool textile is incomparable. The blanket does it for me aesthetically as well as functionally. I’ve used it a few times instead of a sleeping bag on summer hikes. Swipe to check out the original painting. I only have a few and am very proud to offer it here. @indigoferajeans

Portfolio 002: The Parsons Jacket

The Parsons Lodge, Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite National Park

Portfolio 003: Vest and the Granite shirt – inspired by the moss and pink granite of Sweden’s west coast

The Wendell Pant – named for and inspired by the agrarian, American author Wendell Berry, here shown at his writing desk in the 1950’s.

Obi Kaufmann wearing the FORESTCITY collaboration with INDIGOFERA in Sierraville, California, May 2018.

The FORESTCITY collection is currently on sale in North America and Europe including these excellent stores: HEPCAT (Malmo, Sweden), STATEMENT (Munich, Germany), BLUEOWL (Seattle, USA), PONCHO AND LEFTY (Sweden), STANDARD AND STRANGE (Oakland, California), BURG & SCHILD (Berlin, Germany), JAMES DANT (Indianapolis, USA), DENIM HEADS (Prague, Czech Republic).

Animal Heart Portfolio of Original Paintings

I’ve assembled a portfolio of sixty-seven original paintings made over the past three years and am presenting them here as a single presentation. Many of these paintings were published in either of my two books as yet, The California Field Atlas and The State Of Water — a few of them will be published in books to come. I shot them today in my studio and am leaving them unaltered in this exhibit. I love the light in my studio and my camera phone captures the right texture and saturation of the paper and the color of the paint. I will be bringing the physical portfolio with me, this weekend when I go to Monterey to attend and be an instructor at WILD WONDER Nature Journaling Conference 2019. One day, I will surprise myself by painting a line so elegant, a line so poetically economical, a line so gracefully rendered that I may just evaporate with delight there, in that satisfaction. I secretly harbor dread for that day and often work to sabotage my most-fortunate brushwork while I am sprinting towards its master. -Obi Kaufmann 09/11/19

Climate Breakdown in California and the Ethical Value of Complexity

by Obi Kaufmann

We should call it Climate breakdown[1]. Climate change is so disingenuous a term. The myopic argument that the world’s climate has always been changing[2] is abhorrently lazy. It isn’t that the climate is changing that is the novelty of today, it is the alarming and obvious rate[3] that, warmed by the atmospheric products[4] of human industry, the machine[5] of global climate is breaking down. The fingerprints of climate breakdown brought on by global warming are everywhere. California is writhing under chaotic amplitudes of the increased intensity of deluging, seasonal rain events[6] and also, perhaps counterintuitively, a marked increase in seasonal aridity, contributing to what are now year-long fire seasons[7]. Additionally, the regular patterns of both coastal and valley fog as vital contributors of moisture and temperature regulation to their respective ecosystems have begun to shut down and disappear[8]. No stranger to lightning, California is now weathering a 12 percent increase in ground strikes[9] increasing tropospheric ozone, a potent greenhouse gas, and the probability of initiating wildfires. While we can’t pin 100 percent these anomalies on climate breakdown, we can point to it as a factor that bears much of their causal weight.

In the complexity of the system collapse[10] itself is the hope by which, not only might we survive the emerging bottleneck[11] but can carry a good amount of an intact biosphere with us to a brighter dawn. There is a wave coming to cool the bright, burning light that is our global economy — an economy that acts with historical arrogance to only every increase in consumptive value without renewal or reset[12]. This coming wave will push us into a new era of non-retributive, ecological atonement[13], a post-carbon economy[14] in a world that only vaguely resembles the one we live in now. I am not talking about the end of the world. The world doesn’t end, that is not how the world works. I am talking about a paradigm[15] shift that changes the story we tell ourselves about our relationship to nature.

butterfly and moth biodiversity, painting by Obi Kaufmann

When I use the word we, I mean it in the inclusive sense, not the exclusive. I don’t have a political agenda with this argument.  I find the baiting mouths and minds that bark on monitors daily, the dinning legion of opinion that fill media outlets with perpetual content, work at little but divisive rhetoric to poison true discourse. Corporate agendas and political posturing tirelessly work at keeping us attacking one another. The truth is far calmer. The truth is that there are no villains and there are no heroes. The truth is that there is no one to blame.

I watch the symptoms of climate breakdown spread across my beloved California like a disfiguring pathogen[16], in step with human development, population, and pollution[17]. My human affectations, my proclivities towards stewardship as a pervading ethic, cry in despair at night, alone in the dark. I know yours do too. We know the truth is nuanced and that wisdom is scarce. We feel in our hearts that the momentum of this human fire (not fires that we’ve made but the fire that we are) is too hot to contain and must only continue to burn. The forests of the world are not on fire[18], we are the fire that burns the world.

nature journal, Obi Kaufmann, 2019

I’ve been walking the California backcountry my whole life. I have an intimate relationship with the natural world of the place. I have translated that love I have for this place, namely the California Floristic Province[19] and the Mojave, the Great Basin, and the Colorado deserts that lie just outside of that province but within the political borders of the state, into a career of writing and painting about its workings. I consider the physiography of the state to be analogous to the physiology of a single entity[20]. My work acknowledges the hyper-object[21] that is California to be a contained, living body whose ecosystems employ ancient, complex tools of resiliency[22]. I know California to be very tough. I also know that we have broken and continue to mindlessly break those tools that the natural world uses, exposing the vulnerable heart of the state’s ecological connectivity[23] to a bevy of terrible threats from within[24] and without[25].

California is immortal — at least as far as we can conceive. Despite our seemingly depthless array of extractive technologies, both gross[26] and subtle[27], California will endure. It has survived and will survive worse. In the seven million years or so since the late-Miocene era when California began to resemble it current, tectonic configuration[28], California has deftly worked the wonder that is island biogeography[29] to invent a portfolio of endemic[30] biodiversity that today puts it in a small, elite class of global hotspots[31] where more species exist than in any other locale. In the past one hundred seventy years since the gold rush, the coursing throng of civilization has pushed every one of California’s natural vegetation types[32] to either a threatened or an endangered status[33]. Today, all of California’s habitat types teeter on the brink of oblivion and suffer under ruthless regimes of fragmentation[34], biological invasion[35], and simplification[36]. And yet, with a less than 1% extinction rate[37], they are all still here. I am not saying that we have any laurels at all to stand on — when it goes, it is going to go hard, but what I am saying is that simply, again, it is all still here.

Sunset over the Sonoma Coast, Northern California, photo by Obi Kaufmann

Over the past century, California has kept pace with the rest of the planet in that the atmospheric temperature has locally increased on an annual basis by 1 degree Celsius[38]. Reacting to that warming, the forests of California are retreating in a number of ways, doing their best to respond, as fast as they can. All forest types are retreating to higher elevations to escape the heat. In the past thirty years, dominant plant species across Southern California’s Santa Rosa mountains have moved upslope by an average of 200 feet[39]. Ponderosa Pine forests have retreated upslope by several miles across the southern Sierra Nevada, and the subalpine forests, above 7,500 feet are smaller and denser as they crowd towards the colder peaks[40]. In wildlife, range shifts north have observed in 74% of small mammal species, and 84% of bird species[41]. Beetles and arboreal pathogens are reveling in a warmer California, and several outbreaks are among the largest single events of such infestations in history[42] — classified as megadisturbances[43] that are contributing to the largest, ongoing tree die-off that California has seen in millennia[44]. Across the state, invasive agricultural pests, buffeted by temperature increase as it is the single most important factor governing insect behavior, are responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars in crop losses[45]. Everywhere in the over-dammed water system of California’s reservoirs, harmful algal blooms are propagating widely and successfully with increased water temperatures and levels of carbon dioxide, threatening fisheries and depleting oxygen[46]. It’s everywhere and it is touching everything. I could go on, but I won’t.

I grew up on Mount Diablo, in the East Bay, about 30 miles east of San Francisco. From the peak of this 3,849-foot mountain, you can see most of California’s central valley. The valley represents both the blessing and the curse of California’s great, natural wealth. Over millions of years, the soil of this valley was fed by anadromous salmon returning upstream, climbing beaver-made[47] ladders to spawn and die at the headwaters of their birth, giving their bodies to transform into millions of tons of nutrients[48] that was then washed down and evenly distributed in flood season where the Sacramento River might expand to be 30 miles wide. Of course, with only 13 inches of rain on the valley floor, to farm that land, 20th-century civilization needed to irrigate the valley, and to do so, we built the most elaborate machine ever invented to do such a thing: The California State Water Project[49]. We also knowingly were spending this singular, natural legacy in order to do so.

painting by Obi Kaufmann

With the advent of this age of climate breakdown, the best, future-policy we can negotiate is the restoration and conservation of as much of our intact forests as we can across hundreds of square miles of mountainous watersheds. Reintroducing Beaver and reestablishing Salmon habitat to bolster biodiversity and preserve connective habitat is the best shot we’ve got at preserving the quality of our continued human residency here. We don’t need to fully understand the complexity of the system — it may be too complex to fully understand. For example, we know that in a tablespoon of forest soil, more micro biotic organisms exist than people alive in the world today[50]. Ecologists argue today about how forests work, how they communicate, how they compete, and how they cooperate on a fundamental level[51]. We don’t need to know right now. All we need to acknowledge is the importance of the complexity itself and restore the conditions where endemic forces of complexity can persist.

I present my work up and down the state, and I talk about climate breakdown, and I talk about the importance of restoration, and I get asked again and again, what can we do? My answer is not about joining a political movement, and it is certainly not about assigning blame. We are all at “fault” (if such an easy thing exists) and none of us are. I encourage my audience to go inwardly to work outwardly — turn up your kindness, turn up your compassion, turn up your attention to the legacy of the natural world. Consider the story you are telling yourself about how you relate to nature and how nature relates to you. The imaginative capacity of the world to adapt and invent solutions and adaptations to a tomorrow that is more rich, and more beautiful, is infinite and you are an important part of that story.

portrait of the author in studio, Berkeley, Calif. 2019

Notes, sources, and further reading. All web sources accessed in summer 2019.

[1] One of the first thinkers to use the phrasing climate breakdown was professor Jem Bendell at England’s University of Cumbria;

[2] NPR’s Ari Shapiro talks with climate scientist Stephanie Herring about why the argument “the climate is always changing” is problematic in explaining the temperature changes around the world today;

[3] The rate of climate change in several key statistics as reported by NASA;

[4] Analysis of emissions, Center for Climate and Energy Solutions;

[5] Climate change feedback loops as explained by the Guardian;

[6] More rain in California despite global warming;

[7] Yearlong fire seasons in California as reported by the Bloomberg report;

[8] The disappearance of California fog;

[9] Increase in California lightning;

[10] Complexity theory in climate change;

[11] Biological bottleneck and its effect on genetic diversity;

[12] No system is endless, an economical perspective on capitalism and globalization;

[13] I understand the religious intonation of my phrasing here, and I don’t mean to do so. I wish to use the word atonement as a coming together of ethics and purpose.

[14] Intro to the post-carbon economy;

[15] Paradigm shift; Kuhn, Thomas S. 1962. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

[16] Climate Change Contribution to the Emergence or Re-Emergence of Parasitic Diseases;

[17] I might have included all of the acronym HIPPO: Habitat loss, Invasivity, Population, Pollution and Overharvesting;

[18] Fires around the world;

[19] The California Floristic Province;

[20] Definition of life, a working definition;’s_working_definition.html.

[21] Hyper-object as proposed by Timothy Morton — a quasi-thing/concept that transcends human sensorial immediacy.

[22] Rethinking Ecosystem Resilience in the Face of Climate Change;

[23] California essential habitat connectivity project;

[24] Climate threats from within California;

[25] Threats from outside of California — global scenarios;

[26] Gross extractive technologies;

[27] Subtle extractive technologies;

[28] The geological history of California;

[29] California, as an ecological island separated from the North American floristic province by the Sierra Nevada mountains. Island biogeography;

[30] Endemic; native to only one area, existing in the wild in no other location.

[31] Biodiversity hotspots;

[32] Natural vegetation types in California;

[33] Landscape types are not legally thought of as endangered or threatened. California’s threatened vegetation;

[34] Fragmentation, or dysconnectivity;

[35] Biological invasivity;  Joan G. Ehrenfeld. 2010. Ecosystem Consequences of Biological Invasions”, Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics, 41: 59–80

[36] Ecological simplification;

[37] California’s 1% extinction rate;

[38] 1 degree Celsius;

[39] Milanes, C., Kadir, T., Lock, B. Monserrat, L., Pham N., Randles K., Indicators of Climate Change in California. 2018. Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, California Environmental Protection Agency. Sacramento: CA. s-10

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid. S-11

[42] The largest beetle and pathogen infestation in history;

[43] Megadisturbances;

[44] The largest tree die-off;

[45] Along with pesticide costs to fight them, the number is $44 to $176 million per year; California Department of Food and Agriculture, 2008.

[46] Algal blooms;

[47] As many beaver as a few per mile of watercourse;

[48] Million of tons of nutrients from salmon;

[49] State Water Project;

[50] Soil biology;

[51] The ecological debate;