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)

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;

The View from Outside the Box

I delivered this Keynote Address to the Association of Environmental and Outdoor Educators on Saturday, March 30th, 2019 at their annual, statewide conference at Westminster Woods in Occidental California. I’ve edited a few comments as they were delivered and then presented here, but for the most part, it is presented verbatim. – Obi Kaufmann

I poured my heart into this presentation and I was so very gartified to have my work received so warmly by such a large group of kind and intelligent people (teachers, all).

I came down from Sierraville yesterday, which is about 35 miles north of Lake Tahoe, where I am living these days to be with you all here today. I am working on a series of books regarding conservation ecology in California and the parade of deadline my publisher has me up against means, that for the most part, snow has been my experience of spring. Coming home to the East Bay yesterday, I was deeply startled to suddenly apprehend the vernal, viridian wave across the hills. So much so that I was moved to pull off the road and scribble these few lines down, that looking at them again this morning I found them to be an appropriate and personal introduction to both me and the themes of my address today, so please indulge me:

The greater trajectory of my study, the life long song of praise I sing, the deeper quest for the purest expression of gratitude that I can most easily give away, is now just beginning to reveal itself as a single question: what is the character of our natural world once we are through telling our fossil fueled fantasy of endless growth? Once we prove to ourselves, the elasticity of our own consciousness and transform the story at the heart of the next version of society we invent, what scars will we map across the body of our beloved place? What narrative will we employ to justify our historic arrogance that presumed nature to work in any other way but a cycle?


I want to begin today by addressing the theme of this weekend’s conference and explore what exactly is the box that we are thinking outside of. It is clear to me that together, the inclusive-We, the We that includes every thinking human, regardless of agency or ideology, stands at a precious moment in history defined by transformation. This transformation is manifesting as a change across the natural world and is mirroring or will mirror a paradigm change in the fundamental fabric of the human psyche. I see this transformation effecting the biosphere across temporal horizons at different scales of society.

In my address I will be using the word society a lot. I am using the word society to denote a whole nation of people governed by some kind of legislative core. As multifaceted, fitful and slippery as any given society is, whether at regional, state, national or multi-national scale, I use the word society as a dialectic in context to the other frames of reference used to lump together the human world. The society sits between the community, those gathered here today, and the world population, which is the whole-global, contemporary corpus of humanity.

To describe the temporal and ecological context of contemporary humanity and the crossroads we find ourselves at, let’s image a mountain peak. On that mountain peak stands a little girl, and let’s let her represent humanity, human consciousness and the human faculty to understand a greater context for itself. The mountain represents a couple of concepts: one, in the foreground, the slopes down from the summit, the capacity of human-civilization to transform its natural environment in the field of history – and two, the far horizon, the viewshed of the mountain represents the history of life on earth. Turn one way, call it east, and squinting, you can see the beginning of life, deep in the Proterozoic Period of Earth’s Precambrian Era, 3.5 billion years ago. Turn the other way, call it west, and look at the sunset of life on planet earth – that too is about the same distance away – 3 billion years or so, when the core of our happy sun begins to shrink and brighten on its journey to become a red giant (in about ten billion years, when its outer edge will extend past Mars) and will pass a threshold, after the oceans’ have evaporated to destroy even all the bacteria on our terrestrial globe.  We are in the middle of the story and there is absolutely we can do about that.

Let us now focus on the slopes of time and space closer to our stout-hearted little human on her summit. Turn to the east again, and look down the hill, 170 years into the past. It’s 1848 in California, and you can hardly believe the extent and capacity of life on display across this truly golden state. You can hardly believe it because you can hardly recognize it. The forests of widely spaced Ponderosa and Calocedrus trees you walk through as you descend down the west slope of the Sierra Nevada into the Sacramento Valley exist in a strict and normalized fire regime where a thousand annual fires, both anthropogenic and lightning-sourced average 300 acres with an intense burn zone of 10 acres. By way of comparison, the 2014 Rim Fire near Yosemite burned 257,000 acres with an intense burn zone of 34,000 acres. The Sacramento Valley itself at this time, is a biyearly display of birdlife, a megapolis of avian activity on the Pacific Flyway – their habitat, the Sacramento, a river unchained that routinely grew to be thirty miles wide was patrolled by a legion of 2,000 pound grizzly bears that hunted teaming populations of people-sized salmon. The Coastal ranges, packed green all summer long with bunchgrass butt up against the greatest belt of sempervirens old-growth the Quaternary Period has left, the Redwood coast.

Turn now to the other direction, to the west in our thought experiment and consider California, 170 years from now: the California we encounter then will be as unrecognizable to us now as the pre-goldrush California seems to this contemporary reality. Even in the wake of what is considered the best case scenario for climate change, a two degree Celsius change of global atmospheric temperature, California could be radically transformed despite any engineered intervention.

Although most models predict California will not experience a dramatically decline in precipitation over the next one hundred-plus years, we are entering a century that will have us considering a new kind of drought: snow drought. In the California epoch of snow drought, the precipitation we do get could be mostly in the form of rain and it could fall in huge amounts, sometimes called rain-bombs by climate scientists, over shorter intervals. If this happens, it will change the traditions of California agriculture, development and urbanization as radically, suddenly and as spectacularly as these industries came into being and continue to presently expand .

Snow drought could change the soil-climate, the nature of aridity within the living, top-layers of California’s earthen landscape and the ecosystems will flee north and upslope to seek both cooler temperatures and respite from the cycles of wildland and suburban interface-inferno that will happen with increasing intensity, at any given month of the year. We could see our colder, subalpine forests fade to extirpation as they are invaded by the conifers running up the mountains. We could witness our chaparral and our desert habitats increasing fragmented by willful invasive grasses that seek to break the natural systems of succession and engage in whole-hearted, ecological conversion. Now, while this picture is bleak, I’ve got another one on deck, stay with me – we are not fated to realize that particular feedback cascade.

The larger point that I am making is that because of events that have already begun their course, because of pieces already in play, California will have undergone two major, ecological transformations within three centuries following European settlement. Three hundred years is the blink of an eye in most, geophysical scales of measure. This period of time, probably to be remembered as the lifespan of the carbon-economy, the fossil-fuel economy in California, represents a bottleneck. Not just a bottleneck for our own species to survive its relative adolescence, but a bottleneck for all of our endemic biodiversity.  The key, I believe to understanding the larger context by which we survive and thrive, along with our more-than-human community, following the bottleneck, is by understanding what can be called, in our conceptual model, the middle ground.

Let’s return to the conceptual peak and revisit our tiny human as she looks to the middle ground. The middle ground in this model is a time-horizon of between ten and fifteen thousand years. Turning again to the easterly-past, this is a period of time when there was a clear uptick in traceable evidence of the ancient people of California. Around the globe humans ventured in this broad and vague, aeon-wide swath of human history. Everywhere that humans went, humans became very good at destroying large animals. These animals – herbivorous megafauna, were keystone species in their own local systems and their decline precipitated a positive feedback cascade that launched the now-famously called Sixth Extinction. California is a text book example of how this unfolded and continues to unfold.

It is probable that humans arrived thousands of years prior to the discovery of the Calico Man culture, or the Channel Island cultures of between 12 and 14 thousand years ago. This horizon line is significant because it empirically represents not only a timeframe for humanity in this place, but across the Holocene, we have local evidence of an anthropogenically-caused decline of biodiversity, human-adaptation to it and the natural world’s recovery from it. When I say recovery, I mean the filling of niches within ecographies (spatial ecologies) around the state with invasive species that over time, established their own rules of equilibrium in the adaptive cycle within a relatively short amount of time. For example, how bison, elk and moose from Beringia filled the niches left by dwindling populations of camel, horse and mammoth. And humans, spending thousands of years learning pyro-technologies of prescription burning for food production, established ancient cultures with stable populations in every corner of the state.  I am not saying that the decline of megafauna populations around the world was necessarily analogous to the rate at which we are losing our biodiversity today. And, I’m not saying that we should or can turn back the clock, although it might be turned back for us – what I am saying is that the time-horizon is significant when we turn our attention to the west from our summit view.

Ten thousand years from now is an exciting prospect. If you listen to too much main-stream and social media, you may be worried about the human race making it until next Tuesday. I’d like to trust you with greater thought. I’d like to ask for your trust to begin the conversation where we are imagining humanity, thriving in a beautifully fecund California ten thousand years from now.

In order to begin that conversation, we had better turn our attention back to the girl standing on the mountain top. The question we ask ourselves there then is, is there a box on her head? Can she see anything out of the box at all or does truth exist only in her mind? This is the box we need to think outside of. This is the box we are discussing this weekend.

If it is the case that she has a box on her head, than the most important question becomes how do we get her to take off the box? We can’t take off the box for her – that’s inside the box thinking. There is no external source that will present to us, a vision for us to follow – the path is internal, and the path will shift our paradigm. To remove the box, we have to not only understand what inside the box thinking is, but how inside the box thinking doesn’t work.

Inside the box thinking says that society, with simply enough information and with enough exposure to the facts will understand and adopt climate change for the threat to civilization that it is and will respond to the threat in kind. Outside the box thinking understands that the human mind, having developed in the African savanna over the past five million years, did not evolve to evaluate and properly assess the hyperobject that climate change is, for the threat that it poses.

Inside the box thinking says that faith in technology and the free market system will invent some deus ex machina, some device, or system of devices that will quote-unquote “clean up our mess” and present some band-aid solution for our bevy of ecological problems. Outside the box thinking understands that unless we change the story, the story of our own anthrocentric value above all others with whom we share this world, a worldview I would argue as being Abrahamic in cultural-origin – a worldview that fundamentally challenges the basic notion of humanity existing in tandem with a larger, living network of natural systems –  the technology won’t save us for any meaningful amount of time from these imminently collapsing, unraveling feedback cascades that we find everywhere.

Inside the box thinking wishes to dismiss me as a neo-liberal, tribal-thinker who works merely for protections of the natural world, such as personhood status for watersheds, above the concerns for the human economy upon which thousands of Californian families depend. Outside the box thinking has me standing with the children of the Sunrise Movement imagining a prosperous, post-carbon economy where we avoid the coming, Malthusian catastrophe by shedding our political subscriptions, even for a proverbial moment, to remake our collective power.

To put it simply, inside the box thinking says that there are two types of people in this world – outside the box thinking knows better.

Inside the box thinking has you all boiled down to an industrial role that reflects deeper economic patterns. As teachers and educators, you are not unlike line-workers who have the repetitive and remedial job of assembling citizens from behind the factory door from where they will emerge, largely identical. Outside the box thinking has you as the greatest and most potent army the democratic world has got, mobilized and deployed at the front lines of the war on ignorance. I don’t mean to fall back on military jargon, which is often solely about anesthetizing more-nuanced and sensitive truths, but the struggle to get that box of that little girl’s head is a long and potentially brutal campaign that requires strategy, discipline and valor.

I would like to pause here and discuss why I chose to engender the tiny human to represent humanity at the top of the conceptual mountain. I don’t mean at all to imply that the box is on her head because I call her a girl – in fact it is quite the opposite: it may be that only she has the power to remove the box – he cannot do it.  The future is not only female, so is the present. And she is also, most-certainly not white, probably transcends polarized, sexual-identity and doesn’t come from wealth. What I mean when I rather flippantly invoke the T-Shirt axiom that the future is female, with my unavoidably male voice is a deeper trend in the emergent, ecological paradigm. I don’t mean to invoke images of mythological Amazonia, ruled by shield maidens with long hair, as cool as that would be. I mean that a serious investigation of contemporary global demographics coupled with the progressive course of psychological dynamics through human and civil rights paints a picture of what has been called ecofeminism.

Ecofeminism is a word that will turn off half the audience who believe it to be a political idea, and thus one with a high-degree of elective agency – agency that is rooted in male-psychology, not female.

Ecofeminism is often mentioned in the same breath as patriarchy – as its diametrically opposed force. It isn’t. But because of this pairing – whatever it is, or it isn’t, is now tied to words like environmentalism, like sustainable, like even progress, that imply a political dogma under the banner of liberalism (little l) and are dismissed by the coded, dog-whistle heard by over half of the American populace.

If I were a braver poet, if I were less a cis-gendered, white guy, I would have another term – actually, I think the Sunrise Movement, works pretty well – so we will let it stand. Let’s let this stand too: In Paul Hawken’s extensive 2016 book with the grand title DRAWDOWN, the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming, he estimates that by 1) enabling share-ownership of small businesses around the world commiserate with the total rate of female labor within those business, namely equally pay for equal work, and 2) supplying the paltry, five billion dollar global shortfall for women’s reproductive health and family planning, and 3) if all nations adopted a plan of 100 percent enrollment of girls in primary and secondary schools, the net, cascading effect would be a reduction of 124 gigatons of atmospheric carbon dioxide by the year 2050 – in itself, potentially enough to keep the world from warming to dread catastrophe. And if that what it means to be an ecofeminist, let’s start the line to sign up as one right here and now.

I grew up the son of two scientists. My father was an astrophysicist and my mother was a clinical psychologist. I remember once, I must have been about seven years old and I was sitting in the back seat of the car and I can’t remember exactly the context of the question, but I remember baiting them with the question “where is truth in the universe?” They both responded with out hesitation and simultaneously. My father said physics, my mother said psychology. My folks and I still have a laugh to this day about that moment.

Now, so many years on, I have finally found a third answer. One that I think works better for me to understand the human mind and its relationship to the great world. If the adult me were in that car and was going to blurt out his answer just as my parents did, I would say story.

A story is a work of narrative, a fiction that reveals meaning or a cognitive device that assigns value. Evolutionary anthropologists describe a cognitive revolution that seems to have occurred in our species about seventy to one hundred thousand years ago. This revolution coincided with the first, discernable evidence of art making. Evolutionary biologists have posited that the ability to tell a story, to put together the most advanced, interpersonal communication technology the world has ever known was far in a way more important to our evolutionary success than bipedalism or our opposable thumb. Through the technology of story telling we are able to abstractly remove and maximize selected pieces of our animal instinct, selective pieces of our inherited birthright and store them outside of our bodies, in a conceptual locker for transferability between members of our species. Because of this, it didn’t matter that we were weak apes with limited physicality – we were destined to do what we did and are doing, and we were destined to do it fast.

Stories exist on many conceptual levels. There are stories that exist between individuals, like the one I am telling today, there are stories that occur in popular culture that can reap havoc on collective thought – think marketing, branding, brand-stories, and even advertising. and there are stories that work like rivers through the course of history, guiding our decisions and creating our biases and our normalities. These are the stories that we tell ourselves and these stories, our personal myths, dictate how we live our lives and why. It is by way of a story somewhere deep in me that has it as a normal bias that I should get in a car every morning, drive for hours only then to sit in front of a computer screen for eight hours, get back into the car, do it again, five days a week for 40 years. That sounds like a pretty bad story, one that considers nothing but the story I tell myself to be a productive and prosperous member of society.

I would argue that our story, the story that is human society is ready for a new iteration. The through-line of history, the over-arching story of world civilization is ready for an upgrade and it will either be imposed on us from without or it may emerge spontaneously from within.

The same story that evolved through the second and third human revolutions: the agricultural revolution, about 6,000 years ago, and the industrial revolution, which conceivably began one sunny, Sunday afternoon in June of 1775, when James Watt turned on his steam engine and brought into creation the first carbon emission. I like this date because the forces of human history, the force of story, conspires with other elements of culture. Like this date 1775, the same year that the American Revolution began, beginning the first, large-scale experiment with representative democracy in the modern age. Other great synergies of story-telling that represent leaping shifts in the axis of our worldview occur in the 16th century with the Renaissance and the Copernican revolution of a heliocentric solar system; Darwin’s theory of natural selection (1859) coincides with the beginning of the end of institutional slavery in the United States; the invention of modern art, Pablo Picasso beginning his work on cubism with Georges Braque in 1905 coinciding the same year with Einstein’s discovery of the theory of general relativity. Through all of these examples, there is a scientific discovery corresponding, organically and with minimal obvious connection, that ties to a new story within the humanities. The arts.

If I have a single mentor, a single individual – someone who even amounts to some kind of guru in my own, private constellation, it would probably be our nation’s greatest, living naturalist Edward O. Wilson. In his book The Meaning of Human Existence, he speculates in his usual, casual yet insightful manner that “when aliens come to visit us, they won’t be coming for our science. They have that figured out. They will be coming to discover the humanities. The thing that makes us special.” Being a preeminent biologist, he goes on to explain why we haven’t ever been visited by aliens and why a galactic conquest has never even begun, due to the nature of the micro-biome within individuals collapsing under alien, geophysical forces, but that is another story.

Back to the box, or rather what the box signifies. For me, the box was always and continues to be, quite literally, a piece of paper. Throughout high school, I spent my afternoons after school tromping around Mount Diablo. I was and am so in love with that mountain. Playing with tarantulas, mapping the sage mazes, tracking coyote, drawing wildflowers. Mount Diablo was the cosmos.

And then I would go home and my father, the mathematician would sit me down for a few hours of calculus homework. Stack of paper – can of sharp number twos; still kind of the way I work today. My worldview, my story was molded in such a way that the discipline I was always studying was not the discipline itself, but a mode of investigation, based on observation, hypothesis, experiment, conclusion and consensus. This loose appropriation of the scientific method leads naturally to the 21st century theory of applied education that involves instilling, as values of academic discipline: critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication. These are the values that are proof against the wave of automation technologies; these are the inroads by which the girl on the mountain is trusted to remove the box from her head; these are elements by which new stories are found and told.

To conclude, I am going to address you all collectively as educators – a word that in my mind, carries with it the not only the obvious role as teacher and mentor, but also activist, and even more subtly yet with all the profound weight and burden of being the stalwart defenders against the collapse of civilization, you are the storytellers.

Whatever modicum of success I have realized through the publishing of the California Field Atlas and all the books to come, it is all reflected right back to my open, ready and turned on community that is ready for this nature-first narrative. My books come from me – I’m figuring this stuff out for me, because that is the posture I am comfortable taking and giving away in this bound thing that approximates cogent apprehendability. My conclusions have lead me to help with the uncovering of new stories, tracked through emerging techniques of multidisciplinary conservation ecology. These stories reveal that all natural systems are living systems and deserve an emancipated rebirth from the old modes of utility, of extraction without reciprocation. Thinking outside the box towards a new inclusive ecological paradigm is the beacon of hope we, as storytellers, offer and I believe it may be the only story that is at all worth telling.

Thank you.


Methods and Parameters of Invasive Ecology

“Methods and Parameters of Invasive Ecology” by Obi Kaufmann, March 2019

note 1, context: The natural world moves in apprehendable rhythms and cycles that reveal themselves to the scientist and to the artist alike. It is my hope that these distillations of creative and empirical truth, expressed as new, working models and supported by sound theory, serve as tools to better understand the beauty of these ecological concepts. Uniting Invasive ecology and what can be called Disruption ecology, with both Conservation and Restoration ecology, I want to map the unifying systems that govern the bedrock of all living networks.

note 2, reference: these essays make reference to other works that will appear in published works to come, so please disregard specific reference to contextual elements, posted here that make reference to other content tables and source, most obiviously Diagram 1 being referred to as 04.02 and Diagram 2 being referred to as 04.03.

note 3, locality: While these accompanying essays make specific reference to examples in California, the two diagrams are meant to present universal, ecological principles, regardless of locality. 

note 4, the adaptive cycle; the pattern of growth, conservation, release and reorganization that governs the life patterns of spatial ecology (ecography.) All living networks share the same adaptive cycle regardless of scale. New growth always evolves into mature forms of conservation within the system-body. This inevitably leads to a release of stored enery at the opposite side of the diagram from the generation of it. The decimination releases resources that make way for the reorganization of those structures. -Obi Kaufmann

When I reference a singular, identifiable, and healthy ecosystem, I mean that it subscribes to a working adaptive cycle, and optimally utilizes all the biotic and abiotic resources present at its disposal to push towards a state of equilibrium. It is equally important to examine the systems of evolution that work to undermine and exploit the adaptive cycle and their methods and consequences of disruption and invasion in California and even more generally, in any natural system. All ecosystems are subject to invasion that threatens equilibrium. Equilibrium is not a state that, if subject to any consistent disturbance is held for any amount of time. Invasivity, either the perpetrating agent or the ecosystem defending against it, is any biological exotic that threatens established, native patterns within the adaptive cycle.

Whether we are talking about ancient invasiveness, recent invasions or biological invasions of the future spurred by anthropogenic climate change, all biological change agents employ common strategies to do what they do: altering homeostasis within the adaptive cycle of any given ecosystem, towards their own ends. Instead of, for example, having a map that describes Sudden Oak Death across California, I think it may be more useful to describe the larger system that particular pathogen works in, and thereby I am describing all pathogens. The following two diagrams (04.02 and 04.03) are models of applied generalities. Nature is very complex and very innovative and in the wake of anthropogenic climate change, this systems-thinking author is sure that these diagrams must be incomplete.

Diagram 1 (04.02) – Species Invasiveness Theory and Methodology in Ecosystems

Stage 1: tools of invasivity

The methodology used by all invasive species to infiltrate and overtake an ecosystem falls under three basic, evolutionary concept-strategies. To advance its agenda, an invasive may use one, two or all three mechanisms against a native regime.

1a. Increased competitive ability; when introduced to a novel environment, often an exotic species experiences rapid genetic changes because of new selection pressures.

1b. Novel weapons; Introduced species often utilize alien systems of biochemical interaction that are unknown to the endemic systems present.

1c. Disturbance; Invasives can be adapted to, and may influence altered, abiotic regimes, such as fire or flood, and use them to their advantage.

A good example in California of an invasive that used, and continues to use, all three of these tools is the pathogen known commonly as Sudden Oak Death, Phytopthora ramorum. After arriving to California in the mid-1990’s inside of nursery plants from China, (it may have had multiple waves of introduction at multiple ports) Sudden Oak Death quickly spread to epidemic proportions, now having killed millions of trees and devastated about 230 square miles of Tan Oak, Lithocarpus densiflorus, and Coast Live Oak, Quercus agrifolia, forest – although it also infects at least eight other, native tree species. The pathogen, called an oomycete, behaves similarly to a fungus. Upon arrival, a single genotype evolved into at least three or four strands, better adapted to the local forests (1a). It seems that the pathogen then proceeded with its lethal agenda, by utilizing Bay Laurel, Umbellularia californica, to persist through the dry season as Bay Laurel doesn’t die once infected (1b). To make matters worse, the pathogen monopolized on some successive, rainy seasons that boosted its ability to spore and reproduce quickly (1c).

Stage 2: categories of invasive types

All invasive species fall into three categories. Just like in Stage 1, a single species might be one, two or all three types of invasive depending on its evolutionary agenda and the niche it is trying to occupy. These categories describe an exotic organism’s relationship role that it is attempting to infiltrate the native ecosystem through.

2a. Predator. A predatory exotic species may infiltrate a native food web on any trophic level. A predatory species is most commonly an introduced animal. Examples include the Northern Pike, Esoc Lucius and the Southern watersnake, Nerodia fasciata.

2b. Pathogens. A pathogenic exotic species may infect vulnerable ecosystem and propagate itself as a disease. West Nile Virus is a mosquito-borne disease that continues to plague California and can infect birds, humans, horses and other animals.

2c. Competitors. A competitive exotic species may employ a tool (see Stage 1) to displace a local endemic from its niche, possibly transforming the ecosystem itself. The whole structure of California’s grassland communities was restructured with invasive plant family-species such as the Bromes, Cheatgrass, Yellow Starthistle, and hundreds of others.

Stage 3: invasive deployment

3a. introduction. This aspect of diagram 04.02 represents a temporal horizon that it utilized by invasive species to carry out their agenda. The introduction of an exotic species may be accidental (rats on a boat), incidental (carried by wind and fire), or intentional (planting forage for domestic animals).

3b. establishment. It is at this stage that the invasive decides to “play nice” with others or not. If the evolutionary decision is made to transform the ecosystem in some, fundamental way it may be considered a harmful invasive. If it doesn’t, it may be on the path towards naturalization.

3c. spread. Depending how the exotic, once established species vectorizes its growth, the effects across the ecosystem can be deleterious, as described in stage 4: ecological consequence, or a new equilibrium may begin to immediately reveal itself, as described in diagram 04.03.

Stage 4: ecological consequence

4a. habitat fragmentation. All ecosystems strive towards equilibrium, it is a function of their community. These four consequences are the disparate results following the spread of an invasive through the different, living tiers of the ecosystem. These consequences are from harmful invasives. They are arranged in no particular order. For example, habitat fragmentation occurs over a medium to large scale when native groups are isolated from one another.

4b. contamination. Contamination of the adaptive cycle within an ecosystem may manifest as alterations to the nutrient cycles or a disturbance regime or even a contamination of genetic material due to hybridization. When the invasive Smooth Cordgrass, Spartina alterniflora, hybridized with the native California cordgrass, Spartina foliosa, in the San Francisco Bay, it quickly spread to previously uninhabited mudflats.

4c. pollution. Biological pollution is when disfunction is propagated within an ecosystem because of the advance of an invasive species. A disfunction is any alteration, or set of alterations, that presents a clear threat to the normal operations of the system. For example, an invasive plant, such as French Broom, Genista monspessulana, is a ubiquitous invasive plant across Northern California. Once established the effects of Broom pollution include threats to local wildlife, degraded range and cropland, increased wildfire potential, reduced water resources and accelerated erosion.

4d. depletion. The robbing from any resource store within an ecosystem is known as depletion. Depletion may result because of any of the other three consequences detailed here. Depletion may involve the lessening of any chemical resource (i.e. The nutrient cycle) or any physical resource (i.e. sunlight) that had previous assisted with the normal functioning of the ecosystem prior to introduction.

Diagram 2 (04.03) – Ecological invasivity thresholds and mediation strategies

The ability for an invasive species, or community of invasive species, to alter the ecosystem they are introduced to, and the resiliency of that ecosystem to withstand the invasion is the crux of invasive ecology. This diagram details three models that represents two sides of this ecological tension and the temporal narrative how the tension is resolved over time. As established in diagram 04.02, invasives have an arsenal of tools at their disposal, and in conditions where invasion is possible, the ecosystem will always be altered. How that ecosystem is altered is dependent on characteristics inherent in the endemic system and how rapidly the invasive species’ consequence can be mitigated.

Through these three models, a system of conditions is explored by which ecosystems fight their battle against invasion by assimilation, redefining themselves towards equilibrium – the goal of any healthy, natural community. The first model describes what are the characteristics of vulnerability are that present the ecosystem with the parameters that make it a ripe candidate for invasion. The second model describes what are largely, anthropogenic management strategies to maintain or restore ecological equilibrium. The second model describes the other side of the coin from invasive ecology, the study of conservation ecology. The third model is the battlefield upon which this drama unfolds: time. Given the parameters of model 1, applied to the field of time, will decide how the ecosystem will transform from what it was to it will become once the invasion is resolved.

Model 1: Invasivity parameters within ecosystems

  1. invasivity. This is the starting point. All the invasive methodologies described in Stage 1 and Stage 2 of diagram 04.02 live here. How they manifest (Stage 3 and Stage 4 of diagram 04.02) is dependent on the five conditions of invasibility within the native ecosystem described in this diagram as surrounding the invasive starting point.

1a. natural enemies. One of the primary factors that control the populations of any exotic species is how, when released into a new ecosystem, they find themselves without the natural enemies of their former environment.

1b. empty niche. It is often simple enough for an invasive to step in for another organism missing from a network and take advantage of resources not currently being utilized. The niche may be empty because of extirpations (See model 3) or because of evolution within geographically separate but physiographically similar environments.

1c. species richness. Species rich ecosystems are more resistant to transformation by invasion than species poor ecosystems. For example, second-growth, timber harvested pine forests are more vulnerable to devastation by a single species of beetle than old-growth forests, rich in conifer diversity that leaves the beetle without a clear vector of single species transmission.

1d. propagule pressure. A propagule is a seed or any means by which an organism reproduces itself. More seeds means a greater likelihood of an established invasion. With increased temperatures over the past one hundred years,  we are seeing this kind of invasion take place in high-mountain meadows across the state. Conifers from lower elevations are invading subalpine communities and are launching a campaign of conversion (see Model 3).

1e. highly evolved competition. Habitats that have evolved extremely high levels of competition between organisms for existing resources may be more capable of resisting invasion because of any given organisms ability to out compete a potential invasive.

Model 2: ecosystem equilibrium and management strategies

  1. equilibrium. This term is used in this diagram as an indicator of a broad condition that all living communities tend toward: the condition by which, the ecosystem realizes an optimal balance of resources in and resources out. An ecosystem in the state of equilibrium is self-perpetuating and is interrupted only by agents that spur succession or conversion (see Model 3).

2a. restoration. Restoration ecology is the science of returning a disturbed ecosystem back to a state of equilibrium that it was in prior to disturbance, either by a biologic invasion or other agent, i.e. fire or flood. Restoration ecology is reactive, where Conservation ecology is proactive and whose general practice is described in the following for methodologies.

2b. prevention. Inhibiting a vector of change is the most successful and cost-effective strategy for the management of change agents. There is a litany of preventative techniques at work across California, from the governmental policy of inspection on the transport of potentially invasive species through to the prescription burning by the Forest Service to maintain a healthy adaptive cycle.

2c. DRE – early detection, rapid response, and eradication. As early in the deployment stage (diagram 04.02 stage 3) an invasive species can be surveilled, the possibility of its successful failure for either conversion or succession will be determined. This can be a difficult process, as it is important to not also destroy any native organism within a similar niche. The eradication of Black rats, Rattus rattus, who threatened shorebirds and their ecosystem on Anacapa Island in 2002, was successfully carried out with the concurrent effort to preserve the native Anacapa deer mouse, Peromyscus maniculatus anacapae.

2d. long-term control and management. Long terms efforts to minimize naturalized species can be as intensive as they are expensive. Mediation is the strategy for some invasives that may be, either providing some established service, or exist on such a scale that eradication is impossible. Controlling feral pigs by hunting and timed grazing to control invasive weeds are two examples of ongoing strategies to control the spread of destructive invasives.

2e. biocontrol. Biocontrol is when another species is introduced to prey upon an already ravaging invasive species and the threat of the second species’ presence is deemed less of a threat than the first’s continued spread. For example, St. John’s Wort, Hypericum perforatum, a poisonous plant to grazing cows, was successfully mitigated in Siskiyou county in the 1950’s by the introduction of Chrysolia beetles that eat the weed.

Model 3: invasive based, ecological transformation

3a. time. Time is the key component that either assures the success or the failure of any evolutionary process. If a change agent, either biological or otherwise, is introduced slowly enough into a ecosystem that is in equilibrium, it may be possible for that ecosystem to absorb that change agent and disarm it efficacy. Heat, with specific reference to anthropogenic climate change, increases that rate at which all reactions occur – whether at the chemical or the ecological level. Speeding up the process of either the rate at which change agents return (i.e. changing the fire or flood regime due as resulted by climate change) or the interval by which ecosystems can absorb any given, invasive threat (i.e. the invasion of exotic grasses through fire distribution,) has the potential to not only fundamentally change the nature of the ecosystem, but (with enough heat, contracting the amount of time for any adaptation) may collapse the whole system itself.

3b. extirpations. Extirpation is when a species is either intentionally or unintentionally made locally extinct. Through competition or displacement between rival organisms, or through non-adaptability with the establishment of some new regime, extirpations are inevitable. Often, a cascading, domino effect forms if the exotic is not able to fulfill the services of the endemic organism, and many species fade away. An example of this in California might be how so many Salmon varieties have been extirpated from their headwater-spawning grounds by dams. This has lead to depletion of nutrients from headwater-forests that has lead to the simplification of the food web in those forests and diminished populations of all types of organisms found there.

3c. naturalizations. A naturalized species is one that has invaded and has been assimilated into the ecosystem, successfully propagating itself, behaving like a native. Naturalization takes successive generations of multiple species-members within the community to determine if the invasion is fundamentally transformative (converted) or not (succeeded).

3d. converted. A converted ecosystem is one that, because of a single change agent, or a series of connected change agents, is destroyed and transformed into a different kind of ecosystem. European grasses, that need to burn every year moving through a forest can transform that forest into a grass land in a relatively small amount of time. A converted ecosystem is defined by the collapse of the adaptive cycle.

3e. succeeded. A succeeded ecosystem is one that, because of a single change agent, or a series of connected change agents, is pushed from one segment of the adaptive cycle to the next. If this procession of succession is not dismantled by the change agency in a short enough period of time, there is a opportunity for that agency to become naturalized and for the ecosystem to realize further equilibrium.

Ecosystems change. It is what they do. By understanding the mechanisms of change can the consequences be mitigated. The idea of equilibrium inside an ecosystem is a state that is only possible in ecological isolation. In the 21st century, ecological isolation doesn’t exist. Humans are the single most destructive invasive species the planet may have ever known. Alas, humans are also the only species to understand the mechanics of invasivity and are potentially able to engage, restore and conserve, valuable ecological networks throughout California and beyond.