The Ecology of Belief

The Ecology of Belief
by Obi Kaufmann
Winter, 2019
Sierraville, Calif.

My relationship to the idea of belief is very specific. It has to be. I’ve worked a philosophy of belief to advance the agenda of my work. My work is the contemplation and celebration, through writing and painting, of earth’s biodiversity and the larger movement to conserve that biodiversity against the crushing wave 21st century threats and ecological stressors. The single greatest of these threats, the threat umbrella under which can be found the milieu of all anthropogenic stressors, the original threat that spawned the sixth extinction of the Anthropocene and now threatens the very fabric that of the biosphere in its current configuration, is the human notion of belief. Belief being the measure by which all human effort is compelled. Belief, both its means and its ends, with its all-pervading ability to unite and divide, is the bedrock of every worldview. Forgive the hyperbole but stay with me when I say that belief doesn’t need to be true to be true. Belief has no problem denying evidence. Belief doesn’t require reason or validity. In relation to my work, questioning the nature of belief is necessary to uncover why this apparent cognitive dissonance is so rampant and also it is a necessary investigation into the nature of how we apprehend and interpret the cosmos.

I am not as much concerned with what people believe, but why people believe. Belief is a psychological pillar of the human mind. The mind, as it has evolved and was originally shaped by the environment of the African savanna since the advent of bipedalism four to six million years ago, underwent a revolution of cognition about 70,000 years ago with the birth of culture. It can be argued that the cognitive revolution is the dawn of human-belief systems. Culture itself is a belief system and is held together by this tribal glue of the common belief. Belief is so powerful that is often the solitary criteria for personal truth.

Religion, any faith-based truth, or any institutional tradition of a supernatural, cosmic order is only one strand in the vast braid of belief that weaves through all aspects of how we see the world.  The structures and the forms of mind that project out, probing to build order, that invent stories to understand any work of human art, for example, are rooted in belief. A work of art, a product of the humanities, is any process or artifact constructed to its own end and created through the laborious interface of human conception and human manipulation through media. Religion is art, although religion is not part of the humanities.

Belief is a tool of mind that describes communal expectations in a social context and how we manage those expectations through narrative, both historical and personal, to anticipate the outcome of any relational situation. That anticipation is not temporal, meaning that we use belief to build ideas about both how things are going to unfold and how they’ve unfolded in the past. It is this conflict between expected result, and the process of experimentation that emancipates science from being a belief system.

Centuries of scientific progress suggests that the universe is a reasonable continuum of space and time. Even at both the quantum and the super-galactic levels, where the capacity of the human conceptualizing faculty is tested, we find an environment, a natural world that is investigable and subject to experimental query. While science is not a belief-system in that the results obtained through the correctly applied scientific method are true regardless of belief holding them to be so, that the world will continue to be revealed through scientific inquiry is a belief. The world, meaning the universe, has no responsibility to make sense to our human mind – in fact, it might be that the cosmic order is so vast that our cerebral capacity is simply unable to grasp and unify all of its knowledge.

Belief, as incalcitrant as it is, is subject to paradigm shift, to game-changing. There are moments in human history when we, humanity, begin to believe the truth has a certain orientation and our belief in that orientation is so powerful that we can never go back, we can never return to thinking of the world as we once did. 70,000 years ago, humanity began to believe in the very idea of fiction, or the ability to convey instinctive truths in language, art and narrative story. 10,000 years ago, humanity began to believe that through the technology of agriculture, it had the right and the ability to harness the nature bounty of the earth. 250 years ago, humanity began to believe that all the world’s natural resources were open to industrial exploitation and that progress meant the domination and subjugation of the natural world to our own temporary, even consumable benefit. I see (or rather, I believe that) another seismic shift in the workings of our collective psyche, the mind that governs our society – or the other way around: the society that governs our mind – a slipping of the fault in our anthropocentric world view. At the beginning of the 21st century we are beginning to imagine our place in the world and our relationship to its resources, as we have never conceived before. We are beginning to believe that a reintegration into patterns of renewal, over patterns of extraction, is the path forward for humanity. Once the shift happens, once the ecological paradigm dawns, it will change everything in accordance with the precedent that has been set a number of times before. I am skeptical about how much choice we have about what we believe. The sticky brew that is tradition, heredity and culture is, according to my estimation, largely unescapable. I do, however, believe in epiphany. When, perhaps while experiencing aesthetic arrest, the eye-of-the-universe perceives the thing-of-the-universe and the two are made one and humanity is compelled to evolve and adapt.

Obi Kaufmann is the author and artist behind the best-selling and award winning California Field Atlas. He currently bounces between Oakland and Sierraville, where he is working on his next manuscripts. He is currently booking a book tour for the Summer of 2019 to support his next book: The State of Water, Understanding California’s Most Precious Resourse. To contact Obi, please email 



a call to action, re: the illegal raising of Shasta Dam.

Solastalgia is a particular form of psychological distress, brought about from witnessing environmental degradation due to industrial development, extraction and devastation. An acute feeling of homesickness while still at home. Solastalgia describes the ominous dread that we all live in a sacrifice zone. We see our home, whether local or global, being sacrificed by design to those captains-of-industry who deny all attachment to the inherent value of wild places and beings.

Shasta Lake is the largest reservoir in California and was created 75 years ago with the construction of the Shasta Dam. There is a proposal to make the dam taller by 18 feet, and a wave of misinformation and political maneuvering by both parties on the state and federal level is behind it. This project will cost at least $1.4 billion and would expand the reservoir’s capacity by only 7%. This number represents only 0.2% of the state’s total capacity, and with no benefit most years, when the existing lake does not fill. Expanding Shasta Reservoir will flood upstream rivers and streams, including the McCloud River, which is protected under the California Wild & Scenic Rivers Act. The enlarged reservoir footprint will cause permanent loss of habitat for numerous sensitive wildlife species, including Pacific fisher, northern spotted owl, northern goshawk, Cooper’s hawk, purple martin, foothill yellow-legged frog, Shasta salamander, Samwel Shasta salamander and Wintu Shasta salamander and several special status bat and mollusk species. The project will also result in the flooding of several rare plant populations and their habitat, including fully or partially inundating 11 of the 24 known sites where the Shasta snow-wreath, a rare flowering shrub found nowhere else on earth, is found. Critical deer fawning areas and winter habitat will also drown beneath the expanded reservoir.

This is not a good water project. There are a number of much better ideas on the table, if actually increasing water availability for the most California’s is actually the agenda. California’s effort to increase water supply reliability should focus first on increased groundwater storage. Storage projects that make sense for fish, water, and people. Multi-benefit storage projects should be the focus alongside smaller reservoir facilities that support public benefits. Water use efficiency and conservation should not be overlooked to meet California’s growing water needs. During the drought, Californians tightened their belts—reducing demand by 30% in critically dry years. California needs increased investment in urban and agricultural water use efficiency, stormwater capture and reuse, and water recycling.

All public comments are due by Monday. Please email or write the address below and voice your opposition:

Shasta Dam Raise Project
c/o: Stantec
3301 C Street, Suite 1900
Sacramento, CA 95816

received on or before 11:59 pm. Jan. 14, 2019

This entry includes modified sentences originally written by Friends of the River, CalTrout, and Mount Shast Ecology Center.


Ecological Truth & California Fire

The ecological truth is that California is not burning, and it hasn’t burned for a long time. Science is uncovering an unlikely pattern emerging across the ecological mosaic of our state’s floristic province, west of the Sierra Nevada. While California has experienced its most costly and most massive fires in recorded history over the past few years, California, as an aggregate system of fire-evolved landscapes, is woefully fire-deficient. The Fire Return Index shows that most of the state’s forestland has burned 67% less than its historic fire regime. For millions of years, California’s wildlands have been evolving with fire, the patterns of its Mediterranean climate and the structure of it physiogeography have not only made it so, fire is the language that it speaks. The forest is not only able to deal with fire, it needs fire. The forest here IS fire, fire held in a stasis of conservation as potential energy, waiting to burn.

The Fire Return Index, map from the Forests of California, June 2020, HEYDAY books – draft.

The ecological truth is that without fire, California is not California. In the terrible and beautiful moment before the hammer strikes, in the autumn it is the season of fire and in the spring, it is the season of flood, when we stand both made and unmade, holding hands and holding the line, always relearning how to let go. A lesson that will get more intense in the century to come. How do we let go of our absolutes, in both politics and wildland management? Our pain comes from the nature of our human form, our mind and our sensibility, unable to reconcile with the larger scale of the living networks that are always imploring us to look deeper into the secrets of health and resiliency in the forest and to take our cue from there. It is estimated that 4.5 million acres burned annually in California prior to European settlement. Most of those fires, that routinely averaged about 500 acres for a single fire-event, had high-severity burn patches of about 10 acres. The Rim Fire near Yosemite in 2013 had a high-severity burn patch of 30,000 acres. We want to find the answer to the question why? As if burning is a problem to be solved, as if with enough will, things could be somehow better.

Fire. We read panicked imagery in the sky, on the face of the black forest and the red sun at noon. We read prideful bewilderment from wrathful, ignorant ghosts of who don’t understand how to move nations. Scarred but unbroken, our people face again rewriting their novels. We are hollow-boned birds, light and able to not choke on the diamonds we carry in our throats. The gray rivers of silt cut clean down our cheeks and evaporate when they reach our unsmoking hearts, burning clean. We love the forest for being the forest and don’t blame it for its release, for it’s burning with us. Today’s catastrophes clothe tomorrow’s children in wisdom.

The ecological truth is the logging makes wildland fires worse.  Thinning a forest through logging does not remove the fire threat, but by adding slash and post-cut debris, we increase the combustible surface area of particulate fuel. Logging and burning clear the forest in different ways.  Logging takes the biomass that does not burn and leaves what does, fire takes the debris and leaves what does not burn. While there is a cocktail of prescriptions necessary to defend development, and that does, at times and in strategic locations include burning, grazing, thinning chipping, masticating, greenbelting, and even logging, forest management employs more tools than chain saws.

Paradise, California, Nov, 2018

The ecological truth is that these devastating fires are anthropogenic. It is nothing that nature is doing, we have done it and are doing it to ourselves. And although we are doing it to ourselves, blame does lie solely with the governance of public agency. The source of the Why in this complex algorithm is deeply ingrained through the fabric of our modern, nuclear culture. From trimming the rainy season with a regimen of global, carbon emissions over two and a half centuries, to changing the profile of the California Floristic Province since the time of El Camino Real, nearly two centuries before that. To most perniciously deadly of all: paying utility companies to deliver an unlimited amount of poorly insulated energy, without pause through a teetering infrastructure across the forest canopy throughout autumn’s season of fire. Human dwellings are not meant to burn, but when they do, they burn easily. The forests of California are meant to burn, and when they do, they recover quickly with vigorous regrowth.  The green trees are not the real fuel at this curtain between town and the wild. It is out built environment and the cultural patterns that developed it.


The ecological truth is that a changing climate presents far more of a long-term threat to the forests of California than even the most massive forest fires. Over the past one hundred year, policies of fire exclusion have created crowded forests and crowded forests are not resistant to the long-term effects of drought which seriously account for the rise of disease and beetle infestation. In the 1970’s, 12 million trees died from bark beetles – between 2010 and 2017, 129 million trees died. The historic drought contributed most to this vulnerability and was exacerbated by compromised forest health. Over the next ten years, it is expected that without massive restoration, we may lose over six million acres of our treed landscape to climate-spurred, arboreal pathogens.

The world is not on fire. The rivers are made from sunshine. The mountains are made from flowers. The trees are made from rain. And there you stand, a mirror for the sky to adore itself.

The ecological truth is that there a more trees now in California than there have ever been. Sometimes you hear the bumper-sticker-philosophy rallying cry that “Trees are the answer!” And while the sentiment is good, it is not entirely accurate. Young trees crowd a forest with surface fuel that when released through fire, transforms the woodland into a net-positive carbon source – trees are not the answer here. What is needed is old growth, carbon sinks. We need our forests healthy and resistant to the effects of climate change, which include temperature rise, greater insect and disease threat, and higher wildland fire risk. We need our forests protected from fragmentation and simplification to best provide interconnected habitat for all trophic levels of the ecosystem. We can realize these new, resistant and restored forest-types with sustained and serious, stewardship investment. CalFire is asking to, and planning on the restoration of 500,000 acres of non-federal, forest land per by 2030. The average now is about 35,000. The return will vastly offset the spend.

I am taking over the the Wilderness Society’s Instagram feed for the next few days, so if you would like more of my musings, I wrote many exclusive tidbits to be featured there. I am so proud to be aligned with this stalwart community whose consist application of science-based solutions towards preserving the character and the inhabitants of wild lands, and their ability to relay those solutions into practice and legislation, has been an inspiration to me for years. Please follow me and them at @wildernesssociety and join the movement. – Obi

The ecological truth is that more than human world of California does not care about humanity being in the way of fire. I hold my breath between moments of deluge and moments of inferno, all the human world of California does. We know these rolling catastrophes are coming, they always come. Our human minds go to the evocation of this imagery to describe its apocalypse, panicked and written across the red sun at noon through the smoke. We get scared, we get scarred, we let the gray rivers of silt cut clean trails down our cheeks. We love our California forest and our California weather, we don’t blame them for their release, we are always ready to pay the price. We trust that today’s disasters at the urban-wildland interface, clothe tomorrow’s children in wisdom and strategy.

I am so very honored to be presenting my work at the gorgeous and historic Marin Art & Garden Center, Wednesday evening, the 14th at 6pm. The program will start with a hour-long introduction to the #californiafieldatlas and my future work, and give particular emphasis to what we are all acutely feeling the effects of right now: the California firescape. Not only will I be discussing the nature of where, how and why California burns, but I will also be delving into some of what the ecological implications are to living in this land that needs to and loves to burn. The community of Marin is a lively bunch and I am very much looking forward to being an audience as much as a presenter to this very sensitive and important issue. I will be offering the California Field Atlas for sale as well as offering a whole stack of new, exlusive art prints and cards. 100% of the proceeds from that night will go to Butte’s County North Valley Animal Disaster Group who offer shelter and medical services for animals in the evacuation area of the devastating #campfire. @marinartandgarden. Tickets for this event are available at through MAGC at

Bright spots and battlegrounds for California conservation

Bright spots and battlegrounds for California conservation

By Obi Kaufmann

Originally published by PATAGONIA – THE CLEANEST LINE

author’s note: I am posting this article and these maps, as they were originally published by Patagonia, in their blog The Cleanest Line (link above), as a juxtaposition to the essay I posted yesterday: An Emerging Energy and a Desperate Question. I got some feedback from my readers with some concern that maybe that essay implied that I am somehow withdrawing from an activist attitude towards conservation policy. This is assuredly, not the case. 

August 2018

Depending on how you look at it, California’s most beloved wildlands are either under siege or experiencing a wellspring of support. In the current political atmosphere, bursting with assaults on bedrock environmental laws and protected public lands, it seems particularly important to recognize and spread the word about whatever pockets of optimism and progress you can find. For example, two recently introduced pieces of legislation that seek to protect hundreds of thousands of acres of some of the most spectacular wildlands in the state.

Just a couple weeks ago, Congressman Jared Huffman (D-Sausalito) introduced a bill, which would designate a 730,000-acre River Restoration Area in Trinity and Humboldt counties. It also calls for wilderness designation, the highest level of protection, for more than 260,000 acres of federal public lands and designates 379 miles of new wild and scenic rivers.

The Northwest California Wilderness, Recreation and Working Forests Act also addresses the critical issue of massive wildfires, by requiring better inter-agency fire coordination, allowing selective timber harvesting in unnaturally dense replanted forest areas and reducing fire risks near roads and private property.  The bill promotes better access for recreation across a wide area including Del Norte, Humboldt, Trinity, and Mendocino Counties, stretching from foggy coastal redwood groves to snowy mountain peaks. It calls for the assessment of trail improvement needs and a feasibility study for new mountain biking routes. Huffman’s proposed legislation also confronts problems created by illegal marijuana growers, who left behind toxic residues and damaged streams in public forest areas.

Along California’s wild and rugged central coast, the Los Padres National Forest and Carrizo Plain National Monument would receive greater protections from a bill introduced less than a year ago by Rep. Salud Carbajal (CA-24) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA). The Central Coast Heritage Protection Act would safeguard 245,000 acres of wilderness, create scenic areas encompassing nearly 35,000 acres, and designate 158 miles of wild and scenic rivers. This proposed legislation would also establish the approximately 400-mile Condor Trail as a National Recreation Trail, creating a hiking route connecting northern and southern sections of the Los Padres National Forest.

These bill proposals have a wide variety of supporters, including small business owners, local elected and community leaders, and residents concerned about preserving clean air, fresh water and the natural beauty of their regions. Business owners recognize the benefit of protected public lands nearby – since they depend on the dollars generated by tourism and the millions of visitors who love to hike, fish, hunt and camp in California’s wild public lands.

Now for the bad news. California could lose hard fought gains in several regions. One of the biggest battlegrounds is the Southern California desert, where earlier this year, the Interior Department announced it was canceling a plan to protect 1.3 million acres of national conservation lands from new mining claims.

The agency is also considering an overhaul of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) – an agreement that was achieved following an eight-year collaborative process involving federal, local, and state government, energy producers, conservationists, local stakeholders and recreation advocates. Given the current pro-industry and development agenda of the Trump administration, this re-opening the DRECP is viewed as a likely attack on the important conservation gains in the plan.

The DRECP was celebrated as a step forward in the battle against climate change, and a model for other states seeking to guide the permitting of large-scale renewable energy projects to less sensitive locations, where they would cause the least environmental harm. The plan supports renewable energy by designating 400,000 acres of “development focus areas” on federal lands where projects can get expedited permits.  At the same time, the plan protects 6.5 million acres of the California desert’s most sensitive habitat for wildlife and native plants, as well as Native American historic and cultural sites. 3.6 million acres are designated under the plan for recreation, including hiking, camping, rockhounding, and off-road recreation. The fate of this massive renewable energy and conservation plan is now in the hands of the Bureau of Land Management – where officials are expected to release a decision on possible amendments any day now.

Turning to California’s coastal waters – early this year, the Trump administration, as part of its energy dominance platform, announced it was considering opening most of America’s coastal waters to oil exploration and drilling, including waters off California’s coastline – taking direct aim at existing protections provided by marine sanctuaries. This could mark the first time in decades that new leases are offered for California offshore drilling. If the Interior Department follows through, it will certainly spark a fierce political fight and a flurry of lawsuits.

So, the Golden State, like other places across the country, is both under siege and pushing back hard with sound conservation proposals. There has never been a more important time for Californians and nature lovers across the country to know the issues affecting public lands and to speak up for the environment.  There are many ways to get involved – from increasing your level of civic engagement to joining a local conservation group, or making donations to organizations that are fighting for the environment.


An Evolving Energy and a Desperate Question

An Evolving Energy and a Desperate Question

by Obi Kaufmann


I am inviting an evolving energy, an emerging, anxiousness from the community when I present my work on tour. This new character of question, an expectant tone, skirts desperation and is often accompanied with a shaking tone of voice and pleading eyes. Where does humanity fit into my work, this future vision of California? What does reconciliation between industry and the natural world look like? With the legion of tragic, environmental conundrums that face our beleaguered spirit, how do we rediscover ecological equilibrium?

My standard answers are broken. I often stumble through piecemeal solutions about deficient policies or about new technologies that promise to fix our troubles. I am wrong in this approach on two fronts: 1) No one person has all the answers to the incredibly complex, positive feedback loops of degradative forces that currently threaten the workings of the biosphere. This work, my passion’s only contribution is the engaging and activation of a democratic literacy towards a better common understanding of geography and conservation, and 2) The dream of the world is unfolding exactly as it always have, and exactly as it should. We either work to balance our rights and our responsibilities with great love, compassion and vision, or we do not. Our best moments of problem solving will not come from fretful desperation, but by a contemplative course of action. Maybe it is like orienting on a map without a trail, only a heading.

I am an artist and my business is world-building. Every minute that you proceed through the California Field Atlas, I am asking you to accept this, my view of the natural world based on my inspiration, on my appreciation and on my experience as an explorer. My work is not a work of straight science. Of course, the maps I present in the California Field Atlas are data-driven but for the most part, quantifiable detection, measurement and consensus are three necessary concepts science requires that my work does not. My work depends on an emotional plea, and because of it, the community brings their passionate cry, their longing concern.

I believe that the great, sustaining systems of the natural world are not only alive, but intelligent. There is mind, systems of thinking, networks of advanced awareness infused everywhere in the natural world. Mind is not the abject province of humanity in its solitude, but rather a function of the breathing biosphere itself. When in wild places, open to wilder modes, thoughts sharpen as if the ideas there are not ours to claim spontaneously generated, but as if they exist independently of ourselves and enter us through our body. The synthesis (not the analysis) of this connected and holistic view on the ecological nature of mind speaks my truth to this, my life-long, ever-evolving epiphany.

At dawn, my eyes are some new variety of rose opening violet petals over heaven. I spend my waking, walking days tracking the oldest forests and let them track themselves through me. 200 million years before these mountains dreamed themselves to rise, this forest was already ancient. Carboniferous secrets, so often only considered bones and blood for human utility, spell an emerging and dangerous age of simplification for the citizen conifer. In the next one hundred millennia, new diversity will return to this mosaic habitat as the script of fire regime, atmospheric chemistry and hydrologic replenishment work to erase the scars of our petroleum print. I’ll leave my flowered-eyes on this mountain to watch that cycle happily reset.

The underlying plea I hear from this activated and concerned community I encounter up and down the state, seems to be those virtues that might illicit core-transformation in human, industrial thought. I would list them as grace, truth, insight, and wisdom – the great aspirations. The elixir that promises from this point onward our collective-life, our society will be defined by that which has come before and what now we are on the trail forward. When we have lost or have become lost to our former selves and merge with the greater forces of the world, we are found as an extension of those forces. Our left hand becomes our west hand and our right hand becomes our east hand.

My work has led me to the conclusion that our own species continued existence in what will certainly be a coming, post-carbon society (either imposed on us from without, or positively generated by us from within) will be made possible only by preserving as much biodiversity as we possibly can. Ecological simplification is a perilous trajectory, like a cloth that gets too worn and thin. The interlacing dynamics of the rapidly changing, delicate and yet resilient natural world are the course of my passion and present an ethical agenda in demonstrating how biodiversity works on connectivity, not isolation or sequestration. If we are not talking about the preservation, rehabilitation, stabilization, restoration, conservation, development and reconstruction of the world’s rich treasure of biodiversity and its habitats, we are not having a good conversation.

I am so humbled and grateful to have the opportunity to field these fears and to become, myself an audience to the transformative vision they represent. I think these are the very best questions that we could be asking: where is ecological peace in this overpopulated world? How do we serve the restoration of biodiversity? Can we change society? Simply by asking the question, the clay of collective-thought is working into new forms.

All there is, is process. Restoration is not a destination. Conservation is not a goal. The inspiration of our work is in recognizing the majesty of all species in all wild places as a spiral of biodiversity, free from commodification and free of disposability. We acknowledge all natural systems as alive and recognize them all to retain and hold their right to exist as a living system to protect and encourage. We support and draft policies that encourage resource replenishment over nonrenewable extraction, and we foster a singular, concurrent responsibility in tandem with every human-right we hold self-evident. We understand that there is a community-based functionality of a more-than-human society surrounding our progressive efforts and absolutely supports the culture of our species. We recognize this, our earthly progress, our continued terrestrial residency, as a temporal gift that graciously and necessarily demands reciprocation.

Fighting tragedy with love is the bravest effort we can give. The answer to the nihilistic question of whether or not we have a place, or worse, deserve to exist in this beautiful world, must be an axiomatic: we do. We are an invention of the earth. We are not separate from the earth. We are an aspect of nature. To survive the bottleneck of our own species’ adolescence, we must work on forging a new ecological paradigm. If we unable to will it, it will be imposed on us. I don’t have prophetic answers and I need to stop trying to give them. That work is not for me. My work is in the beautiful and nutritious mud, where water and sunlight give seed purchase. My work is about exposing the natural world for all the inspiration and meaning it holds and then cherishing those rare and precious moments when it can bring people together in the appreciation for how that world sustains us all.

California’s Natural World; Conservation & Restoration

Presention by Obi Kaufmann

California Native Plant Society – Yerba Buena Chapter

July 05, 2018

San Francisco, California



Thank you all so much for having me. As a naturalist, how could you not be a fan of that which is rare in the natural world? Rare means precious. Rare means value. Rare means a moral imperative to protect. In the year of my birth, 1973, The California Native Plant Society, already having existed for eight years, and having published California’s Rare Plant Index five year before, collaborated with the Smithsonian to review the national list of plants and found that California holds populations of a third of all plants on that list. Monumental, industrial work towards restoration and stewardship is the hallmark of the California Native Plant Society and supporting and participating in their efforts is my distinct honor and pleasure.

01a, flowers

Plant lovers, flower friends, tree huggers are a very special vintage of person. They certainly are their own kind, a type. It is not a temporal aspect of personality, it is not a phase, it is a pillar of character, it can be a calling, like being an artist or some other vocation to which one is bound, to which one is committed with a ferocity of love that is normally reserved to family. The academic manifestation of that love, those burning decades of focus, can be a proficient lyricism with among other thing, Latin and the accompanying binomial nomenclature used to name species; alas, this lyric ability is wasted on mixed company where in all but the most specific social situations, you are guaranteed blank stares should you find yourself indulging an expression of the obsession.

(02 Condor Map)

I am really, quite sure that the lay people, ordinary folk who aren’t called to the niche-specialized work that the good folks at the CNPS do, day in and day out, get bored so quickly at the professional talk of dendrology and angiosperm diversity, is because of its lack so often of human context, of human story. We, the naturalist community, are mostly just happy to let the plants be the plants; they aren’t resources, they aren’t commodities. Our internal resonance, our appreciation of them, and with the natural world in general is best expressed by our study of it. We find a community, however insular, however exclusive, and we become experts, and we work on a dangerous fulcrum of being not-understood, of being dismissed, of our work being too esoteric to be relevant. I think that this conundrum – and I do think it is a conundrum, not a criticism – is symptomatic of a larger issue now, in contemporary political culture. Our work, more than ever, is being politicized, that rapacious form of appropriation where to preserve biodiversity, for example, is wrapped up in a whole bundle of ideologies, of agendas, of what I believe and what you believe. And it doesn’t matter what it true. It doesn’t matter that we know science is not a belief-system. What does matter is that we are in a torpor of narrative, a gravity-well of story where what we hold most dear: the nuanced interdependence of all living networks is not real to the experience of so many.


Tonight’s presentation will not be me getting too preachy about what we need or need not do to combat, or to defend, or to even change anyone’s mind about anything. Lord knows those roads have been mapped, ad nauseum, by those more qualified than myself. I believe, at the core of my process, that with the right attitude, with the right quality, with the right language, paradigms crack and slip, almost tectonically, unintentionally, by a function of what can be described as a physical dimension to human, conscious thought. Tonight, I am going to walk you through an introduction of my work, where I have been, how I got there and where I think it all might be going. Tonight, I am going to work through some process of my own voice ascending these stairs to what it aspires to be: a more explicit demonstration of my love for California’s natural world. Given that I believe my creative, mortal purpose is the joyful participation in all the world has for us to witness, my vision is ultimately and necessarily inclusive.

(04 BOOK)

With that, I would like to present the California Field Atlas. I am very proud where the book has gone in the past ten months since its first printing, as we are now already in its fourth. It has won three awards: the first was for the unfinished manuscript, my publisher submitted it for the Phelan Award for California writing, the second was the book of the year by the Northern California Book Sellers Association and the third was the gold medal for significant contribution to publishing from the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco.

(05 Ten Months)

It’s been ten months since the publication of the California Field Atlas. Ten months since I left this box of flowers at the garden gate. Ten months on tour up and down, left to right, traveling through and across the human ecology of California. More rewarding than presenting the work itself is the audience I am able to become before this electric network, a community ready for this nature-first narrative. I listen to the choir of neighbors ready to be counted in a nation that draws its strength from a healthy relationship with all systems of the natural world. In the next one hundred years, as our society turns from extraction to replenishment as the primary attitude toward this giving-land of plenty, into a post-carbon economy, we will reject more and more the rhetorical miasma set as a divisive agenda upon us from the swarm of professional politicians. The solutions to all manner of our ecological dilemmas are already on the table. Disregarding the vocal extremes, we are one and we are not afraid of the work it will take to continue this, perhaps the most important conversation we can have.

(06 prismagraphic)

Perhaps you know what the book is, perhaps you don’t. Let me summarize it this way: several hundred, hand-painted maps and wild life renderings describing how the natural world works around California. A little bit deeper, I could describe it this way: an introductory handbook and inventory of conservation, in celebration of California’s natural history. It also is a Field Atlas, a genre of my own invention, that describes those living systems that have influenced and supported, continue to influence and support, and will always influence and support ecosystems across California’s physiogeography regardless of the contemporary urban veneer, the jacketing tyranny of concrete and plastic that we have so successfully imposed. Whatever modicum of success the book is enjoying, I owe it all to what I think more and more is an electric-network of citizens ready for this nature-first kind of narrative. How do we begin to reconcile this ache we have in our bones that California does not belong to us, but rather the reverse: we belong to this place, and more so, that this place is alive.

(07 Biogeochemical Cycles)

The condition of life, of being alive is an important thing to summarize, as I do spend most of my working hours deliberating it. I start my book with the one assumption, well actually two assumptions, but I’ll start with the first one now: that every natural feature of California is alive and deserves an emancipated rebirth from the old human paradigms of utility and extraction without reciprocation and gratitude. If I were to rewrite that assumption now, two years after I initially drafted it, I would exchange the word feature with the word system – Every natural system is alive. It’s more concise language to express an idea that carries the larger message of my life’s work. All systems within the biosphere, that gloriously thin belt of roiling biotic and abiotic systems, that global conversation of biogeochemical cycles that makes all complex organisms possible – those systems that have not been rendered sterile through human artifice – all contain properties and exhibit behaviors, at relative scale, that arguably not only mimic life, but are life itself.

(08 Black Holes and Warped Spacetime)

Quantifiable detection, measurement and consensus are the three necessary concepts that science requires, that my work does not. I am an artist, and every minute that you hold this book in your hand, I am asking you to accept my view of the natural world based on my inspiration, on my appreciation and on my experience as an explorer. I am very sensitive in drawing a line between what I do and what scientists do – I grew up with it. Both my parents were scientists of sorts: my mother, Dr. Jeffre Talltrees is a clinical psychologist and my father, Dr. William John Kaufmann, III, was an astrophysicist. Here is a copy of one the eighteen books he wrote before his death, 24 years ago today. Black Holes in Warped Spacetime. The blurb on the cover reads “From star birth to star death… to the final cosmic reality where fact and fantasy merge.” I am sure he did not write that.

(09 Iris)

Throughout high school, my after school regimen was three hours of math homework a night before dinner. Stack of paper, cup of sharp pencils. I still work that way, now often with a brush in hand. I believe my father was attempting to instill in me the discipline of math and science as the language of empirical truth-to-inquiry into the fundamental nature of the cosmos. This far from those days, still quite clearly having some type of conversation with my father’s intellectual legacy, I see now that what I actually gained in those endless man-hours of calculus practice was a larger appreciation with I would call the aesthetics of systems theory. All I see, all I was trained to see, is a pervading grace that when matched with my own proclivities towards the arts and the humanities, amounted to a kind of philosophical liberation, a scientific backbone where I now am licensed to take my inventions: my invented geography, my elemental-narrative of earth, air, fire and water and exhibit them freely as working extrapolations that offer truth in an interpersonal context.

(10 Klamath River)

The river doesn’t care if you think it is alive or not. At that scale, the Klamath River will look like how I’ve painted it here, a thousand years from now – long after all of our roads have returned to the dust from which they are made. The tools we use to describe our instincts: words and art and the invention of fiction that were gifted to our species during the cognitive revolution more than 70,000 years ago are best used for society’s long term well-being when they are used in the service of Stewardship of the natural world. This is now a lost sentiment, after Watt’s 1774 invention of the oil powered steam engine, a date uncoincidentally aligning with the revolution that spawned the world’s first major democratic, governing power. We now live in Bill Mckibben’s world: the end of nature – a book I have a lot of problems with – when every bit of the biosphere was touched by the atmospheric spread of humanity’s first, global-altering emission, cementing our legacy of detritus and pollution in the visible, geologic strata.

(11 forest)

In the industrial world, in the grips of the industrial world’s ethical paradigm, it is nearly impossible to imagine stillness, or balance is probably the better word, on a cultural level. Even those among us who wish to see a restored ecography – some new version of society where a balance is attained between the extraction and replenishment of our copious natural resources – are attempting to envision a machine that puts the proverbial toothpaste back in the tube. That is not to say that we’ve not made great strides towards reconciling the known threats. The invention of Public lands, a bit more than a century ago, was a great step towards identifying our right to develop with our responsibility to set aside. It helped us to realize what the author Gretel Ehrlich calls the Solace of Open Spaces, a necessary driver of sanity in our body and our collective mind. Fifty years ago, The Golden Age of Environmental legislation did what it could to unite us in our efforts to remediate the terrible poisons we injected willfully into our shared environment and threatened the longevity of the legacy that is our natural world, opened up to us by such author’s as Rachel Carson.

(12 POST)

Despite potentially being threatened to whatever degree by any given executive administration and their unwise policies, there are certain core bits of knowledge that we’ve attained to the betterment of our natural world. An obvious example for this crowd might be the acknowledgement that the willful introduction of alien species into any given ancient ecosystem always disrupts the productive equilibrium of that community. But we are still so far from realizing a day when we transform our hearts from reclamation to restoration, that relieved cessation to manifest destiny, when the exponentially spiraling, positive-feedback loops are tamed. We do not yet know what we do not know. We are still in the wave of industrial progress, and when that wave moves through us, either by its own momentum or by our choice to restructure it, our society will be left with a new paradigm, and the structure of that paradigm will be ecological.

(13 Water)

I have now just finished up my second book in this series which will ultimately be a five series set. This second book is a bit of an outlier to the other four: it is about water. This first book, the California Field Atlas is an elemental tour of the big, macro-networks of Earth, Air, Fire and Water are there relative influence across the topography, largely irrespective of humanity. The following trilogy: The California Lands Trilogy will consist of three books to come out in 2019 and 2020, again published by HEYDAY called The Forests of California, The Coasts of California and the Deserts of California. First though, I had to get my head around Water – the single most altered aspect of California’s large and natural systems of life. The book is called the State of Water, a field atlas to the conservation of California’s most precious resource.

(14 Rivers)

We enjoy water now in California as a generously available commodity derived from, at different scales, a finite resource. After enough numbers have been considered, and after enough resources have be reconciled between what we use, what there is and what we need, I am always amazed by how far we’ve extended the natural limits of the sheer volume of water in this arid paradise. The next one hundred years, like the last one hundred years in California history, will be defined by water. The premise of the book, if there is an agenda to it at all is that if we’re not talking about conservation, we are not have a good debate about water. Better pour another drink, because as Mark Twain (probably never) said: “whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting.”

(15 Salmon)

I pick my fights carefully in this thin book. Like my other books, it is a systems theory, a personal journey through art and analysis that is about more than what it is actually about. The infrastructure of California water, specifically surface water systems – a braided knot, an artifact of superimpositions over the state’s natural circulatory network that is as dazzling as it might be precarious. My focus is on the riparian ecosystems that harbor so much endangered, endemic life and my relationship to it, not only as a thirsty artist (pun intended) with so many of his own opinions, but a citizen involved in unpacking the truth. Sometimes the process appears as a fight, at other times a celebration.

(16 coyote)

When I wrote the California Field Atlas, the political climate of the country was much different. As I am working on the follow-ups, I am tracing a very delicate line between activism and celebration, between ire and ecstasy, between agenda and observation. Ultimately, the primary dynamic in my systems analysis is scale, through both time and across space. The political reality of the moment does not necessarily have any more or any less a catastrophic effect on the wild character of California, than the last five hundred, or even ten thousand years, the history of human residency in this place. The avalanching effect on patterns of endemic life that society has, is coming sharply into focus as the most important issue of our day.

(17 Map 01)

In my work, I do not recount a doom and gloom philosophy, listing emergency calls-to-action, but I also strive to not suffer the foolish policies of the unwise interests at the helm of any given governmental administration.

In my work, I examine the relationship between art and science, which in my mind is the play between meaning and truth and apply that research to one object-field-system of study: California. The course of my study is mechanically, a puzzle of endless depth, width and breadth despite the topographic finiteness of the land area itself. The end of my work is societal atonement with California’s natural world; an equilibrium between human extraction and replenishment based on more-than-knowledge, but a deep understanding rooted in love to protect and restore. To give back the gift.

(18 Map 02)

I have a lot of faith in the idea of Geographic literacy, but I have a hard time pinning down exactly what it is. It is certainly not only the rote ability to read a map. It is more than the ability of being able to read the land. It is more than knowing what is where. Geographic literacy is wrapped up in the qualitative function of how – how do systems relate and support life.

(19 Owl)

Let’s go with that: Geographic Literacy is the interdisciplinary study and appreciation of living patterns across a specific landscape. Geographic literacy is not only the study of ecology, the study of the relationship between biotic and abiotic forces, but the understanding of how macro-networks of a given province (be it a watershed, a fireshed, a carbonshed, a viewshed) are influenced by physiography, hydrology, climate, soil, pollution and other elemental, shaping forces that influence biodiversity at any moment on the ecosystem’s adaptive cycle, its successive life cycle.

(20 Adaptive Cycle)

All living networks share the same adaptive cycle regardless of scale. New growth always evolves into mature forms of conservation within the system-body. This inevitably leads to the release of stored energy at the opposite side of the diagram from the generation of it. The decimation releases resources that makes way for the reorganization of those structures that define the function of the system itself and extend through time to both the beginning and the end of terrestrial life.

(21 flowers)

Ascribing power of self-generation and renewal, or purpose, to a natural system is to see that system as alive – a being unto itself. Or at least, this reach to understanding set some parameters to better understand our role in the functioning of that system. If all natural systems are living systems, the moral perspective shifts and we become responsible to recognize our integral relationship to it. Systems of nature are now legally considered property: resources and commodities. The economics that we’ve built around this system of law – capitalism – depends on the myth of resource scarcity, it is the driving force of supply, demand, investment and return. I am not decrying the evils of our legal system or even capitalism itself, I don’t have a prescription about how it will play out. I am suggesting that when we shift the perspective, when the paradigm begins to slip, when we see the world as a living thing that exists in cycles of rebirth and redefinition, we see our own society susceptible to the same kind of evolution. And then, we can begin to talk about how the land sustains and renews itself – we move from the realm of scarcity into the realm of plenty.

(22 River Otter)

The next several hundred years will be the age of ecology. We will learn how remediation becomes restoration and moves to stewardship for the conservation and preservation of biosphere-system-balances that make human life possible. Since the late 18th century when we entered the era of the carbon economy and began the veiling of the whole surface of the planet in a thin layer of combustion’s residue, then again in 1945 when we upped the ante on the process and deposited another layer of strata in the form of radioactive particles that marked the beginning of humanity’s nuclear age, we entered a new, geologically detectable age of the Holocene, the Anthropocene, or as E.O.Wilson warns, the age of loneliness. If in fact it is to be an age of loneliness, as the so-called sixth massive extinction that is proceeding at a rate corresponding directly with the exponential growth of our species, we will only witness its beginnings and not its far reaching effects as our existence is supported by a network of all life that reaches to touch all pieces of the biosphere. With collective vision, we are together drawing another path through this labyrinth, one that is at least locally alive more now than it was fifty years ago. From this context, a painting of a river otter, and relating a simple tale of their precarious resurgent population across the San Francisco Bay Delta, is far more than just a cute, aquatic predator regaining a foothold – it is a symbol of us recognizing the way to our future legacy is by examining, supporting and reinforcing the legacy of nature’s past. As much habitat as we can afford to return to wild, endemic patterns is investment into our own, rich and resilient future.Intro

The Living Forest Body

The Living Forest Body

by Obi Kaufmann

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


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

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

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

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

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