Blazing a New Trail

Obi Kaufmann in his Oakland studio, shot by @thisismaiphotography for @clutchmagazinejapan.

Review By Paul Saffo.

John Muir would have loved “The California Field Atlas,” a compellingly poetic exploration of the living environment of his beloved adopted state. Muir famously observed that, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” The “Field Atlas” is organized around the deep interconnections of life, geography and climate, echoing Muir’s intuition. As author Obi Kaufmann writes in his introduction, “I want to coax this single piece of the universe into opening up its secrets.”

Like Muir, both Kaufmann and his “Field Atlas” defy categorization. Muir was a naturalist, writer, geologist, botanist, inventor, engineer and environmentalist. Kaufman is a painter, poet, topographer, natural historian, activist and one-time tattoo artist who happens to have a love of science and a knack for calculus. Oh, and he’s a clothing designer, too (he’s selling a nifty tweed field coat straight from the 19th century). Like Muir, Kaufmann is a passionate hiker and explorer of California’s back country. “Field Atlas” draws from Kaufmann’s watercolors, maps and writings assembled over 20 years of his explorations.

The result is a book I can’t quite describe — and also can’t put down. And I am not alone; the entire 8,000-copy first printing of “Field Atlas” sold out in a matter of weeks after its November release, no small feat for a book that weighs two pounds and costs $45. A second printing was rushed out even as copies were being resold online for prices ranging from $145 to $1,500.

It is clear what this book is not. It is chockful of critter illustrations, but it most definitely is not a wildlife guide. The maps in the “Field Atlas” put trails front and center, but lack the detail to help a backpacker recover from a missed turn. “Field Atlas” is too heavy to carry on a day hike, much less on a through-hike on the Muir Trail. It is also too general to advise a hiker wondering about the name of a peak on the horizon or how to identify a bird flitting around a campsite. And, by the way, there is not a single road depicted on any map in the “Field Atlas,” so don’t count on it to help you get from home to your favorite trailhead.

This is a book about systems. Its chapters are organized around systems: of water and rivers, of wind and weather, of fire and forests, of deserts and wildlife. Humans are not excluded, but the “Field Atlas” exhibits a certain ambiguity regarding the human presence in California. Kaufmann notes that humans have been present in California for at least 15,000 years and expresses the expectation that they will be present for at least another 15,000 years. An entire chapter of the “Field Atlas” is devoted to a county-level description of California’s natural environment. But one cannot escape the sense that Kaufmann would be happier if everyone who headed toward California after 1530 had turned back.

The “Field Atlas” is a book best read at home while contemplating the subtle interdependencies of California’s wildlands or planning one’s next backpacking trip. It will also fit nicely in a glove compartment, at the ready to reveal the deep story behind the landscape on the other side of the windshield. The “Field Atlas” won’t help the lost find their way home, but it might lead them to realize they were never lost to begin with.

There is one question I can’t shake. Is the “Field Atlas” a one-off, or the first exemplar of a new genre? I suspect that it is the latter, a tome that will inspire others to follow the trail Kaufmann has blazed. California has a proud history of birthing new environmental genres, including the legendary “California Water Atlas” (published in 1979) and the extraordinary series of coffee table books published by the Sierra Club in the late 1960s, which individually led to the creation of new national monuments and collectively helped launch the modern environmental movement. Leafing through Kaufmann’s “Field Atlas,” I can’t help but wonder who it will inspire and what will follow. 

Page 159 of Clutch Magazine Japan, June 2018 – the first inprint mention of the California Lands Trilogy – coming 2019



The Field Atlas – Focusing the Creative Intent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A New Vision for Restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley

The following presentation was made at the Restore Hetch Hetchy fundraising event at the Berkeley City Club on Saturday, March 17th, 2018 by Obi Kaufmann:

Making good sense of anything in these long days of miasmic political gridlock seems Herculean, or maybe Sisyphean – pick your ancient myth, or more probably in this crowd, your tragedy. The compass spins and any orientation to such basic civic discourse about what is reasonable? What is compassionate? What is ethical? is lost to the ceaseless torpor of argument. We are gathered here tonight to support RESTORE HETCH HETCHY, and I believe with all my heart that this project is the jewel in the crown of a new majestic day for California – the bravest opportunity to present to the whole world the gift of an emancipated Hetch Hetchy as a symbol of who we are, as Californians, and in our most solemn posture to present a unity of identity – one that understands that all the rights we enjoy are met with equal responsibilities. Despite the daily tweeting of old hearted, corporate mouth pieces who sow conflict, we continue our march toward a new reality. A reality whereby putting aside some indulgences of consumerist modernity, with its artificial contrivances of the red versus blue disparity, and we take to investing in great acts of restoration, we will continue our state’s legacy of standing up for what is right and in doing what just makes plain, good sense.

In truth, this obfuscating cloud that spews from professional politics and media punditry is something that we’ve all been sold, and we have all willingly bought. Those who continue to sell us that refrain of endless calamity and unrest are beginning to make some unwise moves in their game against us in their drive for endless profit. An almost seismic event has occurred and continues its up thrust right now through the bedrock of what it is to be a Californian, today, in the last days of winter, 2018. Like the Sierra Nevada and its 200-million-year quest skyward to wrestle its westward slope into an isolated paradise, a move that set California toward its own evolution of endemic identity, we are taking back what it is to be unified as Californians. I’ve been on book tour for the past six months and I’ve seen it from San Diego, to Fresno, to Quincy, to Arcata – we are waking up to the responsibilities that complement every single right that we enjoy, living in this, the most beautiful of all the world’s corners.

The California Field Atlas, my first major publication, has now sat in the number one bestseller position for paperback nonfiction across Northern California for ten weeks. In this reference book of several hundred of my hand-painted maps of the what I call the living networks of earth, air, fire and water, I present an inventory of conservation based on my five decades of hiking, dreaming, sweating, loving, and living in the state of my birth. If I could draw a hundred maps a day of California for the rest of my life, I would still be unable to tell the whole story that I want to tell, I could not sing all of California’s song of glory. I will go as far as I can: I’ve just signed into contract with HEYDAY books for the making of three more Field Atlases, to be called the California Lands Trilogy – the Forests of California will be here in the Fall of 2019 and then the Coasts of California and lastly the Desert of California will come a year after. Before I could get to those books, books that will go into unprecedented detail about the natural world of California – where it has been, where it continues, and where it will always be despite our successfully implemented, urban and agricultural veneer – I had a fourth book in me that needed to come out first: THE STATE OF WATER – a conservation Field Atlas to California’s most precious resource, and it will come out next spring.

I needed to get this book out first because 1) I needed to get it right in my mind and heart and 2) the world of California water deserves a new manifesto; how humans use California water can be terribly confusing as it exists in a labyrinth of convoluted allocations that are certainly, intentionally circuitous. I madly took it on myself to present a democratized reference book for the lay-person. I was talking with my editor about the book the other day, when we decided that it would come out next spring, and he suggested that I might need amend it, given how quickly the news changes these days. I told him that I am not going to need to – for those of us who study California water and California climate, and as it is, the idea behind my pending book: the next one hundred years are going to go one way and new water projects (of which we’ve got four proposed: 1. The Sites Project in the Sacramento Valley’s northwest corner 2. The Millennium Dam on the overtaxed Bear River 3. Temperance Flat on the San Joaquin and 4. The Governor’s so-called Water Fix – the Delta tunnels, or tunnel as it stands now) are not going to help. With one time-tested concept, we can enjoy the three pillars of water use (1. Agricultural, 2. Municipal and 3. Environmental) in this state long into the future – that concept is conservation. In THE STATE OF WATER, I take the seven key examples of how we have divvied California’s waterscape, how we dole it out, and even suggest a moderate plan for working it into a more efficient version of itself to better serve 22nd century needs.

Number one, I discuss the remove of the four dams on the Klamath river and its implications toward the recovery of our salmon populations. Number two, I discuss the Sacramento River, the dangerous, aging infrastructure of its tributaries and how an illegal move to raise the Shasta Dam by 18 feet should be met with fierce resistance. Number three, I discuss the San Joaquin River Restoration Project and how because of its efforts, we witnessed spring run Chinook Salmon spawn south of Friant dam for the first time in 60 years. Number four, I discuss the State water and the Central Valley projects as a networked system, who uses it and how we might be able to trim several million-acre feet from its per annum usage based on conservation technologies and practices. Number five, I discuss the Colorado River and the playground policies that govern its straggled and diminishing flow. Number six, I call the Salton Sea our State’s number one mess – our single most costly and important remediation emergency. And then number seven, unique in all the history of California Water, I call for the restoration of Hetch Hetchy Valley as the most symbolically important restoration project on the table today.

I foresee O’Shaughnessy Dam breached in my lifetime. I see San Franciscans embracing the water security offered by an already augmented San Pedro Dam, while rejecting the modicum of power offered by the three existing powerhouses upriver from San Pedro as falsely green as they have already been rejected as being ineligible for Governor Brown’s 2045 clean power mandate. I see San Francisco reclaiming its title, its identity as a truly green city, perhaps the first, historically self-identified green city, by throwing off this hypocrisy that it has lazily enjoyed for so long. I see the National Park Service supporting a no-brainer investment towards a pending windfall with this now uncovered treasure. Most importantly, in the restoration of Hetch Hetchy, I see the exciting work of hope kindled in a citizenry unafraid and un-shy to take back its legacy, uniting in a single voice to this keystone moment, indicative even of greater things to come.

I told my editor when we were talking about the book that one of the reasons that within two years, we won’t need a new amendment to the factual statements in the book, I thought of two metaphors – 1) that constantly paying mind to the deafening cycles of media news is akin to listening to the chatter of termites, behavior that might drive the bear mad were she not able to get to them. And 2) that we are talking about moving rivers – deep, long-cut entrenchments in the most incalcitrant landscapes of our society, and moving rivers takes time. One day you find that your maps are outdated, that public paradigms have pushed the old fences out to disfunction and we are then made free to enjoy the new freedoms of a restored landscape, both inner and outer, towards our relationship with each other, with the land and towards both the past and the future.

It is going to take a lot of work, but we are Californians and we are not afraid of work. I would like to offer one last metaphor before my parting words and I would like to offer it as a toast. Please raise you glass. Reaching the top of the mountain is a mixed victory, from up here we can see how far we have come, and yet we can also see how far we have to go. To all the mountain tops. Cheers.

I will leave you tonight with a brief poem I wrote backpacking the high country in Yosemite last year. I post a poem nearly every day, along with a painting or a picture of the landscape that I am in at COYOTETHUNDER on instagram.

It has been a hundred years that my heart was buried in the still water. Every evening at sunset I see a thousand cranes rise from the reservoir and on their wings, the valley empties. In the morning, the bear’s dream of their return with sapphire eyes uncut on salmon’s tooth. In a thousand years, the liquid granite will begin to forget the thirst stains marring the holy bowl across the outstretched song of the river, beneath the arboreal pulse of the restored place that was meant for sky, not flood.

Restore Hetch Hetchy, painted by Obi Kaufmann

Protecting the California Desert /// ANZA BORREGO DESERT STATE PARK

(note: below is an exerpt I gave to the ANZA BORREGO FOUNDATION gathering on March 3rd, 2018 in Borrego Springs, California. Scroll past that to read the transcript of my interview with KPBS in San Diego, regarding my visit to the desert and the California Field Atlas -Obi Kaufmann)

Obi Kaufmann on stage in Borrego Springs, March 2018
    • 1. Touching the sun in green and gold across the perfect angle of the creeping bajada on its one hundred thousandth birthday, with the equally ancient ocotillo-spire forest on its back, where all things move slow and even the crows hold a Pleistocene countenance.
  • Rain falling on the San Ysidro Mountains, Anza Borrego, spring 2018

    2. I feel returned to an older, more-quiet version of the human that is me. All the trapping saturations of my digital life desiccate quickly in the protected wind. I can hear what can be called the voice of ancestors – the gleaning of the human time-scale brushing against the geologic.

  • Poster, designed by Obi Kaufmann, now available at the Anza Borrego Foundation website,

    3. We carry into our future, after a century and a half in this place at least as many responsibilities as we do rights. This is our charge. We have the right to extract, but we have the responsibility to replenish. We have the right to develop, but we have the responsibility to restore. We have the right to occupy, but we have the responsibility to set aside. Stewardship is the active management of leaving the more-than-human world to its own functioning device.

    dawn across the Borrego Valley, San Diego county.

    4. The parade of challenges before us and this desert, from within and without is an easy course in despair. Indulging in such postures is not our luxury. Whether addressing a shrinking water table, water policy and conveyance itself, cripplingly expensive environmental remediation – tended to or not, or the machinations of bullying politicians and business men forwarding ecologically costly agendas, we shall push back, we shall abide. We shall do so because everywhere here we see treasure – its value glints off every, yellow creosote flower and in the wealth of distant coyote song that we hold in our walking bones. In its unlimited grace, the Sonora welcomes our respect and we have the right to protect the desert and we have the responsibility to protect the desert.

    Grapevine Canyon, Anza Borrego Desert State Park

    5. It was 11,000 years ago today that we killed the last mammoth and at that point, the 6th extinction (a planetary event caused by the coming of the modern homo sapiens) had been underway for 50,000 years. But now that all the systems associated with exponential population growth are beginning to exhibit bacterial patterns, we still hold our mammalian core and the philosophical apotheosis of that rise from consciousness, is choice. Here today and every day, we pledge to choose to protect and preserve and to restore these unbroken moments in our legacy landscape; we acknowledge that resource stores of endemic biodiversity, like the Colorado desert, deserve the greatest protection we can afford because this is our best bet – we have a real chance to do so, of leaving the 21st century in better shape than we left the 20th.

    Obi Kaufmann at Yaqui Pass

    6. If this is our age, let’s pull together our tools and our trust to make it grand enough, inclusive enough and resilient enough to hold, maintain and provide for our continued human residency for another ten-thousand years. Let’s allow our conversation to flow down that river in common praise for the California Floristic Province and at the confluence, welcome all wise and productive input, because the future is just as beautiful as we want it to be and our grandchildren’s grandchildren will thank us for the loving and trusting vision. <—>


February 28, 2018 4:36 p.m.

‘The California Field Atlas’ Is A Love Story To The State


Obi Kaufmann, author and illustrator, “The California Field Atlas”

Related Story: ‘The California Field Atlas’ Is A Love Story To The State


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors. To listen to the interview, link here. 

Maureen >> This is KPBS Midday Edition, I am Maureen Cavanaugh. It took a lifetime of traveling, camping, climbing, hiking, and loving California, to produce a comprehensive and amazing field guide to the state, it provides a wealth of information, as varied as maps of rivers and trails, geological faults, and mount line habitat, in addition to the facts and figures, it offers original sketches and watercolors on every page. It is called a love story, by the author, Obi Kaufman, author of the California field Atlas. Welcome.

Obi > Thank you.

Maureen >> At the beginning, you caution this is generally not able to sit down with and read, so how should it be used?

Obi > I would love if people would try to do that, but it is a very special person that is going to read this book from cover to cover, it is a reference manual, that I hope, I believe now, is unique. In that it is a field Atlas, which is the genre that I made up to describe a larger character of California, the natural world of California, that has always been here, continues to persist, and will always persist despite the veneer that we have imposed on California over the natural world, so successfully in the 21st century.

Maureen >> How would you describe the California field Atlas?

Obi > The first thing that you will notice probably as opposed to other atlases, there are no roads. I don’t draw a single row to my Atlas, that is because it doesn’t really fit the story. A road is just the shortest length between some human point a and human point be, right? — Human point A, and human point B, right? A watercourse, natural contours, there is a story there that is much more interesting. This Atlas is not going to help you if you are lost in the woods, either, that is not what this is about, this is about describing the larger natural forces in California, how they work across the state, and that is why it is divided up, the first few chapters, between earth, air, fire and water, the big orienting and shaping forces that I’m looking to describe.

Maureen >> Do you think most Californians realize how diverse the state is in terms of wildlife and landscape?

Obi > I think they do, or their waking up to it, I’ve been unable to her for for five months, what I’m seeing from Crescent City to San Diego and back, this electric network of people of people who are ready for this nature first kind of narrative, I think that is so inspiring, to me, almost as if we are yearning to be counted as part of California’s people as if we want to stand up and say, we belong to this land, it does not belong to us, it is almost like a paradigm shift, and I’m happy to see unfolding.

Maureen >> I am told that the state park holds a special place for you?

Obi > It does, I spent the first two years of my life in Los Angeles, my family would take me to the state park, the largest daypart, in what is generally referred to as the low desert, Colorado desert, and the Sonora desert, as opposed to the high desert, like the Mohave, Joshua tree, so different character, it is a beautiful character, when you think of the superlative that it offers, my own personal story, the wild flower blooming, taking off again now, and the bighorn sheep, small population hanging in there, the last population count, and the desert, Palm Springs themselves, that.the canyons up into and across the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, these oases, offering a habitat to an amazing and diverse portfolio of birds, mammals and flowers, implants, you would be surprised, most people think of it as a desolate place, but the desert spring is just so alive with an amazingly complex portfolio of biodiversity.

Maureen >> What kind of challenges do you see the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park facing?

Obi > We have conservation challenges coming from within and without, meaning that we have human challenges, namely political challenges, most notably probably the wall, which comes into and out of existence, I think, at least as far as the planning process goes, the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park shares a border with Mexico, and we know that if this wall actually happens, between the U.S. and Mexico, that it will spell the end of the bighorn sheep, for whom the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is named, they routinely cross the border on regular annual migration, and that would be a catastrophe. And we also have the problems of climate change and human induced inflection upon the water table underneath the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, on the surface, a very arid place, but just as recently as 100 years ago, if you were to dig a well, you would find the water table about 15 to 20 feet under the ground, a lot of water, now you have to go upwards of 200 feet down to find any water, so we have yet to see how this is going to affect the desert palm oases that I was talking about before. But they will be affected in the future, and what we need to do is we need to think of agriculture differently in the farrago Valley, — Barrego Valley, as we consider the options to make it happen to revivify the desert, and do it for generations to come.

Maureen >> As the author of the California field Atlas, where would you suggest residence, have not explored the area much, where would you say they should begin?

Obi > Such a wealth and diversity of natural landscapes to explore, if you haven’t yet, go north of the city, to the Torrey Pine reserve, which is perhaps the most where pine tree in the world, it is yours to protect, the only grow on the bluff on the coast, and to ponder the rarity and specialness of that pine tree, in that landscape is a wonder. I would also recommend if you’re looking for something a little bit more of interest, check out Palomar, into the national force there, the oak, white sage, landscape, up there, is really unique, and really represents this sort of mountainous border zone between what might be called a Mexican landscape or even a Northern California landscape, it is much different than the San Gabriel range, up north, you have some very interesting peninsular ranges down there, you settle into the Sonora desert. So your whole county is littered with the best, most beautiful, robust, adventure possibilities. Go out and check it out.

Maureen >> Author and illustrator, Obi Kaufmann, will be speaking about his book, the California field Atlas, at a series of events, including at the Borrego Springs next week.

Obi > See you out in the wild.


to order a signed copy of the California Field Atlas directly from the author, go to and follow Obi’s adventures on instagram @coyotethunder

Tour Notes from the Dry Winter of 2018

It is hard to know what to think of the weather. The warm and dry weather has us Californians fretting over living in a place that we have tricked now for over a century to think it is not truly the desert landscape that it is. We hope that March and April will give us all the precious preciptation we could use to make up the deficit that the last few months have failed to afford us. That being said, the first leg of this, my most recent book tour into Los Angeles and beyond, has been met with enthusiastic and attentive souls, all of whom seem so ready for this nature-first narrative that I present. I could not be more grateful for my reception again and again. I see our electric network and I can sense the paradigms shifting among our populace.

The book, my California Field Atlas climbed its way back to number one on the Northern California Nonfiction Bestseller List just in time for the latest printing to sell out again. The next printing is on its way although I’m now having to ration my own copies for the upcoming tour dates. I have removed the book for sale from the website, but if you are having problems finding one, I can be afford a few copies to send. Please let me know via email if you would like one: /// Obi


As I write these words, I am half way through a week of tour dates – please read on for a brief synopsis and some updates to my calendar. For a complete list of my calendar, please cruise over to I would like to thank the tremendously generous and insighful Lanny Kaufer of HERBWALKS for inviting me as his special guest this past Saturday as we surveyed the Ventura River two months after the monumental Thomas Fire. My notes of the scene: “This morning you could feel the sweet rain on its way. I was so happy and ready to spend it meeting an unprecedented network of connected spirits, now monitoring how all this dynamic, new-green is pushing up through the broken gray of a terrible fire two months back. The Ventura River watershed will recover and this precious place will regrow under the careful stewardship of all those capable hands and hearts I’ve met determined to make it so.” /// OBI

Let’s celebrate this triumph of restoration! The spring-run Chinook salmon may yet be returning to California’s San Joaquin River. I donated this painting to the @friendsoftheriver raffle-event one week ago in Coloma, where I’ll be presented the #californiafieldatlas at, at the Gold Trail Grange onHighway 49. Let us now, always work to restore the San Joaquin River, the second largest river in California. We are seeing promising signs that salmon can thrive in the river as hatchery fish are attaining new milestones. For the first time in sixty years, in 2017, spring-run Chinook salmon created their nests in the colder parts of the river below Friant Dam. By diverting most of the San Joaquin River for irrigation, since its building, the Friant Dam has caused about 60 miles (97 km) of the river to run dry. The fish last year successfully spawned, laying eggs that incubated and hatched into tiny fry as the sexually mature fish died. Biologists working with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s San Joaquin River Restoration Project have now begun to catch in order to study and release the juvenile fish in traps for the first time in November and December. These critically endangered, spring-run Chinook are successfully reproducing in the embattled, and itself endangered, San Joaquin. The desiccation of the river has caused the degradation of large stretches of riverside habitat and marshes, and has nearly eliminated the historic chinook salmon run that once numbered “possibly in the range of 200,000 to 500,000 spawners annually”. Now as we glare at our ability to destroy we see an new road, a new dawn toward our ability to participate in creation and preservation across new vistas of restoration and conservation.

to continue now, the tour notes – On Saturday, I was welcomed at one of my very favorite motor inns in California, the Ojai Rancho Inn by my dear friends Chris and Chelito (pictured on either side of me, above) and their small retail space in the motel’s lobby, called Eskina. Masterful purveryors of style and grace (both social and design), Chris and Chelito have in Eskina, a retail-habitat that I could not be more proud to present the Atlas in.

Yesterday, I brought the #californiafieldatlas to @2ndhandrevival in Eagle Rock. I’m so proud to be included among this excellent creative community and to have been asked by our host @hodism to once again paint the invitational poster.

Tonight, I will be presenting at the Audubon Center at Debs Park.

I am so proud to support my friends at the @mojavedesertlandtrust. The MDLT works hard across a whole spectrum of conservation activism. Their agenda includes not only affecting policy change by defending the California Desert Protection Act from the thieving attempts of the executive branch of our current, federal government – they work every day at restoring the natural features and habitats of the Mojave: planting desert plants which they grow themselves and tearing up roads on private inholdings that they have purchased, remediated and plan on managing for public use. I will be there on Saturday the 17th to help kick off the #desertlovers campaign with the #californiafieldatlas. The original of this painting will be raffled off then as well, again as always – to support the great work they do.

I have a new map of the watersheds and watercourses of the San Francisco Peninsula – please go check it out now at In collaboration with the @peninsulaopenspacetrust, the map will be printed as a poster in the next month or so. As with all my maps I see it as my duty and my honor as a painter, a cartographer and a naturalist, to present as clearly as I can what is effectively an inventory of conservation. We have to know what there is to defend in order to conserve it at all. I am sure that by presenting this information in a beautiful, simplified, graphically-efficient manner, the well-rendered, handpainted map can be a vehicle for what is certainly no less than a fundamental, consciousness shift. By familiarizing ourselves with the larger geography of the natural world and its living systems that support and sustain us, our value perceived towards those systems begins to warp into a more organic paradigm; a new paradigm that the stressed and exploited resource-systems that we rely on need for us to immediately adopt. In that spirit of geographic literacy and with assured hope that simply by learning, by naming and by apprehending how and where these local, living networks interact, our love and respect for them grows.

In my most honest moments when my eyes become birds with tiny wings and big songs and when the roots of the friendly oaks find my heart and wrap it in paper for the wind, I throw off the rest of my skin with the leaves and take to the raccoon trails. The mushrooms pop up through the earth with bassoons burping as I count the fallen willow flowers with coyote’s nose, from one to the next, I sailed past the abandoned math on a broken bit of lichen thread with only the assurance that I got from blatherings of the silver creek that the best of use of all language is given to the winter mud where the seeds inside can bake and wait until they’re damn good and ready.

Geographic Literacy & the Watersheds of the Peninsula

I often say that I don’t have any prophetic truths about where and how the state of California conservation and ecology is going to unfold in the next 100 years. We are entering a time dominated by ecological chaos on many levels of scale, all stemming from and around the inter-human (meaning here, the effects of a global human population of 10 billion) and the intra-human (meaning here, the systems and policies we as the community of California citizens choose to enact and defend). Whatever help I can be and it is my solemn honor to do so, as a painter, a cartographer and a naturalist, is to present as clearly as I can what is effectively, an inventory of conservation. We have to know what there is to defend in order to conserve it at all. I am sure that by presenting this information in a beautiful, simplified, graphically-efficient manner, the well-rendered, handpainted map can be a vehicle for what is certainly no less than a fundamental, consciousness shift.

Working draft of the Watersheds of the Peninsula for the POST (the Peninsula Open Space Trust) by Obi Kaufmann – @coyotethunder on instagram.

By removing the roads and by essentializing a nature-first narrative, we place ourselves and our anthro-aggrandizing human network in what is perhaps a humbler context, a larger ecosystem of necessarily networked forces. By familiarizing ourselves with the larger geography of the natural world and its living systems that support and sustain us, our value perceived towards those systems begins to warp into a more organic paradigm; a new paradigm that the stressed and exploited resource-systems that we rely on need for us to immediately adopt. In that spirit of geographic literacy and with assured hope that simply by learning, by naming and by apprehending how and where these local, living networks interact, our love and respect for them grows, I present my latest map: a collaboration with the PENINSULA OPEN SPACE TRUST. With love and respect for conservation comes legal defense, political will and a society-changing world view, that once fully embraced will protect not only whatever it is we choose to protect, but may just afford our complicated little species the grace it needs to navigate through the coming decades of chaos.

Watersheds and Watercourses of the San Francisco Peninsula. The map will be published as a poster in 2018 and be made available through the Peninsula Open Space Trust. By Obi Kaufmann

Covering approximately 1,100 square miles (over 700,000 acres), the land area described on this map holds more than 2,000 miles of watercourse across 67 primary creeks, streams and rivers within 58 watersheds.

A watershed is a geographically discreet zone defined by how the contour of its local geologic morphology (the shape of the land) and its hydrology (the way the water moves across the land) work around a common draining watercourse (creek, stream, river) or aquifer (groundwater).

The dominant land feature across the San Francisco’s southern peninsula, called the Peninsula, is the Santa Cruz Mountains. Separating the San Francisco Bay from the Pacific Ocean, the mountains rise to a maximum height of 3,806 feet at Loma Prieta. The Santa Cruz mountains extend across three counties: San Mateo, Santa Cruz and Santa Clara. The west face of the range is home to the largest, intact and continuous stands of old-growth Redwood forest south of San Francisco. Riparian habitat of this kind (redwood dominant, mixed conifer and bay) is common along steep basins saddling both sides of the northern, coastal-end of the range. Other regular ecological habitat along these diverse, coastal mountains includes Oak woodland, Montane hardwood, coastal dunes, chaparral, coastal sage scrub, Bay wetland, vernal-pool grassland, cattle rangeland and of course the human ecologies of the greater Silicon Valley, coastal communities, Santa Clara Valley and Santa Cruz. The Peninsula is home to nearly one hundred endangered species of plants and animals.

About the Peninsula Open Space Trust

The Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) has protected over 75,500 acres of open space, farms and parkland since its founding in 1977. In that time, POST has developed a proven methodology for successful land protection by purchasing the land and placing permanent protection on it through conservation easements. Once the protection work is complete POST continues to take care of the land in perpetuity.

Land conservation means not only protecting the land, but keeping it in good condition, too.  POST’s stewardship team uses both traditional and innovative techniques for evaluating, prioritizing and caring for open space on each POST owned property. POST’s work ranges from essential maintenance like re-grading roads, fixing fences and managing vegetation for fire control, to ambitious long-term restoration projects that create vibrant habitats for native plants and wildlife. Other examples include invasive weed eradication, developing new trails, reviving river, stream and creekside habitats, and managing productive working lands like ranches, farms and forests.

POST’s scope of work also includes providing assistance with working lands management, protecting natural resources and providing recreation activities for everyone.

Working lands include farms, forests and grazing land. POST projects promote productive use of these lands while protecting and enhancing natural resources.  Recent projects include managed grazing, water infrastructure improvements and selective timber harvesting.

We work in partnership with public agencies and private owners to protect natural resources: the flora, fauna, water, air and soil that exist on all POST protected properties. We raise money through grants and donations to eradicate invasive plants, restore riparian habitats and native grasslands, ensure fish and wildlife passage and prevent soil erosion.

When well managed, recreational activities like hiking, biking, and horseback riding provide people with the chance to build a healthy connection to the land while also protecting the natural resources on each property.  We work with public and private partners to plan and build trails, while protecting the most sensitive environments.

Portrait of the artist Obi Kaufmann at Butano State Park.

My Favorite Books of the Year

My favorite books of the year
By Obi Kaufmann

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My favorite books of 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Seeing Forever
My eyes, my eyes
I offer you.

Seeing Truth
My eyes, my eyes
I offer you.

Seeing Lies
My eyes, my eyes
I offer you.

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

-Greg Sarris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not least for those who are called foreigners,

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

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

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