When author Obi Kaufmann learned to backpack hiking on the California coast three decades ago, he felt that nature was something that had happened in the past. Off the coast there were no more otters or humpback whales in the water, no peregrine falcons or eagles hovering overhead. Moose no longer roamed the forests and condors were practically extinct.
Kaufmann, 47, a naturalist and self-described data-driven artist, recently experienced a recurring dream that is in stark contrast to this old one Reality. In the dream he is not sure whether he is old or young, in the future or in the past. It walks along the Sacramento River, which is 35 miles wide and so full of salmon it glistens in the sun. As he walks upriver next to the fish, he sees wildflowers on the hills, insects enlivening the air, and birds gathering in such numbers that they obscure the sky. It is a vision of abundance and possibility, and the dream ends when it reaches the headwaters, the nexus of the fishing life cycle.
Kaufmann shares this dream at the beginning of his voluminous opus of a new book, The Forests of California, which was published in September. The genre-wide work combines scientific writing, handwritten prose poetry and Kaufmann’s open-air watercolors and is intended to be a means of deepening environmental expertise. It is also an invitation to travel – in perspective – from Kaufmann’s understanding of nature as a child to the vision of the promise anchored in his dream of adulthood.
“I think we as humans long for a better story,” says Kaufmann. “And my whole job is to start with a better story about how beautiful this moment is … It’s a moment of transformation and a moment of emergency.”
The most alluring non-fiction books offer the reader the opportunity to inhabit the author’s worldview. In this year of near-biblical catastrophe, from the coronavirus pandemic to California’s first recorded gigafire – a million-acre wildfire – Kaufmann’s hopeful, comprehensive view is so appealing it almost feels like a guilty pleasure. He claims a kind of “stubborn optimism”. For every point of despair, he has a point of hope. He likes to say that “people protect what they love and people love what they know,” and it follows from this that we need to start with the facts and a better story in which to organize them.
The Forests of California provides hand-drawn maps, diagrams, and vignettes of flora and fauna, but is not a field guide or textbook. Kaufmann is more concerned with the relationships between things and the way systems work than with broadly answering the questions of what, where, and when (but the book contains those details, too). For example, we will learn about the ponderosa pine and the species it takes in as neighbors and the role that palm oases play in the context of the desert. Kaufmann is also open to infusing the book with his own cognitive tendency to celebrate beauty. “I won’t leave you alone with the information like a good textbook should,” he says. “This is a story of a man who has dedicated his entire life to this thing he loves most in the universe, the natural world of California.”
(Photo: Courtesy Obi Kaufmann)
If you are reading this book, please take your time. It is densely packed with art that invites you to linger and details that come from scientific work these are distilled into pithy and informative tidbits. (Did you know that the Sierra Nevada has the highest levels of mammalian demism on the continent? Or that one tablespoon of forest floor currently has more microbial creatures than humans?)
Even as a non-Californian, I found the presentation of text and art fascinating. It felt natural to extrapolate Kaufman’s way of understanding forest contexts in order to broaden my understanding of my own landscape in southwest Colorado – and my relationship with it. His enthusiasm drains away even in the most factual sections of the book, which made reading a pleasure, especially in this time of catastrophic change.
Kaufmann has published two similar books in the past few years, The California Field Atlas and the State of Water: Understanding California’s Most Precious Resource. This latest book on forests is the first in a series of so-called field atlases covering a variety of natural resources of the state. The Coasts of California and the Deserts of California will be released in the spring and fall of 2021. Another volume, The State of Fire: Understanding Why, Where, and How California Burns will follow in 2022.
To meet his production schedule, Kaufmann borders on obsession and wakes up at 4:30 a.m. to go to work. As a former tattoo artist and the son of a psychologist and astrophysicist, he is prone to long philosophical monologues. With a gray John Muir-like beard and a penchant for linen jackets, pocket vests, and felt hats, he seems to have stepped out of the 19th century. (He often sleeps with his rucksack under a blanket.)
This year has been an especially challenging time for California, between the pandemic, civil unrest in response to longstanding racial injustices, and forest fires, but Kaufmann is glad Forests has now come out. While his books have been well received, he occasionally encounters readers who regard his optimism as naive. He replies that even in these challenging times, cynicism is a renunciation of a person’s social responsibility.
“It’s a luxury and a pleasure, a privilege,” he says. “There is nothing left but to be optimistic. That being said, there’s this really important benefit to go for, which is that when a lot of people hear optimism they think idealism. They think I’m not really facing the facts – although my working definition of optimism is the process of facing the facts with open eyes. ”
The basis for effective action is to cultivate a real love for the place and an understanding of one’s own part in the networked totality of the environment and to be informed where one’s elixir of data-driven art, cartography, and mystical poetry comes in.
He believes that despite the strain on the state’s natural resources, there is a way to leave the 21st century with nature in better shape than at the beginning of the 20th century. In his previous book tours, and now at online events, he’s encouraged to meet people who are motivated, if discouraged, to face California’s environmental challenges. They come up to him after talking with big eyes and white knuckles.
“You are almost begging, ‘Obi, what can I do for this thing, this feeling that nature is disappearing or that we’ve already screwed things up completely?’” He says. “I always answer that kind of question with a question back like, ‘Well, when was the last time you went to the campsite?'”
It’s often been a while. Therefore, with worried faces, he asks readers to put everything down and reconnect with the natural world, not just as an escape, but as fuel for action and political will. Walk through the woods, valleys and mountains, he tells them. Take off your boots and dip your feet in the rivers. Feel the breeze. “Whatever happens next,” he says, “we need you grounded, we need you connected, we need you without panic. Because we have a long way to go and we will need everyone – and I mean everyone. ”
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Main Photo: Courtesy Obi Kaufmann
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