Field Notes: Obi Kaufmann on A Better Story

It feels a bit backward to be interviewing Obi Kaufmann—painter, naturalist, and poet—over the phone.

Being an individual I’ve wanted to interview for some time, I figured that our chat would take place somewhere picturesque—at the foot of Mt. Tam or some backcountry hike in the East Bay, surrounded by a grove of redwoods or coastal live oaks. But alas, the pandemic prevails.

So we chat over the phone. From my apartment window, I can make out just the barest shape of the Marin Headlands; I focus on those as he speaks. 

The painter, naturalist, and poet that is Obi Kaufmann knows the state of California like the back of his hand, and he’s focused his time and talent on bringing that wilderness to life through a series of unparalleled, highly detailed “field atlases.” The tomes themselves are extensively researched and visually robust. They’re a study in the way beauty can be matched by functionality, each aspect buttressing the other. 

Kaufmann’s original work, The California Field Atlas, was published in 2017 by Heyday Press in Berkeley. The thick, painstakingly illustrated resource caught the eyes of nature lovers and proud California citizens alike. The atlases began to fly off the shelves of independent bookstores, Kaufmann began touring the state speaking about nature and ecology, and since then the ball has kept rolling. He’s since published two other books, The State of Water and most recently The Forests of California, with several more additions forthcoming, covering topics such as California coasts, deserts, and fires. 


Kaufmann in the wild sketching. Photo courtesy of Obi Kaufmann.Kaufmann in the wild sketching. Photo courtesy of Obi Kaufmann.

Kaufmann in the wild sketching. Photo courtesy of Obi Kaufmann.

 “I came out of the gate inventing a new genre, because I didn’t see a format that would thematically hold my own ‘brand,’ if you will,” he explains. “The field atlas is somewhere between a field guide and a road atlas. But it is also neither of those things. A field guide is really interested in the “what” of things. A road atlas is really concerned with the “where” of things. Now, I’m not really concerned with the “where” of things, which is a funny thing to say for a thing calling itself an atlas. But I’m not telling anyone how to get anywhere.”

Instead, Kaufmann specializes in showing readers what is there. 

The deeply complex, endlessly interconnected networks of wilderness that are, in the truest sense, California. The California before we called it anything, the California that has steadily moved and changed with the greater natural forces of earth, for thousands of years. The scuff marks we humans make on the state? That’s not his concern. 

“That is not the character of California that I am going for,” he says. “In fact, it’s one I largely intentionally leave out, namely the human infrastructure of transportation specifically, where we’ve sort of imposed our concrete jacket across the topography.”

He’s very good with these phrases. “Concrete jacket” is such a powerful image. I imagine California shrugging off a stifling blazer. Later he says, “Let’s pretend we were to tighten up the viewshed of history.” Then, he muses that he’d like to think of himself as a “Chronographer,” someone who studies deep time. And with phrases like this I don’t need to be out in nature to see what he’s talking about. I can see the landscape and its organisms mapping themselves out like the pages of his books, specific and thoughtful, drawn by a caring and considerate hand. 

This intimate, innate kinship with nature began when he was young. With a psychologist mother and astrophysicist father, it appears that perhaps deep, spatial thinking comes with the Kaufmann territory. When his family moved to the Bay Area when he was a young boy, he became acquainted with the mountain that would ultimately shape his future. 

“Mount Diablo came to be for me, and still is to this day, what I believe the whole cosmos was for my father,” he muses. “This metaphor for nature, or more specifically, how to look at nature, and how to understand yourself through it. So that was a sublimating process where the door to becoming an artist opened.”

The art was always at the forefront, the specific access point by which he could parlay and translate nature itself. 

“That’s my first identity, and it’ll probably be my last,” he continues. “ I’m a painter. My dad wanted to mold me to become a mathematician. It was two hours of calculus homework every night in high school, but then I went down to Santa Barbara for school and spent most of my time skipping class and backpacking in the Los Padres National Forest, the Santa Ynez Mountains.”


Kaufmann painting from his outdoor adventures. Photo courtesy of Obi Kaufmann.Kaufmann painting from his outdoor adventures. Photo courtesy of Obi Kaufmann.

Kaufmann painting from his outdoor adventures. Photo courtesy of Obi Kaufmann.

In these mountains, he sought out and was particularly moved by the artwork of the Chumash People, a tribe of Native Americans once primarily located throughout the California coastlands and adjacent inland areas from Malibu to Estero Bay, as well as on the three northern Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara. 

“The most amazing, strange, to my eye anyway, artwork that still inspires me to this day to do what I do,” he says. “Of all the Native American nations, the Chumash had the most evolved sense of formalist style, colorist composition, and depth of narrative that is so beautiful that it is arresting.”

But it transcended aesthetics, and that was perhaps the most striking aspect to Kaufmann—the relationship between artist and community is so very apparent in these works of art: “There’s this artist who is translating to their community this atonement, this relationship with the more than human world, the natural world, of which we are all apart, using a very specific and culturally sophisticated lexicon of symbols, colors, and compositions that is akin to the experience of truth. Right?”

Right. 

The act of imparting truth and knowledge of the natural world is the first and most crucial step in collectively recognizing this natural world, and when we recognize things we begin to understand them. When we understand things, we gain the ability, the privilege, to really love them. And perhaps even greater than that, we do right by them. This past year, we saw California erupt like a powder keg. We’ve seen less rain than we’d like to (what’s new?), and we’ve lost land and biodiversity to tragic disasters. With all that, what route does a naturalist take to galvanize the concerned and dejected? 

“When I wrote ‘State of Water,’ the implication of course was that water was the state’s most precious resource, but after touring that book up and down the state I found that it’s not water at all,” he explains. “Our most precious resource is our ability to talk to one another, to listen, to regard each other with respect.”

It’s largely been this process of outreach and involvement in the community through his books that has further informed Kaufmann’s optimism and dedication to storytelling, to science, and to the future of California wildlife. At the root of the success of this movement, however, is a necessary overhaul of how people communicate with one another about the things that urgently matter.

“The old school boomer media is the ‘talking head’ and the ‘talking point,’” he adds. “That somehow through better sophistry we might chart the course of civilization, but that’s not how the human brain works. In fact, the only thing that has ever changed anybody’s mind is not a better argument, it’s a better story. So let’s tell a better story.”

The better story is always one that makes room for more, as opposed to limiting us to less. More biodiversity, more diversity in general makes for a richer community, makes for a stronger entity. We’ve made the land political through our own systems

It is not a naturally political thing. It’s where we often go in order to escape things like politics and society’s baggage. But our relationship with it is, after all, two-sided—and the more we take from it without foresight of that greed implies, the less of it we will be able to engage with in the future. It’s a simple enough equation, though still it appears we haven’t mastered it. Yet, Kaufmann believes there is hope to be had on that front as well. 

“We have not incompetent leadership in Sacramento right now,” he expands “We have a plan whereby we turn the world’s 6th largest economy, the 3 trillion dollar GDP that is California, completely carbon neutral by the year 2045. You can go get that PDF right now, it’s online, it’s called ‘Getting to Neutral.’ We’re on our way, we have a plan. And it reads to my mind not unlike poetry.”

Towards the end of our chat, he says something that leaves me a touch stunned: 

“Nature does not resent you.”

I consider how often I look at the land and can only think of the exhausting multitude of ways we’ve done wrong by it. For all its beauty, I’ve at times affixed a wariness to it, assuming it cannot help but see through us, wish to discard us, find us unnecessary. 

“[Resentment] is the language of human sentience.”

And it is. But it is not our only language, it is thankfully not our only mode of understanding. Anyone who has read or will read Kaufmann’s field atlases has already veered toward a path of consilience with the outside, natural world. And it’s a big world, it’s an inclusive one. And we are naturally part of it, whether or not we have recently stopped to consider that truth or not. 

To state the obvious, current times are wild, they are lonely, they simply aren’t very fair. 

The pandemic has been the icing on the cake, the smothering force sealing in our learned behavior of the past years. It takes an act of bravery to see beyond the convoluted, messy layers of that. It takes an act of bravery and a kind of earthly steadiness to see beyond things like failure, loss, fires, floods, and extinction. This particular strain of bravery, however, is the first and foremost resource needed. Because to be able to imagine a world of natural surplus, of natural plenty, is the only way to ever get there. 

// Obi Kaufmann is the author of three books, The California Field Atlas, The State of Water, and The Forests of California. His forthcoming book, The Coasts of California, is due out in April 2022 by Heyday Press. Photography courtesy of Obi Kaufmann.


Field Notes: Obi Kaufmann on A Better Story
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