“This is a love story.”
So begins Obi Kaufmann’s The California Field Atlas (Heyday), an illustrated guide to the natural world of California that sat atop the San Francisco Chronicle’s nonfiction bestseller list for six months in 2017, and then spawned a series —the fourth volume of which The Coasts of California was published in April, with two more to come in 2023 and 2024. In California, the Bay Area-based naturalist, painter and writer has found a muse, a mission, a miracle and a lifelong companion. It is a subject so vast and complex—more biodiverse than any other province of North America, according to Kaufmann—that he holds no illusions about exhausting it. He simply hopes to do it justice.
Kaufmann laughingly calls his attempts to cover the scope of California’s ecosystems—the series currently includes The Forests of California (2020) and The State of Water: Understanding California’s Most Precious Resource (2019)—“fantastic failures,” and says he is “totally fine with that.” But this presumes a reader comes to them with certain expectations in the first place. I think it is safe to say that when one pores over the nearly 650-page Coasts of California—filled with vivid watercolor illustrations of flora and fauna and exquisite vistas and scenes, in addition to hand-colored maps of everything from coastal wildflower blooms to amphibian habitats to oceanic chlorophyll concentrations combined with painstakingly researched facts and histories—Kaufmann’s knowledge of and respect for these myriad forms of life cannot help but spark one’s own spirit of inquiry and adventure.
As an author, Kaufmann has not taken a day off in years. “It is both the hardest and clearly, the best job I’ve ever had,” he says. “That’s because it’s not a job at all, it’s a vocation. It’s tending to that love.” And that is pretty much his motivation for creating the Field Atlas series in the first place. “I’m not writing these books from the standpoint of an expert, to deliver them to academics,” Kaufmann says. “I’m writing these books for my peers, the people who share this love and affection with me and want to come along on this journey.”
The “Field Atlas” is a genre of Kaufmann’s making. “It’s not a field guide, which is really about the what of things. And a road atlas would be about the where of those things,” he says. “I am more concerned with the how of space and time within a natural context. There are no roads, no directions. There’s no tour guide, but it is a companion to those who wish to be more from this place.”
Born in Hollywood, William “Obi” Kaufmann was raised by a clinical psychologist mother, Dr. Jeffre Talltrees, and an astrophysicist father, Dr. William J. Kaufmann III, who was the director of the Griffith Observatory from 1970-74 and wrote a number of popular textbooks that are still in use today. Kaufmann received important strategies from each parent: from his father, he inherited a love of reading and research and learned to use science to uncover truths about the world, and from his mother, he learned how story can help a person understand their place in the world.
The family moved to Danville, a town in northern California near Mt. Diablo, when Kaufmann was five. It was there he began to forge his deep connection to the natural world. “Dr. Kaufmann’s son was certainly going to be a mathematician,” he says, and he did have a knack for numbers. But when he was finished with his high school calculus homework, he “took to the hills, almost as an antidote that I found quite complementary on a philosophical level, if not even a technical level.” While hiking the trails near his home, Kaufmann started making maps of local creeks and forests. He also began daily practices of reading, writing, painting and walking that continue to this day.
“I grew up in a space that was dominated by a largely materialistic view of the world,” he says. “And yet, there was this singing, really, from the depths of what was to become me, that expressed itself through, among other things, painting. Painting birds, painting the landscape, and interacting with the topography across the natural world, which manifested in the creation of these maps—as if there was a story there, as if there was a narrative taking place.”
As is true of most maps and good stories, Kaufmann’s path was a winding one. He studied art at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and then, back in the Bay Area, worked as a tattoo artist for a while. His heavily inked skin reflects this period, but even a glance at his tattoos shows where his heart was all along, with a bee on the back of one hand, the words “WILD” and “LIFE” stamped across his knuckles, and “Coyote Thunder”—which was inspired by a Barry Lopez collection of Native American creation myths and is also his Instagram handle—scripted over his other hand. His passions came together in his position as “Chief Storyteller” for the wildcrafted fragrance company Juniper Ridge—a job that involved packaging design and branding, but also, foraging for aromatic plants and bark.
Over the course of it all, he tracked thousands of miles across California. “The deserts, the mountains, the coasts, all of it,” Kaufmann says. Always, these walks were accompanied by reading, writing and painting. “I have found that there is an equivalency between these activities. And investigating that, the seed of a book on California was planted inside me a long time ago.”
The California Field Atlas began to take form as “boxes of paintings and scribbled notes,” Kaufmann recalls. It wasn’t until he hit upon the elemental axis of earth, air, fire and water as an organizing structure, that the concept truly coalesced. From this nexus of art and science, his unique perspective could come through. He worked closely with graphic designer Ashley Ingram to make a book in which every page “dripped with color and soul.”
Ultimately, the Field Atlas is an artfully made and rapturously told fact-based survey of California’s different geographic features, ecosystems and species. Readers were thirsty to connect in these meaningful ways, and Heyday literally could not print books fast enough. “There was a live wire there,” Kaufmann notes. “This was just when Trump got elected. I think there was almost a backlash effect, people searching for answers about what might be true, where some applied course correction might come from.”
Subsequent volumes hone in on the different “physiographic provinces” of California. The State of Water is focused on storage, usage and conveyance. The Forests of California is built around the idea of California’s “arboreal body.” The Deserts of California, currently in the works, will be organized around 75 different desert wilderness areas. The State of Fire: How, Where, and Why California Burns will cap off the series. As each book allows him to engage more deeply with the landscape, so does Kaufmann’s level of inquiry into what he calls “geographic literacy”—literally, reading the land to answer questions like, “Who are my true neighbors? What is a native plant versus an invasive plant? What is the texture of the environment, and how do all these systems work around my space?”
There are certain criteria each book must meet—biosurveys that check all the major classes and orders, for example. “But when I’m in the depths of it, even into printing,” says Kaufmann, “I will still wake up in a cold sweat, thinking, oh god, did I forget Monterey?” (For the record: he did not.) But however it shakes out, he says, “I have faith that it will fall together, not fall apart.”
Kaufmann’s work comes from a place of generosity, care and dedication that is almost religious in nature. To see his fine, italicized handwriting identifying an Amaryllis belladonna flower, a spiny lobster or any of the hundreds of living beings he renders with his paintbrush, or scripting an ode to the last California grizzly which begins, “I was born with a bear-size hole inside me,” is to understand how deeply invested he is in his subject. He may not like to call himself an expert, but his ability to see California from so many angles—from the tectonic plates that formed it, to the “alliance patterns” between species of coastal trees that illuminate nature’s infinite relationships, to the role of justice (ecological, racial and economic) in the future of biodiversity—helps us to open our own eyes. This makes him more than an expert; it makes him a teacher.
Coasts, by definition, follows a more linear path—North to South, from the borders of Oregon to Mexico—but it is not a simpler journey. Kaufmann divides California’s 1200 miles of shoreline into what he calls a “many-faceted diamond” of 24 coasts, from Del Norte to San Diego. The book’s central chapter, “A Good, Long Walk,” offers a meandering guide to the many ways one can explore each coast, with information about state parks, beaches, wildlife areas, notable ecological landmarks, local industries and more.
Other chapters investigate the physics of ocean tides, waves, and wind; California’s islands, estuaries, and dunes; the myriad coastal habitats and creatures that comprise the state’s biodiversity; and, of course, the climate breakdown we are experiencing so acutely in California. (Kaufmann uses the term “climate breakdown” over “climate change,” because, as he explains, the climate is always changing—warming and cooling until, roughly four billion years from now, our star, the Sun, will reach the end of its life cycle and it will shrink and grow hotter until it evaporates all the oceans on earth. However, what we are seeing today in terms of overall warming represents deviations from standard cycles.)
The titles of the “California lands trilogy”—Forests, Coasts and Deserts—are a nod to John Muir’s 1894 book, The Mountains of California. But despite their shared passions and a similar appearance thanks to their voluminous beards, to call Kaufmann a “21st century John Muir” (as more than a few have done) misses the mark. Widely revered, Muir was actually problematic on many levels, says Kaufmann—most importantly because, “despite whatever good intentions he had, conservation policies that he initiated displaced and continue to displace Indigenous Californians.”
What we think of as “Indigenous California nature,” Kaufmann continues, “is intrinsically, inexorably, necessarily tied to Indigenous culture. What the Spaniards encountered across California, the landscape itself, was a landscape that had been tended for dozens of millenia.”
In this context, a word that seems completely benign, like wilderness, has negative implications for many Indigenous cultures across California. “Wilderness is something that the land reverts to when it is not cared for,” Kaufmann says. “Many 20th century conservation policies emphasized the sequestration of the natural world to protect it from humanity, and that was really a misstep in many regards … We might need to adjust how we see development at all, and enter into a mutual relationship with it. We’ve left it alone, now, and how disastrous is that, in the era of megafires?”
One of the most pivotal chapters of Coasts, “Policies and Protections,” gets into the specifics of conservation. It features maps of land trusts, wildlife refuges, marine protected areas and more, along with a guide to different agencies, and an extensive timeline of environmental policy and legislation since 1849, culled from scores of government agency websites, books and documents. A sampling: In 1872, the Yellowstone Act established the first national park; the Rivers and Harbors Act, in 1899, was the first federal environmental law; the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918 restricted poaching. Los Angeles led the nation’s first air pollution agency in 1947; the California Beverage Container Recycling and Litter Reduction Act was established in 1986, and so on, leading up to California’s 2020 commitments to carbon neutrality by 2045, and to conserving 30% of the state’s land and waters by 2030.
“This is a map of sorts, but it’s a map through time, not space,” Kaufmann says. “There have been lists of dates in my books before, but this one is the biggest and the most in depth.” As far as criteria for inclusion, “I tried to focus on laws that were for the most part well-written, enforceable and effective. We are good in California at making laws that aren’t any of those.”
In the last 20 years or so, he points to marine protection areas as places where the benefits are most clearly quantifiable in terms of population numbers and other ways systems of life are measured. “It certainly shows that these MPAs are working well and doing what they need to do, and expanding.”
As a teenager backpacking Big Sur, Kaufmann remembers when there were no whales in the sea and no condors in the sky. But today, he says, “I could list about two dozen species, including Tule elk, and White-tailed American kites, that have resurged in the last 40 years because of good policy, and, quite frankly, because of love and a reconnection to the sacred thing that is California.”
In fact, two California condors were recently released into the wild in Redwood National Park, as part of a reintroduction program led by the Yurok Tribe, for whom the condor is sacred. “For the first time in a hundred years, North America’s largest terrestrial bird is flying over the world’s tallest forest,” Kaufmann marvels. “What a symbol of hope, [and] how emblematic is that of what can be done, and how we are engaging the systems of regeneration writ large across all aspects of our precious biodiversity.”
This year on Earth Day, one day after yet another mountain lion was struck and killed while trying to cross a California freeway, there was a groundbreaking ceremony for the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing, which will bridge ten lanes of the 101 into the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. Kaufmann was the artist-in-residence for the National Wildlife Federation, one of the event’s organizers, and he calls this “a huge victory. It is a piece of connective infrastructure that will guarantee, all things being equal, the continued existence at all of the Southern California population of mountain lions. In two years, when it is finished, it will be the largest wildlife crossing in the world. And again, what a symbol of hope!”
He adds that Governor Newsom has committed to building many more wildlife crossings across freeways around California, and that new legislation will require highways and roads to include wildlife corridor access from the design phase. Kaufmann considers this “extremely heartening for new priorities, new stewardship, and new management.”
Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of Kaufmann’s message is that his hope is scalable; he can find it in a multi-million-dollar feat of engineering, or in a handful of forest soil, which—he informs with the reverence that infuses much of his speech—contains a greater number of microorganisms than people who have ever walked the earth. Filmmaker Alice Gu captures Kaufmann’s wide-eyed wonder in Walk With Obi, a short film made to celebrate the publication of Coasts that screened during several book launch events and is available on Vimeo.
The director of the 2020 documentary The Donut King and a longtime surfer, Gu enlisted fellow surfers and storytellers, Jamie Brisick and Chris Malloy, to, yes, “walk with Obi” in dialog as a way to “pluralize the voice,” as Kaufmann puts it. Brisick, a writer, and Malloy, a filmmaker and land steward, each bring their own relationship with the ocean to the conversation, and all three men “meet”—literally and philosophically—at the shore.
Malloy and Kaufmann walk and talk along a dry creek bed in Ojai, on land that has been in Malloy’s family since the 19th century. The two discuss the relationship between knowing and loving something, which engenders the impulse to protect that thing—namely, nature. At the end of the afternoon, Gu reveals, Malloy gifted Kaufmann a pair of binoculars that had been given to him by Kris Tompkins, widow of The North Face founder Doug Tompkins. This generous gesture didn’t make it into the final cut of Gu’s impressionistic, contemplative film, but “it was a beautiful moment,” she says, “and I think it’s a testament to how special that day was for everybody.”
Kaufmann and Brisick travel by boat to the Channel Islands, which Kaufmann calls “our Galapagos,” noting that there are hundreds of species that only exist on this eight-island archipelago off the coast of Ventura. As Kaufmann joyfully points out island buckwheat, sage, hummingbirds, sparrows and an endemic island scrub jay whose bright blue wings had him awestruck, Brisick remarks on his own tendency, as a surfer, to head straight for the water, missing all the details in which Kaufmann finds pattern and story. But then Brisick catches sight of a fox, which happens to be one of the species that has resurged with vigor on the Channel Islands over the last 20 years. Later, sitting at a picnic table, the two speak about the bigger problem of forgiving ourselves for the ways modern living has hurt the earth, and how intention and attention—for Kaufmann in the form of painting—function as spiritual correctives.
Gu says the experience of making the film “permeated me on a cellular and spiritual level,” and that she, too, began to notice “every bee, every little critter,” and to understand how the coastal oaks in her own yard need the ocean’s humidity to thrive. “That’s why they’re called coastal oaks!” she says with a laugh. But her most powerful takeaway was in seeing how Kaufmann is able to balance “the yin and yang of life. There is so much beauty and decay all at the same time, and how do we function in this world if we just focus on decay?” she asks. “Let’s celebrate what’s here … It’s not to be oblivious to the breakdown of it, but with a true love you can help.”
One of the “ethical presumptions” with which Kaufmann opens The Coasts of California states, “The world does not end; that is not the way nature works.” The earth is not, in fact, fragile; it is just fragile for us. Kaufmann believes that a lot of “apocalyptic environmentalism” is “psychological, and not necessarily ecological.” Again, he points to the mycorrhizae, the microorganisms in forest soil, which have survived all six mass extinctions, “and will survive the mass extinctions to come. So there is this biological blueprint for regeneration, regardless of the devastation wrought by industry.”
To those who attend his events “white knuckling it, eyes bulging, looking for some amount of peace from the perpetual emergency that we are all exposed to,” Kaufmann’s recommendation is simple: “Get out of your house, get out of your car, go find the cool running creek and connect for as long as you need to, with the systems of the world that are still vital, and still here. Take that energy as a battery.”
In Gu’s Walk With Obi, there is a scene that finds Brisick and Kaufmann walking amid tall grasses and scrub, the blue Pacific unfurling behind them. Brisick asks Kaufmann, “With this immersion in California, do you ever feel like it’s an immersion into yourself, as well?” Kaufmann lets out a deep sigh, “Oh, man! Well that’s the secret of it all, huh?”