Q & A with Obi Kaufmann, author and illustrator of “The California Field Atlas”

The California Field Atlas is the magnum opus of Oakland-based author, painter, and naturalist Obi Kaufmann. Growing up in the East Bay as the son of an astrophysicist and a psychologist, Kaufmann spent most of high school practicing calculus and breaking away on weekends to scramble around Mount Diablo and map its creeks, oak forests, and sage mazes. Into adulthood, he would regularly journey into the mountains, spending more summer nights without a roof than with one. This book is the result of those decades of exploration and research, a lavishly illustrated atlas that takes readers off the beaten path and outside normal conceptions of California, revealing its myriad ecologies, topographies, and histories in exquisite maps and trail paintings. Kaufmann depicts layer after layer of the natural world, delighting in the grand scale and details alike.

The California Field Atlas comes out this September 1, after which Obi Kaufmann will be embarking on a forty-city book tour across the state of California; check out his schedule here.

I recently spoke with Obi Kaufmann over the phone about the process of putting the book together, what readers will gain and learn from his writings and illustrations, and his vision for our respectful stewardship of nature in the twenty-first century.

The collection of paintings and illustrations in The California Field Atlas spans decades of your art, research, and exploration. Was it always your intention to eventually share all of that in a single cohesive collection? How did you decide to finally turn all that information and knowledge into a book?

This book does certainly reflect decades of research in that my research is doing what I do, and what I do, on a metabolic level, is enjoying and interacting with nature. Since I was a little boy roaming around Mount Diablo, where I would spend days mapping the sage mazes, naming the blue oak trees, I didn’t understand how one oak tree, so gnarled and individual as it was, is considered the same thing as the next. I didn’t understand why people wouldn’t name individual trees, I didn’t understand what a species was because I saw within them all these complex levels of individuality.

When I finally partnered with Heyday to construct this massive, unifying project designed to merge aesthetics and ecology, it proved to be a process, at least in my mind, as interesting as the product itself. For example, when you look at the organization of the CFIE, Chapter Two being called Of Earth and Mountains, Chapter Three being called Of Water and Rivers, Chapter Four is Forest and Fires, Chapter Five is Wind and Weather; that sort of simple pattern: earth, water, air, and fire didn’t manifest until the last months of the drafting of the manuscript. I needed to go through this whole process to find the basic structure, and when I did, there was a shining elegance that revealed itself.

Interestingly I was hiking with Malcolm Margolin a couple of weeks ago, and he told me in his trademark candid way that he doesn’t really care about books. He said that what he cares about is the zigging and the zagging from concept to product. That’s much more fascinating than the actual thing sitting on the table. And this book is replete with that raw and vulnerable process, you can almost smell the sunshine and taste the river water, you can see it across the whole thing. I’ve already drafted pieces of edition two and edition three to come out at some point over the next few years. It’s an ongoing process that I would be very challenged to find a beginning point, and I hope there is no end point.

Was it weird then, to try and put all of this information into a single contained product like a book?

It was incredibly weird, it was incredibly risky, and it was incredibly brave on Heyday’s part to take a chance with me on this. Even the idea of the Field Atlas itself, it’s an idea that does not exist as a thing in the universe. It’s two words I put together to describe a newly imagined format, the basis for a new type of discussion. This isn’t a field guide, like one of the books of the type my Heyday co-author John Muir Laws puts together, to carry along on a hike to identify a particular species or that.

This book is not going to help you if you’re lost in the woods. There are only a scant few roads depicted in the atlas, and they appear as thin ghostly red lines behind the paintings themselves. I’m interested in the long cycles, the character of California where nature has been, where it is, and where it will always persist. Being a Californian, being a resident and steward of this land, is a very unique experience, a process  that deserves an in-depth analysis of the cycles of nature that only exist as such in this corner of the beautiful globe.

I present California the way I understand it: a living natural system, an immortal cell with multitudinous organelles, constituent parts that define its anatomy. This urban veneer that we’ve imposed on the land is only a temporary jacket. Fast forward a thousand years, these roads will have turned to dust, but the river’s course will be largely unchanged. The quality of California’s natural character that abides our human imposition is the main character of California I’m trying to describe or beginning to explore.

So you’ve mentioned that these maps won’t help you if you’re lost in a forest, and can’t really tell you much about the roads and urban infrastructure we have in place today. What do you hope readers and viewers can gain from the book instead?

It’s really a different way of looking at the natural world, and I am using the object system that is California to illustrate that perspective in depth. That pairs nicely with how I think The California Field Atlas works very well as sort of a indispensable companion to the classic California road trip. The idea being that this book can offer simple answers to questions like what is that mountain over there, and what is the natural story behind that mountain, and who lives on that mountain? From this context, we can’t help but begin to treat these natural features with a certain amount of respect. I would say that the central assumption in the California Field Atlas is that all natural systems are living systems, so the radiant mountains, the rivers and their watersheds, the endlessly-giving forests, even the systems of fire and air, are worthy of respect and emancipation from endless extraction without remediation or reciprocation.

Ultimately, this is a political posture, an agenda for the people of California in the challenging decades to come which transcends the subject itself. If I wasn’t from California, if I didn’t know the place as well as I do, I would be doing this for whatever region of the world I was from. I believe that it is not just about California, it’s about a different way of looking at nature.

Going off of that idea that these systems are worthy of respect and emancipation, what would you change about the way that Californians currently interact with our surroundings?

I’m a land conservationist, pro wild-life, very committed to the idea of habitat protection and restoration. In order to provide for an estimated twenty million more people in as many years to come in the immediate future, we are going to need to protect from development and extraction as much land space and wilderness resources as we possibly can. California is fecund enough to to provide for all, if we are clever in our land management strategies and we are stalwart enough to protect the threads of connectivity that bridge wild habitat across the state.

What we’ve got with growingly outdated, twentieth-century policies of land conservation is a network of “islands of extinction”, where large tracts of protected lands stand completely segregated, not connected to any habitat bridge. We have wildlife population breakdowns because of the lack of territory.

What I emphasize in The California Field Atlas is a democratizing of the natural world across California. It isn’t only about Yosemite and Sequoia, it is about hiking in San Joaquin County or across the Modoc Plateau. By drawing attention to, by naming where the natural world remains intact, where nature maintains a foothold despite us, I hope to call attention to the need to protect these areas. By preserving and augmenting these wild-habitat bridges, the natural systems themselves can continue, and only by protecting those systems will we continue to have license for our continued residency in the Golden State.

What I prescribe in The California Field Atlas is a geographic literacy of this beautiful corner of the globe. The history of map making itself is about power, it is about defining what is important and graphically depicting a hierarchy of perspective based on society’s needs and wants. It is direly important that we, in twenty-first century California understand where these precious places are and how they interact in a larger context; how they interact with the basic, shaping forces that will feed us for centuries to come. It is important to say the names aloud: Siskiyou, Mojave, Santa Ynez, Ventana Wilderness. By saying the names, by having even a basic knowledge of their function in California’s wild character, we begin to equip ourselves against the unwise forces who are willing to destroy them for whatever shortsighted profit they seek.


To hear more of Obi Kaufmann’s thoughts on the human relationship with nature, be sure to order a copy of The California Field Atlas today! In addition, Obi will be embarking on a forty-city tour giving talks and attending events throughout California, starting with a kick off event right here in Berkeley. Click here to see the full list of events.