Naturalist Obi Kaufmann, author of ‘The California Field Atlas,' comes to Sebastopol Copperfield's
When Obi Kaufmann calls, ten minutes late for the interview, he breathlessly confesses to running straight from a trail on Mount Diablo.
It’s a fitting excuse for the Oakland-based naturalist, painter and author of the best-selling book on California’s natural ecology, “The California Field Atlas.” (Heyday Books; 2017)
Kaufmann’s field atlas - the first of its kind - is the culmination of a lifetime of trekking across the Golden State. In 550 pages of original illustrations and maps, scientific data, natural history lessons and poetic observations about the state’s diverse flora and fauna, watersheds, deserts and mountains, Kaufmann paints a portrait of a state in flux. In finely tuned but relaxed watercolors, he paints a portrait of a beloved place, beholden to the whims of humans, evolution and the shaping forces of earth, air, fire and water.
This isn’t an atlas that will get a person from point A to point B. In fact, there are no roads here.
“It’s not going to help you if you are lost in the woods,” Kaufmann said. “I’m most concerned with the question of how these massive (ecological) networks interact to create this collective, beautiful reality we call California.”
Published in 2017, “The California Field Atlas” has held steady at number one on the San Francisco Chronicle’s Bay Area nonfiction bestseller list. The first printing sold out within a few months of publication. The second printing sold out in February. A third printing is currently available. Kaufmann will be at Copperfield’s Books in Sebastopol on March 9 at 7 p.m.
Kaufmann, 44, looks the part of a modern-day gentleman naturalist with his old-fashioned salt-and-pepper beard, hip denim trekking attire from Indigofera and many tattoos.
“The reason that I get up out of bed in the morning is thinking about where nature has been, where it is and where it will always be, despite our imposed concrete jacket,” he said.
Ultimately, he hopes atlas readers will gain a sense of geographic literacy, understanding the natural features and biodiversity that make California what it is, and what could be lost without a commitment to conservation and restoration.
Kaufmann developed his love for the natural world early in life. He was raised by a clinical psychologist mother and an astrophysicist father in Danville.
“I fell in love with the open oak woodlands of the East Bay,” he said. “Mount Diablo quickly became my mountain, where I spent my childhood naming oak trees and drawing footpaths through sage mazes. I was always hoping to run into a mountain lion and didn’t mind the giant tarantulas crawling on me.”
Kaufmann also loved doing calculus with his scientist father. He entered the University of California Santa Barbara as a biology major. A calling toward wildlife painting, and a love for the ancient rock paintings of the Chumash tribe, led him to switch to a visual arts major and a career as an artist and gallery owner.
After a stint in the Pacific Northwest, Kaufmann moved to Oakland, where he’s remained for the past fifteen years.
“I find it’s a good hub - a jumping off point for my adventures,” he said. “If you take your pinky and you put it on Oakland, and you take your thumb and put it on Crescent City, you can draw an arc all the way around California, and you’ll get to San Diego.”
A dedicated conservationist, Kaufmann has developed a successful career as a wildlife artist for Bay Nature magazine, the Berkeley Times and several land trust organizations. In 2015, he was approached by Heyday about doing a book project. Kaufmann had recently rediscovered his love for backpacking and trail paintings; he proposed an atlas about California’s natural ecology inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s engrossing maps of Middle Earth.
“My basic pitch was - what if I did that for California, this place that I love?” he said.
He worked seven days a week throughout 2016 to complete the book’s illustrations, text, and maps, spending time on the trail doing research, and off the trail putting it all together.
“If you look at my Instagram, you might think that I’m some sort of a John Muir-type who spends his time outside eating berries and sleeping in trees,” said Kaufmann. “Well, I do that, but not all of the time. I like the idea of going out, and then coming back to the lab where the maps get made. On the trail, I’m limited to painting things that are small, like a flower, or very still, like a mountain. But mountain lions and condors? They kind of make terrible models, so I work from photographs.”
Regarding favorite trail adventures in Sonoma County, Kaufmann has been inspired by the story collection “How a Mountain was Made” by Greg Sarris, chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria.
“I’ve recently fallen in love with Sonoma Mountain,” said Kaufmann. “There is a common thread between Greg’s book and my book: I don’t believe that this land belongs to me or us. We belong to it.”
Kaufmann says he’s only begun to capture the wild and natural systems of his home state. Next up, a trilogy. “The Forests of California” will be out in the fall of 2019, followed by “The Coast of California” in the spring in 2020, and “The Deserts of California” in the fall of 2020.
“I could do a thousand maps a day for the rest of my life, and not tell all the story of California that I want to tell,” Kaufmann said.