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Artist, author of 'The California Field Atlas' talks about Sonoma County’s ecology

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Obi Kaufmann

What: Naturalist, artist and author Obi Kaufmann talks about his work and new book “The State of Water”

When: 7 p.m. (6 p.m. welcome reception), Tuesday, Feb. 11

Where: Finley Community Center Auditorium, 2060 W College Ave., Santa Rosa

Tickets: $12 ($10 for Sonoma Land Trust members) for the talk; $25 ($20 members) for talk and reception.

Information: sonomalandtrust.org/outings

Bestselling author, artist and adventurer Obi Kaufmann answers to an unusual calling: over the past few decades he’s explored vast tracts of California’s wild backcountry on foot, from the Siskiyou Mountains near the Oregon border to the Salton Sea near Mexico.

In the process, he’s acquired a unique firsthand view of the state’s diverse natural world and the complex workings of its deepest systems.

This coming Tuesday, Feb. 11, Kaufmann will be in Santa Rosa to introduce a slice of what he’s discovered and his new hand- illustrated book, “The State of Water,” along with perspective on what he sees as California’s unfolding ecological story.

“The State of Water” is Kaufmann’s second illustrated book on California’s natural environment. The first, “The California Field Atlas,” was an unexpected hit, with detailed hand-painted maps of everything from watersheds and wildflower gardens to landforms and wildlife. It was a No. 1 San Francisco Chronicle Best-Seller and the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association’s 2018 Book of the Year.

Despite often downbeat news about the environment, Kaufmann said he finds reasons to be hopeful.

“For one thing,” he laughed, “despair is just boring. Hope is exciting.”

A long walk

Like “Atlas,” his new book draws on what Kaufmann describes as his “pedestrian ethic.”

“I couldn’t have done (the book) driving. Roads have no story. They’re just the shortest route from a to b,” he said. “Walking along a watercourse or ridgeline, you can see an ecological narrative unfolding. You’re exposed to information that is just not available flying by at 65 miles an hour.”

Kaufmann’s book on California’s water reflects his effort to come to grips with demands on this precious resource essential to life in the state, in the context of our arid climate.

Kaufmann intuitively and statistically understands the critical importance of watersheds, the natural features that collect and drain snow and rain where it falls and move water around the state.

The Russian River is included in the book and will figure in Kaufmann’s future work as well. He recently signed a contract with his publisher, Berkeley-based Heyday Books, to produce volumes on other aspects of California’s environment, including the coastline, desert and forests.

Interconnectedness

“I am working on a series of what will ultimately be six books,” he said. “And two of the main characters in the next book (on forests) are Sonoma County locals — the salmon and the beaver.”

“Can you imagine, just 200 years ago, nearly every watershed on nearly every water course in Sonoma County held these two species,” he said. “We’re looking at thousands of beavers, a beaver population density of two or three per kilometer.”

“Beaver created cold, clear, clean water habitat for salmon. And at the end of their life cycle, when the fish returned to the headwaters of their birth, they laid their bodies down, depositing hundreds of thousands of metric tons of calcium, phosphorus and nitrogen, which came back down the Russian River in big floods to feed the forests the fertilizer they need.”

Kaufmann believes the two native animals offer modern Californians an ecological architecture for restoration.

“Although all of our ecosystems in California are threatened or in danger, we have a very low extinction rate,” he said. Of all species in the state, “it’s less than 1%, as a matter of fact. What that means is that all the pieces are still on the board, and that’s a point of hope. There’s still time.”

Obi Kaufmann

What: Naturalist, artist and author Obi Kaufmann talks about his work and new book “The State of Water”

When: 7 p.m. (6 p.m. welcome reception), Tuesday, Feb. 11

Where: Finley Community Center Auditorium, 2060 W College Ave., Santa Rosa

Tickets: $12 ($10 for Sonoma Land Trust members) for the talk; $25 ($20 members) for talk and reception.

Information: sonomalandtrust.org/outings

Kaufmann said he’s specifically optimistic about the land trust movement in California, like the work and efforts of the Sonoma Land Trust.

“In the past 20 to 30 years, really since the land trust movement took off, I would argue that it is probably the most effective grassroots arm of the environmental movement of all.

“What we are now experiencing is grassroots, cellular, bottom up. We’ve got hundreds of land trusts now in California, protecting hundreds of thousands of acres. And the movement is growing bigger largely because there is no political story being told, there’s no divisive rhetoric. Around the state when you go volunteer at a land trust, there’s not a lot of ‘red and blue’ talk — just caring for that grove of redwoods or working a trail together or doing a restoration project.”

Slow down and enjoy

Kaufman admitted to a fondness for hiking the Sonoma coastline, “one of the most beautiful places on the planet, in my mind.” He recently completed a large painting of the Jenner headlands that he’ll present in Santa Rosa.

Kaufman first took to walking backcountry trails as a boy in Danville. His father, an astrophysicist, was hoping his son would become a mathematician.

“I remember, growing up in high school, every day I sat down with him to do calculus homework, and we had a big stack of white paper, sharp No. 2 pencils,” he said. “After doing the calculus homework, I ran off into the wilds of Mount Diablo State Park, which is where I learned to appreciate this magical place.”

His advice for those concerned about our environment? Slow down.

“When people ask me ‘What can I do?’ I ask them, ‘When was the last time you went camping?’ As a society we’re telling ourselves a story every day. We’re all caught in this paradigm right now that to be a good citizen we have to sit in our car for two hours, fight traffic, get on a computer for another eight hours, then get back in that car, see your family maybe 15 minutes. And there’s no connection to the world.”

Instead, get outdoors.

“There’s nothing that does better than going to the Russian River, taking your shoes off and putting your feet in the water. You know, touch the living stuff.”

Stephen Nett is a Bodega Bay-based Certified California Naturalist, writer and speaker. Contact him at snett@californiasparks.com.

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