The artist and author Obi Kaufmann creates a new look at the Golden State


Obi Kaufmann, a charismatic literary voice of modern environmental science and the environment, wanted to highlight a point while hiking near his home in Crockett. Kaufmann wondered how mycorrhizal fungi survived the six mass extinctions that began 445 million years ago.

“There is more microscopic life in this handful of earth than there are people on the planet,” he said. “This life is so small. So tell me where you stop and where it starts because that’s not how life works. It’s not just connected, it’s unique in my dream world. “

This is a preamble to a complex series of questions about what it means to be a Californian at this particular moment. In the stressful phase of drought, fire, viruses and climate change, a larger than life figure comes along who challenges our wacky perceptions with a mixture of hope and admonition.

As the author of the innovative The California Field Atlas and other illustrated books about the Golden State, Kaufmann unearths emotional truths about where we live while painting outside of our borders.

I can’t quite define it. Artist, poet, natural philosopher – and conservationist. Kaufmann lives on the corner of image and science and invites readers to re-imagine the country using maps and diagrams of the diverse topography.

Naturalist, artist, and author Obi Kaufmann works on illustrations for his next field guide in his studio, Wednesday, September 22, 2021, in Crockett, Calif. (Karl Mondon / Bay Area News Group)

“He speaks, researches, and informs about the nature of California in an open-minded, open-minded, and inspiring way,” said Wade Crowfoot, California’s Secretary of State for Natural Resources. “It catalyzes a conversation that I don’t see in other people.”

The depths of insight and expression in words and watercolor sketches on the page, in geological diagrams and timetables of human behavior were revealed in the Crockett Hills Regional Park, where Kaufmann, photographer Karl Mondon and I celebrated the first day of autumn with a morning foray above the Carquinez -Street.

Kaufmann, 48, arrived wearing cuffed jeans, a faded blue short-sleeved shirt, and a wide-brimmed straw hat that resembled portraits of Ansel Adams. Both arms were covered with geometric tattoos. The hands say “Coyote” and “Thunder” from right to left, an allusion to the late nature writer Barry Lopez. Tattooed fingers spell “Wild Life”.

Naturalist, artist, and author Obi Kaufmann walks in Crockett Hills Regional Park, above Crockett, Calif., Wednesday, September 22, 2021 (Karl Mondon / Bay Area News Group)

We had not yet left the parking lot when Kaufmann began to ponder the beauty of nature in front of us and jumped like a hare from fragment to fragment.

“That one little corner of the forest is a guardian of an ancient heritage,” he said.

It is as if Muir, Darwin, Emerson and Van Gogh have been fertilized with the sensibility of the 21st century.


Kaufmann’s lifelong nomadic journey into the hinterland has resulted in his sharing his observations about California in prose and color.

“I do four things all day: I walk, I write, I read, I paint,” he said. “I have a one to one to one to one ratio. You have to read as much as you write. “

Kaufmann estimates that he consumes around 20 books a month, including scientific texts. His mastery of fact-based research gives him the linguistic ability to publish textualized atlases steeped in science but full of fantasy.

, Artist and author Obi Kaufmann walks in Crockett Hills Regional Park, Wednesday, September 22, 2021, above Crockett, Calif. (Karl Mondon / Bay Area News Group)

Marie Antoine, a coastal redwood botanist from Humboldt State University, said Kaufmann “made a strong voice for himself in the name of wild places.”

“The California Field Atlas” (Heyday Books, 2017) is a solid scholarly volume, written with sparse poetic elegance, that gets to the heart of the matter in an accessible way that a research text would never get.

His hand-painted, colorful maps of the state’s ecosystems are beautiful works of art and stories in themselves. They have less to do with cartography than with an intellectual skill that California paints in unprecedented range and dimensions. His watercolors of wild animals, plants, trees, mountains, valleys, lakes and rivers capture sensual scenes from nature.

Naturalist, artist, and author Obi Kaufmann demonstrates the work on his next field guide in his studio, Wednesday, September 22, 2021, in Crockett, Calif. (Karl Mondon / Bay Area News Group)

Every California household should have a copy of the 608-page atlas. It is not designed as a linear page turner. I would start with Kaufmann’s introduction because it sums up the author’s relationship with the landscape he loves so much. From there, read forwards, backwards, or whatever the topic interests you.

“That may sound strange for a book called Atlas, but the exact location has never interested me,” says Kaufmann. “I’m more interested in the quality of the story across the country. My books don’t tell you where something is. But they define the how in great detail. How is the layout structured? Not something from a field guide. Not the where of a street atlas. And not even necessarily the why of some California history. Rather, the way in which these larger systems, which I organized according to the Platonic elements of earth, air, fire and water, could tell a better story. “

Kaufmann has dug himself deep into the species-rich core of the state. And then he went on. The author followed the atlas with “The State of Water” and “The Forests of California”. Forests is the first in a trilogy that includes “The Coasts of California” in 2022 and “The Deserts of California” in 2023.

He has bypassed the trapdoor of machismo backcountry storytelling that has grown in popularity over the past three decades. In all of our conversations he only talked about wild boars on Mount Diablo, where he spent his childhood.

“It’s the only animal I’m afraid of,” said Kaufmann. “They’re just idiots.”

Naturalist, artist, and author Obi Kaufmann stops working on a watercolor of an oak tree he calls Sunbasket (Karl Mondon / Bay Area News Group)

In June, the author took Crowfoot on an overnight trip to the Sierra Buttes. The men spent 18 hours talking about conserving natural resources in a documentary by Wildboundlive.

“It breaks up the beautiful complexities of California’s nature,” said Crowfoot. “His role is to develop a positive, proactive vision of what California nature can return to and then inspire people to help.”

Kaufmann told me he was trying to combine the truth of humanity with the truth of the humanities and natural sciences to create a plausible narrative that underscores what is at stake when our trees smolder and aquifers dry up.


William J. Kaufmann IV was born in Los Angeles, where his father William III. Was director of the Griffith Observatory on the slopes of Mount Hollywood. In 1977 the family moved to Danville when he was 4 years old. His father, an astrophysicist, wrote popular books on astronomy, and his mother, Lee Johnson Kaufmann, established a clinical psychology practice.

Obi showed artistry at the age of 3, his mother recalled. The Kaufmanns sent their son to the Seven Hills School in Walnut Creek and later to the Athenian School in Danville at the foot of Mount Diablo. Kaufmann spent his free time combing the steep slopes of the Diablo to explore the natural wonders right outside the door. He mapped the mountain while mimicking JRR Tolkien’s depictions of Middle-earth.

His mother, now called Jeffre TallTrees, promoted her son’s artistic predilection. But most of all, Kaufmann remembers coming home to do arithmetic problems.

“DR. Kaufmann’s son should become a mathematician,” said Obi. “For him, mathematics is the language of reality.”

He attended UC Santa Barbara as a marine biology major, but quickly switched to the fine arts – switching from Bill to Obi, a nickname his grandmother gave him.

He studied oil painting, drummed in a punk rock band called Glitch, and skipped classes to explore the Santa Ynez Mountains above Goleta. During these hikes in the Los Padres National Forest, Kaufmann spotted Chumash pictograms. The visceral connection to the ancient works of art expanded his boundaries as a painter and philosopher.

Kaufmann was now sitting on the dirt road with a watercolor pan, sharing a postcard-sized painting of a coastal oak he calls the Sunbasket. “I wonder if I showed this painting to Chumash artists 500 years ago, if they would be as confused by my depiction of the lines of this life as I was by theirs,” he mused.

Naturalist, artist, and author Obi Kaufmann stops working on a watercolor of an oak tree he calls Sunbasket (Karl Mondon / Bay Area News Group)

After graduating from college in 1995, Kaufmann became involved in the gallery scene in the Pacific Northwest of Seattle and Portland. Returning to the East Bay at the age of 30, he met his partner Alli Darling and switched to watercolors while exploring California’s nature as much as possible. He also worked as a tattoo artist in Oakland.


In Kaufmann’s cramped studio in downtown Crockett, the writer tore fire-related titles off his wooden bookshelves as conversation turned to the conflagration in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Kaufmann plans to release “The State of Fire: How, Where and Why California Burns” in 2024.

I confessed to my utter frustration that forest fires devoured the state’s forests with an insatiable appetite. Kaufmann stopped me. Californians, he said, had the tools, if not much time, to change course as the effects of climate change accelerate at an alarming rate. “You have to love fire as a natural, beautiful part of it,” he said.

He believes that we will protect what we hold sacred. To do this, Kaufmann insists we broaden our horizons beyond the California hood ornaments of Yosemite Valley, the General Grant sequoia tree, and the fairy-tale forests along the Avenue of the Giants. We have to fall madly in love with the oak savannahs of the Coastal Ranges, the desert sage, the Los Angeles River enclosed in concrete.

We have to accept our blemishes as well as our blemishes if we are to find our way out of this mess.

Kaufmann has provided us with a signpost with no signposts or path markings to guide us on this urgent artistic, spiritual and ecological path to salvation.

It is high time to join him.

Obi Kaufmann pauses to work on a watercolor of an oak tree he calls Sun Basket in Crockett Hills Regional Park, Wednesday September 22, 2021 in Crockett, Calif. (Karl Mondon / Bay Area News Group)

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