Above image: Author and artist Obi Kaufmann.
The mythic natural beauty of the Bay Area has long galvanized creative souls, establishing Mount Tamalpais, Big Sur, and Muir Woods as sites of both artistic pilgrimage and ecological activism. Obi Kaufmann is a next-generation member of that lineage, a writer, painter, and naturalist who, through his personal explorations, seeks to honor our connection to the landscapes of the Golden State. His new book, The Coasts of California (Heyday Books), is a paean to the beauty and diversity of the littoral, unfolding in evocative essays and lovingly-rendered watercolors of the flora and fauna that live at the edges of the land. Kaufmann invites us to embark, as he writes, on “a journey through a geographically distinct area that is infinitely and uniquely complex,” a pilgrimage both aesthetically passionate and environmentally purposeful.
You had quite a singular childhood—your father was an astrophysicist—and I wonder if early exposure to expansive notions of space and time set up your thinking in any way?
In every way. And it wasn’t just my father the astrophysicist. It was also my mother the clinical psychologist. There’s a funny memory from, when I was maybe about ten years old, and I was riding in the back seat of the car. In an inquisitive moment, I asked, “I wonder, where truth is hidden in the universe?” as if, you know, kids said stuff like that. And as if they were anticipating the question, simultaneously my father said “Physics” and my mother said “Psychology.” We still laugh about that. I think, though, that if my adult self had been there, in the car sitting next to the childhood version of me, my answer to where truth might be hidden would be story—the story we tell ourselves about our relationship to the natural world.
There is a moment in the book when you share, and I’m paraphrasing, that life began on earth about four billion years ago, and that it will end in about another four billion years, so that human beings exist at midpoint in this life cycle. For me, this reorientation in cosmic time was a great recalibration.
I have so many friends who are white-knuckling it every day, especially in terms of mounting climate anxiety, this constant state of emergency. And it impacts our health, this inflamed state, as if our bodies are swelling with anxiety—mirroring what’s happening in the atmosphere itself. It’s a state of emergency such that physiology begins to resemble physiography. It’s paradigm-shifting to recognize that our connection to nature is fundamental, and that there is no separation of you and nature. The Cartesian philosophy, “I think therefore I am,” is a sentencing of all that is nonhuman to the space of nonbeing. And because of that, it objectifies the world and opens it to paradigms of endless extraction and nonreciprocation, which is catastrophic in terms of maintaining a relationship with the more than human world.
One positive societal shift I’ve been seeing in response to that is a returning animism—the acknowledgement that a stone has a life, a field has a life. I don’t want to project any kind of religious tradition onto what you’re saying, but it resonates in a very Taoist, Buddhist way.
The ethical presumption that all natural systems are living systems and deserving of an emancipated rebirth from these paradigms of endless extraction and commodification is core to where I begin with my work. The philosophical conclusion that you just made toward something resembling Zen, which is a very rigorous philosophical and spiritual tradition and discipline, is apt and fair.
I was fortunate to have a father who was a very devoted amateur naturalist. One of the earliest lessons I can remember him teaching, which I’m so grateful for, is when we would go for walks at the Audubon Society in Connecticut where I grew up—we would walk into a field and he would say, “Don’t pick the flower. The flower lives here. It’s not for us to take.” That was one of the origin points for me of a feeling of reverence towards natural spaces.
I would love to offer a prescription that instead of picking the flower, be sure that you know what kind of flower it is, say its name. That gets me back to a tradition in the North Bay among the Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo, with whom I have a number of relations and friends. The wisdom goes thusly—there are thousands and thousands of plants in this area that have ethnobotanical utility, but they would say that you have to know the name of every single one, and you have to say that name, you have to interact with these plants. Otherwise the plants will forget how to feed you, how to feed us. So you have to learn these plants, acknowledge them as neighbors, and respect them in order that they then are able to remember us. That idea that I belong to this place, and this place remembers me, is an ache in my heart as an artist working to decolonize, to unsettle in the face of so much trauma that has been inflicted on the landscape and the people of this place for the past several centuries. And recognizing and reckoning with that catastrophic injustice that is still happening is core to my heart’s desire of forever being on the path toward, forever being in the process of, becoming more from this place.
An entry dedicated to the protection of Morrow Bay; a California Brown pelican in flight.
You share that “being more from this place” is such an intention for you.
I was born here. Spent my life here. Went to school here. I know Mount Diablo like the back of my hand. I love that place. I love this place. And yet I cannot return enough love to actually be from here.
There is definitely a consciousness within the design community in San Francisco of creating green households as often as possible, of living in connection with the land. Could you build a bridge between what you’ve done with your book and the built world, the interiors world?
I like that you said build a bridge. Quite literally, that’s a project I’m very proud to be a part of, in the Santa Monica Mountains—the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing, which broke ground on Earth Day. It’s North America’s largest wildlife crossing, and it’s going to be built across ten lanes of Highway 101. This is a $100 million project that has been a long time coming.
A rendering of the Liberty Canyon / Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing, which broke ground on April 22 and will provide a safe and sustainable passage for cougars and other wildlife across US-101.
I’m the artist in residence with the National Wildlife Federation, which helped raise that money. I did all the art for the commemorative booklets, and I’m documenting the animal biodiversity that will benefit from this piece of infrastructure, by way of producing 120 paintings that were displayed for the first time at the ground-breaking on Earth Day.
But I want to get back to art and design. There’s rich inspiration in the idea of not spreading humanity into something called nature, but inviting this construct of nature into our urban space, into our communal space. The way we work in California—given excellent policy goals like 30×30, which is directed to saving 30% of California’s land and fresh water by 2030 under state stewardship—is offering leadership in the relationship and reciprocity of this human sphere to the rest of the biosphere.
Kaufmann’s lyrical watercolor of a marine kelp forest.
Reciprocity is at the core of it all, isn’t it? In closing, what steps would you recommend that we all take?
I get asked that question a lot, and I’m beginning to ask in return, when was the last time you went camping? You know, get out there, take your boots off, get your feet in the river and realize how beautiful nature is, how resilient it is. Of course it’s fragile, but its fragility is only met by commensurate resiliency. And to follow that, to always maintain a connection with the precious humanity of others, is necessary now in a particularly unique and pointed way.
Obi Kaufmann will be at the Bay Area Book Festival this Saturday, May 7, in conversation with Greg Sarris, author and chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton. To learn more about Kaufmann’s work, visit coyoteandthunder.com and @coyotethunder.
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