The book contains many maps of this shape. Within the borders are flowing washes of crimson, bruise purple, pollen gold. Warbling kelp-green contour lines like metamorphic rock. Watercourses in cobalt writhing like blood vessels over a tabula rasa.
Beside this last rendering, the waters flowing through the illusory single space we name California, a salmon turns in the white pool of the page, water-coloured in grey and brown and a brush of purple along its back that fairly glimmers. Its eye looks out, staring unblinking into mine.
The book is the second of its type. Obi Kaufmann, a writer and artist focused on California’s more-than-human landscapes, inaugurated the form with The California Field Atlas: a collision of fine art book, field guide, wilderness atlas, philosophical treatise, poetry chapbook, nature essay, science textbook, trail journal.
The Field Atlas began with the words, ‘This is a love story.’ In it Kaufmann tried to bend all the tools at his disposal toward communicating his love of the wild landscape that is California. He is foremost a painter, and he brought his talent with watercolour to bear both on wildlife illustration and cartography. As a writer, he tried to show the poetry in elegant science, to use the close attention of science and painting as a basis for poetry.
The Forests of California opens with the line, ‘This is a family album.’ While the Field Atlas treated the spectrum of California’s wild lands and their inhabitants, this book hones in on its forested spaces, depicting its many family members. With its rich and delicate depictions of the life in California’s forests, it is the kind of book every place deserves – it is also, as a human work, fraught with flaws and unacknowledged assumptions.
Like the first iteration, Forests is weighty and compact as a Bible. When I open the cover I find myself immersed in a work so broad in scope, it implies a landscape all itself. I begin on the rocky ridgeline of the table of contents, stacked with blocks of tiny names and numbers. From there I tramp down through the broad meadows of California’s biogeography, how its climates and stones and soils and waters have come to be, how the salmon in their returning courses feed the forests with their dissolving bodies even as they deposit their eggs in the stream.
I pass under the shade of isolated groves where I learn of the biochemical cycles in the soil, of the fungal networks that join the roots, of fruits and flowers, fires and watersheds, invasive species and their damage and accommodation. From there I drop into the densely treed valley, composed of California’s tree genera, their vegetative alliances, the distribution and composition of their arboreal habitats. A chill and sobering creek runs through, its rills speaking Latin names. Scattered everywhere among the leaf litter are scraps of Kaufmann’s trail journals, scrawled poetry and the tiny images of owls and firs intimated with a few strokes of the brush.
Out of that thicket I begin to ascend again, legs aching, into a rock garden of maps of this state’s parklands and national forests. At last I gain the ridgeline, where I can look back over all I’ve seen, and also ahead to the next valley, the possibilities for the forests of the future, the living fabric of the landscape stitched back together or torn apart.
Most of the book’s pages are dedicated to the broad collection of scientific information. Much of the science is dry dust in my mouth, its sentences ugly, the language mechanical. Elbowing aside the margins on every page, though, are portraits of wild things, a freedom in these depictions that allows for the life of the subject to come through, a deeper accuracy than statistics, or even photography. It is a form of animism, this ability to bring an animal or tree into our presence, as we merely sit looking at a book. Every animal and flower and tree exhibits its own particular state of watchfulness, caught in a frozen breeze, or in the taut pause of prey. As with this stand of Monterey cypress, harried by the wind I can feel on my cheeks even now. Or with this mule deer, eyes wide and black, the startled charge of interaction when our gazes touch.
Every animal and flower and tree exhibits its own particular state of watchfulness, caught in a frozen breeze, or in the taut pause of prey.
Kaufmann himself seems to doubt that this animism could be a force in his work. When I interviewed him in January of 2020 for Dark Mountain: Issue 17 I said I felt that he was ‘speaking to that place, that animal, empathising with it, and taking from it a sense of its own internal life.’
He responded, ‘I don’t think I’m taking anything from it and I don’t think I’m speaking to it. What I think I’m doing is just speaking to myself… You know I can just wash the paint around, and you can say … “That’s a wing. Those are feathers.” You’re building that in your mind because we share all this cultural information. I really want to resist the metaphysical. I think it’s all very much here and now.’
It is as if Kaufmann is arguing with himself, his artist’s skill contradicting his philosophical assertions. Glance at any one of these paintings, see it before your critical mind argues with its veracity, and it would be hard to take issue with its potency. Kaufmann’s response seems rooted in a basic adherence to the scientific perspective, which would hold that the images are mere two-dimensional representations, and any sense of the real things can only be a phantasm playing across our neurons.
Kaufmann’s father, an astrophysicist, ‘trained [him] to understand mathematics as the language of reality,’ but ‘…for all of his efforts, he made a painter.’ Here are the origins of these competing sensibilities: the artist looking on the wild more-than-human with childlike credulity; and the scientist, convinced that hard truth lies in numbers and equations, that our intuitions need to be pared away with the blade of reason.
As Kaufmann writes in his introduction: ‘…this book may be about me as much as it is about the subject in the title.’ Just as there are many facets of the man – wide-eyed child; engaged naturalist; calculating scientist; contemplative philosopher; skilled artist transmuting the real through gestures of paint; cartographer at the drafting board, scaling the landscape to be held in mind; mystic penning his paeans in the wilderness – so all these voices argue within the book.
The heat of the work is generated by the collision of these forms, all of which may share space on a single page. Kaufmann brings a scientific order to the clamour, but barely maintains coherence. In fact, when the structure constricts, in the section on the genera of trees, the book starts to lose its bloody vitality. It retains it only by way of Kaufmann’s delicate depictions of walnut boughs and alder catkins. The lack of resolution between the clashing perspectives, like the argument of mountain face with grinding ice, is what gives it life.
Just as the portraits of wild things define this book, they share space with almost as many maps – which is why Kaufmann can label it an atlas. They are pieces of fine art in themselves, the real landscape filtered through the abstraction of an overarching view. Delicate touches of the brush caress the larger land, picturing different ways for us to see it, whether in its patterns of fire or edifices of stone or how human civilisation impacts its living fabric or how climate breakdown will alter its shape. The beauty of the maps derives from the attempt to connect with the landscape on a broad scale, to feel the deeper life in a great continent folding and remaking itself, diving into the sea.
There is an unacknowledged underbelly to this, however, which is that map-making is an inherently colonialist enterprise – it is an attempt to make the land legible to outsiders, a way of defining ownership without lived tenure. This air hangs around the maps that include California’s political boundaries. Kaufmann primarily paints within the lines, which seem firm and real, in spite of the illusory nature of the borders drawn with uncanny straightness and protractor angles, connecting the Colorado River to what we call Oregon.
Even if sketched in tenuous pencil, or crossed by incognisant rivers, the borders reoccur. It could be argued that, without them, it would be challenging to know what we are looking at. Kaufmann might have eschewed the political form of California entirely, opting for its floristic provinces instead – a decidedly more scientific approach – but the power of recognition would be lost.
This distant view is not only colonialist but necessarily technological. It looks down upon the land from the height of a satellite or aircraft, or through the lens of the surveyor’s transit. At that distance, individuality is obliterated, injustice rendered moot. Even the damages wrought by our culture on a broad scale become mere zones of colour.
I look at those borders with two parts of myself: one sees them as a wound, a knife cut dividing the land apart. The other sees home in that shape, but is in some sense identifying with a cage, with the colonial mindset. The maps contain both beauty and violence, though the latter is acknowledged only obliquely, or lives in the blank space outside the margins.
When the book first came into my hands, I sat with it at my desk and did not open it for a long time. I could not look away from the sky outside, the colour of flame. The sun, choked with smoke, glowered red as an ember. A forever twilight.
Our forests, here on California’s central coast, were redwood and oak, madrone and laurel, fir and pine. The shaded creeks roiling around knurled roots, the lichen streaming from pine limbs on the sandstone heights, the heron squawking in the cypress, the deer’s hoof crackling tan oak leaves. Our forests were the roar of conflagration. They were charcoal and ash and silence.
Our map was the fire agency website, showing the evacuation area. We refreshed and refreshed, watched the angular shapes of yellow and red widen over the mountains, coming closer. The smoke thickened, the garden wilting under heat and falling ash. The imaginary line came down to the highway, less than a mile from the house, and hung there like a yellow wave ready to break on us. We frantically collected into boxes what was most essential, what we could not live without. Our children pounding on the windows, trapped indoors.
The tide of flame never swept down on us, the firefighters halting its advance before it reached our town. But the smoke continued to boil out of the smouldering hills, the dead trees innumerable naked hash-marks. It was still unknown whether some of the last old-growth redwoods would live. And other fires lit and burned and sent their effluvium to blanket this landscape and indeed the entire continent.
One of the few human forms in the book holds a fire stick. It crouches beside the modern outline of California, fingers of its free hand splayed on the ground, holding the tip of the stick to the map, lighting Yosemite aflame. Smoke rises with the colours of sunrise. The map is stippled with blood where indigenous people practised burning regimes over the last ten thousand years. The figure’s arm and knees and face are touched by firelight – the rest is smoked glass, no hair, no clothes, only the intimation of eyes and a mouth, obscured by time.
Beside the hip of the crouched figure, Kaufmann writes: ‘As the ultimate invasive species, it does seem that our species achieved a level of naturalization within California’s ecosystems for thousands of years… In modern society there is no such equilibrium across California’s landscape.’
Fire and humanity have been companions for so long, we hardly know what to think of ourselves without it. We are a kind of expression of fire itself, and by extension the trees that are ‘unburning fire.’ For ten thousand years or more, over these living landscapes of California, humanity flowed like fire, forming the place and being formed by it, the dead transmuted by flame to the vigorous generations to follow.
There is a gulf between that old persistent life-way and that of the voracious machine that is our civilisation. In this age, pavement spreads like poisonous lichen, dams choke the throats of the rivers, the butterflies and salmon dwindle, the forests erupt in ravenous tornadoes of flame. The fires of our lives are tamped into boxes, the ages of the sun’s fire are clamped within the jaws of the piston engine. The very weathers are inflamed.
In the face of this Kaufmann leans hard on hope, that should we choose to protect and heal and restore the living fabric of California, we can have a liveable future. He veers away from grief and despair, as unproductive and defeatist. Certainly, to despair that we are in ‘the tragic denouement of the natural world’ is both to give our species more credit than it deserves, and to denigrate what survives our depredations. At once, not to admit that we are grieving a great loss of beauty is to allow a shifting baseline to carve away a rich territory of our feeling, to subsume it where it can turn fetid and toxic.
If we apprentice ourselves to the beauty that still lives, we have an opportunity to do repair as our cultural edifice crumbles under its own weight.
This book enacts hope in its expansiveness, in portraying what survives, while at once attempting to see humanity integrated within the deep time that the forests know. Kaufmann writes, ‘By investigating the historic character of California, we are also studying its future character.’ If we apprentice ourselves to the beauty that still lives, we have an opportunity to do repair as our cultural edifice crumbles under its own weight.
As though traversing a trail on a knife-edge ridge, we have to walk between hope and despair, acknowledging both but not tumbling down into either. Kaufmann advocates for the preservation and restoration of the more-than-human landscape, but for all his statistical analysis does not really address how much our fundamental outlook must shift if that healing is to come about. Still, his prescription for the basis of activism and repair is simple and worthy: contact with the wild and the real.
A few months ago, we took the kids to the park where they played under wide gnarled oaks, next to a running creek I explored as a child. The central coast of California, spring on the border of summer, the coastal fog shredding under the blades of the sun, revealing the hard blue sky. Just over the hills was the border of last year’s fire – roots still smouldered underground, waiting for summer’s winds to blow them to flame.
Across the ball fields and parking lots, the redwood forest climbed the ridge. Deep shade I could smell – acid and tannins and wet roots. The understory was the fluttering blades of laurel leaves and bracken ferns. The redwoods rose above them like the pillars of a cathedral that had built itself, spears aimed at the sky. Their boughs waved subtly in the breeze off the sea. I left the kids to play for a moment and walked out into the middle of the field, stared into the shadows. The ascending song of a hermit thrush glittered in the darkness, ringing in the space among the trunks, the forest formed for beauty and music, still here, still living.
The Forests Of California, by Obi Kaufmann, was published in 2020 by Heyday Books in Berkeley, California.
Kaufmann, William. The Forests of California. Berkeley, California, Heyday, 2020.
Kaufmann, William. ‘It’s All Still Here.’ Interview by Neale Inglenook. Dark Mountain, Issue 17, Spring 2020, pp. 49-56.