An Atlas That Paints Wild California With a Watercolor Brush

10 min
Author Obi Kaufmann's new book is "The California Field Atlas." (Paul Collins)

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here’s a new book out about California that’s selling faster than Berkeley's Heyday Books can print it. It’s called "The California Field Atlas," and it’s a thick book of maps. Not road maps, but hand-drawn watercolor renderings of wild California, with descriptions and reflections on its mountains, rivers, and creatures. It’s a kind of love letter.

“I was lost in a swoon for California,” says author Obi Kaufmann.  He’s an Oakland-based artist who’s walked thousands of miles of trail, from the Carrizo Plain to the Siskiyou Wilderness.

But one of his favorite spots is the mountain where he spent his childhood: Mount Diablo State Park, on the edge of the Contra Costa County suburbs.

Mount Diablo is depicted in one of the paintings in Obi Kaufmann's new atlas of wild California, published by Heyday Books. Kaufmann grew up exploring Mount Diablo, close to his childhood home in Danville. (Courtesy of Obi Kaufmann)

“It’s a little gem of biodiversity, a little jewel of wilderness right here among all the sprawling humanity that surrounds it,” says Kaufmann as we begin our hike along a creek at the base of the mountain.

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Mount Diablo, he tells me, rises at the point where the Central Valley meets the San Francisco Bay Area. Because of wind patterns, it captures seeds blowing from all over the state. So you’ll find plants here that are usually found only on the Central Coast or way up by the Oregon border.

As we set off on the hike, Kaufmann warns me of the “fearsome four” we might encounter: scorpions, mountain lions, rattlesnakes and tarantulas. But he’s not personally afraid of them.

“I mean, I’ve taken so many naps unwittingly next to tarantulas,” he says. "They climb on me. I don’t know if they’re looking for dryness, or warmth, or just love.”

One creature that does scare him: wild pigs.

“If you see one, look for a tree, and climb it, ’cuz they have a bad attitude,” he warns.  “They’ll bite. They’ll charge. They’ll hurt you.”

In fact, one of the maps in this book shows all the California locales wild pigs roam -- 56 of the state’s 58 counties. The book's other stylized maps include one showing the fir trees of California, one depicting wildfire hotspots, and yet another locating the state's dozens of wildflower gardens.

A map showing what Obi Kaufmann calls California's 'oak gardens.' (Courtesy of Obi Kaufmann)

“I’m less and less interested as I go in years as a naturalist and as a painter in one specific thing, in one specific species,” says Kaufmann. “I spent the last several decades trying to figure out the names for all the flowers, the names of the trees and shrubs, rocks and birds. Now I’m much more interested in the way it fits together in these larger systems.”

His watercolor maps depict the familiar California outline, filled in in unexpected ways. A California without roads. A map just of California’s rocks. Another of its rivers.

Obi Kaufmann fills his field atlas with watercolor paintings of California's natural features, flora, and fauna. (Paul Collins)

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aufmann began making maps as a child during outings on Mount Diablo. He sketched out the tiny trails traveled by coyotes. He gave many of the trees he encountered individual names -- taken from the names of the angels in Milton’s epic poem "Paradise Lost."

“I think it was some sort of basic childhood reaction to lots of time,” reflects Kaufmann. “Loneliness, even, in the pre-Internet era. I’d come up here to enjoy the quiet and the birds and the coyotes. I thought that was more rock n’roll than anything going on in the city. I thought nature was where my voice was.”

Kaufmann moved to L.A. from the town of Danville, in the shadow of Mount  Diablo, when he was 5 years old. His father, William J. Kaufmann III, was a world-renowned astronomer who headed the Griffith Observatory and passed away suddenly in 1994, at the age of 51.

“He gave me my biggest perspective,” says Obi Kaufmann. “So even though I’m 20 years from the death of my father, I’m grateful to be afforded his opportunity to continue that conversation with the greatest scale of things. You know, that for me is California. For him it was the universe.”

Kaufmann’s wearing a big straw hat and has a scraggly beard like John Muir. But, he says, guys like Muir weren’t really his big influences when he fell in love with nature as a teen in the late 1980s. It was more like "Lord of the Rings" and Metallica. Obi was a geek, a loner, a city kid who prefers sleeping out under the stars.

“A lot of people say, 'Oh, you’re living the John Muir lifestyle, eating berries and sleeping in trees,'” laughs Kaufmann. “It’s like, yeah, I do that, but I also live in an apartment in downtown Oakland.”

He likes his hipster coffee. He worked as a tattoo artist and designed graphics for a natural fragrance company before turning his attention to writing the book.

Obi Kaufmann has also worked as a tattoo artist and a graphic designer. (Paul Collins)

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s we climb the mountain, Kaufmann talks about how observing things at a walking pace is more interesting than what you can see driving. He likes how trails follow the natural topography.

“Some contour, some feature of the topography that you can read,” he explains. “Looking from here, from the buckeyes and the blue oaks, coastal sage brush, up into the valley oaks and the gray pines. I think that kind of narrative, that really subtle story, only unfolds at a walking pace.”

Douglas iris. (Courtesy of Obi Kaufmann)

Kaufmann says his book, with its layers of watercolor wash, is trying to spell out that kind of narrative in a visual form.

“It’s geographic literacy,” he says.  “We have to know what there is to conserve in order to conserve it.”

I ask him about the most unexpected thing encountered during his years of walking California. He tells me about an usually quiet moment in the San Rafael Wilderness area of Los Padres National Forest when he spotted something bright red and freshly killed in a stream bed.

“It looked like someone had taken the fur off this baby bear, and removed it like a jacket, in one fell swoop,” he recalls.  “There’s only one animal that does that: the mountain lion. That’s why the forest was quiet. The one thing about every single encounter I’ve ever had with a mountain lion is that she is control. You are not control, which is a very humbling experience for a human.”

Mountain lion. (Courtesy of Obi Kaufmann)

“I think the process of writing this book and remembering that experience infuses the whole thing with a different sense of what it means to be in a natural participant in a wild system," he said. "To let go of this facile need to own it and control it, because you can’t.”

But Kaufmann insists his field guide is not an environmental treatise.

“People are getting so entrenched in their beliefs. I think it’s time to throw away all of what it is to be left, what it is to be right," he says. "All that old language needs to go away. I don’t even like the word ‘environmentalist.’ I’m trying to figure out some other word, like ‘restorationist.’ Let’s keep what we have here. Let’s restore these habitats.”

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y the time we reach the summit of Mount Diablo and take in the breathtaking panorama stretching from the Sierra Nevada to the Farallon Islands, I am starting to see things from Kaufmann’s point of view. The watercolor view of California.

California condor. (Courtesy of Obi Kaufmann)

“We’re up here in the crow’s nest of California,” says Kaufmann, pointing to the 400-mile-long granite spine of the Sierra Nevada.  “It’s sort of breathtaking up here. It’s sort of like mind-breakingly beautiful. I always find when I get up here California makes sense. You can kind of see the whole thing.”

It’s true. On a clear day, you can see across to the Farallones, down to the Tehachapi Mountains, even all the way to Mount Shasta.

Obi Kaufmann’s field atlas renders the state more beautiful by filtering out the urban stuff, so you only see its wildness.

It’s a 500-page book, maybe a little heavy to take with you on a hike. It’s not practical as a trail map, and it won’t point the way home. But it does open your eyes to a new way of seeing California.

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