By Sam Hall Kaplan
“Eureka,” ancient Greek for “I have found it,” is perhaps best known as the motto of the state of California, emblazoned as it is on the fluttering state flag. Given the context in which it is used, I immodestly echo it here to lend emphasis to my enthusiasm for the publication of “The California Field Atlas.”
“Eureka,” I have found a uniquely designed and different book explaining, displaying and celebrating the state’s distinct geography and ecology. It is an engaging trip along the state’s sandy beaches, up fresh water rivers, across verdant valleys and dry deserts, and into the deep forests and towering mountains beyond.
Published by the independent, non-profit Heyday Books of Berkeley, California, it is not the usual dry atlas of maps and facts, though for me as a right-brained blessed reader such books are always welcomed. Words obviously I love, but I also find maps fascinating and illustrations intriguing., and am easily diverted by them.
The subsequently engrossing field atlas indeed has a wealth of these visuals, but much more, thanks to an obviously obsessed writer, Obi Kaufmann. He admits that despite having worked on the book his whole life, he still feeling like a novice, “an infatuated child, lost and humble beggar, “ asking for the natural wisdom rising out of the state’s unique geography.
Kaufmann is indeed very much a romantic, and writes as if he is far, far from civilization, lying on his back on a cold winter’s night on a mountaintop, looking up at a clear, glittering sky and making a wish on the brightest star he sees.
“I want to hold the whole of California in my hand, like a diamond or spinning top; I want to coax this single piece of the universe into opening up its secrets.” He adds that by writing this book, “I seek to participate in the wild reimagining of this place, past the scars inflicted over the last 200 years, to reveal a story about what has always been here and what will remain long after our human residency here is through.” Or I might add maybe until the last of many editions of the atlas is placed on remainder.
As a blurb on the sturdy back cover of the solidly constructed book, good for back pockets and backpacks, states, ”This book is not full of roads maps, and it won’t help you if you are lost in the woods. It comes with a different set of guarantees and assurances, on that it plainly lays out the entirety of the state as a single, integrative being composed of living patterns and ancient processes.”
That is as bold as the magnificent Mount Whitney (14,494 feet) seen on a clear day from the enveloping Sequoia National Park. You can almost taste the clean air and smell the foxtail pines.
Kaufmann unabashedly labels the book a love story, to be sure a very different love story, and presents himself as a poet and a painter, whose “work is based on a mode of naturalist interpretation that builds from hard science to focus on the inner lens of truth.” The result is, in the words of Kaufmann, “a new portfolio of invented geography that balances ecology and aesthetics as driving and orienting forces.”
Though a love story, to be sure this is also a handbook, as detailed in an introductory table of contents, headed by a chapter entitled “Unfolding California.” The chapters that follow are categorized under the liturgical–like rubrics of “Earth and Mountains,” “ Water and Rivers,” “Fire and Forests,“ “Wind and Weather,” and “Of Life, Death and the Desert,” , among other more placid headings.
Depending on your curiosity, you can, of course, jump from chapter to chapter, and topic to topic, at random, like rock to rock, fording a wide, white-water stream. Expect to be distracted, occasionally slip, get wet and be refreshed.
Thumb nail brief histories as protracted captions to the accompanying hand painted maps, some casually smudged, lend a welcomed perspective So does the informal style, written as if being delivered as an aside by an informed guide who had led you out of a stuffy lecture hall to a hidden forest observation post, far from the madding crowd.
But you definitely should take the book as a companion on your next hike into the woods or along the beach, which it undoubtedly will encourage, whether one is a dedicated environmentalist, an inquisitive surveyor, a weekend wanderer, or walking the dogs, as I do.
The author identified himself as a “wilderness naturalist,” spending a lot of time backpacking, while apparently making ends meet as an illustrator and designer (www coyoteandthunder.com). Refreshingly no past or present academic affiliation is noted, though if asked as I once was in the distant past for a nominee for a coveted MacArthur Foundation grant, I would gladly submit Kaufmann based on this unique book alone.
Kaufmann’s focus is primarily on the natural world, prompted by a pedestrian ethic that reveals the mystery and marvels of California at a walking pace, adding not unlike a book does. “Just as books require literacy, nature requires a level of conceptual symbol reading and narrative comprehension.”
Literature should only have enticing trails as California does, such as the Pacific Crest Trail, stretching 1,662 miles. It is described as a “walking highway for humanity to regain and remember itself, its place, and its purpose,” revealing as do other paths, the state’s ecological treasures.
Kaufmann seems particularly at home in the forest, which he comments is much more challenging to map than a coastline, a river or even a mountain. He notes forests, woodlands, prairies and grasslands are varying living systems that “fail to delineate themselves as singular pieces of geography and resist easy classification.”
For the true tree hugging author, “California is a dancing machine of forest ecosystems that best operate in a fine balance between dualities that include fire and water, aridity and hydration, soil and erosion, climatic consistency and variation, and the push and pull between native and invasive plants and animals.”
But I pause to wonder if for all of his embrace of the forest “dancing machine “and its regime of fires what Kaufmann would have written if he experienced the recent disastrous and deadly fires in his beloved wine country where he roamed as an inquisitive child and now lives? The fires there and the actually more riskier rambling suburbs of southern California were a raw reminder of the vulnerability of the state storied past and a foreboding to its future.
Obviously prior to these worst blazes in the state’s history, Kaufmann wrote that the fires would continue, they being nature’s way for forests to renew themselves. It is all part of a process he describes optimistically as “rewilding,” a renewal of sorts where the “great living machine that is California will roll on forever;” Of course, he blithely adds that is if we heed what science is telling us about climate change, stop burning fossil fuels, and consuming meat, among other regimes.
“With the right information and the right spirit, and a bit of ingenuity, we can ensure that the natural California that our grandchildren and their grandchildren know is even in better condition that it is today.” Though Kaufmann admits to presenting a perhaps “too-rosy” a portrait, commenting that as stewards of the land “we are largely doing a poor job, and perhaps I should have done more to warn of the threats our state faces on an environmental level.”But he unfortunately doesn’t, explaining he wanted the book to be uplifting, confident and cheery. He indeed is not a muckraking journalist, and the narrative regretfully all but ignores the forces of greed and evil lurking under rocks in our political landscape.
Sadly, we know too well from the reports out of a besieged Washington, D.C. that the Trump Administration is conspiring with villainous lobbyists to rape and pillage our culturally and biological heritage to appease business interests, to the ire of environmentalists such as Kaufmann, everywhere.
You sincerely, indeed wishfully, hope Kaufmann is right, and the warnings will be heeded, so maybe you and yours, and the generations of Californians to come, can enjoy his excellent atlas and the inevitable updated editions in the years to come in their anticipated explorations of the once and future great state. And if they do, I would love that they place a stone somewhere in the wilderness for me, and mankind, to be remembered.
Perhaps meanwhile every state legislator and administrator should be given a copy of the “The California Field Atlas,” to read and be reminded of their heritage and responsibility, and gird them for the legislative and legal efforts needed to protect and perpetuate this singular piece of the universe.