“California Became My Cosmos”: A Conversation with Obi Kaufmann

By Scott TimbergNovember 23, 2019

“California Became My Cosmos”: A Conversation with Obi Kaufmann
IF J. R. R. TOLKIEN’S Tom Bombadil were a tall, tattooed Gen-Xer who spends most of his free time camping in the wilds of California, he would resemble the writer and artist Obi Kaufmann. The Los Angeles–born, East Bay–reared Kaufmann had an unexpected hit with The California Field Atlas (2017), an eccentric document — neither conventional atlas nor field guide — that was illustrated with his own watercolor paintings of the state’s flora and fauna. The volume sold out its initial printings and won several awards.

Kaufmann is now taking the state in smaller bites, with his latest book being the similar but more focused The State of Water: Understanding California’s Most Precious Resource. (Future books for his Berkeley-based publisher Heyday will look at the state’s forests, deserts, and coastlines.) While the work of Robert Macfarlane — a fellow 40-ish hiker who has led a revival of nature writing in the United Kingdom — has been influenced by the poet Edward Thomas, Kaufmann is inspired by a diverse range of sources, including Rebecca Solnit, Frank Herbert, and Gary Snyder, as well as Chumash rock art.

Kaufmann discussed his new book and his views of the Golden State over a pint of California ale before an on-stage meeting with author Marc Weingarten at Diesel, A Bookstore, in Santa Monica.


SCOTT TIMBERG: You’ve written a lot about the state of California over the last few years; your new book is on water, a subject dear to our hearts here in Los Angeles. Tell us why water, why it’s important, and why this is the right time to engage with it.

OBI KAUFMANN: Right, it is about water, and it’s not about water. Let me explain. The State of Water is the second in a six-book contract with Heyday Books describing the whole character of California’s natural world. This character that has always been, continues to exist, and will always exist, despite this urban veneer that we’ve so successfully jacketed the state with over the past 170 years — since that guy found that pretty yellow rock in that river up north, you know? [Laughs.]

San Francisco became the metropolis very quickly after, and it was only in the past 100 years that Los Angeles overtook that. So, this book was necessary for me to write because I had to figure it out for myself. I had to figure out this machine, this beautiful water machine. And when I say beautiful, I mean awesome in the old sense of the word. We have altered this landscape, this California, through diverting its water, through using its water in a way that matches any human engineering effort ever in the history of humanity.

Roman aqueducts, or whatever, right?

Absolutely. We have tricked entire sections of our landscape into thinking that they are something they’re not, turning desert steppes into the most productive agricultural land in the world. It’s this double-edged sword; it’s this curse and this blessing that we are dealing with. We have all this class-one soil, this amazing Pleistocene alluvium soil — I could be talking about the San Joaquin Valley, the Salinas Valley, the Imperial Valley, Santa Clara Valley. Except we don’t have the rain to grow the food, to do the agriculture, right? It takes about 20 inches of rain a year to have agriculture without irrigation. And San Joaquin Valley gets about 13 to 18 inches. It’s not enough water. We’re an arid climate. We’re a climate much different than the rest of the country. I mean, I was born in Hollywood —

Right, your dad was at the Griffith Observatory.

He was the director of the Griffith Observatory for a few years in the early ’70s when I was born, and then we moved north in ’78 to Mount Diablo, which is the mountain that I love and that I cut my teeth on as a naturalist. What we have here in California, unlike the rest of the continent, is this Mediterranean climate. I grew up with these two seasons. … We don’t have fall, winter, spring, and summer here; we have rain and fire. [Laughs.] We have a drought every year, and it lasts five months.

We’re about to enter into it right now, yeah.

But, now in the age of climate breakdown, which is what I call the massive global event that we are experiencing — climate breakdown is more apt because it’s more alarmist than climate change. I don’t mean to ascribe a Chicken Little philosophy to it, but I do believe that, whether we experience two, three, or four degrees of centigrade-average global warming over the next 100 years, that will greatly influence whether or not there is a Central Valley to farm at all. So, we have dire decisions to make.

I’m never going to bet against humanity to solve problems, though — that’s what we do as a species. That’s what you’ve done here in Los Angeles. You’ve built this city 100 miles away from the nearest fresh water. What madness is that? I’m meeting with Marc Weingarten this afternoon, and he wrote Thirsty, which is about [William] Mulholland.

He’s the engineer of the whole thing, yeah. Let’s come back to the threats and the danger — I want to look at another side of your impulse here, which is that you’re a hiker, you care about the earth, you care about water, you care about California. But some of your early influences, I think, as a reader and writer, were purely literary. They were novelists and poets, presumably. Tell me about a few of those.

Definitely. Well, my father, the astrophysicist, was going to have a mathematician for a son, so I remember, growing up in high school, every day I sat down with him to do calculus homework, and we had a big stack of white paper, sharp No. 2s (which is kind of the same way that I work right now). After doing the calculus homework, I ran off into the wilds of Mount Diablo State Park, which is where I learned to appreciate this magical place — Mount Diablo is a very unique place in California’s bio-diverse portfolio. It was there that I would play with tarantulas and name the blue oak trees, and I would map the maze of the sagebrush. Of course, my father made a painter. [Laughs.]

One of the earliest influences that I had was Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which continues to impress me with its affection for the land about which he was writing, regardless of whether that land was real or not. I’m involved in what I think now as The Lord of the Rings or the Game of Thrones epic of the natural world of California: I’m unfolding one aspect after the next of California’s natural world, in a sort of epic progression, a narrative that almost approaches an arc that I’m calling climate breakdown. It’s about how California is changing before our eyes; it’s about the natural world and the human ecology that influence that.

In fact, in my pitch for The California Field Atlas for Heyday Books, my stalwart publishing house out of Berkeley, California, one of the things that I included was the hand-drawn map that Tolkien made of Middle-earth. I think a lot of your readers are probably familiar with that. This is because what I want to do is the same kind of thing: express my own relationship, my own understanding, to figure out for myself this place that has more epic romance, more adventure, more diversity, and more grandeur than any made-up world could ever have. And it’s all real. It’s all very much real. It’s California. As Edward Abbey once aptly said, “There is science, logic, reason; there is thought verified by experience. And then there is California.”

Right. I was about to say: When you say that California’s real, a part of me thinks yes and no. [Laughs.]

Right, yes and no — because it’s a land of superlatives.

Right. And it’s also a land that has been made up in the imagination for a long time, longer than it’s really existed. The Europeans had a myth of “Ultima Thule.” Whether it’s Hollywood, or the boosters, or the Gold Rush, people all over the world heard about California before they had ever inhabited it or seen it. So it became a myth alongside the real, physical place overrun with prospectors that became a state in the 19th century.

That has a really positive side and a very negative side, too, doesn’t it? Because California is largely something that we have been sold.

That’s sort of what I mean, yeah. It’s a fantasy that we’ve been sold.

I really applaud my publisher for pushing me to write this book second in my grander vision of writing about California’s natural world. I needed to do it because I needed to figure out the single most altered aspect of our natural topography, the water landscape, before I can go on and back to nature. My next book is going to be called The Forests of California. I’m going to be going back to nature, but this book is about how our water landscape was engineered. And it’s something that we’ve been sold. There is an argument to be made, and it’s very simplistic and reductive, that Los Angeles is basically a big real-estate-scape.

Yeah, sure. Chinatown is about that.

For sure. There’s a lot of our contemporary California that we still exist in. We are sold a lot of divisive rhetoric about north versus south, urban versus rural, red versus blue — all of this stuff that doesn’t really exist outside of particular agendas set forth by politicians or whatever government entities that require us to see ourselves that way. I present in this new book, The State of Water, what I hope is a unified vision. I leave the numbers on the table. I add up all the reservoirs. I’m only concerned with use, storage, and conveyance of water. This isn’t a book on policy. I’m not going to get into the politics — there are much better journalists and politicians who can do that better than me. I don’t talk about seniority rights; I don’t talk about allocations; I don’t talk about money too much.

I like the way, at the end of the book, you say: Obi Kaufmann is a painter, writer, hiker; he is not a politician, lawyer, lobbyist, whatever else — all of the other things that you are not.

That’s important. I’m not going to tell a farmer how to farm. And, actually, we’re going to have to make some tough choices about agriculture in the future of California, but I think, for the most part, that the good, hardworking families and family farms of California’s agricultural land are actually very conservation-minded. They have to be because they only get delivered a part of what they require.

Yeah, and probably the wineries as well, right? 

Well, wine is its own thing in California. You have three million acres of vineyards; that’s almost as big as Death Valley National Park. We’ve only got 101 million total acres in California. So, three percent of the state is vineyards, just straight-up land area, and the grape is a very thirsty fruit. And now we have all of these new vineyards sprouting up all over the place. It’s funny — I don’t talk a lot about vineyards because when you’re talking about vineyards, especially in places like the Central Coast, or even here outside of Los Angeles, like, Temecula, you think about these burgeoning wine regions and how there’s a lot of money to be made when you call yourself a wine region. Only in California, they say, will water flow uphill toward money, you know? So, we will figure that out if there is money to be made because we’re entrepreneurial people out here, aren’t we? [Laughs.]

But how then, if we have the right to make money … what is our correlating responsibility? And that’s the story that I really want to tell.

Let me come back to a literary question. You seem to have very eclectic literary roots, and one writer who I think I saw you give a high five to in your book, somebody who I don’t think of as being a nature writer, but I think it makes perfect sense given where you’re going — I think you mentioned Rebecca Solnit. Am I remembering that correctly?

Oh, for sure.

So, tell me how she fits in or informs your project here.

Rebecca Solnit is a fantastic writer. Her book Wanderlust has influenced me on the practice of walking. And she’s actually in a long line of what I am noting as a whole portfolio of — I don’t mean to be so overtly classifying, but I’m going to come out and say it — women writers. I looked over at my end table next to my bed the other day, and I had to write an essay because I noticed that they were all women.

Annie Dillard might have been on that shelf, too?

You know what, Annie Dillard wasn’t, but she would definitely be in there. I’m thinking of Terry Tempest Williams, Laura Cunningham, who wrote A State of Change, also for Heyday Books, Elizabeth Kolbert, and we’ve got Naomi Klein, Robin Wall Kimmerer with Braiding Sweetgrass, which I couldn’t recommend more, Diane Ackerman’s The Human Age. I think a lot about “The Future is Female.” I think my favorite candidates to be the next president are all women, and I wonder about being an eco-feminist, if I can digress for a second. I loved in Paul Hawken’s book Drawdown, when he describes the three things that we can do: if we treat women as equals economically, we can solve the climate crisis, which is a very interesting and subtle point. You do three things: you make sure that every woman in the world graduates primary and secondary school, you make sure that they are paid commensurate to the labor that they put in toward their industry, and you provide the paltry five billion dollars toward reproductive and family planning in women’s health, and then you’re taking about 75 gigatons of carbon out of the air by the year 2050. And you have single-handedly solved climate change or climate breakdown. And if that’s being an eco-feminist, sign me the hell up. [Laughs.]

Well, you mentioned Elizabeth Kolbert, who wrote The Sixth Extinction, so let me come back to that — the issue of threats to the environment, whether it’s carbon, global warming, or what you’re calling climate breakdown. My hunch is that almost everybody who has been in your shoes — in other words, people like Thoreau, John Muir, Edward Abbey, and so on — were writing out of a love of the land, but also with a sense that it was threatened, right? They were doing this as a defense of what they loved.

But my hunch is that, for people today, you included, it’s more urgent. Do you feel like there is something different about living in a world where we have now documented the end? It’s not just Walden Pond that we are worried about, right? There is a larger sense that the planet and the human race are under threat, and we have created the situation. I just wonder how that shapes what you do and how you see yourself as a writer.

Well, thank you — to be associated with those authors is a true honor. But I think I have a different attitude toward it, and I have a couple of answers for that question. It’s a very complex issue because I have been called an optimist, like my work is very hopeful, like I am saying things will survive. I don’t agree with that perspective; I think I am very much a realist. I trust the earth to do what it is going to do, and I trust humans to do what they are going to do. I am not going to bet against humanity because humanity has a very good way of solving problems. But I also understand that extinction is true for every species. It’s a biological axiom.

It’s just the way it always works out.

Ninety-nine percent of species that have ever existed have already become extinct. We are at a moment — and follow me on this metaphor here for a second — where, if you look back 3.8 billion years ago when life on earth began, the sunrise of life on earth, you look forward, turn your head, and then look in the other direction, life will end here on this planet about 3.8 billion years from now.

The sun will expand and —

The core will shrink and brighten on its way to becoming a red giant. And, at that point, even the oceans will evaporate — all bacteria will be scoured from the planet, you know? There will be a seventh extinction. It will be us.

It will be everything.

Well, a seventh extinction. … We’re only one species. A mass extinction is defined by a massive percentage of all taxonomic genus on planet Earth becoming extinct. So, we are in the sixth extinction now; it began 15,000 years ago. It is not something that we’ve done in the past one hundred years. It is something that started a long time ago.

It predates the Industrial Revolution and all the other stuff we’re talking about.

So, there will be a seventh extinction. There will be a 12th mass extinction. We are but a moment, and we are but a moment that this earth has invented. We are an invention of the earth. There is nothing that is not natural.

And, of course, if you want to break down ethical constructions of what is artificial and what is natural. … There is nothing that is pre-natural; there is nothing that is supernatural; that is what I believe. This is all the world working itself out, and we are a part of that. So, I trust nature to do what it’s going to do. I see California, then, as the subject of my study. And, what I said before about what has been and what will always be, I am really talking in terms of millions of years in scale. About 200 million years ago, this planet had its greatest granitic creation event. It made the biggest piece of granite that it has ever made since. And then it pushed it up through the North American Plate and formed the Sierra Nevada. So about five million years ago, in the Miocene Period, California began to resemble its current tectonic configuration. If you look at, like, the third chapter of The California Field Atlas, “Waters and Rivers,” you’ll see several dozen portraits of these water courses, these blue lines. They’ll look exactly that same way in a thousand years, long after all the red lines, these roads, this artifice that we live in, has returned to the dust from which it was made. And so, what will remain is the character of California that I am looking to describe. And because of that, as an activist, that’s the word that —

That’s the way you do see yourself … 

I see myself as someone who is engaged and concerned, right? People are always asking me: “What can I do?” Well, first of all, when was the last time you went camping? We’re going to need you grounded and centered if we are going to change this story. You need to go put your feet into a wild river. You need to go find a frog. You need to go learn, please, all of this stuff. Because people love what they know, and people protect what they love.

So, go find frogs, go learn the difference between a pine tree and a cedar tree. And when you start to read nature, you begin to let it in. And that’s happening more and more in this age of mass information. People are understanding that nature is deep, beautiful, and nourishing — to a point where we are ready to reject this thing that we’ve been sold, that California “belongs to you,” that it is the land of infinite resources, which it is very much not. At what point do we turn that around ethically and begin to discuss, instead, ourselves belonging to California? It is through this thinking that we begin to change our story. That’s what I’m talking about when I say post-environmentalism. We’re not talking about just changing the system as it is — I’m a believer in conservation laws — but deep transitions to conservation theory. What is 22nd- or 23rd-century conservation policy going to look like? We need to talk about that now. And now that we understand the failures of 20th-century conservation, we need to talk about it. 

So, I could be completely wrong, but my sense is that there has been … You’re in your mid- to late 40s, right?

Yes, mid-40s.

Okay. So, my sense is that there are a bunch of people my age, or a little younger, and a lot of them are British … I am an occasional hiker; I am not a naturalist; I am not, most of the time, someone you would think of as being a reader of nature books. But I’ve gotten this sense, in the last few years, that there is a lot of force, a lot of stylish writing coming out of a number of different people of our generation, the best known being the Brit Robert Macfarlane. And I wonder if you feel any connection to that British school — do you feel like there is a larger movement of nature writers that you’re a part of?

Thank you for using the word stylish. [Laughs.] I am a painter first. I have a different school. I was a gallery artist showing in New York and San Francisco and Los Angeles for about 20 years before I did any of this. I couldn’t figure out that business plan. But I always wanted the coffee-table book, you know? I got that, but I got to give it to the thing that I love the most on this planet Earth, or the most in this whole universe, which is the natural world of California. So, I got that book with The California Field Atlas.

So, the art of Obi Kaufmann — what a boring book that would have been. It would have been some coffee-table thing absolutely sequestered in the decorative realm. Instead, this book has some utility. This book is meant to establish a foothold in this living connection. Robert Macfarlane and his work Landmarks is preserving the old language of how to even describe that. I would say that he is almost approaching something like journalism in a way. One of my favorite British natural writers would be J. A. Baker and his seminal work The Peregrine.

Right, which Macfarlane has championed. He wrote the introduction to the New York Review edition, I think.

I mean talk about stylish writers. He’ll use a noun as a verb and vice versa. He really takes the language to himself, and he really incorporates — there’s a bevy of personal reasons why he does this — that bird into his own art. And I love how he does that with a particular species, the peregrine falcon. I do it with California, you know? I was raised by an astrophysicist, and California became my cosmos. So, this is the whole world; California is my whole world. And, in that sense, this book is not about — The California Field Atlas, The State of Water, and all of my work to come — this work is not about California even. It’s about me looking at nature; it’s about a way of looking at nature. It is about me, then. This book is about me. [Laughs.] Sorry to break it to you, but it’s true.

So, it sounds like you respect the British school, but you feel as though it’s a different lineage than what you’re up to.

Yeah, I just learned about 35 seconds ago that it is a school at all. So, I listen to Western writers. I live in Wallace Stegner’s California. That man — you think of The Sound of Mountain Water, Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs

I love that book, yeah. 

I defy anyone to write a better sentence in the English language than what Wallace Stegner did living in Palo Alto all of those years. I just think that that’s about as good as it gets. But my writing has always been contentious in my own artistic mind. You used a word earlier that I wanted to bring up, too. You were talking about different ways of looking at nature. You were talking about natural history and analysis. You were talking about different ways of how you could look at it and separate it, especially between the arts, and the sciences, and the different media. The way that I think about it is very much like consilience, a unity.

Like E. O. Wilson’s Consilience, right?

Yes, E. O. Wilson is one of my biggest inspirations.

Tell me a bit about what impression he made on you.

Oh, definitely. What a joyful man he is. He’s our nation’s greatest living naturalist. He headed up Harvard Entomology for several decades.

Yeah, that’s right; he’s an insect guy.

Yeah, he named hundreds of species of ants in particular. His work does not fail to impress me. When he talks about, for example, if aliens were to come here — or, as a side note, why a galactic conquest has never even begun — it has to do with the way that you are a personal biome. There’s over several thousand species of different micro-bacteria living in your body right now. And if you were to ever expose them to an alien atmosphere, say, like, E.T.’s in Spielberg’s movie, your body would collapse. That is why a galactic conquest has never begun. That’s a side note. What he does say is, if aliens are coming, they are not coming for our sciences. They’ll have that figured out. That’s a constant in the universe.

Right, the science is the same in each place.

What they are coming for is our humanities — that thing that began in us six million years ago on the plains of Africa. That’s when our brain began to resemble its current physiological configuration, you know? And that’s the thing that makes us special.

So, they’ll want our storytelling, our music, and things like that.

Exactly, that’s correct.

Wilson said this?

Yeah, he says that even perhaps more than bipedalism or the opposable thumb, our ability to make stories —

Well, I think he talks about how the control of fire led to people gathering, trading tales, learning how to structure narratives, and this would help not only individual survival but the survival of these tribal groups as well.

Right. It’s the cognitive revolution. This took place between 70,000 and 100,000 years ago. So, that idea of what story is, and that idea that story can change through the Agricultural Revolution, through the Industrial Revolution, through the upcoming Ecological Revolution, the fourth great revolution that is coming — we talk about it all the time, and we need to keep talking about the 800-pound gorilla in the room, which is population.

Is there enough room for all of us? It’s a big state. A lot of it is empty, right?

Well, there’s plenty of room. It’s not about room.

It’s about resources, right?

It’s about water.


Water defines life in California. John Wesley Powell wrote Lands of the Arid Region in 1878. … Stegner wrote Beyond the Hundredth Meridian about him.

That’s right — that’s why I know his name, because of Stegner.

Right. Well, he rejected the whole modern political scheme of how we’ve divided the states. He said that we need to divide them all by watershed because that is the one factor that will define life forever in the West. He knew that west of the 100th meridian we get less than 20 inches of rain a year. It’s all over the West, except for, like, the Pacific Northwest. And that fact alone was my impetus to write The State of Water: Understanding California’s Most Precious Resource. But I’d like to, in our last few minutes here, really talk about what California’s most precious resource is. With the evolution of my own writing … I wrote that book a year ago and now I am working on the next book —

I was going to ask: what’s next for Obi Kaufmann? Weave those two together however you’d like, and we’ll quit there.

So, California’s most precious resource — what if it isn’t water? What if it is the ability of the people to tell the story as one?

Right, the culture of California.

What I’ve established in the book is that there is enough water. And we have the technology; we can build it; we’ve already built it. There is this wonderful infrastructure that will change as much in the next 170 years as it did in the past 170 years. So, that idea of talking about time as we’re talking about space and this thing called an atlas is very important to me as well, you know, how it changes, how the space changes in time.

But it’s that idea of us being able to find a unified story, to trust each other enough to begin the conversation where we’re talking openly and honestly, without agenda, about our continued human resonancy in the most beautiful and careless of all places over the next 500 years to 1,000 years. Listen to too much 24-hour news and you’ll think we’re not going to make it to next Tuesday. We’ll make it to next Tuesday. We must begin to consider what a post-carbon economy looks like for California, and we already are, which is the happy thing that I am pleased to report.

So, how do we conceive of that?

We already are. When you think of all of the incredibly diverse, and aggressive, and absolutely doable water portfolio that Los Angeles has planned over the next 25 to 40 years, including wastewater management, storm water recapture, groundwater recharging … The plan for so long had been that Governor Brown idea that we should just bring more water down south from up north. You know, two-thirds of the people live in Southern California, but two-thirds of the water is in Northern California — let’s just bring it down here.

But now technology is different. Now we have … Even the word desalination is no longer anathema to green-thinking, even though, right now, it uses a lot of electricity given its osmotic technology that is becoming obsolete as we’re researching things like industrial-scale desalination, where you would run seawater through molecule-thick carbon paper. We can’t do it on a large scale yet, but it is coming, you know? I’m not necessarily a proponent of solely using technological solutions, because all of those solutions are prosthetic. The causal basis is story. What is this story doing? Do these rivers deserve to run clean? What is worth what?

When I was backpacking Big Sur in the 1980s, I felt that I was just going to live in a California without condors. There were no whales; there were no otters. Conservation laws work. And we have 400 breeding condors in the wild Southwest. We have the southern population of humpback whales being taken off of the endangered species list; we have rafts of hundreds of sea otters. And all of that is because of good conservation policy.

But it sounds like your larger point is that it’s a policy, and these other things come from a shared narrative, right? So, perhaps that’s the big picture of the Obi Kaufmann experience? Like, weaving a shared narrative for the state of California’s past, present, and future.

Yes, ultimately. And as a California kid, it’s a marketing effort. When has marketing not been good at storytelling? And, in that way, what is the story we’re trying to tell? And it very well might be not only the best story to tell, but the only story to tell.


Scott Timberg is the editor of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles and author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class.

LARB Contributor

Scott Timberg is the editor of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles and author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, an examination of the damages to our cultural landscape wrought by recent technological and economic shifts and an argument for a more equitable and navigable future. Timberg is writing a book called Beeswing: Britain, Folk Rock, and the End of the 60s with the guitarist Richard Thompson.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!