The Art of the Wild: Obi Kaufmann and the California Field Atlas

California is an incredible state, and the opportunities for adventure here are endless. You name it, California has it: mountains, deserts, oceans, rivers, wildlife, trees (big, tall, and old), the list goes on. And it’s beautiful. The late, great photographer, Galen Rowell, wrote in his book, The Art of Adventure “[California] has everything I ever wanted to photograph, more beauty and diversity than any other mountain landscapes I’ve ever seen. But, I had to go to the Himalayas, New Zealand, Africa, Canada, and Alaska before I could say that with any authority.”

California is also a huge state, larger than many countries. You could spend a lifetime exploring it. Some people do. Obi Kaufmann is one who has, and the results of a decade-long project have come to fruition in the California Field Atlas.

Now, I’m a sucker for books and maps: an unabashed bibliophile and cartophile. I can kill hours browsing in a used bookstore, and stare endlessly at maps, planning future forays into remote areas. I had read early reviews describing the California Field Atlas with almost gushing praise: it is more than a book or a set of maps, it is a labor of love, a work of genius; but, I hadn’t actually put hand to paper.

Then an opportunity arose. I received an email mentioning Obi Kaufmann would be joining Lanny Kaufer, of Herb Walk fame, on an outing in Ojai: an exploration of the Ventura River Preserve after the Thomas fire and recent flood as well as lecture about the creation of the Atlas, complete with a painting demonstration by Obi. As luck would have it, Lanny’s event was on a weekend when I was not away.

As soon as I registered for Lanny’s class, an order was placed for a copy of the California Field Atlas. A few days later it arrived. I opened the book, and my jaw dropped. The California Field Atlas was no mere book: it was a work of art. There were more than 300 hand-painted maps, beautifully reproduced watercolor paintings and drawings. Did I mention the plethora of detailed information? I couldn’t wait for the Herb Walk trip to occur.

Saturday morning was cool and overcast at the Ventura River Preserve. The main parking area was full; volunteers were working on the trails and Lanny had a good sized group. The surrounding hills were bleak, the fires had taken their toll, but life was beginning to come back. The fire had burned down to the shore of the river; still, there were some areas which escaped the worst of the flames.

Obi arrived, dressed in his California Hiking Jacket and full-brimmed hat, which, along with his beard, gave him a ‘John Muir’ look, though Muir didn’t have the tattoos Obi was sporting.

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Obi Kaufmann sporting a California Hiking Jacket and holding a copy of the California Field Atlas.

After a brief introduction, Lanny led the group down to the Ventura River. The pattern for the rest of the outing was Lanny stopping at an interesting piece of flora, he would discuss it and its uses, then Obi would speak.

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Lanny Kaufer discussing Big Berry Manzanita (Arctostaphylos glauca)

Sometimes Obi would tell a story, wax philosophical, or segue into a section of the Atlas. On a personal level, it felt good to finally get out on a trail, even if for a short while on a well-traveled path.

Here’s a link where Obi talks about his experience at the Venture River Preserve: https://coyoteandthunder.com/2018/02/12/tour-notes-from-the-dry-winter-of-2018/

It was an immensely satisfying way to impart information and time went by quickly; all too soon we had to head back to our cars and drive into Ojai for a meal prepared by Rondia, Lanny’s wife, followed by a slideshow about the Atlas.

There is a calmness to Obi, but also passion. It would be cliché to say he put his soul into this tome, but it’s true. According to Kaufman, the California Field Atlas is concerned with geographic literacy and is a ‘nature first’ narrative. Indeed, one of the things missing from the maps is roads, and cities are not differentiated by size.

When asked if was surprised how well the book has done, he said “if some had told him back in September the first printing would sell out by Thanksgiving and the second printing would almost be gone, and there would be a third and fourth printing ordered, I would have said there’s not a snowball chances in hell.” But the reviews have been outstanding. Indeed the California Field Atlas won the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association 2018 Book of the Year Award for Regional Interest.

A slide from the presentation, while not of the best quality, showed Obi, talking with poet Gary Snyder and artist Tom Killion. A case can be made that Kaufmann is in this elite circle; if not now, then certainly after his upcoming trio of new books.

One person at lecture asked me: “what do you do with the book?” My response was you can just enjoy it for the beautiful artwork and paintings. There is also a wealth of information to be gleaned from the detailed maps and descriptions. And you can use it as a source of inspiration to plan trips throughout the Golden State. The latter is how I’m studying the Atlas, keeping a notebook with the Atlas to jot down ideas for future explorations. While the California Field Atlas does not have directions to trailheads (see prior comment about the lack of roads), there is sufficient information in the Atlas, along with readily available online resources, to help you set out on an adventure of your own. (Note: If you do head out into the field, understand the California Field Atlas is not meant for navigation, and is not a substitute for topographic and forest service maps.)

I realize Lanny Kaufer has been underrepresented in this article, which is not meant as slight. The truth is I learned quite a bit from him and I’m looking forward to signing up for one of his tradition herb walks I’m also grateful to him for facilitating the event with Obi. For information about future Herb Walks, please check out Lanny’s Herb Walks website: https://herbwalks.com/

To learn more about Obi Kaufmann, as well as how to order his book, visit his website: https://coyoteandthunder.com/

(Note on ordering the California Field Atlas.  As of the date this article was posted, Heyday temporarily out of stock of the California Field Atlas.  There are still copies available at Amazon.com.)

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