Blazing a New Trail

Artist Obi Kaufmann
Artist Obi Kaufmann
‘The California Field Atlas’ looks at the state’s natural beauty from every angle — and its popularity is soaring. Copies of the new book are almost impossible to keep in stock. Paul Saffo explains why.

John Muir would have loved “The California Field Atlas,” a compellingly poetic exploration of the living environment of his beloved adopted state. Muir famously observed that, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” The “Field Atlas” is organized around the deep interconnections of life, geography and climate, echoing Muir’s intuition. As author Obi Kaufmann writes in his introduction, “I want to coax this single piece of the universe into opening up its secrets.”

“The California Field Atlas” by Obi Kaufmann, 530 pages, Heyday, $45.HEYDAY
“The California Field Atlas” by Obi Kaufmann, 530 pages, Heyday, $45.

Like Muir, both Kaufmann and his “Field Atlas” defy categorization. Muir was a naturalist, writer, geologist, botanist, inventor, engineer and environmentalist. Kaufman is a painter, poet, topographer, natural historian, activist and one-time tattoo artist who happens to have a love of science and a knack for calculus. Oh, and he’s a clothing designer, too (he’s selling a nifty tweed field coat straight from the 19th century). Like Muir, Kaufmann is a passionate hiker and explorer of California’s back country. “Field Atlas” draws from Kaufmann’s watercolors, maps and writings assembled over 20 years of his explorations.

The result is a book I can’t quite describe — and also can’t put down. And I am not alone; the entire 8,000-copy first printing of “Field Atlas” sold out in a matter of weeks after its November release, no small feat for a book that weighs two pounds and costs $45. A second printing was rushed out even as copies were being resold online for prices ranging from $145 to $1,500.

A fanciful map of the state’s ecological zones from Obi Kaufmann’s “The California Field Atlas.”ILLUSTRATION BY OBI KAUFMANN
A fanciful map of the state’s ecological zones from Obi Kaufmann’s “The California Field Atlas.”

It is clear what this book is not. It is chockful of critter illustrations, but it most definitely is not a wildlife guide. The maps in the “Field Atlas” put trails front and center, but lack the detail to help a backpacker recover from a missed turn. “Field Atlas” is too heavy to carry on a day hike, much less on a through-hike on the Muir Trail. It is also too general to advise a hiker wondering about the name of a peak on the horizon or how to identify a bird flitting around a campsite. And, by the way, there is not a single road depicted on any map in the “Field Atlas,” so don’t count on it to help you get from home to your favorite trailhead.

This is a book about systems. Its chapters are organized around systems: of water and rivers, of wind and weather, of fire and forests, of deserts and wildlife. Humans are not excluded, but the “Field Atlas” exhibits a certain ambiguity regarding the human presence in California. Kaufmann notes that humans have been present in California for at least 15,000 years and expresses the expectation that they will be present for at least another 15,000 years. An entire chapter of the “Field Atlas” is devoted to a county-level description of California’s natural environment. But one cannot escape the sense that Kaufmann would be happier if everyone who headed toward California after 1530 had turned back.

Howling Coyote: Obi Kaufman Watercolor

The “Field Atlas” is a book best read at home while contemplating the subtle interdependencies of California’s wildlands or planning one’s next backpacking trip. It will also fit nicely in a glove compartment, at the ready to reveal the deep story behind the landscape on the other side of the windshield. The “Field Atlas” won’t help the lost find their way home, but it might lead them to realize they were never lost to begin with.

There is one question I can’t shake. Is the “Field Atlas” a one-off, or the first exemplar of a new genre? I suspect that it is the latter, a tome that will inspire others to follow the trail Kaufmann has blazed. California has a proud history of birthing new environmental genres, including the legendary “California Water Atlas” (published in 1979) and the extraordinary series of coffee table books published by the Sierra Club in the late 1960s, which individually led to the creation of new national monuments and collectively helped launch the modern environmental movement. Leafing through Kaufmann’s “Field Atlas,” I can’t help but wonder who it will inspire and what will follow. 

Paul Saffo shovels smoke in Silicon Valley.

Dove in Flight: Obi Kaufman Watercolor


More Guides to Discovering California

• “Historic Spots in California: 5th Edition” revised by Douglas E. Kyle (2002): The essential guide to the historic landmarks of California, organized for both travelers and armchair historians. Nicely complements the natural history of “Field Atlas” with California’s human and cultural history.

• “California Natural History Guides” (series) by University of California Press: More than 100 pocket-sized guides offering in-depth coverage of virtually every aspect of California natural history, from amphibians and bees to rivers, wildflowers and weather.

• “The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling” by John Muir Laws (2016): Practical guide for both novice and expert that teaches how to be a better artist and a more attentive naturalist.

Keep reading: An atlas without roads and a chat with author Obi Kaufmann.


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