In Obi Kaufmann’s new field atlas, “The Coasts of California,” a watercolor of the globe reorients our perspective away from the traditional view of the Western Hemisphere and shifts the focus to the Pacific Ocean.
The blue expanse stretches from Antarctica to the Arctic and from Australia all the way to the west coast of North America, where, at a point roughly in Northern California, a red arrow points to an X. Next to that X, Kaufmann has scrawled, “I am here,” and added “ocean planet mostly salt water like you” just below the globe.
In Kaufmann’s 672-page examination of the state’s 840-mile-long coast, filled with his field observations, essays and 400 pieces of artwork, it’s easy to miss these details, even as they put the author, California, and readers into a lot bigger context.
As Kaufmann explains, “That map for me symbolizes our rising biospheric consciousness. We’re not just Californians, we’re not just Americans, but we’re global citizens, right? The world reflected in you is inspiring.”
So, no, Kaufmann isn’t staking some claim to California, even as he continues to produce a monumental and growing body of work that blends art and science to illuminate the state’s natural grandeur—and the environmental perils it faces. He has already written a book about water and plans another on fire. “The Coasts of California” follows 2020’s “The Forests of California” and belongs to Kaufmann’s California Lands Trilogy, which he plans to complete in 2024 with an examination of the state’s deserts.
He loves California, all of it. But Kaufmann, a resident of Crockett, feels most directly connected to the coast. “I live on the Carquinez Strait, I live on San Francisco Bay,” he says. “Every day I can feel this massive body of water — I’m right next to it — that is the conduit out to the larger hydrosphere, if you will. The whole planet is right here for me.”
Kaufmann’s gaze easily ranges from the micro to the macro, skipping from phytoplankton to blue whales, and rising from the 2-mile depths of Monterey Canyon to mile-high coastal peaks where California condors glide along the thermals. His decision to pluralize “coast” in the book title spotlights the endless diversity that Kaufmann has experienced during years of exploring along Highway 1, and he divides the California coast into 24 distinct subregions.
“I’m an adventurer, man,” he says. “Go out, get after it! I’ve been traveling California my whole life, up and down the coast. I am a child of the coast. I am proud of that. Every single one of those 24 characters that I call ‘the coasts of California’ are like friends to me.”
If there are many coasts of California, there also seem to be a fair number of Obi Kaufmanns. He is a writer, artist, cartographer and naturalist, an engaged listener and one heck of a talker. Kaufmann was born on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood but mostly grew up in Contra Costa County. His mother of him worked as a clinical psychologist and his astrophysicist father of him served as director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles during the early 1970s.
“My earliest memories of nature are telescopes and looking out at the night sky through my father’s ‘mathematical lens.’ Dr. Kaufmann’s son was going to be a mathematician! That really was my training growing up. Even through college, I found math easy and fun. … But as a troublesome kid, I forced the idea of art because I always had a talent for that. I could always draw the flowers and the eagles.”
So Kaufmann is both sufficiently cool to have earned a living as a tattoo artist and enough of a geo-geek to enthusiastically and endlessly discuss the nuances of California biomes. His approach by him remains firmly rooted in science, but the sense of wonder and awe that he brings to his writing and artwork by him can still feel spiritual and reverent.
“Mine is a materialistic worldview. Not consumerism, but materialistic, the idea that what you see is what you get,” he says. “What you detect is what you get. And I still believe that science is a basket that can hold all of our philosophies.”
Kaufmann has no illusions about the urgent state of the environment, both in California and globally. As a reader you are invited to join him on a journey of discovery — not as a passenger but as an active partner. For one thing, the atlas demands and commands your concentration. And while Kaufmann doesn’t play the scold, he isn’t afraid to throw out the occasional pointed reminder, such as when he writes, “The earth will not remember you for anything but your legacy of leaving it undamaged.”
Kaufmann remains optimistic that the advance of science and new experimental methods will help bring about a deeper understanding of the environment. “When I talk with kids, I’ll tell them that we’re waiting for the next Darwin. And she might be in this room,” he says. “And she is going to show us the mathematical functionality of ecological cooperation — as opposed to competition — that’s necessary to make the natural world go at all.”
Time will also tell just what place Kaufmann’s trilogy will find in the pantheon of works about California. What’s more certain is that he has taken the too often dry, sterile genre of atlases and natural histories and turned them into something inspiring, beautiful and deeply personal.
“What we don’t know dwarfs what we do know. And the natural world of California is as complex as anything in the universe. I could paint and draw 1,000 maps a day for the rest of my life and never tell the whole story that I want to tell. That certainly keeps me going.”
The Coasts of California
By Obi Kaufman
(Heyday; 672 pages; $55)