Naturalist, writer and illustrator, Obi Kaufmann holds his latest book, The Forests of California. Photo: Pete Rosos Credit: Pete Rosos

California is burning, to the point where a hellish orange glow on Sept. 9 blotted out the morning sun.

Grappling with the enormity of the fires that have ravaged more than 3.2 million acres of the state’s woodlands is difficult, but Obi Kaufmann, an Oakland artist and naturalist, has a hopeful perspective on the conflagrations. The evolutionary history of the redwoods goes back 300 million years, said Kaufmann, and they will survive both the fires — and us.

“Fire exists in California forests to such an inextricable degree that not only are most arboreal habitats adapted to it but are indeed dependent on it,” said Kaufmann, the author of a new book on the topic, The Forests of California, published by Berkeley’s Heyday Books. “We’re now in the age of wildfires morphing into feral fires, completely unanchored from any sort of historical regime.”

Heyday is releasing Kaufmann’s book at a time when it feels particularly relevant. California has been hit with thousands of fires, including the August Complex fire, which, at 900,000 acres, holds the record of the largest ever in the state. The fires have filled the skies with smoke, making the air unfit to breathe, and the fire season has just begun.

Still, Kaufmann, who also wrote and illustrated The California Field Atlas points to the apparent resilience of California’s forests, plant and animal species as indicating the way to potential recovery.

“Despite every one of California’s natural habitat types being either threatened or endangered, we have a very low extinction rate, less than one percent,” he said. “That means there is still time, there is still hope.”

Kaufmann expresses that optimistic outlook in a chapter devoted to “The Future Forests.” He maps the struggles that might occur in the next century and a half, in the wake of climate breakdown. That humankind will survive is not guaranteed, but the forests will endure, he believes.

“My vision remains true towards a unified, reconciled Californian identity. We want to see it protected. We want to preserve it from dismantling. My book presents a way forward to that end.”

An idiosyncratic chronicler of California’s natural history

In 2017, Kaufmann saw the publication of his gargantuan debut, The California Field Atlas, a reference work unlike any other.

A #1 San Francisco Chronicle bestseller and a winner of the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco’s Gold Medal for Significant Contribution to Publishing, the 600-page field atlas earned its author kudos and quickly sold out its initial run of 6,000 copies. Published by Heyday Books, the much-acclaimed Berkeley press, it established Kaufmann, 47, as a passionate and idiosyncratic chronicler of the Golden State’s natural history.

book jackets with birds
The Forests of California. Photo: Heyday Books

Now comes The Forests of California, another 600-page field atlas that follows the structure established by the first volume. Adorned with exquisite watercolor illustrations of resident wildlife, studded with maps and diagrams of varied terrain and sprinkled with poetry and personal reflections, the book captures the beauty, ferocity and fecundity of the Golden State, revealing what it has, what it has lost and what it still may regain.

A field atlas is a genre of Kaufmann’s own invention. There are no directions to scenic vistas or picnicking recommendations.

Described as a “family album of astonishingly interconnected species,” about the size of a Bible – hefty but not overly burdensome – the paperback The Forests of California is a breathtaking object.

“These books are a bit hard to categorize, but that is what makes them wonderful,” said Anne Leyhe, co-owner of Mrs. Dalloway’s in Berkeley, who hosted an author event with Kaufmann after the publication of his first field atlas. “The way he has organized these books is inspired – I liken it to the difference between looking up an unfamiliar word in Google or looking it up in the dictionary.”

Kaufmann’s roots reach back to Southern California. He was born in Los Angeles to an astrophysicist father who directed the Griffith Park Observatory, and a clinical psychologist mother. The family moved to Danville, where the pre-teen Kaufmann developed a passion for hiking the oak woodlands of the greater East Bay.

“I used to spend all of my time naming the blue oak trees, drawing maps, climbing waterfalls, playing with tarantulas,” Kaufmann said.

Backpacking became a passion for Kaufmann beginning in his teens, trekking in the Central Coast and Sierras. He continued hiking in the Central Coast while studying art at UC Santa Barbara.

“To me, an hour spent walking is an hour spent learning in California,” Kaufmann said. “I still do it as a practice, really.”

After UCSB, Kaufmann worked as a gallery artist, having shows from Los Angeles to New York, from the Pacific Northwest and finally in Oakland. He also worked as a gallery curator where he “really got invested in the East Bay art scene,” he said.

“I was never able to break away from the day job until I pushed all of my chips to the center of the table with The California Field Atlas,” he said.

Illustrations from The Forests of California

  • drawing of Sequoia trees
  • Drawing of Bristlecone pine tree
  • drawing of fir tree
  • Drawing of oak tree
  • Drawing of four conifter
  • drawing of torrey pine tree

Now he writes in his home in Oakland. “Especially in these days of quarantine, what a relief it has been to have this cartographic fetish of describing a spatial quality to ecosystems, to explore California from my desk.”

Kaufmann has long been fascinated by lengthy illustrated books. As a teen, he devoured Frank Herbert’s Dune and grew to appreciate the way in which the author built his desert planet. He lost himself in the maps of Middle-earth that J.R.R. Tolkien designed for The Lord of the Rings.

“Kaufmann carried that enthusiasm with him when he presented a pitch for The California Field Atlas to Heyday while founder Malcolm Margolin was still the publisher. When current Heyday publisher Steve Wasserman joined the company, he was overwhelmed by the book’s uniqueness.”

“It’s rare in one’s publishing life to encounter an author who has a vision that is so original that you can claim with a straight face that the work is sui generis,” Wasserman said. “There is no rival to his approach, to the voice, to the scope or ambition of the work.”

Initial printings at Heyday typically run from  2,000-4,000 copies and the 6,000 copies Heyday initially committed to was an aggressive first printing. Wasserman noted they were caught off guard by the speed of sales. The sold-out first edition necessitated a second printing that wouldn’t be ready for the holidays. Backorders accumulated.

“From a commercial point of view, it was one of the greatest triumphs in Heyday’s history,” said Wasserman,

In a short time, Kaufmann was contracted to produce four related books in two years.

The much briefer The State of Water: Understanding California’s Most Precious Resource, arrived in 2018, digging deep into California’s relationship with the life-sustaining liquid that has most altered the state over the past 150 years.

“How we distribute, how we store, how we convey and how we use water directly ties to every other aspect of California’s living natural world,” Kaufmann said.

After The Forests, three other volumes are already planned: The Coasts, The Deserts and a coda, The State of Fire.

With Forests, Kaufmann hopes to enhance readers’ “geographical literacy,” to offer more tools for conserving, preserving and perhaps restoring the natural arboreal environment.

“People protect what they love and love what they know. Presenting what’s actually out there to protect is a key pillar of my work.”

The ironies of having to promote a book about the outdoors in a time of pandemic and megastorms is not lost on Kaufmann or his publisher. “There’s nothing like a pandemic to concentrate the mind and prompt publishers like Heyday into the 21st century,” said Wassermann.

When one of the state’s many wildfires ripped through Big Basin Park near Santa Cruz, people on social media mourned the loss of towering coastal redwoods. However, Kaufmann bets on the redwoods’ staying power. They are especially resistant to fire, said Kaufmann.

“If your strategy is to live for 2,000 years in one spot, you’re going to encounter 20 wildfires in your life, so you’d better have a whole toolbox of defense against the fire, the heat, the burn,” he said. “Redwoods have that toolbox. The evolutionary history of the redwoods goes back 300 million years, and they will survive us.”

A New Hampshire native, freelancer Michael Berry has been a resident of Berkeley since the early 1980s. A long-time reviewer of science fiction and fantasy for the San Francisco Chronicle, he has written...