In early October, when I called artist-naturalist Obi Kaufmann at his home in Oakland, the California Bay Area was approaching its sixth consecutive week of unhealthy air quality as smoke from the state’s worst wildfire season in recorded history choked the West Coast. Juggling between N95 and Covid-19 masks had only added to the grim realization that the current ecological and public health crises had been foretold by scientists — and largely ignored by our political leaders.
So, Kaufmann and I talked about hope. Not a passive, prayer-like hope, but an active rethinking of how we relate to and value the natural world. “Hope is only good to us as an actionable tool,” he told me, before recalling a quote from writer Rebecca Solnit: “Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency.”
As a painter and writer, Kaufmann has committed much of his work to urging an actionable hope in the midst of ecological crisis. He is best known for his California field atlases — explorations into the ecology of his home state through illustration, mapmaking, and scientific and introspective writing. As opposed to field guides, which help identify species on the trail, his atlases serve a much more reflective purpose. They espouse an informed connection to place through art. He calls his latest, The Forests of California — published in September — “a work of hope.” He also calls it “an activist’s guide” to better protect our home.
“People protect what they love,” he says. “They love what they know and understand. My job is bringing the science and humanities together to tell that story.”
That story may take us from the flight of a condor to the concrete banks of the Los Angeles River. From an undammed reimagining of the Hetch Hetchy Valley to coniferous forests molded and remade by fire. Throughout his paintings and writings, Kaufmann reminds us of the intrinsic value of nature, too often lost in the “utilitarian, consumerist spend” that serves as the basis for our failure to prevent the current climate and biodiversity crises.
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Obi Kaufmann’s work.
But his message doesn’t end there. Nature is resilient, Kaufmann’s work tells us, but it also requires fighting for. It’s a fight that demands what Kaufmann calls “stubborn optimism” but what could also be described as a dogged vision for the future. “For every point of despair there’s a point of hope,” Kaufmann says. “Let’s not just protest this world. Let’s actively invent the world to come.”
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