The Artist Who Is Reimagining Earth’s Natural Future

Poet, painter, and naturalist Obi Kaufmann shares an optimistic view of nature even as the human impact on the planet grows larger.
December 17, 2020, 2:00pm
Image: Michelle Urra​
Image: Michelle Urra
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The son of an astrophysicist and psychologist, Obi Kaufmann grew up with science on the kitchen table. He’d watch his father write big textbooks of astrophysics, learning from a young age about the importance of data, of experiments, of scientific truths. 

Then, he fell in love. 

When Kaufmann was a teenager in Northern California, he started spending his free time in Mount Diablo, making maps of the landscape and learning the names of the plants. The natural world became his constant companion, a site of endless exploration. He engaged with it in any way he could: walking miles through trails, painting watercolor landscapes, and writing poetry. 

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Kaufmann never thought he’d make a job out of his love for nature, but he realized that environmentalism was often divorced from his experience of  biodiversity, too focused on despair to be hopeful. He started writing books to tell a different story. 

“I'm not talking about idealism, I'm talking about how it can be,” Kaufmann explained. “I’m looking for that by engaging the data, not engaging the hype of despair.”

To tell his story of California—which, to Kaufmann, is a story about the natural world—he had to invent a new genre that falls between a field guide and an atlas, The Field Atlas. 

His thick books are full of scientific knowledge: explanations of ecosystem function sit next to detailed, hand-painted maps and intricate diagrams of salmon life cycles. But the books do more than just instruct. Woven throughout are prose-poem introductions, personal anecdotes, portraits of wildlife, and breathtaking watercolor landscapes. 

Kaufmann's first two books—The California Field Atlas and The State of Water—serve as both love letters to his home state and calls to action to protect nature, regardless of where you live. 

He released his third book, The Forests of California, this fall, in the middle of a global pandemic and California’s worst-ever fire season. The book not only looks beyond this year, but beyond normal human timescales: it spans geologic time, reaching deep into the past to imagine the future of the state, and the world.

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Kaufmann got his first taste of the power of art to communicate the natural world in college. He studied biology at UC Santa Barbara, but he often skipped class to go hiking in the Santa Ynez mountains, searching for art sites of the Chumash nation, the Indigenous group native to the area. The original meaning of these hidden, unprotected rock paintings had been lost, but Kaufmann saw the artists sharing a vision of how humans relate to the world.

Though he is dedicating his life to studying and protecting nature, Obi Kaufmann does not like to call himself an environmentalist. That presumes, he said, that there are people who aren’t environmentalists. Kaufmann is not interested in labels that lead to arguments or blame games about climate change. Drawing lines around groups of people only heightens divisions, and Kaufmann thinks that we need everyone working towards a better future.

“I knew that if I ever found myself on stage arguing with someone in the audience, I will have already lost that argument,” Kaufmann said. “Because I will not be telling the story that I set out to tell.”

That’s what Kaufmann believes in: stories. He wants his readers to fall in love with the natural world and to engage in it deeply. Then, he is sure, they will find it worthy of protection. In a culture that is claustrophobic with apocalyptic predictions and viscous division, Kaufmann is an optimist. 

His vision for the future is one of engagement at all levels: youth groups leading the charge, strong conservation policies at all levels of government, and local investment in restoring ecosystems. Everyone has a role to play, and he’s found his: an artist obsessed with complex systems. We’ve tipped this planet on a feedback loop of warming, but we’re equally capable of nudging it back towards restoration and justice. 

His hope, ultimately, lies in humanity’s ability to solve problems and nature’s ability to restore. 

“The world never ends,” he said. “It just gets changed into something else.”