An Atlas without Roads

A Bay Area artist "re-wilds" California

You’re going to want to own a copy of Obi Kaufmann’s “A California Field Atlas” — but you can’t. At least not right now. The artist and author’s first book is completely sold out, and a second printing of 6,000 copies won’t be available until mid-January.

“I still can’t believe it’s sold out,” Kaufmann told a small crowd at Book Passage’s Sausalito location the other night. Sporting an artsy linen jacket and a flurry of tattoos on both hands, the 43-year-old first-time author seemed bewildered about his literary success. With the second edition still weeks away, “A California Field Atlas” holds strong as number one on the Northern California Industry Booksellers Association best-seller list. It’s nearly impossible to score a remaining first edition —and we’ve tried.

Published by Berkeley’s Heyday Books, “A California Field Atlas” is a 550-page love letter to the Golden State. It’s jammed with beautiful hand-painted maps, watercolor illustrations of animals, plant and trees, and heavily detailed with facts about seemingly every natural inch of the state. It’s not so much an atlas as it is an adventure companion, a trusty guide to making the most out of any California backcountry exploration. As one book signing attendee noted, the atlas is similar in size to the old Boy Scout manual. That may not be a coincidence.

California as seen by Obi Kaufmann
California as seen by Obi Kaufmann

“There is a scientific agenda and an artistic agenda,” Kaufmann said of his atlas. “It’s an atlas in the sense that it’s describing a particular character of California. And that character of California can be most easily described as where nature has always been, where it is, and where it always will be. “

One section of the book details each of California’s 58 counties and Kaufmann’s favorite natural bounties within each one. Another breaks down the different eco-states within California, celebrating such characteristics as “the pocket of primal and pristine landscape between Sacramento Valley and Mount Lassen.”

Kaufmann, the son of an astrophysicist and a psychologist, was born in Hollywood and moved to the Bay Area when he was five years old. The quick-talking, word enthusiast spent most of his childhood roaming Mount Diablo, just steps from his family home in Danville. Lost in his own imagination, the young Kaufmann would create his own trails and name his favorite elm trees, habits he maintains to this day.

The atlas, a passion project, took him a full year, requiring him to wake at 5 a.m. and write until 10 at night. His only breaks were to continue his thrice-monthly camping trips and to meet with clients at Premium Tattoo in Oakland, where Kaufmann works as a tattoo artist. His tattoos, much like his published artwork, are richly organic and grounded in nature.

Artist Obi Kaufmann
Artist Obi Kaufmann

Kaufmann’s atlas uses nature as a guide. “There are no roads in this field atlas. If you want a road atlas, go and get a road atlas,” Kaufmann said. “Roads are boring, geographically, because they go from one human point A to one human point B.”

He considers his work a “re-wilding” of California, a new way of connecting humans with the constantly changing natural landscape. And he’s not done. Kaufmann recently inked a three-book deal with Heyday. “The California Lands Trilogy” will focus on forests, coasts, and deserts in books to be released in 2019 and 2020.

“It’s the responsibility of everyone who calls themselves a Californian to get some geographical literacy,” Kaufmann said. “California is a biological hotspot that requires an attentive stewardship to sustain, to manage, and to conserve.”

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Pre-order the second edition of “A California Field Atlas” at Book Passage.

Beth Spotswood is Alta's digital editor, events manager, and a contributing writer.
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