Painting the Trees and the Forests

A new field guide captures the majesty, history, and wonder of the Golden State’s woodlands. It also offers a road map to safeguarding their future.

Mixed Conifer on the Scott River.
Mixed Conifer on the Scott River.
OBI KAUFMANN

Obi Kaufmann discussed his work with Alta Asks Live and Alta contributor Matt Jaffe. WATCH

THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE

I’ve explored the forests and they have explored me. In all of my decades walking the California backcountry, I always find the same thing and I always feel the same way—I am of these forests and they are of me. In the bright and hot September sun of the High Sierra at over 12,000 feet, I’ve studied the foxtail pine and felt compelled to paint it again and again because I found it was the most beautiful being I had ever seen. I’ve practiced the same thing, with similar results, in the gray and damp April mist of the Redwood Coast, dancing with my paint under the tallest trees on the planet. I’ve known the pleasure of walking for weeks along the southern ranges, deep in the wilderness where I used the water from trout-filled creeks to happily paint the infinite wildflowers in spring. I’ve had the honor to traverse California’s northern volcanoes and paint antelope in their ancient range as the December snow began to fall. Under California’s giving sky, alongside the ponderosa, the redwood, and the valley oak, I’ve gathered my ancient relatives to explore the past, present, and future ages of California’s natural world.

Gymnosperm, Cross section of a knobcone pine cone
Gymnosperm, Cross section of a knobcone pine cone

Mount Hermon June Beetle Polyphylla barbata
Mount Hermon June Beetle Polyphylla barbata
OBI KAUFMANN

Tan Oak Acorn
Tan Oak Acorn
OBI KAUFMANN

THE ANCIENT FORESTS

The character of California forests through the ages before the coming of humanity was shaped by three major factoring forces: geological, when tectonic events influenced the second factor, climatic, when long patterns of cooling and warming periods governed eras of glaciation, determining the distribution of the third force, genetic adaptation. The conditions of geology and climate set the stage for the evolutionary forces of natural selection and coevolution. The ancient ecological conditions of California shed light on a modern context for ecological restoration efforts, and for climatic projections and adaptations. With humans on the west coast of North America 15,000 to 20,000 years ago or more, the landscape-level human relationship with fire would further influence the character of California forests in tandem with natural forces.

Grand Fir
Grand Fir
OBI KAUFMANN

FIRE: REGIME AND RENEWAL

California needs a return of beneficial fire. Californian ecosystems rely on the disturbance fire affords. This living landscape has evolved to take fire in, use it, and create life from it. Many forests in California are meant to burn with high or moderate frequency.

OBI KAUFMANN

OBI KAUFMANN

THE FUTURE FORESTS

Orienting without instruments or technology, simply gauging time of day and cardinal direction with only clues from the natural world is the most direct way to align with a wild place. How and when plants react to the solar position and inclination, for example, opens us to a larger conversation. Subtle, detailed observations loop around, and the observer also becomes the observed. The natural world begins to ask me questions—Who are you? And how are you?—questions I am prepared to answer because of my emerging relationship and connection with the land, and my attitude to how wildness is mirrored across me and my landscape.

When people wonder aloud about how are we to save the world, I ask them when was the last time that they went camping. When was the last time your bare feet stood on a granite stone in the river? When was the last time you identified a native wildflower on the edge of an alpine meadow? These are the best agents of vision and purpose in my life. We need you ready, we need you unpanicked, and we need you grounded. People protect what they love, and people love what they know.

OBI KAUFMANN

Cottonwood
Cottonwood
OBI KAUFMANN

EXCERPTED FROM THE FORESTS OF CALIFORNIA BY OBI KAUFMANN. PUBLISHED BY HEYDAY ON SEPTEMBER 8, 2020. ©2020 BY WILLIAM KAUFMANN.

"The Forests of California" by Obi Kaufmann

THE FORESTS OF CALIFORNIA

• By Obi Kaufmann
• Heyday, 640 pages, $55

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