The Forests of California, A Love Letter

by Caroline Griffith

Obi Kaufmann’s “The Forests of California”, from Heyday Books

The Forests of California, by Obi Kaufmann, is a love letter to the beauty and biodiversity of this place in which we are fortunate enough to live. Part philosophical treatise on connectivity, part work of art, part textbook, The Forests of California is anything but a traditional field guide. Though you will find detailed descriptions of the plants and animals that inhabit California, unlike a traditional field guide where individual species are pulled out and examined independent of their surroundings, this book examines entire systems and how the parts of those systems, the earth, trees, plants and animals (including humans), and elemental forces work together to create the whole.

Systems are complex, as are the overlapping influences (human-caused climate change, ancient patterns of ecological change, adaptive cycles) that shape them, so it’s only fitting that a field atlas dedicated to these systems should also be complex. As an added bonus, this one is also stunningly beautiful. Kaufmann, an avid conservationist, explorer and artist, uses the symbol of the Philosopher’s Stone (a circle, nestled inside a square, inside a triangle, inside another circle) to describe his approach. “The metaphor of the Philosopher’s Stone is that it can turn plain substance into preciousness. The preciousness I desire doesn’t end with the data, the paintings, or the words, but will only be real when I deliver to you the successful narrative that enables us to get there together.” And where is “there”? It is Kaufmann’s goal to inspire us to join him in recognizing and appreciating the intrinsic value of the forests (as opposed to just the utilitarian value), in realizing that we are the forests and the forests are us, that we are all a part of the system and we need to fight to protect it.

To help us get there, Kaufmann sends us on a quest, illustrated by his watercolor paintings and punctuated by poetry. The Forests of California could be described as a treasure map, complete with esoteric symbols prompting us to bounce from section to section, following the connections as we explore a variety of forests throughout the state and the interaction of the organisms within them. 

This is a book that I anticipate will stay with me for years, to be referenced again and again as I deepen my love affair with the land I live on. Though the publication date is September 8, preorders can be made at or directly from the author at We also have one copy to give away in our prize package for Coastal Cleanup Day 2020.

The Forests of California is truly a gem.