Words by Leigh Patterson
Photographs Justin Chung

Obi Kaufmann

Obi Kaufmann

We meet Obi Kaufmann before sunrise. He’s sent along coordinates for the trailhead where he starts most mornings — a meandering hike through rolling grasslands and eucalyptus meadows just a few minutes from his studio in Crockett, CA.
We arrive, hop out of the car, and immediately fall under Obi’s idiosyncratic spell. Poet, naturalist, author, and artist, he is a disarmingly magnetic storyteller and passionate liver of life, evident from a first conversation…or in our case, from the moment we chase him up the winding Northern California trails, pausing only to identify trees, birds, distant mountains, and to humor our poor choices in hiking footwear.
Born in the East Bay to an astrophysicist and a psychologist, Obi’s journey has zigzagged across the state and between a range of disciplines. “What I have done during my life is walk through California,” he summarizes. In recent years, his focus has dialed in on a series of meticulously researched, written, and illustrated Field Atlases, a “self-invented genre” that holistically strives to “describe the character of California that has always been here and will always be here.” Each to me zooms into a different detail of the landscape, from the state’s dense forests to its thousand-mile coastline. “These books are not small. I make 600-page books, because they can't be less.” This penetrable focus positions California a muse and a conduit, unpacking a kaleidoscope of geographic, historic, and poetic context…and ultimately for telling bigger stories about time, love, connection, and discovery.
To try to distill Obi’s ethos on living or his work into a tidy box is an injustice to its protean wisdom — is it art, activism, cartography, poetry, or philosophy? Yes, and. “California is so deep, wide and complex that I could make a hundred maps a day for the rest of my life and never tell the whole story that I wanted to tell.”
It’s fire season in Northern California and despite the majestic surroundings, the golden hills cry out for rain. Our conversation turns to the environment; we find ourselves assuming the common fatalistic trope, a subconscious flattening of our fears. Yet through Obi, the story is far deeper and richer when examined with a mind open to possibility, to optimism, to surprise. His perspective reveals that it’s possible to hold multiple emotions at once — we can feel wonder and fear, can behold beauty and acknowledge its complicated edges, can relish the present with a consciousness of the future.
“When I was learning how to backpack in the 80s and going across the mountains of Big Sur, there were no tule elk, no peregrine falcons, no white-tailed American kites,” he starts. “There were no otters, no whales. There certainly weren't any California condors. Now, we’re seeing a great resurgence: thirty years ago, there were only 17 condors left in the world. Now there's more than 400. For the first time in over a hundred years, the largest terrestrial bird in North America is flying over the world's tallest forests. This is a miracle and we're seeing these miracles every day.”
In a dense web of detail, a simple distillation is written across the landscape: hope. “I can see it everywhere across California right now. And this is not only an important story to tell, I think it's the important story to tell.”

Making Sense Vol. 1

Tobias Jesso Jr.
April Valencia
Sean Frank
Monroe Alvarez
Brian Lee
Molly Sedlacek
Ido Yoshimoto
Zoe Dering
Obi Kaufmann
Erica Chidi
Sonoko Sakai
Katsuhisa Sakai

Full story available in Making Sense Vol. 1 Book

Making Sense is a publication series with Le Labo Fragrances that is a study in distilling life to its essence, as told through the stories of 12 individual who have fearlessly hand-crafted lives of their own making.

Read more about the series here.