Forum on ‘Forests of California’ towers at virtual Litquake

Beloved SF literary festival goes online during pandemic, remains jam-packed

Litquake, San Francisco’s beloved literary festival, goes online from Oct. 8-24 for its 21st pandemic-era anniversary.

The virtual program showcases some 150 authors, including Oakland-based writer, artist and naturalist Obi Kaufmann in a forum discussing and sharing images from his latest, very timely tome, “The Forests of California.”

The program, at 7 p.m. Oct. 11, is co-sponsored by the San Francisco Botanical Garden. It’s one of 60 online events at Litquake that culminates in Lit Crawl, the festival’s mega-happening Oct. 24 finale with dozens of participants across the country.

Kaufmann speaks about his third book with Leslie Carol Roberts, author and chair of the master’s writing program at California College of the Arts in San Francisco.

“The Forests of California,” the first opus of Kaufmann’s “California Lands” trilogy, was produced in the author’s signature “field atlas” style (unveiled in 2017 with his bestselling first book “The California Field Atlas”) of informative prose, maps, illustrations and poetry on forested environments, or “forest alliances,” and their crucial place in the Golden State’s biodiversity and history.

The book’s publication in September is notable, given that California is besieged by the most destructive year for wildfires in its recorded history.

“One-third of all land burned in the past century burned in the past four weeks,” Kaufmann says. “We are in trauma right now; 2020 has been tough all around.”

Kaufmann has been grounded in science and love of nature since he was a boy, when he was influenced by his father, an astrophysicist and former director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles and his mother, a clinical psychologist. But his appreciation for nature really blossomed after the family moved to Danville when Kaufmann was 5 and he began hiking up Mount Diablo as a teen.

“I needed to engage the beauty of the natural world, and the ability to appreciate it as being an evolutionary endowed gift, and Mount Diablo, an ostensible and ever-present third parent in my rearing, revealed the immediacy of this subject,” Kaufmann says. “The tangle of blue oaks sprouting green, vernal leaves, the smell of mushrooms blooming in damp soil, the thin line of the waterfall carving the riparian canyon, the delicate legs of the tarantula building its nest in the mud — these precious moments of delight are still accessible to me in daily routine and inspire in me the wonder of nature and its cry for advocacy.”

Kaufmann’s expressive writing is matched by his creativity as an artist in “The Forests of California,” which has 400-plus vivid water-color maps and illustrations of landscape and fauna and is Audubon-esque in style and scope.

The foundation for Kaufmann’s artistic talent springs from his days studying art at University of California, Santa Barbara, a period when he was also scouting for Native California Chumash rock art sites in the nearby Santa Ynez Mountains.

“The Chumash art tradition, some of the most excellent rock paintings on the planet, still exist at hundreds of sites, both marked and unmarked, in the wilderness behind Santa Barbara,” Kaufmann says. “The exact, narrative-meaning of the specific motifs and designs that the Chumash employed in their murals has been largely lost to the sea of centuries between their painting and today, but what I never failed to be in awe of was the act of art-making engaged by this community to symbolically portray their understanding of the natural world.”

Kaufmann points out a consequential contrast between the Native Californians’ regular controlled burns of forestland, which kept the environment healthy, before the arrival of colonists in California, whose policies to prevent all fires were largely driven by timber industry interests.

“Certainly, the idea of applied prescriptive fire does a number of things in a fire-adapted woodland: It helps to maintain homeostasis across the ecosystem, it mitigates the fuel load, and aids the regular succession of the adaptive cycle within the forest body,” Kaufmann says. “What it doesn’t do is address the multitudinous concerns regarding our human ecology, with its population of 40 million people and growing, and how they engage with the wildland-urban interface.”

Narrowly focused forest policy serving commercial interests has dovetailed in a disastrous way with rising temperatures and aridity due to global warming and the encroachment of human development into coniferous forests to leave them, as Kaufmann explains, “infirmed, fragmented, stressed and simplified,” and vulnerable to particularly destructive fires.

While “The Forests of California” is replete with data, its eco-maps and rich pictures make it accessible and relatable to the layperson. That’s important to Kaufmann, who feels that familiarity with basic ecological geography is essential for the protection of forests.

“I get to tell the story framed in beauty and meaningful, philosophical context that transcends the analysis, and I don’t leave you alone with the information,” Kaufmann says. “It is my conviction that geographic literacy is important, if not direly so, to garner the political will needed to halt and reverse the wholesale destruction of our natural resource portfolio, and I am advocating that conviction by not making a rote argument but by telling a better story.”



When: Oct. 8-24


Note: Many events are free, with donations encouraged; some require advance registration.

Select highlights

Kevin Kwan with Amy Tan: The “Crazy Rich Asians” author speaks about his new book “Sex and Vanity” with the author of “The Joy Luck Club,” “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” and the recent memoir “Where the Past Begins.” 7 p.m. Oct. 8. $10-$15 donation.

Debut Authors-Making a Splash During the Pandemic: Adam Smyer, author of “You Can Keep That to Yourself: A Comprehensive List of What Not to Say to Black People, for Well-Intentioned People of Pallor,” appears in conversation with social justice activist Mia Birdsong, memoirist and essayist Sejah Shah, novelist Carole Stivers, young adult novelist Phil Stamper, and agent and middle-grade author Danielle Svetcov. Noon Oct. 10. $12.

Juan Felipe Herrera with Jericho Brown: The former U.S. Poet Laureate speaks about his new book “Every Day We Get More Illegal” with the author of “The Tradition,” which won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. 5 p.m. Oct. 10. $5-$10 donation.

Election screening with Tom Perrotta: The author of the 1998 novel about a high school election that brings out the worst in everyone speaks about the story’s origins with Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, who produced the hit 1999 movie “Election” (based on the book) starring Reese Witherspoon; viewers are encouraged to pre-watch the film and attend with questions. 7 p.m. Oct. $10-$12 donation.

Obi Kaufmann: The author of “The Forests of California,” an art and science volume exploring the state’s biodiversity, appears in conversation with Leslie Carol Roberts, author of “Here Is Where I Walk.” 7 p.m. Oct. 11. $5-$10 donation.

Molly Ball: The award-winning political journalist talks about her new biography “Pelosi,” a portrait of California congresswoman and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with Scott Shafer of KQED. 5 p.m. Oct. 12. $5-$10 donation.

Marke Bieschke and Caitlin Donohue: Bieschke, author of”Into the Streets: A Young Person’s Visual History of Protest in the United States” and Donahue, author of “She Represents: 44 Women Who Are Changing Politics,” speak about their books on activism for young people. 3:30 p.m. Oct. 13. $5-$10 donation.

Lysley Tenorio with Daniel Handler: The award-winning short story writer discusses his debut novel “The Son of Good Fortune,” which follows an undocumented Filipino son as he navigates his relationship with his mother and an uncertain future with the popular writer aka Lemony Snicket. 7 p.m. Oct. 16

The Cockettes-Acid Drag, Sexual Anarchy, and San Francisco Craziness: Fayette Hauser speaks with Cockettes members Scrumbly Koldewyn and Pam Tent about her coffee table book, which details the wild exploits of the 1970s-era gay, straight, bisexual, pansexual art collective known for over-the-top costumes and musicals. 7 p.m. Oct. 17

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