West Coast
Author and illustrator Obi Kaufmann pauses at Mussel Rock Beach in Daly City, Calif., Sunday, June 4, 2023. The park is part of California’s rugged 1200-mile coastline featured in his latest atlas, “The Coasts of California.” (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

CA - California’s coast, its bluffs and wildlife star in Obi Kaufmann’s new book

The California coastline is a geologically sculpted masterpiece jagging and jutting for 1,100 head-turning miles. It starts with the Tortilla Wall poking into the sea at the U.S.-Mexico border and angles northwest to what some describe as California’s loneliest beach – a wild stretch of yellow grassy dunes, hard sand and chunks of driftwood at Pelican State Beach this side of Oregon.

Don’t bother trying to define this heterogeneous seaboard through a single stretch of shore. It has been carved into disparate sections that speak to California’s richness.

But the Bay Area is as good as any place to launch an exploration of the landscape and wildlife. The 100-mile strand from Santa Cruz to Point Reyes National Seashore has towering, forested mountains, plunging brittle bluffs and steep, chaparral-covered canyons brimming with wildlife. It has rickety piers, historic lighthouses and a marine sanctuary filled with elephant seals, sea lions and predatory white sharks.

Atmospheric moisture creates ghostly summer tableaus when cottony fog conceals rocky coves, sandy beaches and the narrow opening to San Francisco Bay.

It was on just such an overcast morning recently that Oakland author Obi Kaufmann visited Mussel Rock, a Daly City beach of geological significance. Kaufmann, 50, is an artist, poet and one of the foremost communicators of what California landmass represents. His latest in a series of extraordinary field atlases is “The Coasts of California” (Heyday, $55), which tells the multilayered story of the shoreline through visually striking watercolor paintings and maps, insightful conceptualizations and doctoral-level proficiency in the natural sciences.

Artwork from The Coasts of California: A California Field Atlas by Obi Kaufmann (April 2022) reproduced with permission from Heyday.
Artwork from The Coasts of California: A California Field Atlas by Obi Kaufmann (April 2022) reproduced with permission from Heyday

“Inexpressible fertility” is how one early explorer described the Bay Area, Kaufmann writes. “Over a thousand species of animals still make their home here in this place that is now as ecologically compromised as it is fathomlessly beautiful. Metropolitan industry has overtaken most of the Bay, yet on its margins, hundreds of thousands of birds still recognize this essential landing spot on their annual migrations up and down the Pacific Flyway.”

I’ve experienced an abundance of plant and animal life throughout decades of tramping on Bay Area coastal trails, beaches and parks, such as San Bruno Mountain State and County Park. The book describes it as 2,416 acres of habitat for 662 plant species, 42 butterflies, 195 birds, five bumblebees, 30 ant species, 24 mammals, 13 reptiles and six amphibians.

Kaufmann writes that the Half Moon Bay coast has an evolutionarily significant unit of coho and steelhead salmon; the tiny tidewater goby found in the brackish water of lagoons, estuaries and marshes; and the red-legged frog. The redwood forests above the Pacific are potential habitats in the southernmost range of the marbled murrelet, an old-growth-nesting seabird.

Such field notes scratch the surface of what thrives in the wind-whipped littoral. I’m awash with wonder when the artichoke, pumpkin and berry fields of Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties come into view on Highway 1 below riparian ridgelines of redwoods and eucalyptus trees. I revel in ascending above the old, moss-covered evergreens of Muir Woods National Monument before dropping into Stinson Beach along the lush Dipsea Trail.

Then there is Mussel Rock, a sea stack on the Daly City/Pacifica borderline where the San Andreas Fault first intersects with the ocean, where the worlds of the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate come together uniquely. Mussel Rock is the virtual epicenter of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

“What am I thinking at Mussel Rock?” Kaufmann says, repeating my question. “I’m thinking of how this place has changed so many times. How it ended and began, ended and began again and again. California has always been a perilous place. Always up for a fundamental geological rebound. That reassembly is not going to stop.”

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