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Illustrator & Author Team Up

Lanny Kaufer

Lanny Kaufer

Lanny Kaufer has always been a voracious reader, he says, but one with a mission: to learn everything he can about California native plants, and to share their beauty and potency. The long-time Ojai resident retains a bibliophile’s love for books and authors, and has an extensive home library, but he’s not a passive armchair reader. He has worked with many of the authors whose books are on his shelves, leading walks into the Ojai backcountry with writers including Jim Adams, a USC pharmacologist who spent years learning about native plants with a Chumash elder; Obi Kaufman, a best-selling California writer, artist and cartographer, and Pascal Baudar, a forager of natural foods, among other leading voices on California’s nature today.

Perhaps it’s not surprising then, that conversation with Kaufer makes clear that his most profound learning experiences have come not in the classroom — despite his training and years of work as a teacher in local schools — but out in the natural world. Ask him about the origin story of his work with native plants and the natural world in this area and he talks of the healing he personally experienced at the hands of a Native American living in New Mexico.

“In 1967 I was traveling in New Mexico. I picked up a Pueblo Indian in my truck and took him all the way home to the mountains of Jemez. He was so thankful to get a ride all the way up there that he told me I could stay as long as I wanted as his guest,” Kaufer said. “I stayed about a week. While I was there I got a cold, and this man’s uncle brought me a bag of what he called “cedar tea,” made of native plants. He made a tea from these plants and had me inhale the steam. I quickly recovered and it made me curious. I wondered: Is there something to this?”

Kaufer went back to UC Santa Barbara, where he was a student at the time, and — being a devout reader — went to the library looking for books on native plants and their medicinal properties. He could find but a single volume: “Back to Eden,” by Jethro Klaus. That book, advertised as being about “American herbs for pleasure and health … with instructions for living the Edenic life” is a counterculture classic now long out of print.

For Kaufer it came as a revelation.

“I started reading that and almost couldn’t believe it,” Kaufer said. “I had stumbled into a whole world of fascinating information.” That set Kaufer on the trail of the likes of William LeSassier, “a brilliant herbalist and very original thinker, who was living just up the hill in Santa Barbara at the time.” Kaufer heard that LeSassier was leading what he called “herb walks,” to help people learn about native plants. The phrase planted a seed in the thoughts of Kaufer, to sprout and bear fruit years later.

Before becoming an educator, young Kaufer worked for a time as a caretaker at Wheeler Hot Springs, before the historical property was destroyed in the infamous floods of l969. With a legendary Ojai character known as “Organic George,” Kaufer went on to open what he thinks was the first natural foods store in the Ojai area, in Oak View. At the time he was living on a farm in Meiners Oaks, and learning to farm vegetables. He connects the organic lifestyle with native plant healing.

“We were an all-organic natural food store in 1971,” he said. ‘There was no other store like it in the Ojai Valley — and look where we are now! Look at the success of The Farmer & the Cook in Meiners Oaks, or Whole Foods. I think people want to go back to a time when you could drink water from the stream, or pick vegetables from the side of the road — a time when the earth was clean.”

At about that time, in l970, Kaufer went on a journey into the mountains of the Sespe. This was before he had any Native American friends and, he hints, at a time when he was looking for direction for his life. He recognizes it now as a vision quest, though he didn’t have the language for it at the time.

“This was about six years before I started leading these walks,” he said. “I was in the mountains here and I heard a calling to speak for the plants and for nature in this area, to defend and teach about it. This took shape over time, as I realized that the way to create preservationists is by showing people the value of this nature and its plants. People take care of what they value.”

Kaufer has been leading “herb walks” for more than 40 years. When he first began, back in 1976, he said there was very little demand on the natural resources in the Ojai area, but that’s changed, in part due to the popularity of the Sespe backcountry.

“I’ve had to emphasize the concept of natural foraging,” Kaufer said. “I focus first on harvesting non-native weeds which environmentalists want out of the natural environment, or on native plants that are abundant or can be easily grown.”

Among the most popular of Kaufer’s authors is Jim Adams, the pharmacologist trained in the ways of the Chumash. With Kaufer, Adams will typically lead a walk to the Ojai Meadows Preserve or the Matilija backcountry in the morning, and then after an impromptu lunch Adams will demonstrate some Chumash healing techniques, while Lanny sets up a table and sells books, including Adams’ popular “Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West,” written with the late Chumash Elder Cecilia Garcia.

On a recent excursion into the Matilija backcountry with the artist, writer, and mapmaker Obi Kaufman, Kaufer watched with pride as Kaufman — working from a photograph of a frog that had taken on the pale hues of the stones in the stream where it rested — adroitly painted the front in front of an admiring crowd.

Selling books this way — through public events, classes, and conferences — seems natural to Kaufer, especially in Ojai.

“I think the book as a form is going through an evolution,” he says. “People said the same thing about music, when CDs began to go away. I haven’t noticed people listening to less music: I think digitization has opened up a world of diversity. I think it’s the same thing with books — the form is changing. We’re really just at the infancy of the e-book.”

As for Ojai, Kaufer remains a believer, though he worries about its popularity.

“I think the consciousness of Ojai has not changed fundamentally,” he says. “The appreciation for art, nature and music that has made Ojai a magnet the world over is still here. What is alarming is that the popularity of Ojai as a place to live has raised its land values so much that the kind of writers, artists, educators and naturalists that created this consciousness can no longer afford to live here. It’s non-stop work for me, staying in business, but I’m doing what I love, and trying to create the kind of world I want to live in.”   ≈OQ≈

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