Waiting in the Tall Grass for a Fox
To catch a swift fox beneath a prairie moon requires a rapport with its environment, built over time. Conservation photographer Michael Forsberg put in the work. Over the course of three years, he spent many nights laying in wait, attuning himself to the routines and rituals of one of Western South Dakota’s most elusive animals in its habitat. Camouflaged to fade into the landscape of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland, he bided time.
Over the course of starlit and cloud-dark prairie nights, and days, spent as motionless as possible in photo-blind tents, he managed to capture some of the complexity of the species’ struggle against the elements and a changing landscape on the Plains. It’s a species that can seem as if designed to elicit shrieks of adoration from cuteness-addicts, though in its mission to survive it often draws on less emoji-ready instincts.
Forsberg’s patient devotion to his subjects comes through in images that reveal moments at turns playful, brutal, pensive — peering beneath the endearing exterior to demonstrate the real, and essential role the swift fox plays in the landscape, pulling back the grass curtain on the fullness of the Big Empty through one small creature. The project, covered in National Geographic last fall, is one part in Forsberg's decades long effort to shed light through his art on the beauty and indispensability of the Plains.
SDPB caught up with him to ask him about keeping up with swift fox.
SDPB: Why swift fox?
Forsberg: Swift fox sort of suffer the same fate as the Great Plains prairie ecosystem. You get into the middle of the country and most people consider it a place to drive through at 75 mph or fly over at 30,000 feet. It’s not a sexy landscape that knocks you in the teeth when you open the car door the way the Tetons or the Canyon does.
You have to get off the road and get out into the country and linger. And then when you do, the more time that you spend, the more beauty you see. And that goes for the wild creatures that still exist out on this ecosystem too, because you just don’t see them very much. Swift fox is a great example of that, and they’re very charismatic little creatures, and like a lot of creatures on the prairie they are struggling to survive, so I wanted to shine a light on these little guys and tell their story.
SDPB: What’s it like to spend so much time sitting in a photo-blind waiting for the right moment?
Forsberg: Well, it’s not for everybody, but for me it’s like a sacred space almost, where you just get to be. You really don’t have any choice; you just sit there and wait. And as you wait, you become part of that landscape, and you start to notice things, see things, hear things, smell things, that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to. You become acutely aware of everything around you.
As a photographer, one of the hardest parts about it is that you really can never go to sleep. You always have to be attuned to what’s happening out there because as soon as you look away, as soon as you take a nap, that’s when something happens in front of you, almost without fail.
But it’s an amazing experience, and I never get bored.
SDPB: Do you think the juxtaposition of “cuteness” and brutality in these images is something people respond to?
Forsberg: Sure. I think we’d like to try to turn nature into something that’s good or bad, cute and cuddly or mean and evil, and it’s none of those things. It just is what it is. Swift foxes are just being foxes, that’s what they do, and they’re small and cute and cuddly, but they’re also very efficient predators, and that’s their role in the ecosystem is to be a predator.
An important thing that I try to communicate to people through my work is to not just look at the soft and easy aspects of something, but also what its place is in the landscape and what its natural history is. Why does it exist? What’s the niche that it fills? So, a swift fox carrying away half of a prairie dog that it’s just killed on the prairie — that’s what they do. That’s part of the web of life. That’s the approach that I take whether it’s with a fox or a hawk or a ferret or an ant, to try to pull the curtain back and show people honestly what happens out there and that it’s all important.
SDPB: You’ve described the grasslands as a place that’s in “triage mode,” but also resilient. Do you feel optimistic about the future of the grasslands?
Forsberg: On my good days, yes. You have to have hope. Without hope, what’s the point of caring about something in the first place? But also the reality is that temperate grasslands like the Great Plains — around the world — are the most altered environments on earth, and they struggle for survival. I think the thing that we have to come to realize is that they are a part of this ecological infrastructure that underpins absolutely everything that we do on the land today, how our economies run, how water runs through our system, and we have to be able to protect and restore, where we can, what’s left of the natural places that haven’t been plowed up or paved over. It’s not just important to wildlife, it’s important to us.
When I was younger I would just go out and make pretty pictures. And I could frame out roads and fences and other sorts of development, and it would look like you were in a place that hadn’t been touched for a thousand years. Today, I still take those pictures, because I think those photographs are important, but I also include the conservation challenges that are there today because that’s what we’re dealing with. It’s sort of like photographing swift fox, not just taking pretty pictures of them, but also showing what the rest of their character is and what their own challenges are out there on the landscape.
SDPB: You’ve touched on how the mountains, say, enjoy a certain kind of aesthetic advantage over the grasslands. Does the topographically-challenged nature of the prairie require the artist-advocate to work harder on its behalf?
Forsberg: I think it takes a community of people to advocate for the Plains. And that community involves artists. It involves scientists, people in media, but most importantly it involves people that make a life on the land. Folks that live out there, outside the cities, are the ones that are responsible ultimately, for being stewards of the land. And most of the people that I meet in the places that I work have this very intense love for the place that they call home. When they share that, with the rest of us and with each other… that’s where I think hope lies.
The strength out here in the Plains is that people love the land. They connect with it. And we may not agree with everybody’s perspective, but if you sit around the table and you talk long enough you find that there’s a lot of common ground. It’s that common ground that you want to lift up, and try to figure out how you can move forward.
SDPB: Can you talk a little about what you’re working on now?
Forsberg: Right now I’m working on a multi-year project called the Platte Basin Timelapse Project, where [with (documentary filmmaker) Mike Farrell] we’re basically trying to put an entire watershed in motion… to tell the story of a drop of water from the top of the Continental Divide and the Colorado Rockies all the way down the Platte river system until it drains into the Missouri on the eastern shoulder of Nebraska.
We’ve got 45 cameras that are out on the landscape, throughout that basin, that are each a chapter in the story of that water, and each one of those cameras is taking a picture — every hour of daylight, every day, year-round, for several years — that shows the process of water as it moves through the landscape; flood and drought, how nature uses it, how we use it, the whole story.
After about three years of putting these cameras out, making sure everything’s working and building the frame for this, now we’re starting to turn towards the next couple of years, to build context and tell stories around these camera locations — to tell the story of a watershed. And the Platte Basin, which stretches from mountains to the heart of the Great Plains, has a really interesting story to tell.