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The faces of the Plains

"Great Plains: America's Lingering Wild," by Michael Forsberg, University of Chicago Press, 256 pages. To see the true beauty of the Great Plains, Nebraska photographer Michael Forsberg says, you really have to linger. If you get off the Intersta...

Buffalo Gap prairie dogs
Highly social black-tailed prairie dogs greet one another with kisses and grooming in Buffalo Gap National Grassland in South Dakota.

"Great Plains: America's Lingering Wild," by Michael Forsberg, University of Chicago Press, 256 pages.

To see the true beauty of the Great Plains, Nebraska photographer Michael Forsberg says, you really have to linger. If you get off the Interstate and slow down, it will win you over.

Earlier this month, Forsberg published "Great Plains: America's Lingering Wild," with essays and photographs about one of the most magnificent grasslands on the planet, and -- he says -- one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world.

"Probably the most key goal of this book is to put a face to these Great Plains," Forsberg said in a telephone interview from his home in Lincoln, Neb., "to put a face to the wildlife and the landscapes and that lingering wildness and why it matters. I learned a long time ago not to tell people what to think. But what I can do is give them my experiences and let them make their own decisions."

Forsberg is an award-winning photographer who has been published in National Geographic, Audobon, National Wildlife and more. His new book features 150 full-color images, many taken in North Dakota, Minnesota, South Dakota, Montana, Nebraska and Kansas, along with literary, historical and scientific passages.


There's an introduction by American poet laureate Ted Kooser, and contributions from novelist and wildlife biologist Dan O'Brien and from geographer and environmentalist David Wishart.

Published by The University of Chicago Press, the book's press kit has kudos from noted authors Larry McMurtry ("Lonesome Dove") and Kathleen Norris ("Dakota: A Spiritual Geography").

"The (Great Plains) area has been called America's Outback, but this beautiful book should make it accessible to everyone," Norris wrote of "Great Plains."

Forsberg was born and raised in Lincoln, and graduated with a degree in geography from the University of Nebraska.

"I'd never taken a writing or photography class, or a speaking class or a business class," he said. "And that's what I do today. It's kind of funny where life leads you."

Forsberg became a trip leader for an adventure-based enterprise, taking people canoeing and rock climbing. When he realized he was coming back from amazing trips with nothing to show for them, he borrowed a camera and started taking pictures.

He worked for one year as a seasonal ranger for the National Park Service at Yellowstone, returned to Nebraska to get married, and then worked for Nebraskaland magazine. After six years, he and his wife Patty opened their own photography business, the Michael Forsberg Gallery, in Lincoln's historic Haymarket. They have two daughters, 11 and 9.

"We are never going to get rich doing this but it's something that's really important to us," Forsberg said. "It's really fun to show people their own big backyard in the Great Plains in a way maybe they haven't seen it before."


Forsberg is accustomed to hearing derogatory remarks about the Great Plains, second only to the African Serengeti in size, and stretching from Texas northward into Canada, and from the Mississippi River west to the Rocky Mountains.

"We've all heard those remarks," he said. "'It's one big flat cornfield.' 'It's a place you drive through or fly over.' To be fair to those folks, it's not a landscape you can appreciate in a few minutes."

What is the importance of the Great Plains? It's a place where people have a deep connection to the land. Less than 200 years ago, Forsberg said, it was one of the greatest grasslands in the world. Europeans and others came here to go on safari.

"Then, pretty much in a blink of an eye, as the U.S. and Canada grew west, most of that was gone," Forsberg said. "Today most of the Plains is a very endangered ecosystem. But all is not lost on the prairie. There's a lot left out there and I think people really need to understand our past and understand how these natural areas work -- the beautiful prairies and the river systems and all that -- and make sure we're good stewards as we go off into the future. We can't modify the Great Plains. It's always going to be a landscape that feeds the world and helps fulfill our energy needs. But I think it can also be a wilderness."

Still, we've stressed the system pretty hard, he said, and consequently there's a lot of ugliness out there.

"It's important to understand that, and for those of us who live here to ask -- what do we want to be? For me it's sort of a gut check right now. It's like any place around the world that's having the same kind of stresses and where people are asking themselves the same things. We need to understand it, not just from a economic standpoint, but from an ecological standpoint.

"I've met many people," he continued, "all anchored to the land. The kind of thing that stitches them together is their deep love for the land itself. And, for that, I've got great hope."


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