How to Think Like a Watershed
The Platte Basin Timelapse turns science into photographic poetry
THE IDEA FOR Platte Basin Timelapse began with a simple desire. "I knew that I wanted to keep working in the Big Backyard," says conservation photographer Michael Forsberg.
In spring 2011, Forsberg and documentary filmmaker Michael Farrell had just finished shooting Great Plains: America's Lingering Wild, soon to air nationally on PBS. They were driving back to Nebraska, and with all that "windshield time" ahead of them, Farrell eventually braved the question: "What's next?"
Somewhere in the red-dirt scrubland of Oklahoma, with Forsberg's dusty gray Suburban pushing 300K miles, the two spitballed their next big adventure: a long-term multimedia project that would use timelapse cameras to illustrate how water connects all of us, everywhere, all the time. The technology was familiar. For Great Plains, they'd incorporated timelapse cinematography to ease transitions. And for Forsberg's previous book of the same name, he'd often relied on camera traps automatically triggered by movement within the frame. With both, Forsberg says, "I was really struck by the sweep of time." The cameras captured not only "the cast of characters that move through any particular point" but also how those characters—and their physical environs—change from one season to the next. At the same time, he'd begun to see a pattern in his work. All of it was linked, in one way or another, to that most critical resource: water.
For the new project, Forsberg and Farrell settled first on a watershed—"a system unto itself," Forsberg says, a natural frame wherein every action and reaction could be easily witnessed. Then they zeroed in on the Platte River Basin, from the river's headwaters in the Colorado Rockies to the Missouri River and its gordian dance with the Ogallala Aquifer below, one of the largest groundwater sources in North America. "It's not the Tetons. We're not looking over the north rim of the Grand Canyon. We're looking at grassland. We're looking at cropland. We're looking at the land that's an anchor for the sky. But you only see that beauty if it grows on you. And that takes time," Forsberg says. "We can help compress that time a little bit."
Almost from the start, the project spilled its banks. To secure funding, Forsberg and Farrell partnered with the University of Nebraska, where they now teach a course on digital imaging and storytelling. To get the project off the ground, they hired students as interns, some of whom are now full-time employees. "So this project has become a learning laboratory," Forsberg says. "The Platte Basin is the stage waters, the muse. And it's a launchpad to try to create the next generation of conservation storytellers."
Now in its 13th year, what they eventually called Platte Basin Timelapse operates more than 60 timelapse cameras throughout the 90,000-square-mile watershed. Each camera, housed in a weatherproof shell and powered by a solar unit, takes one photo during every hour of daylight. Some are permanent—"legacy cameras," Forsberg calls them. Others are temporary. Together, he says, "they bear witness to a watershed in motion."
The cameras have captured lightning kissing the storm-roiled waters of Lake Ogallala, near the Kingsley hydroelectric plant in southwestern Nebraska—a wild convergence, a synchronicity of man and nature. They've captured a windmill after a rainstorm, its reflection glassy in the water tank below, sunflowers crowding like cattle. They've captured the Platte, this "relic of a braided river," Forsberg says, trying to braid itself again—conveyors of sand churning downstream. They've captured the same wetland in every season, then stitched the images together to form a living composite, or as former project researcher Emma Brinley Buckley wrote for the scientific journal Ecology and Society, to "facilitate novel perceptions." And here, like rivers converging, science flows into verse. In the formal language of the Platte Basin Timelapse project, one hears echoes of the late Nebraska poet Don Welch. In his poem "Advice From a Provincial," Welch admonishes the lazy outsider to go home, to "work on your eyes" and "bring back a sight which can co-create meaning."
Then notice at sunset how our river is on fire,
a long burning vowel running westward,
back to the mountains, those granite consonants
which thrust themselves at the sky.
Through composite imagery, curated galleries, a new website, and a sprawling portfolio of multimedia stories, Platte Basin Timelapse co-creates meaning in a region chronically overlooked and underappreciated. Neither Forsberg nor Farrell could have predicted that the project would still be running today, more than a decade down the line. And yet, as Forsberg reminds us, "there is no finish line in conservation."