Guest Post Written By: Andra Bryan Stefanoni
As a child growing up in Crawford County, the day that the National Geographic magazine arrived at our home each month was the day that I curled up on the couch and traveled the world. It was filled with photographs of natural wonders — from the enormous, like Mt. Everest, to the tiny, like a newly-discovered insect — that I could see only in its pages.
As a teen, I began dreaming of working as a journalist for it, traveling so I could write about and photograph those wonders myself.
That dream was partially fulfilled: I became a journalist.
But by choice, today the bulk of my photographs and stories originate from Crawford County, my home now for 47 years. While that iconic, yellow-bordered magazine still arrives each month at my home and still captivates my imagination, I’ve found plenty to document right here. Because, as it turns out, there are plenty of natural wonders in my own backyard. And on country roads. And in parks and mined land areas.
You just have to look.
Season by season
Crawford County has four distinct seasons — a big bonus when it comes to nature photography. That means the chance to capture hundreds of distinct images from the same locations throughout a given year.
That might mean fog rising from the water on a Spring morning, or dragonflies at rest on prairie grass in Summer. It might mean the frosty edges of leaves on the ground in Fall, or animal tracks through the snow in Winter.
Varying the time of day also can yield dozens of different shots, from an Eastern bluebird going in and out of its birdhouse first thing in the morning, to the calm silhouette of a songbird on a fence post in front of a blazing orange sky at sunset.
For the best chance of capturing such images on a daily basis, I carry an iPhone 7 in my pocket just about all the time. I never know when I might discover a garden spider spinning an intricate web under the eave of our barn, or come upon a nest filled with baby birds.
I also always carry it when we venture out and about in Crawford County with our fishing poles, kayaks, shotguns, or hiking boots. But if my mission is solely to come home with nature photos, I’ll also sling my camera bag over my shoulder with my Canon Rebel tucked inside.
My go-to spots? My top five:
Pittsburg State University Campus
There is no prettier campus in the world. The combination of historic and new architecture, the diversity of plants, winding paths, beautiful statuary, and well-kept landscaping make it a scenic spot in any season. Of particular note: In Spring, magnificent pink tulip trees are in bloom in front of Russ Hall. In Fall, don’t miss the trees and ornamental grasses around the University Lake, which also boasts fountains, bridges, and the lovely stone Timmons Chapel.
A series of interconnected trails allows for recreation on an area once mined for coal. The spoils — small hills and deep lakes — provide woodland habitat for songbirds that flit from tree to tree and for turtles sunning themselves on logs. On a clear day, the white bark of sycamores reflects on the calm surface of the water below. In winter, a dusting of snow reveals a new architecture in the landscape: limbs and branches previously unnoticed are now in stark contrast.
Mined Land Area
With a fishing pole, a tackle box, and a little luck, visitors to the Mined Land Area can photograph crappie, bass, and sunfish. Kayakers can paddle past cattails that create mazes within each strip pit lake, perhaps capturing an image of a Red-winged blackbird, or the tranquility of the water. Paddle quietly, and you might come away with a photograph of a great blue heron or a great white egret wading in search of a meal.
Crawford State Park
Hang out on a dock or perch on rocks at the lake’s edge for photos of colorful boats in the summer. Or, visit it in the Fall, when vacationers are gone, for photos of beautiful foliage and migrating waterfowl. Take a hike on the park’s trails at any time of year and you’re sure to come across native species of flora and fauna worth capturing in pictures.
They may look empty, but if you have a photographer’s eye, you’ll find there’s plenty to see. Fences stretching into the distance. Black-eyed Susans waving from the roadside in the summer breeze. A raptor perched on a post, ready to dive to the ditch for a field mouse. A weathered barn, calling forth the spirit of the pioneers who settled here. A patch of iris or lilies where one of their homes once stood, with a lone rock chimney now standing sentry.
Should I feel like venturing even further afield, which I do occasionally, the great thing about living here is its proximity to other photographic spots: The Ozarks are less than an hour’s drive away, and a tallgrass prairie and a herd of bison are less than 20 minutes from my front door.
Of course, if you’re lucky enough to call Crawford County “home,” you’ll likely find you have plenty of photo opportunities right in your own backyard.