Rural Missouri - May 2022 - 19

BACKYARD PARADISE
John Hess explores Brawley Creek
by Zach Smith | zsmith@ruralmissouri.coop
E
very day of every season, there's a play unfolding
on the banks of Brawley Creek in Johnson County.
John Hess is there, camera in hand, watching the
actors. Today he might have his eye on the Virginia
bluebells, tomorrow a luna moth larva. The stage could be
any backyard in rural Missouri and it's exactly the sort of
" perfectly ordinary paradise " John has been wandering,
photographing and musing over for almost 40 years.
" Everything that I fi nd here is ordinary and commonplace, "
John says. " There's nothing about this place that
isn't true a mile down the street or 20 miles that way. This
paradise is everywhere. "
John, a biology professor emeritus from the University
of Central Missouri and photographer, insists there's nothing
special about his little corner of the world. Yet in combining
two of his talents, he shows exactly why it is special
in his book " A Perfectly Ordinary Paradise: An Intimate
View of Life on Brawley Creek. " Framed around 40 years
of the four seasons on what John and his wife, Gina, refer
to simply as Brawley Creek, the book covers the history of
the area, its natural residents and how human custodians
have changed it along the way. As he has done more than
2,000 times on his blog, John uses an image to follow his
natural curiosity, and in doing so, give readers lessons on
botany, ornithology, herpetology and even philosophy.
" The image is valuable as a way of telling the story, but
the story is more important to me than the image, " John
says, adding with a laugh, " That makes me a crummy artist,
but that's where I am on that. "
But John's photos reveal an artist's eye. The sidelong
glance of a Galapagos tortoise as it enters a pool of water
in his fi rst book, or, at Brawley Creek, the life of a young
nuthatch from egg to fl edgling fl yer bring the viewer up
close and personal to the natural world and invite them to
linger there and learn.
Shortly after retiring in 2003, John and Gina traveled to
the Galapagos Islands. The trip, more akin to a pilgrimage
for a biologist and wildlife photographer, made its signature
impression on John just as it cast a spell on Charles
Darwin nearly 200 years earlier. Returning home and
unable to fi nd a book covering the subjects of the island
they were interested in, Gina suggested that John write
his own. The result, " The Galapagos: Exploring Darwin's
Tapestry, " uses the islands' unique plant and animal life to
showcase the behavior and adaptation of species. Now in
its second printing, the book earned accolades from some
Previous page: Professor John Hess - a biologist and photographer
- shares 40 years of experiences in his new book. Top: A hover
fl y searches for pollen on the stigma of a common chicory fl ower on
the book cover.
of John's late literary
heroes Edward O. Wilson
and Daniel Quinn.
That the subject of
John's next book was as
far from the Galapagos
as it could be may have
come as a shock to some.
To John, it was another
" perfectly ordinary " decision.
After all, he'd been
immersed in his 30 acres
of Johnson County for half of his life.
" The Galapagos Islands are a world-class destination
and people go there to see all these fantastic things, but
it's a desert island, " John says. " And this is absolutely nowhere.
The two places couldn't be farther apart, but this,
biologically, is much richer and there's so much more to
understand. "
Roaming the creek banks, John points out the centuryold
eastern cottonwoods and Kentucky coffeetrees, the
white oak that was a sapling during Lewis and Clark's
expedition and a pair of sycamores, dubbed " The Twins, "
which grow from the stump of a long dead ancestor and
mark the original streambed. Amidst four decades' worth
of photographs he's taken are other ephemera, including a
20-year list that references when, among other visitors, his
annual phoebe returns to her nest by the bridge.
" When you live in a place for 40 years, you know these
things, " John says. " I had this really intense urge to put
this all together because I'd never seen anyone do it. The
photographs are the connection. Everybody likes a pretty
picture. "
John says one doesn't have to be a trained photographer
or biologist to appreciate the beauty in their own
backyard. As a spring evening settles in, the sounds of life
on Brawley Creek take on the decidedly dulcid tones of a
Missouri frog pond. From the vantage point of John and
Gina's porch, close your eyes and you could be anywhere
- a fi ne place to be.
" Everybody has access to this, " John says, " all they
need to do is look at it and think a little bit about how it
lives its life. "
Warrensburg
John's blog can be visited at pixlist.
wordpress.com. A " Perfectly Ordinary
Paradise: An Intimate View of Life on
Brawley Creek " is available from the
author and the University of Missouri
Press. For more information visit
www.brawleycreek.com, email
john@brawleycreek.com or call
660-429-6483.
MAY 2022 | RURALMISSOURI.COOP 19
http://www.wordpress.com http://www.brawleycreek.com http://www.RURALMISSOURI.COOP

Rural Missouri - May 2022

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Contents
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