Backyard Science

published in the Gazette August 6, 2000 and excerpted in the Prairie States Mushroom Club Newsletter


            I was worried when the baby rabbits born in our yard got eaten by a crow.  It didn't seem like a very auspicious beginning to what I'd hoped would be a summer of backyard fun.

            And then after a week of gloomy, rainy days, there were the mushrooms.  My older son, Robbie, discovered them growing on the mat I leave outside to encourage the wiping of feet before coming into the house. 

            "Look, Mom!" he shouted.  I looked, and before the "Yuck!" got out of my mouth, my son crouched down and lifted up the mat.  "Look at these cool mushrooms!"

            Where I saw a sodden, moldy mat, my five-year-old son saw science.  He turned the mat over and found it laced with delicate white thready stuff.  "I think those must be the mushrooms' roots," I said tentatively, getting into the spirit of things, and we headed off to the library to get a book on mushrooms.

            Thus Robbie, 3-year old little brother Eli, and I were started off on mushroom mania.  We found out that mushrooms live on rotting materials ("They’re eating the mat," declared Robbie).  We discovered lots of varieties of fungi—with names like Hen-of-the-Woods, Jelly Ears, and Artist's Conch—on numerous "mushroom walks" during that wet season. 

            Then the aphids came.  Aphids are small, white, soft-bodied insects that suck sap out of plants.  One summer morning, I noticed them speckled all over my deck chairs, like a dusting of snow falling from our ash tree.  "What earthly good are these disgusting bugs," I grumbled, as I got out a broom and swept them off the chairs and picnic table.

            "They’re ladybug food," Eli told me.  Well, OK.  We'd recently been reading a book on bugs (yuck!) from the library, a science book for 3-year-olds.  Another look at the book, which Eli brought out to me, reminded me that the odd looking striped bugs that looked like they were kissing the aphids were actually ladybug larvae.  They bite into the aphids and suck out their juices, leaving the bodies behind like so many empty beer cans. 

I put down my broom and joined Eli in looking up close at this phenomenon.  The boys spent many mornings counting ladybug larvae, and in a week or so, the aphids were gone, replaced, it seemed, with lots of adult ladybugs zinging through the yard.

            Then one night, we discovered that a raccoon lives in a hole in our neighbor's linden tree.  The boys found out that by standing on the picnic table, they could sometimes catch a glimpse of the raccoon as it peeked its head out on nice evenings.  And yes, we read about raccoons, too, and found out that they are remarkably adaptable to human development of their territory.  They turn happily to garbage scraps or the sweet corn in your vegetable garden when no crayfish are available.  Supposedly, they make good pets.

            I’m not sure I believe that:  One night the hair on the back of my neck stood on end when I looked up from the paper one evening to see a masked face calmly peering in the French doors from the deck.  It was a wild face.  Curious, to be sure, but indifferent to me, the light, and the newspaper. 

            Maybe the bunny-eating crow incident wasn't so bad after all.  I suppose those crows were just looking for something to feed their babies, a big occupation of wildlife, as my boys and I found out from our summer of backyard science.  Mushroom spores fall on rotting mats.  Ladybug lay eggs near aphid infestations. Raccoons love to be near city garbage and vegetable gardens.

            It's all just a matter of taking care of future generations, I think to myself as I fix PB & J's for Robbie and Eli, who are examining the crop of new mushrooms in the front yard.  I had hoped for lots of flowers and butterflies in my backyard this summer.  Instead, we got aphids and mushrooms.

            But with the curiosity of my boys as a prompt, we've ended up enjoying our backyard not just by playing catch or running in the sprinkler, but by being scientists there.  Who knew that mushrooms, aphids, and raccoons could be so fascinating?  I'm not sure what draws my boys to them—the strangeness of fungus and animals small and large?  Or the familiarity their lives have to ours—being born, eating growing, changing, dying?

            All I know is that without my boys' curiosity, I might have just turned away from these summer visitors with a "yuck"—and missed out on the mystery of wild things that go on living their own lives of eat-or-be-eaten right under our noses.


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