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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 in the house. 

            “Mom!  Look at these mushrooms,” he shouted excitedly.  Where I saw a sodden, rotting, moldy mat, my five-year-old 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, and we headed off to the library to get a book about mushrooms.  

Thus Robbie, three-year-old Eli, and I were started off on mushroom mania. We found out that mushrooms live on rotting materials (“They’re eating the mat,” Robbie declared), and discovered lots of varieties of fungi—with names like Hen-of-the-Woods, Jelly Ears, and Artists’ Conch--on numerous “mushroom walks” in the woods.  We even got our names on a “Mushroom Club Newsletter” mailing list when we encountered some Grown-Up Mushroom Hunters hiking down by Coralville Lake.  They seemed impressed by my sons’ interest in and knowledge of things fungal.

            Then the aphids came.  Aphids are small, white, soft-bodied insects that suck sap out of plants, and one summer morning I noticed them speckled all over my deck chair, 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 chair and picnic table. “They’re ladybug food!”  Eli told me. 

Well, OK.  We’d recently been reading a book about ladybugs from the library, a science book for 3-year-olds.  Another look at the book reminded us that the odd bugs that looked like they were kissing the aphids were actually ladybug larvae, which bite into the aphids and suck out their juices, leaving the bodies behind like so many empty beer cans. 

Then one night, we discovered that a raccoon lives in a hole in our neighbor’s linden tree.  The boys found 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, finding out that they are remarkably adaptable to human development of their territory, turning happily to garbage scraps or the sweet corn in your vegetable garden when no crayfish are available. 

Supposedly, they’re curious and mischievous enough to make good pets.  I’m not sure I believe it:  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 to the deck.  It was a wild face, curious, to be sure, but indifferent to me, the light, and the New York Times.

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 we’d found out from our summer of backyard science.  Mushroom spores fall on rotting mats.  Ladybugs 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 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, swinging on the swings, and running through the sprinkler, but by being scientists there.   Who would have known 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 watching for living things, naming what we see, and learning about them all has given me and my boys a lot of satisfaction.  And what’s more, I’ve learned that naming those natural phenomena hasn’t take away the mystery of wild things which go on living their own lives of eat-or-be-eaten right under our noses.