Backyard Nature

By Mark

When I was a toddler in 1950 my parents moved from a cramped New Jersey apartment to a new suburb on Long Island, NY. The house was on the site of a farm and had a large (from my perspective) apple and a maple tree right behind the house. One day when I was in the range of 4-6 years old, my mother was walking with me in the backyard and pointed at a nest high in the apple tree. Suddenly an American Robin flew out. It was almost as if her parental power had summoned the bird forth. For the rest of my childhood, I was fascinated with those trees and the birds and insects in them.
That is my earliest nature story

Here are a few more interactions at those trees:

As a slightly older child I kept notes from hours of watching from my upstairs bedroom window as a Robin tended a different nest in the backyard maple.  One day I watched a Blue Jay hop around very close to the nest, looking for something. Fortunately for the Robin, the Jay did not find the nest. 

Below the apple tree were a vegetable garden on one side and a flower garden on a the other. My siblings and I collected insects from the gardens and trees. Some insects were mounted with pins, but we kept live crickets. We tried to keep praying mantises but did not realize that they would cannibalize each other if kept in the same shoe box. 

In the late 1950′s I became a Boy Scout. Insect Study Merit Badge had a requirement that in its current version states: “Observe 20 different live species of insects in their habitat.” ( ). I sat on a lawn chair next to the flower garden and started to take notes. Within a short while I had counted 20 species. But I thought I would just stay there to see how long it would take before I would find yet another species new for the day. As the morning went on there was a ‘new’ species every 5-10 minutes. After a couple of hours, I stopped observing the flower patch and left amazed and heartened at the variety of fellow life forms that inhabited our family’s little backyard.

One early September day, a dramatic cold snap knocked a cicada out of a tree. I thought the dead cicada would be great for my insect collection, so I put it inside my uniform shirt and trotted down the street to school.  At lunch time I was in the back of a class room during  choir practice when the cicada started to buzz. I pulled it out of my shirt and held it in front of me while I tried to figure out what to do. Some girls started to scream.  The nun assumed I was intentionally disrupting the proceedings and gave my knuckles a good rapping with the standard ruler.

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Posted: Monday, November 29th, 2010

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