A Good Read By Charlie Grindstaff Indian Trail Master Naturalist
Discover Nature around the House
Things to know and things to do
By Elizabeth P. Lawlor
With illustrations by Pat Archer
Published in 2003 by Stackpole Books
This is the ninth book in the Discover Nature series and the fifth by Elizabeth Lawlor. The book cover proclaims her to be a “professor of science education for many years”.
I liked her premise, “Though we often think of the natural world as lying far from our front door, often the most interesting aspects of nature can be found in the kitchen, basement, or backyard.” She intends this book to be a friendly guide to gently lead the beginning naturalist to the point of knowledge and experience where field guides will be useful. She divides the 210 page book into 11 chapters each relating the important facts and discoveries about a particular living thing. These facts are followed by suggested observational and exploratory activities. I share her belief that no amount of reading can make up for hands-on experiences. A few common plants, ferns, cacti and white potatoes are the first to be explored followed by animals you could encounter in your house, like Daddy Longlegs, Ants, Ladybugs, House Mice, Cats and Dogs.
I enjoyed this book and can’t wait to try one of the experiments with ants. She writes about how ants use not only prominent landscape features and the polarized light of the sun to find their way back to their colony, but the “most common strategy is a scent trail on the ground marked by pheromones that the ant secretes.” I know it is perverse but she suggests putting a spoonful of honey about three feet from the nest with four pieces of cardboard around it so that any trail to the honey must cross over a cardboard. Observe them using their antennae to follow the scent trail laid down by the first ants that found the food. When there are 30 to 40 ants traveling to and from the nest, turn the cardboard that is closest to the nest 45º or even 180º from the honey to see what they do. How long does confusion reign?
The facts imparted at the beginning of each chapter were interesting and enlightening to me, but then I grew up in Minnesota where we didn’t have mud daubers to observe. I am sure you all know they gather mouthfuls of mud from the edges of puddles or when dry they take dirt and mix with their saliva to build their “organ-pipe” nests. The variation in color of the tubes indicates she took mud from a variety of sources. Now here is the part I never knew or thought about, she stuffs the tube with spiders which she has paralyzed so they cannot struggle with the larvae or escape. Once the tube is stocked the egg is laid and the tube is sealed. Upon hatching the larvae are grub-like, lacking eyes, wings and legs. They eat the spiders in about three weeks but will remain in the tube for about eight months (October to May) before becoming a pupa, a period of silent rest and incredible change. The process of developing from pupa to adult takes about four days and a week later they chew their way out of the tube.
I believe Ms. Lawlor accomplished her goal. Her writing is organized and easily understood. She is good about keeping the observer and the observed safe, always recommending the best way to handle and release any critter back to nature. In the activities, she offers insightful questions to guide your observations and discoveries. The book is nicely illustrated with drawings of the subjects, including detailed studies of antennae, foot prints, cactus spines, etc.
So now I am off to find another of her books, maybe Discover Nature at Sundown.