The big plastic bag of potting soil had been lying on the coiled garden hose in the backyard for several weeks, leftover from fall planting. Annoyed at the eyesore of my own making, I heaved it up to move it inside. To my surprise, snuggled in between the green loops of the garden hose, under the soft warmth of the potting soil bag, were several wriggling tiny worms. Amazed, I crouched down and looked closely. Seven in all, they were tiny, brown, glistening, and had thin rudimentary legs. Not worms! Salamanders! I watched them closely for a quick moment, took a couple of pictures and carefully replaced the bag of potting soil. They needed their snug home; it was too cool outside.

I was immediately transported to my childhood neighborhood. I was seven or eight again, it was late afternoon, and we were “going around the block”. Invented by my mother, this popular activity consisted of a leisurely stroll around our block, stopping at every brick border edge, fallen tree branch, stone, or leaf pile. She and I, usually joined by other curious neighbor kids, would crouch, flip over rocks and decaying leaves, see what was under them and talk about what we found.

Parents and their children came out of their houses to see what we had found that was so interesting. Most of the mothers, more interested in recipes and nail polish, thought my mother was crazy. The kids all thought she was cool.

Sometimes we were allowed to keep plentiful finds, like roly-poly bugs, so we carried old pickle jars just in case. More often, we just marveled at nature. We learned about spiders and what they ate, and who ate them, lizards, worms, grubs, beetles, and occasional snakes. We avoided the centipedes; some of them stung. We found eggs and could easily identify spider egg cases, clumps of frog eggs in puddles, broken bird eggshells that had fallen from trees. We learned to name (but never eat) some mushrooms and lichens. In the fall, we saw who could find the most different leaf colors. We knew how to avoid poison ivy and poison oak.

At the end of the block, there was a wooded lot, and if we had time, we would linger there a long time. We caught frogs, and laughed when they peed on our hands. We dug shallow holes, covered them with twig houses for the frogs, and came back the next day to see if they were still living there. We rubbed velvety moss against our bare feet. We drizzled sand down tiny animal holes to see if the occupant would come out.

Our block wasn’t that big, but it could take about couple of hours to get all the way around, back to our front yard. If it wasn’t dark yet, a front yard game of freeze-tag or giant steps or mother-may-I would end the day. After dark, trying to catch lightning bugs was de rigueur. Then friends would wander home to supper.

Is it any wonder my childhood bedroom had terrariums, aquariums, old birds’ nests, shed snake skins, and a pet lizard? My long-suffering older sister Ruth, who was a very girly girl, drew a line down the middle of the room, forbidding me to put any of my “treasures” on her side of the room. She needed all that space for curlers, make-up, and teen magazines. She was usually tolerant of my “pets” until the infamous Spider Incident.

A beautiful spider egg case, about the size of a ping pong ball, rested in a giant empty mayonnaise jar, saran wrap rubber-banded over the opening, tiny holes punched for air. I watched with fascination, wondering when it would hatch. Little did I know there would be hundreds of tiny green spiders, small enough to come out through the holes in the saran wrap. They scooted all over our bedroom, nesting high up in the ceiling corners and curtains. Ruth was not amused. Our mother had to break up frequent fights that started with me yelling, ”Mama, she’s killing my spiders!” Years later, I learned that the two of them had worked out a deal. While I was around, the spiders had to be lived with. When I was not home, she was allowed to whack as many as she could with the broom. Even with her secret spider murders, there were still plenty of them and she often awakened with spider webs in her giant hair curlers. I know Ruth was happy when she went off to college and lived in the sorority house, much calmer than our bedroom!

I stood up from the salamanders, coming back to the present from my reverie. I gazed at the woods around me, feeling like a kid again. Who knows what other wonders are out there?