Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Flying With Worms, Part Two

Sam James is a guy I met while I was doing research for the book. He’s the leading earthworm taxonomist in the country, if not the world. I went to see him at his laboratory at the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa. Folks in town called the students and faculty of the college “meditators,” as in, “We weren’t too crazy about those meditators moving in at first, but we’re starting to get used to them.” The meditators moved in thirty years ago. I guess Midwesterners are slow to accept newcomers.

I did not see any meditating going on when I went to meet Sam, but I did see plenty of worms. He has the lab of a mad scientist—enormous pickled worms in jars of murky fluid, wooden cabinets filled with tiny worms in vials, and intricate, hand-drawn diagrams of worm anatomy taped to the wall. Sam is one of those rare scientists who still gets to make new discoveries in the wild. He’s like a nineteenth-century naturalist. There are over 4,500 species of earthworms that have been identified, but many more have yet to be discovered. Sam goes to the Philippines once a year and brings back jars of exotic, wildly-colored worms. It is his task to categorize and name them. To fund his research, he hopes to set up a program that will allow people to have a worm named after them—or someone else—for a fee. Same way you’d have a star named after your child, or a rose named after your wife. To a worm lover, this is a beautiful idea.

More on Sam in the weeks and months to come. Meanwhile, I was worried about putting the worms through the baggage X-ray machine at the airport so I wrote to Sam for advice. (Thanks to Philip who posted a comment about asking the screeners to hand-check the worms. Oh, my. I’m trying to attract as little attention to the worms as possible. But they already wear those latex gloves, so maybe they wouldn’t mind thrusting their fingers into a container of worms in their own poo.) Mostly I was worried that the worms would be harmed on the way through the machine. There is nothing more demoralizing than a Rubbermaid container full of dead worms, let me tell you.

But Sam was very reassuring on this point. “They should be fine with the X-rays,” he wrote. “The most likely problem is overheating at some point in the transit process. Red wigglers are more heat tolerant than nightcrawlers, but much smaller and therefore less impressive.”

My plan is to travel with at least 3 species of worms: the red wigglers, Eisenia fetida, that live in my compost bin; the nightcrawler Lumbricus terrestris, and perhaps Aporrectodea caliginosa, the grey worm, which is commonly found around plant roots in garden soil. And Philip, you’re right—these worms will be taking a one-way trip. Some of them will have to endure several cities with me before I set them free, so they’re likely to be a little road-weary and in need of some TLC, but at my last event before heading to the airport, I’ll be looking for someone who can give my worms a good home.

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