Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Earthworm Party Favors

Welcome back, blog friends. I hope you had a good Christmas. Worm-oriented gifts seemed to be the theme this year: My friend Sue made me an anatomically correct clay earthworm that’s sitting on my desk right now. The real worms had a rough holiday: the lid blew off one of the worm bins and I haven’t found it yet. I’m hoping it’s stuck behind a shrub in the backyard somewhere. Meanwhile, the worms haven’t seemed too eager to go exploring. They’re still working on the remnants of our Christmas Day dinner; that’ll keep them happy for a few more days.

As promised, I’ll continue with the Earthworm Hospitality Guide. Here is Part Two: Party Favors.

A good hostess knows how to put together treats that will delight her guests and leave them with happy memories of her home. Some guests enjoy toys or games, cookies or chocolates, trinkets or keepsakes, but for earthworms, there is no more delightful treat than a good thick layer of mulch. Spread three to six inches of aged manure, compost, planting mix, or shredded bark on the ground, and the worms will simply flock to your garden, attracted by the delicious bits of organic matter and the protection offered by that spongy surface layer. You’ll also suppress weeds, help the soil hold moisture, and protect fragile young plant roots during winter freezes and summer droughts. Over time, your industrious guests will take their party favors home, carrying that mulch belowground and doing the hard work of tilling your garden, without you lifting so much as a finger.

Tune in tomorrow for Part Three: The Buffet.

Thursday, December 25, 2003

Merry Christmas! I'll be back January 1...

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

The Big Moment

I interrupt the regularly scheduled programming on this channel for a special announcement: a box containing 20 copies of The Earth Moved arrived by UPS at approximately 6 p.m. tonight. We’ve had one copy for a couple weeks now, but there’s something about seeing a box of them that makes this whole enterprise seem more—I don’t know—legitimate. Scott was so excited that he ripped the box open on the porch and gave a copy to the UPS driver. The guy deserves it; he’s been bringing worm-related research material and marked-up manuscripts to the front door for three years now.

You might think that authors get unlimited free copies of their own book, but it’s not true. My contract says that I get 20 and my agent gets 10, and beyond that, if I want copies, I have to buy them. (I do get a discount.) When my last book came out, my friend Annette went out to the bookstore and bought every copy they had. She still buys them when she sees them. Mostly she gives them as gifts. She’s mentioned in From the Ground Up, so when she gives a copy to someone, she always points out the chapter in which she appears.

One time at a party a friend of hers said, “There you go with that book again. What is it about that book that makes you pretend that you’re the Annette mentioned in there?”

The funny thing is, this guy had actually met me. He had every reason to believe that she was in fact mentioned in the book, but somehow he’d got it into his head that she was making it all up. She had to point out the obvious parallels between the book and real life—she lives in Albuquerque, and so does the Annette in the book. Both Annettes are psychologists. And both of them went to Santa Cruz to visit a friend named Amy in the summer of—oh, lordy, when was that? 1997? 1996? Geez, it seems like yesterday.

So eventually we convinced him. The other thing that happens to her when she gives the book to people is that they assume she got it for free, either because she knows me or because she’s in it. So they react the way you’d react if somebody gave you something they’d gotten for free. But she knows that I don’t get royalties for free books. I only get paid when somebody walks into a bookstore and buys a copy. So she buys hers retail.

Needless to say, I put her in The Earth Moved, also. Why wouldn’t I? She’s my best customer. See page 121.

OK, tomorrow I promise I’ll get back to the Earthworm Hospitality Guide.

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Earthworm Hospitality Guide

Richard posted a question yesterday about building up the worm population in his garden soil. Yes, there are plenty of things you can do to attract worms and encourage them to start a family in your flower beds. Once you get me started on this subject, I do tend to ramble, so I think I’ll split this topic up over several days. Here, then, is the first installment of my Earthworm Hospitality Guide:

Part One: Invitations
First of all, there is no need to buy worms to add to your soil. A good hostess does not have to pay her guests to attend her parties. And bringing in strangers can be awkward for everyone involved, as any gardener who has ever bought ladybugs at the nursery knows. The little red-and-black guests have a tendency to dash off as soon as they arrive. How to explain such rudeness? Well, they’re looking for home—some faraway canyon or mountain where they were collected. You’re much better off putting out the kinds of flowers that will endear you to the ladybugs in your own neighborhood. The same is true of worms. Well, worms won’t fly away or even slither away, but they probably won’t enjoy the party as much as the worms that already live in your soil. The trick is to make your local worm population feel welcome.

Having said that, if you really can’t find any worms at all in your soil and you are determined to add some, make sure you are inviting the right sorts of guests. Don’t buy worms at the bait stand or the nursery. Instead, find a pasture or field that is full of worms, cut out a neat chunk—about a cubic foot if possible—of (worm-filled) soil, and lay it carefully in your own garden. A good hostess always gives careful consideration to her seating charts, and you should do the same: Lay your worm-filled soil in prime spots around the garden, where the soil is rich, damp, and unlikely to be disturbed in the near future.

If you do invite worms to your garden party in this way, you’ll be part of a fine old country tradition: About a hundred years ago, farmers in New Zealand impregnated their fields with worms using this method, and the production of ryegrass increased substantially, which meant the ewes had more to eat and there was twice as much wool to clip in winter. The worms fed the grass, the grass fed the ewes, and the ewes fed the farmer, who in turn fed the worms. Now that’s a host who knows how to keep everyone happy.

Tune in tomorrow for Part Two: Party Favors

Monday, December 22, 2003

Worms and Oprah

Went to the movies last night. Reason: recreation. Saw: Cheaper by the Dozen. Why? Well, I read the book when I was a kid and it was brilliant. The film, on the other hand, is miserable. Home Alone on steroids. It has nothing to do with the book except that in both cases, there were twelve children. The main message of the film seems to be that if you focus on your career or chose not to have kids, you are selfish and bad. Interesting, since the book told the true story of Frank Gilbreth, a man who applied his finest career accomplishments (he was an expert in efficiency and invented the motion study) to the raising of his family.

Anyway. The only redeeming feature of the movie is the hilarious portrayal of the publishing process. I just love films about writers, and the less accurate, the better. In this movie, the mom wrote a book about her experience as the mother of twelve (yep, she polished that book off while raising 12 kids and typing on a computer in the hallway), printed it out, and mailed it to “a friend in the publishing industry.” About three weeks later, she gets a call. Her book’s going to be published. There was no agonizing search for an agent, no long and painful revisions, no rejections from publishing houses, no protracted contract negotiations, nothing. They get the book, they wanna publish it, and can she be in New York next week?

So she gets on a plane for NY and sets up camp in a swank hotel room, where her publicists brings her the final, printed version of her book. That’s right, this book was so good that it did not require editing, final proofing, galleys, or any other pre-publication niceties. They just pushed that baby into print within a few days of accepting it. And the book tour? Oh, it starts tomorrow, and she’ll be on Oprah and Regis.

Don’t believe everything you see on the silver screen, folks. Me and the worms will be driving a rented Taurus to a Holiday Inn outside Portland on our book tour. I’ll call the bookstore about five times to make sure they actually have copies of the book. I’ll scan the newspapers for some small mention of my event. And if I’m lucky—very lucky—twenty or thirty good-hearted souls will show up to listen to me talk and get a look at the worms. It’s not Oprah, but it’s good enough for me.

Sunday, December 21, 2003

Self-Congratulatory Drivel

Boy, you just never know what’s going to happen on a Sunday morning. Today I checked my e-mail after breakfast and saw that garden blogger Erica Bess Duncan had posted a comment congratulating me on my New York Times review.

What New York Times review? Are you kidding me?

I suppose I should be calm and rational and well-behaved about something like this, but honestly. The New York Times.

I’ll just pause for a moment and catch my breath.

OK, I’m back. As you can imagine, I rushed out to the grocery store around the corner and bought several copies of the Times this morning. Everybody there knows me because I practically live on food from their deli, so when I announced that I was in the Times, the clerks dropped what they were doing, grabbed copies of the paper, and started flipping through it, looking for the review. We covered two checkstands with newspaper until finally somebody spotted it. I'll save you the trouble: in the national edition, garden columnist Anne Raver’s “Cuttings” is on the last page of the sports section, next to the chess column. It’s a nice geeky spot for a few words on a book about worms.

She also reviews a new edition of a book I particularly like, the beautifully illustrated Keeping a Nature Journal by Clare Walker Leslie and Charles E. Roth. This personable, friendly art-and-gardening book inspired me to start taking art classes a couple years ago. If you’ve ever thought about keeping a journal of your garden, take a look at this book.

Well. What a morning. I’ll cut out the review and set it aside, then spend the rest of the afternoon devouring the Times, that delectable Sunday treat. When I’m done, I’ll tear each section into strips and bury the worms under all the news that’s fit to print.

Saturday, December 20, 2003

How Not to Eat a Worm

I made a point of not saying a word about eating worms in The Earth Moved. Yes, there are some cultures in which people eat worms, and yes, a couple of worm composting books out there include worm recipes, and there’s no denying the fact that worms are a pretty good source of protein, as any chicken will tell you. A shop here in Eureka sells crisp-fried worms (they are actually not earthworms but grubs), and yes, when I was a kid I thought How to Eat Fried Worms was a pretty cool book.

But…ewwwwww. I’m a vegetarian; I don’t even like the idea of eating a cow, much less a creature as noble as a worm.

So a guy in India has set a new record in the competitive sport of worm-eating. He had something to say about the whole experience—something I wish I’d never read and something I don’t want to repeat here, but I’ll provide a link for those of you with a prurient interest in such matters.

Friday, December 19, 2003

Lord of the Worms

Several people have contacted me already about the opening scene of “Return of the King,” which features an earthworm being impaled on a fishhook. Worms don’t get featured in movies much, so I guess my friends all knew what a big event this would be for me. But what about the larger symbolism behind that opening shot? Film critic Scott Foundas put it best when he wrote that the image of the worm was “definitive of the sustained interplay between things intimate and grand, organic and computer-generated.” Right on, Scott. I can tell that you totally get it about worms.

His words remind me of an enormous earthworm anatomy poster from the fifties that hung above my desk while I wrote the book. It depicted the life cycle of a worm from cocoon to maturity and featured a cross-section of a nightcrawler that exposed its five pairs of hearts and intricate system of ducts and veins and nerves.

I feel a little silly quoting from my own book, but there’s a connection between what Scott Foundas had to say about worms and what I was trying to say about them. I described the poster in a chapter on worm anatomy and said that “when I lead people up to the attic room where I write, they stand transfixed in front of the poster, as if they are seeing for the first time a map of the stars, or a photograph of the ocean’s floor. There is wonder in something so vast, but there is wonder in something so small, too.”

Thursday, December 18, 2003

Book Stuff

In response to a couple of comments on this blog:

First of all, yes, the book should be available any time now. You can also pre-order it through your local bookseller. It’s been printed and I have exactly one copy, but many more are rolling out of the warehouse and into bookstores as we speak.

The official publication date for the book is January 23. Nothing really happens on a book’s pub date, at least not unless you’re J.K. Rowling. There will be no television appearances or long lines at the bookstore. The book will already be in stores by then, and I will have already done a few author events close to home. Shortly after that, the worms and I will head to the Bay Area, down to Southern California, and up through the Pacific Northwest. Looks like there may even be a stop or two in the Midwest.

Went to a party last night without the worms. It wasn’t really a worm kind of event. Still, everybody asked about the book and they did what people always do when the subject comes up: they said, “Hey, I have a worm story for you.” I don’t know what it is about worms as opposed to, say, bees or caterpillars, but everybody seems to have some kind of story about worms. I’ve heard about mothers who led their children on worm picking expeditions before fishing trips, toddlers who insisted on relocating worms off sidewalks after rainstorms, and rebellious teenagers who, despite threats of severe punishment from school officials, ate worms onstage during the high school talent show.

Other people, if they don’t have a worm story, seem to have a burning worm question, something they’ve been wanting answers to all their lives: If you cut a worm in half, do you really get two worms? (No. The head will grow a new tail, but the tail usually won’t grow a new head.) How do worms mate? (They line up head-to-tail and swap fluids. They’re hermaphrodites.) And what about those worms that survived the space shuttle? (Those were nematodes, microscopic cousins of earthworms.)

Which leads me to the David Sedaris story. I met him at his show here in Humboldt County a few months ago. Our local bookseller was supplying books for him to sign in the lobby; when I reached the front of the line she leaned over to David and said, “She’s just written a book about worms.” David looked up and said, “Hey, I have a question about worms. During my show I tell a story about the worms on the space shuttle, and a last summer I met a guy who said that they weren’t actually worms.”

“Right,” I told him, a little star-struck and therefore tongue-tied. I adore David Sedaris and felt like a fool talking to him. “Those were nematodes. C. elegans.”

“So why does everybody call them worms?”

“I don’t know. It sounds better. It’s like paying them a compliment to call them a worm. I mean, they are worms—they’re all part of the worm family tree—but they’re not the kinds of worms we usually think of.”

He nodded sagely and scribbled a note in my copy of Holidays on Ice thanking me for the worm information. I put the book on a shelf in my office alongside a collection of crusty old British books on worm anatomy and biology. Sedaris has a thing for strange old medical texts himself; I think he’d appreciate the tribute.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

How to Take Worms to a Cocktail Party

If you ever want to take earthworms to a cocktail party, here’s my advice:

First, tell people in advance that you’ll be bringing the worms. Just talking about it is half the fun.

Second, let the worms get dressed up, too. They don’t want to show up at a party covered in dirt. No one will want to touch them and they’ll be treated like outcasts. Instead, buy clear water crystals like Soil Moist, which are available in the houseplant section of most nurseries. When you add water to them, they have the consistency of Jell-O and look kind of like chipped ice. (Usually water crystals are used to increase the water-absorbing capacity of potting soil.) The worms wouldn’t want to live in this stuff forever, but they’ll tolerate it for a couple of hours and they’ll look so elegant.

Third, get one of those little plastic containers about the size of a baby food jar to hold your water crystals and worms. It’s a little less space than the worms would normally prefer, but once again, they’ll put up with it for a while. Punch some air holes in the lid with a thumbtack.

You’ll need the smaller plastic container for the fourth step, which is to find something fabulous to carry the worms in. A little black bag, preferably in silk or velvet, is perfect. The more stylish it is, the more amazed people will be when you pull out your worms.

I have taken the worms to just one cocktail party so far, and it all went smoothly because I followed these simple steps. The party was a gathering of booksellers, publishers, and authors; many of them knew I had the worms with me and wanted to see them. A surprising number of people asked to hold the worms. I brought individually-packaged hand wipes with me, thinking that anyone who touched a worm would feel an immediate need to wash their hands, but as far as I can tell, no one thought twice about using the same hand they’d held a worm in to pour drinks, shake hands, or dip chips into salsa.

I left the party around midnight. Jim McManus, author of a book on poker called Positively Fifth Street, was going to give poker lessons into the wee hours of the morning. Even live worms can’t compare with poker, brandy, and cigars. That night, as the worms and I sat in traffic on an LA freeway, I realized that worms, like alcohol, smooth over any social awkwardness that one might feel at a cocktail party. The next morning, I didn’t have a hangover and the worms seemed no worse for wear. I slipped them out of their Soil Moist and into the damp earth behind my brother’s house, where I hope they are enjoying a balmy southern California winter right now.

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.

Monday, December 15, 2003

Worms in the Heat

Erica asked in the comments if I had any advice about composting with worms during hot summers like the ones she has in Houston. As a native Texan myself, I can appreciate the problem. When I was in college, a non-profit I volunteered for held an annual “Anywhere But Austin in August” fundraiser, so named because truly, a humid Texas summer can be unbearable, for both worms and humans.

The worm most commonly used for composting is Eisenia fetida, sometimes called the red wiggler or the redworm. These critters prefer temperatures in the 60-70 degree range, and really can’t take heat much above 85 degrees. So in a place like Houston, you’ve got a couple of options:

First, consider setting up your bin indoors in a garage or basement. The trick is to make absolutely sure that this room stays cooler than the outdoor temperature. Sometimes a stuffy, non-air-conditioned space like this will actually get warmer than a shady area outdoors. Set up a thermometer in your garage/basement and another one in the coolest, shadiest area of your yard and compare.

If you do think your indoor location will be cool enough, go ahead and set it up there, but keep track of the temperature. On really hot days, think of the worms when you pour yourself a cold drink. Dropping a few ice cubes in the bin will cool things off and keep it from drying out. The contents of the bin should be about as damp as a wrung-out sponge, so just add a few cubes at a time to avoid flooding the bin. And never, never run water through your bin—it will upset the carefully balanced ecosystem in the bin and turn the worms, castings, and compost into a nasty, waterlogged mess. During a really nasty heat wave, you might try leaving the lid off (to prevent the worms from escaping, keep a thick layer of damp shredded newspaper on top and leave a light on), or turning on a fan.

If you don’t have a good indoor location, I’d suggest picking the coolest, shadiest, and breeziest area in your yard. If you plan to build your own bin, consider a wooden bin that is sunk into the ground. On hot days, you might leave the lid off but cover the worms with a thick layer of shredded newspaper or rice straw so they won’t be tempted to go exploring. Worm farmers often use a mister to keep outdoor beds cool and damp in hot weather.

Finally, be careful about the amount of food you add, especially in a large outdoor bin. Fresh food scraps do create their own heat in large quantities. Add food a little at a time or “pre-compost” it in another pile and feed it to the worms once it’s cooled down.

OK, tomorrow we’ll get back to the challenges of air travel with earthworms.

Sunday, December 14, 2003

Tales of Airport Security

So I called United Airlines and asked them about taking earthworms with me on the plane. The conversation went something like this:

“Thank you for calling United.”

“Uh…hello…um, I have kind of an odd question about…uh, carry-ons, and…well, sort of…pets.”

(Pause) “OK, what’s your question?”

“Well, here’s the deal. I just finished writing a book about earthworms, and soon I’ll be going on a book tour and I’d like to bring some worms with me. They’d be inside a small Rubbermaid container about the size you’d use for a sandwich. I’ll have the container in my carry-on bag, and I’m just wondering if I’ll have any problems going through security.”

(Even longer pause) “Are these…like…man-eating worms?”

I laughed. OK, this guy was on my side. “No, no, they’re little red wigglers, the kind of worms you’d take fishing. I just didn’t know if the security people would get freaked out and think I was bring some kind of biological agent on board.”

“And these worms are going to stay in the container the whole time, or will you be taking them out on the plane?”

Now I think he was having a little fun with me. “No, I swear, they’ll just stay in my carry-on bag. Do you think it’ll be OK? I’d hate to have to surrender the worms at the checkpoint.”

“I think you’ll be fine. Why don’t you bring a copy of your book to show them—”

“Oh, that’s a great idea.”

“—and maybe even a letter from your publisher or an itinerary or something.”

“Perfect. I think that’ll work.”

“Good luck. Thanks for calling United. Is there any other travel we can help you with to day?”

I considered telling him that my next book would be about boa constrictors or Africanized bees, but I decided I shouldn’t push my luck. “You know, that’s probably enough for today,” I said, and hung up.

Tune in tomorrow, when I ask worm taxonomist Sam James if the worms will be harmed by the baggage X-ray machine…

Saturday, December 13, 2003

Worms in the Snow

Sheila Lennon of the Providence Journal asks about keeping worms alive in the snow. If you are an ER fan, you might remember an episode several years ago (Episode 38, “It’s Not Easy Being Greene,” which aired on February 1, 1996, to be exact…I know this because of these crazy guys who are more obsessed with ER than I was in those days) in which a patient came into the ER with her Can-O-Worms and asked Carol to take care of it while she was in the hospital. The worm bin was mistaken for trash and thrown away; by the time Carol found it, a crust of ice had formed around it and she feared the worst. Fortunately, the worms had burrowed into the center of the bin and stayed alive. The patient gave Carol a box of worms so she could get her own colony started.

Sadly, the worms did not go on to have a regular role on ER after that. It’s a shame, really, that worms don’t figure into the plots of more popular TV shows…and I’m not talking about “Fear Factor,” which hardly portrays worms in the positive light they deserve.

So, the lesson to take away from this is that worms can tolerate some freezing temperatures, although their numbers will certainly dwindle when they’re not in their optimal 60-70 degree temperature range. Depending on the severity of the freeze in your area, you might:

Set the bin up in the basement or garage. Really, worms are quite self-contained and not likely to go exploring as long as you keep them happy.

Keep the bin on a sheltered porch and wrap it in an insulating blanket. They can go days or even a few weeks without additional food, so you won’t have to unwrap them very much.
If you have a larger worm operation in mind, build your bin so that it is sunk into the ground (some people use old refrigerators for this) and cover it well with straw, leaves, etc. Shredded newspaper inside the bin makes great insulation and the worms will munch on it, too. Just make sure there’s drainage (like holes covered with fine mesh screens) so the worms don’t get waterlogged.My worms sit on the kitchen porch where they are protected from rain. Here in Humboldt county, the temps reach freezing a couple dozen times over the winter, and once in a great while it’ll get down in the twenties.

My experience has been that worms are, overall, content with their lot in life. They are peaceful, docile, focused on the task at hand (so to speak), and not given to complaining about the cold.

Friday, December 12, 2003


The holidays have been good to the worms. They are still working on Thanksgiving dinner: Brussels sprout trimmings, potato peels, squash rind, and coffee, coffee, coffee. We had eight people in the house for two days and I think we went through an entire pound of coffee. The caffeine doesn’t seem to affect the worms, although I wonder if the acidity of the grounds is starting to throw off the pH in the bin. They can’t tolerate an acid environment, and it seems that as the pH drops, the ants move in. Although the ants don’t seem to bother the worms, it just gets to be a bit of a circus in the bins. I’ve already got sowbugs and a miniature white cousin to the earthworm called a potworm inhabiting the bin. And there are millions of microscopic creatures teeming around in the rotting mass of food, too: bacteria, nematodes, fungi, protozoa—all eating the food and becoming food for the worms. It’s a real miniature zoo on the back porch.

So I throw in some eggshells to help combat the acidity. The worms can’t eat the shells, but they crumble up nicely and eventually they’ll go into the soil along with the castings.
Speaking of worms and coffee, an AP story this morning reports on the effects of intoxication on worms. They’re speaking in this case about a nematode—a microscopic roundworm named C. elegans. When you read about worms in the news, they’re almost always talking about C. elegans. It’s the lab rat of the worm world. Those worms on the space shuttle were C. elegans, too. I tell you, the humble nightcrawler and the red wiggler almost never get their due.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

Why Worms?

I suppose I should explain how I got into worms in the first place. I planted my first garden in Santa Cruz, California about eight years ago (and wrote a book about it called From the Ground Up: The Story of a First Garden), and it wasn’t long before I was buying every garden accessory and toy I could get my hands on. I had a serious Saturday-morning nursery habit. Most of my paycheck went to plants, rakes, shovels, and bags of compost. I was in deep.

One morning the nursery had a display of worm bins for sale. The bins, which are called Can-O-Worms, consist of three round stacking trays with small holes in the bottom. You stack the trays on a sturdy plastic base, introduce worms into the bottom level, and eventually they work their way through each level, eating kitchen scraps as they go. Once they’ve massed in the top tray, the bottom tray is usually full of castings—worm manure—that is ready to go into the garden. You empty the bottom tray, make it the new top tray, and keep going. The worms never leave the bin; they just move through each tray in an endless cycle of eating, reproducing, and—well, shitting.

It’s hard to say why the worms appealed to me so much, exactly. Part of it is that I wanted that worm shit, which is the finest cuisine you could feed a plant and extraordinarily expensive if you buy it retail. Part of it was that I liked the gear. A worm bin is hip, in an organic, northern California way. And part of it is just that a colony of anything is fascinating to watch. Ants, bees, worms—they all have curious customs, unfamiliar ways of life, and I thought I’d find them entertaining.

Now I have thousands of worms living in two bins on my back porch, and they’ve kept me entertained for years. They are good pets, loyal and hardworking, and they earn their keep. I wrote this book—the new one, The Earth Moved—for a lot of reasons, but one of them was that I wanted to pay tribute to the inveterate invertebrates that live their lives outside my kitchen door, devouring my coffee grounds and my morning paper, leaving their rich black castings behind.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Crazy Worm

It rained all night, and that can only mean one thing: worms on the sidewalk. Oddly, no one knows exactly why worms wriggle onto the pavement, a place of near-certain death, on rainy mornings. The best guess is that they can sense a change in barometric pressure or humidity and, fearing a flood, they stage a walkout. Earthworms breathe through specialized cells in their skin that exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen. They like dampness, but they won’t live long underwater.

Worm farmers live in fear of a walkout, a kind of group-think behavior in which thousands of worms rise from their bedding at once and mass on the pavement, or even the walls of a shed, which makes it impossible to round them up and herd them back to their home. On a rainy night, a worm farmer will leave floodlights shining on the worms all night, hoping that their dread of light will overcome their fear of floods.

After a rain like the one we had last night, I make sure that my morning walk takes me past a house down the street that has a fine colony of Amynthas corticis, an Asian worm that’s sometimes called a snake worm or a crazy worm. These worms are about six inches long and so excitable that they will lash around and try to jump right out of your hand. I like to collect these worms and add them to my own garden, just to increase the overall diversity of the subterranean population. I used to deposit them all in a rich patch of earth near my back door, where I hoped they would find each other and mate. Then I realized that these worms are parthenogenetic—they reproduce without sex—so now I scatter them all over the garden and hope they’ll clone themselves. Another strange fact about this worm: it will shed its tail to escape a predator, much the way a lizard would. I’ve never seen it do this myself.

So I always find one or two snake worms on the sidewalk near this particular house after a rain, and sure enough, there was one there today. It’s a dark worm, more brownish-black than pink or red. I picked it up and cupped it between my palms. It whipped against my skin in protest, but I carried it home, and when I reached my garden, I opened my hands and it leapt to the earth.

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

The Book of Worms.

It’s a strange feeling to open the door on a rainy Monday afternoon, when you are still in your pajamas for reasons you cannot explain, and face a UPS man who holds in his hands a package containing the book you just spent three years writing.

And when you open that package and find a picture of one of your very own earthworms on the cover, it gets even stranger.

This particular worm doesn’t have a name or a gender. It lacks hearing and sight. While I can’t prove it, I do assume that it has no memory of the afternoon it spent in my attic while I photographed it, Richard Avedon-style, against a plain white backdrop. I had seen the early draft of the cover from my publisher and I felt strongly that the book must have a picture of an earthworm on it somewhere. So I went outside, dug this one up, and hollered, “You’re gonna be a star!” Then I carried it upstairs for a photography session.

It’s a fine worm. A nightcrawler, Latin name Lumbricus terrestris, the very same worm that Charles Darwin wrote about in his last book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Action of Worms, With Observations on Their Habits. This quirky little book is largely forgotten today, but during his lifetime it was one of his bestsellers, probably because he showed such affection for his subject. It was Darwin’s book that inspired me to write a book about earthworms in the first place.

Most writers will tell you that by the time their book has been published, they have forgotten all about it and moved on to something else. But that’s not true of me and my worms. Earthworms are a part of my life. I suppose they always will be.

I started this blog because I knew that things would happen on my book tour that would be stranger than fiction. After all, I’m traveling with worms. It’s bound to get weird.
But that’s not all. I know I’m not the only one who is fascinated by this blind, deaf, and spineless creature that lives underground and swallows dirt for a living. So welcome, worm lovers of the world. This is your home.