Sunday, February 29, 2004

Worm Cafe

Check out the experiments that another Amy is doing--she's set up a Worm Cafe experiment with her son as a science project. She's filled a glass jar with layers of food, added worms, and now she's photographing the jars every week and weighing them. The weight of the jars is dropping each week--can we assume that's because the worms are eating the food and converting some of that food into energy? Tune in for further developments!

She also has some great photos of worm species, including Eisenia fetida, the worm most popular for composting, and P. excavatus, a worm with a bluish sheen that is found in more tropical climates.

Henry Homeyer writes in today's New York Times about the problems he's had with fruit flies in his bin. Mary Appelhof, worm composting expert and author of Worms Eat My Garbage, offers some suggestions for him. Although my bins are not indoors, I do get fruit flies from time to time. I find that it helps to keep the food well-covered by a thick layer of shredded newspaper or computer paper. If the food is exposed to air at all, other critters will find their way to it.

The Earth Moved got a nice mention in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat this weekend. I also did an hour-long interview with Austin's John Dromgoole, host of the KLBJ AM radio show Gardening Naturally. He has a store in Austin called The Natural Gardener, where he sells all things organic--if you're in the area, stop in and say howdy.

Saturday, February 28, 2004

Worm Chow

I finally got around to feeding the worms some of the earthworm food I bought from Gardens Alive. Here's a photo of it sprinkled over the middle tray of my Can-O-Worms. If you look closely, you'll notice a lot of sow bugs in the bin right now. These are perfectly harmless, and in fact, they help to break down the food I put in the bin, so they actually help the worms. I just sprinkled a thin layer on top to see what the worms would do. I have a feeling it will be gone in no time at all. While there is absolutely no need to buy special food for your worms, I can't resist trying new earthworm products and I do know one benefit of using a food like this from time to time: most of these earthworm foods are formulated to help reduce the acidity of the soil or the bin where the worms live, and the worms appreciate that.

You can also use this stuff in the garden to attract worms and encourage them to be fruitful and multiply. It's a fairly good organic fertilizer too, so there's no reason to skimp on the worm food in the vegetable beds. I'll give that a try one of these days, too.

I still have not received the encapsulated earthworm cocoons I ordered from them. I may have to give them a call and see what's taking so long. This new product has received quite a lot of attention in the media, so maybe they're overwhelmed with orders.

Just had a nice radio interview with Jane Nugent on her Garden Party show. We were live on WPTT 1360 in Pittsburgh. While I was waiting for my segment to begin, I sat on the line and listened to all the callers phoning in to ask her gardening questions. It sounds like a very popular show--I'm always surprised to hear how many people line up to call in and talk about their gardens on shows like these. We gardeners are a chatty group. Well, who can blame us? It's almost spring, and we're practically bursting at the seams right now.

Which reminds me...Bookish Gardener posted a very funny entry from the latest Powell's newsletter. Seems overzealous Portland gardeners have are fainting after holding their breaths too long for spring.

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Korean Farmers Get Respect

Now it looks like the Koreans are adding worms to their list of official livestock, which makes it possible for worm farmers to get insurance or file for assistance in the case of disaster. (the kinds of disasters listed in the JoongAng Daily article? A flock of early birds, what else?)

Hmmm, according to a representative of a Korean earthworm farmers' association, a worm farm on 3/4 of an acre generates around $50,000 in worm sales each year. Nice work if you can get it.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

We Also Like

Discover Magazine also likes the book.

And check out these beautiful words on Darwin and the natural world, courtesy of the Bookish Gardener.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

College Daze

Check out the KPFA radio interview at their website and click on the Feb. 23 link. I’m always amazed at how quickly a 30-minute radio interview goes by. This was a fun one—Denny Smithson is a thoughtful and well-read host.

Also talked to an engineering class at Humboldt State University. They’re studying alternative technologies—greywater systems, recycling, composting, that sort of thing. It was strange to be back in a college classroom after all this time. What I learned by going back to college:

1. All those hippie kids hanging out on the Arcata plaza? They’re not slackers, they’re engineering majors.

2. Professors send e-mail to their students. Whoa. Is it possible that I went to college back in the dark ages before everyone had e-mail? Yes, I fear it is.

Saturday, February 21, 2004

The Roar of the Crowd

Check out this crowd of earthworm enthusiasts at Miller Farms Nursery this morning. I am simply astonished that 60 people would show up on a chilly February morning to hear about worms.

In fact, there were so many people registered for the workshop that I realized I might not have enough books. Miller Farms had a few on hand, and the bookstores in town all had two or three copies, but I thought that wouldn’t be enough. This is one of those things that authors worry about—you put so much energy into making an event happen, and a big group shows up, ready to buy books, and there aren’t any books to buy. The moment is lost.

So I called my publisher and bought a couple more boxes of books from them, as long as they could ship them quickly and get them here by Friday. This proved to be a somewhat complicated transaction because I was on the road at the time and never could remember to call them before their East Coast office shut down for the day. We managed to make the arrangements by voice mail, but by yesterday evening, the books weren’t here, and I had just resigned myself to this unexpected book shortage.

Then, when I arrived at Miller Farms this morning, there was a message waiting for me from my husband. UPS had just delivered the books. I didn’t even know they delivered on Saturdays. “Get a cab,” I told Scott (we only have one car), “and bring them down here.”
The workshop itself was great fun. I love talking to a big audience because there’s so much laughter and excitement in the air. After a while, I just start taking questions, and the audience usually covers all the main points I had planned to—what do worms eat (fruits, veggies, paper, no meat, no dairy, no fat), where should the bin go (outside, sheltered from rain and sun), what about fruit flies (keep a layer of shredded paper on top to keep them out), etc. etc. The nursery sold about a dozen Can-O-Worm bins and coupons for mail-order worms from Happy D Ranch. (It is surprisingly difficult to find a good supplier of worms here in Humboldt County...makes me wonder if I should have gone into worm farming on a larger scale after all and supplied them myself. But Happy D does a great job of shipping worms through the mail.)

As it turned out, we didn’t need all the books I'd ordered, but we did sell quite a few and I was glad to have them anyway. I know I’ll want an extra box to take on the road with me when the book tour begins, just in case there’s another unexpectedly large, boisterous, worm-friendly crowd out there.

Friday, February 20, 2004

Worms in the Snow

Here’s an image for you—a sign on a mountaintop outside Albuquerque describing the local flora and fauna. Here, in the high desert, on a snowy day, is a reminder of the contributions of the humble worm.

Had a good talk at Bound to be Read, a terrific bookstore in Albuquerque. One couple had been having problems with worms fleeing their bin and wanted to talk it over. (Possible problems: the bin may be too wet—drain it or add dry shredded paper to soak up the moisture—or too acid—add bone meal or agricultural lime to sweeten it.) There were a number of other worm enthusiasts in the crowd, we sold all the books the bookstore had ordered, and the worms I brought from California performed admirably.

I have a worm workshop tomorrow here in Humboldt county that is already sold out—60 people have signed up, and with walk-ins, there may be 70 in the audience. More on that tomorrow.

Friday, February 13, 2004

Had a great time today on KQED’s Forum. The program is already posted in their archives, so check it out. Mary Appelhof and I chatted about worm anatomy and behavior, composting, and the many wonders of those deaf, blind, and spineless creatures. I love it that so many people wanted to call in and talk about their worms. We fielded questions about worms crawling into swimming pools (I don’t think they crawled, I think they probably fell, as in, plunged blindly to their death), how to add worms to the garden (dig up a big chunk of wormy soil from a grassy field and plant it, or bury it, in your garden), and one guy from Gualala even phoned in to tell me about a classic Bullwinkle & Rocky episode in which they bought a ranch and discovered the livestock they purchased was worms. That’s the Lazy Jay Ranch episode, for you B&R fans.

Tonight the worms and I are headed to the Garden Gate in Arcata for a booksigning, and tomorrow we leave for New Mexico. I’ll be reading at Bound to be Read in Albuquerque on Tuesday. If you're in the area, I hope to see you there.

I haven’t figured out yet, software-wise, how to blog on the road, so I’ll sign off for now and I’ll be back with a full report next week.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

The worm food arrived. There will be some fine dining in the worm bin tonight. I’ll let you know how they like it.

Just found out that I’m going to be on KQED’s Forum tomorrow morning. KQED 88.5 is San Francisco’s public radio station, and Forum is a terrific live call-in show that I always listen to when I’m in the Bay Area. You can listen, too, either tomorrow at 10 a.m. or a couple days later, when the broadcast will be available on their website.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Guest Blogger

Hello faithful readers of Amy Stewart's blog, this is Halley Sutton typing. I am a sophomore who is currently job shadowing Amy and the worms, and I could not be having a more awesome time. Amy is a wonderful lady- she's really nice and a great author, too! I could not wish for a better person to shadow, and I feel really lucky to be able to do this and to meet her. Hope everyone reading has a great day- I know I am!

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Media Training

The worms and I have been to media training. The idea was to get ready for all the radio interviews I have coming up, but we did a little on-camera practice, too. The worms performed beautifully. Turns out they are very television-friendly. I did all right, but I think I’ve got a long way to go.

More worm news tomorrow.

Sunday, February 08, 2004

Earthworm Ethics

I gave an interview to a reporter the other day and she mentioned that some people step on earthworms when they see them on the sidewalk.

Gasp. Step on an earthworm? But why?

Then I ran across this ethical question in a newspaper column. Turns out it's generally not a good idea to encourage your kid to kill any little creature that crosses its path. Who knew?

Saturday, February 07, 2004

4-H Club

Drove down to Avenue of the Giants today to give a talk about worms to the 4-H club. I just love 4-H kids. They’re so…I don’t know…down-to-earth. Fun and unspoiled and kid-like. They all enter projects in the county fair and raise chickens and plant gardens. They’re easy to talk to. They don’t babble on incessantly about some video game I’ve never heard of.

And they are fascinated by earthworms.

We met at a farm owned by one of the parents. They’ve built a worm bin against the inside wall of their greenhouse—it is about 3 feet wide, 2 feet tall, and it runs the length of two sides of the greenhouse so it forms an L shape. The walls are cinderblock and the lid is nothing more than a series of metal panels that allow you to open just one section at a time. The worms start out at one end of the L and, as food is added, they work their way to the other end. In the spring, the family pulls out the castings that they’ve left behind and, with all the worms now concentrated in the other end of the L, they add food again and get the worms moving back to where they started. It’s a constant cycle, back and forth, with the worms following the food and the castings getting pulled out behind them.

The kids were eager to hold the worms, asked all the right questions (what happens when you cut them in half? How long do they live? What do they eat?) and when I told them what an earthworm cocoon looked like, they spent ten minutes digging through the castings, hunting for one.

In this picture, I’m leaning on a worm bin called a Wriggly Wranch. This one does not have any worms in it—it’s a demonstration model I use when I go talk to people about worms. We were all standing around eating oranges, and when we finished, we threw the peels to the worms and the kids stood looking in the bin, as if they expected the worms to leap up and take the peels in their mouths and dive down with them.

Friday, February 06, 2004

Bargain Basement Darwin

Charles Darwin’s last book was about earthworms. The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Action of Worms, With Observations on Their Habits, is a quirky and thoroughly charming read. “The subject has been to me a hobby-horse,” he wrote about the book, “and I have perhaps treated it in foolish detail.” He held candles up to earthworms to test them for sight, played the piano for them to see how they reacted to sound, and set out miniature taste tests of cabbage, mint, and onion to learn their culinary preferences.

I bought an 1897 edition of the book (it was published in 1881) for a mere forty bucks, and it served as a kind of inspiration while I was writing my book. The bargain price on that book just goes to show you how the Internet has changed book collecting. If I had to comb through bookstores looking for the book, it would have been a year before I found one—and the volume I did find in a bookstore was quite a bit more expensive. Of course, my copy is not in great shape—the leather is dried and cracking, the corners are crumbling—but it is a lovely old thing nonetheless.

There have been some paperback reprints, but most of the copies available online are quite old. Project Gutenberg has also made the book available online as an e-text (they welcome your donations, by the way, to continue this useful project.) Anyway, if you're interesting in continuing your earthworm education, go right to the source and check out Darwin.

Thursday, February 05, 2004

The European Invasion

In response to comments over the last few days about that non-native worm, the nightcrawler Lumbricus terrestris: That’s right, some of the most common species of worms that you might turn up in your back yard or at a bait stand are actually non-native. There are plenty of native worms in the United States, but many of them have been displaced by farming and the building of roads and cities. The European worms like the nightcrawler (which probably followed European settlers in potted plants, ship ballast, horses’ hooves, etc.) found our soil to their liking and proliferated. We continue to help the spread of these worms today by, for instance, taking them into the wilderness as fish bait.

For the most part, European worms are good for the soil and a friend to the farmer. However, anytime a native species is displaced and a non-native one takes its place, one wonders about the consequences. The Minnesota story is a perfect example.

Worms are damp creatures and the parts of the world that were under ice during the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago, like Minnesota, do not tend to have native worm populations. The forests in Minnesota evolved without worms, which means that the forest floor is covered with a deliciously spongy duff layer of slowly rotting leaves. That duff layer is crucial to the germination of young trees and tender understory plants.

But now European worms—my beloved nightcrawlers and red wigglers, among others—have moved in to the forest, thanks to the spreading of sod on nearby golf courses, the trucking in of fill, the dumping of fishing bait on the shores of lakes, and the simple fact that a worm cocoon can get lodged in an ATV tire or the sole of a hiking boot. These worms can, and do, consume the entire leaf fall of a forest in a single season. That spongy duff layer is gone, and with it, many of the fragile understory plants and tree seedlings that depended on it for germination.

To find out more, you can read the book or check out the Minnesota Worm Watch website.

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

More from Hans Jenny

“Soil contains over a thousand different species of lower animals, the earthworms, pill bugs, nematodes, millipedes, termites, ants, springtails, and amoebas, not to mention the millions of molds and bacteria…If all the elephants in Africa were shot, we would barely notice it, but if the nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the soil, or the nitrifiers, were eliminated, most of us would not survive for long because the soil could no longer support us. I can't help thinking of the claim that healthy soils make healthy people, and as an extension, I am intrigued by the thought that good soils make good people, but that notion seems untenable. Well, not wholly so. Working in the garden with spade and hoe soothes the minds of many people....

Observing soils, studying them, and reflecting on them induces respect, if not wonder. All of us relate to soil unconsciously in our daily nourishments that make us participants in the continuous flow of nutrient atoms that originate in the soil.”

What a visionary, eh? The Whole Earth article in which he was interviewed pointed out that “No one has ever proposed an Endangered Soils Act for those soils most in danger of losing their top-soil horizons.”

Hans Jenny died in 1992.Tomorrow I’ll get back to that European settler, the nightcrawler.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Worms in Entertainment Weekly

So I’m going to depart from my usual reticence to talk about reviews and other PR-related book issues (Reason: seems self-indulgent and silly) and tell you that there is a review of The Earth Moved in the February 6 issue of Entertainment Weekly.


We went down to Safeway and there it was on the rack, with a bright shiny Oscar on the cover. It’s even a Special Collector’s Double Issue. My review’s on page 155. In case you’ve never read the reviews in EW, I should tell you that they assign grades.

I got a B.

The next logical step was to call my dad and tell him that I got a B from Entertainment Weekly. Without missing a beat, he said, “Well honey, I’m not mad. I’m just disappointed. I know you can do the work. I know you’ll pull that grade up next semester.”

Before we hung up, he said, “I’m sorry about that B. But remember, I’m your dad…”

I actually got those report-card chills when he said it. Geez. Am I thirty-four or seven?

More on Hans Jenny, Godfather of Soil Conservation, tomorrow, and more on nightcrawlers, which… (in response to comments), are European and not native to the U.S..

Monday, February 02, 2004

Hans Jenny on Dirt

It’s interesting, keeping a blog about a book you’ve already written. I find that the blog keeps my attention focused on worms, and because of that, I keep researching. If I kept this up for a year, I’d probably have enough new material to write a sequel.

Today I want to quote a beautiful passage from a 1984 interview with Hans Jenny, an influential soil conservationist. This interview appeared in Whole Earth magazine in 1999. What he has to say about soil and the creatures living in it is really stunning, quite beautiful. This is rather long, but well worth it:

“Soil-profile art is not akin to classic paintings with themes; rather, it resembles abstract art: and if you are used to thinking of soil as dirt, which is customary in our society, you are not keyed to find beauty in it…

"Soil speaks to us through the colors and sculptures of its profile, thereby revealing its personality: we acknowledge it by giving soil a name, albeit in a foreign tongue, but we don't mention our emotional involvements…

"Over the years I have acquired a kind of reverence for the soil, for the creature-world inside it, and for its character expressed in the profile features. Where big logging equipment turns soil upside down to make earth-beds for falling redwood trees, the mass of soil remains at the site and no "environmental damage" is said to occur. Yet the soil profile, the soil's signature and identity, is obliterated. Though I consider such profile destruction an irretrievable loss, I have never seen anybody shedding tears about it. My attitude may be a personal quirk, or a result of lifelong interest in soil. In the latter case, I might not be alone. Whatever, I am glad I feel the way I do.”

Wow. This was a man who loved the earth. More from Hans Jenny tomorrow.

Sunday, February 01, 2004

It’s not easy to photograph a worm. You’ve got to clean it off, which usually means holding it in one hand and dribbling a little water from the hose on it with the other. It needs to be on a plain background—butcher paper works, or a plain metal surface like a cookie sheet—because it tends to disappear, both visually and literally, if you try to photograph it on dirt. Then there’s the problem of getting it to sit still. The combination of the cold water on its skin and the unfamiliar and well-lit terrain of the butcher paper is enough to make it run for cover , but when it moves, I can’t get my camera’s macro lens to focus on it.

Finally, I find that worms need to be posed. Their natural inclination is to stretch out to their full length and start slithering away, which does not make for a very interesting photograph. I try to curl them into some sort of S-shape so they’ll fill the frame of the picture and look more natural, as if there’s anything natural about a perfectly clean, pink worm resting on a piece of butcher paper.

This worm came right out of the ground yesterday as I was pulling out some woody old lavender plants that needed to be replaced. I watched it slither out of the dirt and up onto the sidewalk, slowly, a few segments at a time. The worm just kept getting longer and longer, and must have been a full eight inches long by the time its tail appeared. I wonder if this one might be the African nightcrawler, Eudrilus eugeniae, a worm that is known to reach nearly a foot in length. It does not seem to be fully mature—it does not yet have a clitellum, that lumpy band of flesh about a third of the way down a worm’s body that is used in reproduction—so it’s hard to tell for sure. (An expert—and very patient—worm taxonomist can often identify a species of worm by counting the number of segments from its head to its clitellum.)

Either way, it’s a fine worm, impressive in its length, so after the photography session I dropped it into the nightcrawler holding pen I’ve set up in the backyard. I’m gradually adding particularly good worms to this pen in hopes that they’ll be comfortable there over the next few months and available to me when I need to take a worm to a composting workshop or a booksigning. It’s sort of a green room for celebrity nightcrawlers.