Wednesday, March 31, 2004

The LA Diaries, Part One

For technical reasons too tiresome to go into, I still have not figured out how to blog from the road. I swear I’ll get this working before the next trip, but meanwhile, here are my belated blog entries from the last several days, all originally written the old-fashioned way with pen and paper, usually while I was sitting in a café or in my lonely old hotel room.

3/25/2004 12:14 p.m. LAX
The worms and I landed without a hitch. I have a magnificent nightcrawler with me—as long as my hand without even stretching out, and male sexual pores so large I don’t need a magnifying lens to see them (from an earthworm’s perspective, I guess you could say this is a well-hung worm), along with a lesser specimen as a back-up and several red wigglers. They seem perfectly content stashed in a Rubbermaid container in my carry-on, and we made it through security with no problems.

My publicist set up a radio interview for me this afternoon at 4:30, but yesterday she told me I should just call the woman (Nancy) as soon as I landed to see if we could do it earlier. Fine with me; I’m giving a talk across town at 7:00 tonight so that gives me a little more breathing room in my schedule.

I’m supposed to have my newly-purchased and much-hated cell phone with me, but I don’t. That, too, is a long story with many tiresome technical details, but the short version is that I won’t be reunited with the phone until later tonight. So I call Nancy from a payphone at the airport. She’s not there. I leave a message and explain that I don’t have my cell so she can’t call me back. I head to North Hollywood to check into my hotel.

2:10 Beverly Garland Holiday Inn
This place is named after a mostly forgotten film star from the old days. The hotel is crumbling badly, and there are signs everywhere boasting about an upcoming face lift. I don’t know if Beverly Garland herself has had a face lift, but the analogy is apt, and I wonder if a nip and a tuck could really restore some glamour to this place. I’m staying here because my brother’s getting married this weekend. This is the wedding hotel.

At the front desk, they tell me that they can only give me the wedding rate until Saturday night. On Sunday, I’ll have to check out and check back in so they can charge me more. But I get to stay in the same room, the front desk clerk tells me with a smile.

They also charge $9 a day to park my car here. I don’t tell them about the worms—who knows how much more they’d tack on to the bill if they knew I’d have a half-dozen annelids sharing the room with me.

I call Nancy from the room and leave another message. She calls back a few minutes later. It’s a shame I didn’t have my cell, she tells me. Now I’ll have to drive all the way back to meet her.

It’s OK, I say. I’m in LA. I’m prepared to do some driving.

3:14 Culver Palms United Methodist Church
I meet Nancy in the parking lot. We’re going to use one of the church’s meeting rooms to tape the interview. She’s got all her equipment with her: just a tape recorder and a single microphone, which she will pass back and forth between us during the interview. She still edits the old-fashioned way, she tells me. She transfers the cassette recording to reel-to-reel and sits in front of the TV, cutting the tape with a razor blade and splicing the interview together. She says she knows it would be faster to do it on the computer, but she hasn’t gotten around to setting that up.

Knowing that, I try to do the interview straight through with very little fumbling around or starting over. She asks why I wrote a book about worms, what surprised me most in my research, what’s going on with the earthworms in the Minnesota forests—questions I’d been asked before, questions I knew how to answer. I’ve done a lot of phone interviews lately, so it was nice to do one face-to-face. It’s a more lively exchange when I can look into someone’s eyes and see their reaction to what I’m saying.

Nancy wanted to meet the worms, so I pulled out a nightcrawler and set it on her palm. She said she’d like to put me and the worms on her TV show sometime, too. The problem is, she has to raise the money to distribute each episode once it's taped. Do I have any ideas about how we could raise some funds for an episode on me and my worms? she asks. I tell her I'll think about it. I put the worm back in the dirt, we wash our hands, and the worms and I head into late afternoon traffic for my next event in Pasadena.

(tune in tomorrow...)

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Take the Poll

Another Amy who is into worms is taking a worm composting poll on her website. Now, before you head over there, I need to tell you about a little trick--there are eight questions in this poll, but to get to them, you need to hit the Refresh in your browser. A different question will randomly pop up every time you refresh.

OK. You can go now--here's the link.

The eight questions, in case you'd like to contemplate them before responding, are:

How many worm bins do you have? (Yes, Virginia, some people have more than one worm bin.
I have three. Well, three and a half. OK, maybe four if you count the...)

What kind of vermicomposting system (bin) do you use? (Fortunately, you can choose more than one answer)

What do you feed your worms? (Room service!)

When adding kitchen scraps to your worm bin, do you...(choose one. OK, this requires a bit of explanation. Some people freeze, microwave, blend, food process, or otherwise prepare their food before feeding it to the worms. My philosophy here is that the worms, while very useful and hard-working creatures, have never washed a dish in their lives. So I will not be getting out the blender, food processor, or even a microwave dish that will have to be washed later just for the worms. As for putting our food scraps in the freezer first...well, my husband is a patient man, but there are limits to what he is willing to encounter in the freezer while foraging for his Ben & Jerry's or his Beefeater...)

What worm species do you have in your bin? (and yes, "I have no idea!" is one of the options.)

Where do you keep your bin? (a firm majority let their worms sleep indoors at least part of the year. Wow.)

What do you use for bedding in your worm bin? (they do not require goose down or 300-count sheets, contrary to what the previous question might lead you to believe.)

Why do you have a worm bin? ("To stay in touch with the wild wonder and extraordinary microcosmos that is our world" is not an option, but perhaps it's implied in the "It's part of my organic gardening hobby" answer)

I'll report back on the responses soon--thanks, Amy W., for this little diversion. Oh, and while you're at her site, check out her fabulous photos of worms. I would not have thought to put little red hearts all around that Eisenia fetida, but it works, it really does.

Monday, March 22, 2004

The Cocoons

The little white spots are the encapsulated worm cocoons. I put them in a plastic tub filled with good organic potting soil, sprinkled a little earthworm food on top of them, and added another layer of soil. I'm trying not to disturb them too much, so they can hatch in peace, but it's hard to resist. The babies will be hard to see anyway, so I'll probably give it a month or so before I go digging around for worms.

I have this recurring dream about worms, in which I go outside and see dozens of worms right on the surface of the earth, all slithering around, most of them much larger than anything I might normally find in the garden. Maybe a foot in length, about the size of a small garden snake. I try to round them all up--why? to save them from something? I am trying to keep some good healthy worms in a bin so I have a supply of them to take with me on the book tour, so maybe that's why I'm trying to grab them in the dream. Anyway, they're slippery and flailing around and I keep dropping them. Last night's dream was particularly vivid--I had three or four of them in my cupped hands, and I could feel them pulsating, like a beating heart. What does it all mean?

Thursday, March 18, 2004

The Worms Have Landed

The earthworm cocoons I ordered from Gardens Alive arrived today in a cardboard box about the size of a new box of checks. I opened it up and found this: one of those small plastic take-out containers that might hold ketchup or soy sauce. There are fifty Lumbricus rubellus cocoons in here, each coated in (I have learned from reading the directions) a paper coating.

The instructions give you two options: plant them in the ground like seeds, or hatch them indoors. Hatching them indoors involves several steps--first they must be soaked overnight, then there are damp paper towels and plastic bags involved, and eventually they hatch and are ready to be released into the soil.

I am curious about the hatch rates of these cocoons, so I want to hatch them in a closed environment, but I want to simulate regular garden soil as much as possible. So I'll hatch them in a plastic bin filled with organic bagged potting soil. (I didn't want to use ordinary garden soil because it might already contain worm cocoons.)

More on this enterprise tomorrow...

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Earthworm Cocoons

I am still waiting for my Encapsulated Earthworm Cocoons to arrive from Gardens Alive. They did such a good job marketing these things that they were swamped with orders. Mine should arrive any day now. Meanwhile, if you want to find out more about them, here is the source. It's an intriguing idea to plant worm cocoons the way you'd plant a seed. I'll let you know how it works out when mine arrive.

The Earthworm Food I ordered from Gardens Alive seems to be a big hit. Now, as I've said before, there's no need to buy special food for your worms. They will eat your garbage and be happy about it. I mostly bought this food as a lark--I thought I'd see how the worms in my bin liked it--and sure enough, it disappears quickly and seems to encourage the worms to spread all over the bin and reproduce. I'd just started a new bin with a few shovelfuls of worms from my other bins, and feeding them this food did seem to get them moving around and eating in a hurry.

Now I'm going to try another experiment--I'm going to bury some of this earthworm food in the garden and return in a few days to see if it attracted worms. Stay tuned for further developments.

Monday, March 15, 2004

Google Love

If you're already a blogger, you know that there's a page you can check to see how people get to your blog. I'll put a link to it here so the uninitiated can check it out. You can click on each of the links on the referrer page and figure out exactly how people found the blog. If they found you through a search engine like Google, you can even tell what search term they used. "Carpet Worms," for some reason, is a popular search term that leads to an entry in my blog about worms sliding under an office door and dying on the carpet. I'm not sure what people are actually searching for when they type in "carpet worms"--could it be the name of a band? a grubby little creature that infests carpet? a video game?--but carpet worm seekers are welcome here anyway.

So yesterday I was checking out my referrers and reading all the Google search terms that led people to the blog, when I came across this one: "I love Amy Stewart."


I ran downstairs to my husband's office (have you met my husband Scott, editor of OP Magazine and rare book dealer?) and said, "Honey, did you Google me today?"

He had not. "Well," I said, "If you had, this would have been a very clever way to send me a love note." After all, the search term you put in has to actually work--it has to turn up a link to the blog, and the searcher has to click the link and get to the blog, for it to register on my referrer page. And I'd have to check the referrer page that day, something that, really and truly, I do not do obsessively all day long.

Scott was sorry he had not thought of it first. But he made up for it: next time I checked the referrer page I found Scott's response in another Google search: "I love Amy Stewart, not you."

Take that, you anonymous, amorous Googler.

Me & John McPhee

An awfully nice review in the Providence Journal, and one in the Boston Herald, too. The book tour is coming together--sometimes I have two, or even three, events in a day. It'll be a real endurance test. Well, if the worms are up to the challenge, I am too.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

Don't Try This at Home

I don't know a single composting expert who thinks that composting pet waste is a good idea. Don't we ask enough of earthworms as it is? You fill a vermiculture bin with worms and they are essentially your prisoners. They live their entire lives in the confines of that bin, eating whatever you serve them and churning out nutrient-rich castings without expecting so much as a thank-you.

They put up with laboratory tests in which their tails are cut off and sutured onto the heads of other worms for no other reason than to prove that it can be done. They ingest toxins at polluted sites only to be killed by a scientist who wants to measure the poison in their tissue to monitor the progress of the clean-up.

We put them on bait hooks. We let them fry on the pavement after a rainstorm.

And now we're going to ask them to eat dog shit? Really, enough is enough.

Tumbleweed, an Australian manufacturer of composters, has created a Pet Poo Converter, a worm bin marketed specifically for converting pet waste to worm castings. Why not, you might think. We use chicken and steer manure in the garden. Why not Labrador manure?

Because dogs and cats eat meat, that's why. There are harmful pathogens in their feces that make them unsafe for human contact, namely toxoplasma and cryptosporidium. There's a reason we use such an elaborate process to treat human waste, folks. Same thing applies to pet waste. You're going to be using this product in your garden, and you should expect it to be safe.

(And that's not to mention the smell and the possible ammonia levels--which can be harmful to earthworms--if urine is present.)

Tumbleweed's website says, "It is important to understand that you cannot feed the worms a mixture of diets. If the worms are offered a choice of vegetable scraps and pet poo they will choose the vegie scraps." Well, yes, I would think so!

Please, folks, don't even think about sharing the content of your litter box with the worms. They're doing good, honest work and producing a product they--and you--can be proud of. They're no more interested in eating Fido's turds than you are.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

That's C-O-M-P-O-S-T

My publisher is thinking about sending me to Washington, DC, so I spent the morning calling around trying to figure out where I could do a worm composting workshop, or just give a talk about worms, in the DC area. Algonquin is already connected with the bookstores in the area, but they were hoping I'd have some ideas for non-bookstore venues like botanical gardens, nurseries, etc.

So the first thing I realized is this: Everything in DC is Very Official and Important. The list I sent to Algonquin, based on a Google search, included places with names like The United States Botanical Garden or the National Arboretum. Other venues included Monticello, the Smithsonian, and the National Zoo. Sheesh, I didn't know there was a National Zoo.

I seriously doubt they could book the likes of me and my worms at one of those places, but it was fun to put the list together.

And think of the photo ops. The worms at the Lincoln Memorial. The worms go to Congress. A worm looking mournful at the Holocaust Museum.

Second thing I learned: as far as I can tell, nobody in DC composts. In fact, I found one site about composting in the DC area that actually said that composting of food wastes was discouraged because it might attract rats.

Really? Could that be right? So I called the DC public works department. Most public works departments in the country handle recycling and waste collection, so I figured it was a good place to start. Here's how this went:

ME: Hello, I'm calling to find out about composting in the DC area.

RECEPTIONIST: To find out about what?

ME: Composting. Home composting of food wastes, you know, like where I can buy bins or go to a workshop or get more information. About composting.

RECEPTIONIST: Composting. Now what is that?
(I am not making this up.) ME: It''s where you have a bin and you put all your food waste in it...

RECEPTIONIST: For garbage collection, you mean?

ME: No, you keep it. You, uh, well, it breaks down and turns into...uh...compost. Something you can add to your soil. It turns into, like, dirt. You can put it in your garden.

RECEPTIONIST: I'm not sure about that. Let me transfer you.
I had this conversation twice, with two different people, and in the end I never did find out where one might go to learn about composting in the DC area.

Could it really be true that you shouldn't compost because you might attract rats? I must find out. What about a nice tidy little worm bin in the laundry room or under the sink? Would that be so bad? If anyone out there has any information about rats, composting, and the DC area, please get in touch with me without delay.

Monday, March 08, 2004

How Careless of Me

In response to Annette's comment yesterday...sure, nightcrawlers burrow in the soil, but they come to the surface to pull organic matter into their burrows, and they simply can't resist a pile of dead leaves. You'll find them down there at the bottom on a cool, damp day, just reveling in the wonder of it all. Should have made all that more clear.

Lots of new and exciting publicity-type stuff on the horizon, including my first TV appearance on a Bay Area gardening show called Henry's Garden (not sure of air date yet--I'll tape it in late April) and a possible trip to DC for some big-time radio and an event or two. Meanwhile, there was another good review in a Raleigh newspaper.

Just went down the street to pose with about a dozen other authors for a group photo. The idea was to do a photograph like Art Kane's "A Great Day in Harlem." I'm not sure that we quite had the--what would you call it--presence of those jazz legends, but it was fun to get together with everybody anyway. The photo will be used as publicity for a local author reading at the community college next month.

We couldn't figure out how to arrange ourselves, so the photographer just told us to line up alphabetically. "In order of the titles of our last books?" one woman asked. I suggested we line up in order of our Amazon sales ranks. That caused a little nervous laughter in the group. We more or less just stood next to the people we knew best. The worms stayed home.

Saturday, March 06, 2004

Worm Bonanza

I wandered out to the alley behind our back yard today and found a good-sized heap of dead leaves next to my gate. I know where the leaves came from; my neighbor had cut down some trees and left the trimmings back there for a couple months before someone came along and hauled them off. While the branches were sitting out there, all the leaves dropped to the ground. I grabbed my new collapsible wheelbarrow, which had not been used since it arrived at Christmas (thank you, Annette) because the weather had just been too awful. One load of dead leaves after another went into the wheelbarrow and then to the compost pile.

And boy, did I find some worms.

Big fat nightcrawlers, just hanging out under those leaves waiting for me to come along and find them. Surely the happiest, healthiest worms I've ever seen. I scooped them up and carried them to the nightcrawler holding pen I've set up in the back yard. I'm going to need plenty of worms for the book tour, so I'm gradually adding them to this plastic, dirt-filled tub in the hopes that I'll have plenty of fine specimens at the ready when it's time to go.

Speaking of the book tour, I have officially joined the wireless revolution. Yep, any day now, a little bundle of joy will arrive from Verizon. I don't have a cell phone now because the reception in Eureka is really lousy and besides, I get about one phone call a day and I'm almost always home to receive it. But what about that long, winding mountain road between your house and the Bay Area, you might ask? Don't you need a phone when you're on the road, so you can call for help when your car breaks down?

Ah, there's the rub. The Fallacy of Cell Phone Safety. There's no coverage at all on those long, lonely stretches of road. If my car breaks down there, I'm stuck. And if it breaks down in a more populated area, I can leave the car by the side of the road, walk to McDonald's, and call from a payphone.

I'm not crazy about cell phones, really. They just seem to breed rudeness. I had a contractor come to the house one time to give me a bid for installing a fireplace. He probably got five calls while he was there, and--unbelievable--he actually took all the calls, and left me standing there, waiting for him to finish. So many contractors have lousy customer service skills anyway, and throw a cell phone into the mix and they just become insufferable.

I volunteer at a food bank, and occasionally a client (i.e., a poor person who is there to receive free food) will be talking on their cell phone when it is time for them to meet with me and discuss what kind of food they need. My response is to simply gape in astonishment. That usually gets them off the phone.

But now I have this phone on the way so that I have a way to reach people while I'm on the book tour. I live in constant fear that I'll get stuck in traffic, or that I'll get lost, and I won't make it to a booksigning on time. The cell phone is there to ameliorate the situation should it occur. I got a prepaid plan so I can ditch the evil device after three months and forget I ever owned it.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

More News

The Christian Science Monitor liked the book, too.

Monday, March 01, 2004

I Stand Corrected

The perils of marrying someone smarter than oneself simply cannot be overstated. This just in from my beloved, in response to yesterday's entry about the Worm Cafe:

***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?***

We can assume that under 2 circumstances. 1) The worms are ignorant of the Law of Conservation of Matter, which says during ordinary chemical changes, there is no increase or decrease in the quantity of matter; 2) the worms are nuclear powered, where matter is converted into energy. When something eats, be it a worm, a bacterium, or a person, the same amount of matter is left over at the end, it just has less energy in it (the energy is transferred to the creature doing the eating).

The only way that the mass (weight) of the jars could be dropping would be due to the escape of water vapor, carbon dioxide, and other gases. Most of that would be due to the decomposition of the material, as the condensation on the jar seems to suggest.

Your clever husband

It is probably obvious to all of you that Scott and I did not meet in a physics class.