Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Worms on the Radio

I wish I could say that I’d spent another day without worms or anything worm-related, that I’d taken a healthy little break from all things worm-related so I could get some perspective before the next leg of the book tour, but no. This morning I started to get nervous about my Seattle events—would there be enough media coverage? Should I have reached out to garden groups more? Would it matter that the time for the event at Elliot Bay had already changed twice and all the postcards I sent out had the wrong time? In short, would anyone show up?

Sigh. Yes, I’m sure it will be fine, and my very kind and patient publicist assured me that it would be fine, but I still spent the morning looking up e-mail addresses online—public gardens, nurseries, recycling groups, anyone who might be interested—and sent them e-mails with a list of events.

If you’re in Seattle, please come see me at Elliot Bay next Saturday, May 8, at 2 p.m. It’ll make me feel so much better.And check out my interview on To the Best of Our Knowledge. It’s about midway through the hour if you want to skip ahead, but I won’t mind if you listen to the other guys, too.

Monday, April 26, 2004

No worms today. Nothing at all worm-related happening in my life at this very moment. I did not even feed the worms coffee grounds this morning. Tomorrow I will, I’m sure. Right now, I’m just rushing around, catching up on some missed deadlines, doing laundry, and getting some rest (that’s a lie, I’m not getting any rest) before the Oregon/Washington leg.

Saturday, April 24, 2004

Home, and a Martini

Ooooh, you have no idea how good it feels to be home. Not just home, but home with an ice cold martini in my hand. Ah, life is good.
Had a long day today—got up before 7 a.m. (ouch!) for a 9 a.m. radio show in Point Reyes Station. Fortunately, it was an easy drive through beautiful countryside and the radio show itself—an hour, live, in studio—was very laid-back and fun. The name of the show is “The Vicarious Traveler”—because it’s a travel show, I talked about my travels to research the book, and the many journeys that earthworms have made around the world. After the show there was just enough time for a cup of coffee before I gave a talk at Point Reyes Books—there were probably only 10 or 12 people there, but as always, they were an enthusiastic crowd and they all bought books.

Then we headed to the Marin Art & Garden Center. They were holding their spring art & flower festival, which included a plant sale, something I zeroed in on as soon as we pulled into the parking lot. I’ve been away from the garden for almost two weeks, and I was ready to get some plants in the ground. So Scott unloaded the worm bin—I was doing a vermiculture workshop at 1:00—while I rounded up as many plants as I thought would fit in the car.

This workshop turned out to be a great way to end the tour. There were probably around 30 or 40 people there, and Book Passage was on hand to sell books. One couple came up to me and said they had read my first book aloud to one another. Another woman, who had been a science teacher, came with some of her former students who were clearly quite devoted to her. She was a worm enthusiast and apparently a fan of my work…now, I should stop here and say how odd this is…I cannot quite get used to the idea that someone, a complete stranger, has read my book and rearranged their schedule to come meet me…I seem so utterly uninteresting to myself, so I can hardly comprehend something like this. In Davis, a friend of a friend drove 4 hours from Fresno just to meet me. Why, why? I try to think of someone I would drive 4 hours to meet, and no one, except some famous dead people, come to mind.

As soon as I got home (that’s a 5-hour drive, folks, after 3 events today, not that I’m complaining) I released the worms back into their natural habitats. The nightcrawlers did not look good. They’ve been on the road too long, as have I. Five days at home, just enough time to do laundry, get caught up on e-mail, and get ready to do it all over again. I’m headed to Oregon, Washington, and DC in May, then I’m done. Meanwhile, tune in to To the Best of Our Knowledge around April 25 for their Good Earth show, and check out the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle’s Home and Garden section if you’re in the Bay Area.

Sweet dreams…I just hope that, for once, I don’t dream about worms…

Friday, April 23, 2004

Livermore and Beyond

It’s been a couple of days since I’ve had a good internet connection. Let’s see, what’s happened since then? After Berkeley we went back to Santa Rosa and hung around my parents’ house all morning. I had a pre-interview for a radio show I’m doing tomorrow, and also an hour-long, live public radio call-in show that I did by phone with a station in Illinois. Once again, there were farmers calling in asking questions about the earthworms in their fields and what impact agricultural chemicals might have on them. It’s really quite gratifying to hear that farmers are so concerned about worms.
Then it was on to Livermore for a reading at Altamont Books in Livermore. We were a small group (including three people from my family, and maybe 10 or so total in the audience), but that was fine—I gave my usual talk and spent more time than usual on questions, showed off the worms, and that was that. That night we drove to Montara, on the coast, to spend the night. I had a TV taping in San Mateo the next morning and I wanted to be close so I wouldn’t have to worry too much about rush hour traffic.

The TV show is Henry’s Garden on KRON. It’ll be broadcast in the Bay Area sometime in June. It’s a very laid-back, funny show that Henry, the host, films in his own backyard. I pulled out my largest and most impressive nightcrawler, and it showed off for the camera, slithering up Henry’s arm and reaching a length of eight, maybe ten inches. We did a short segment on how to increase the worm population in soil, filming it all the way through in one take, and then I packed the worms up and we headed on to the next stop—Placerville, on the other side of Sacramento.

Placerville’s a charming little town in the foothills. Hidden Passage Books is a small shop and we had a small crowd again—maybe eight people—but they were very enthusiastic and everyone bought books and asked questions and we all sat around drinking wine and talking about worms, so what more could I want? The bookstore owners put us up in a charming little hotel on Main Street, and we spent the whole afternoon in the room, enjoying the luxury of a few hours where nothing was scheduled.

Up in the morning and off to Sacramento. I had a live in-studio appearance on a TV show called Good Day Sacramento. Now, here’s something surprising about being on TV: at both of the shows I’ve done this week, there was no real time or place to do anything about my appearance. When I first thought about doing TV, I assumed that I would show up and someone would do my makeup or whatever. It’s a good thing I had some media training before I did this, because my trainer explained that I needed to show up fully made up, dressed, and ready to walk on camera. Sure enough, that’s exactly how this has worked. I sat around in the lobby of the TV station, looking like a clown with all the blush and lipstick, blinking through my mascara, until a few minutes before my segment, when they marched me without ceremony onto the set, and I sat on the sidelines until it was time.

This was one of those chatty morning shows with two hosts in armchairs. I sat on the sofa and talked about worms, pulled out a nightcrawler and let it show off for the camera, and even took a few phone calls from viewers. Not all the calls had to do with worms—one woman called to ask about a strange insect that was eating her fruit tree, and I just had to make my best guess.

Both of the TV appearances I’ve done in the last couple of days have passed so quickly. I can’t believe how fast 5 minutes goes by on TV. Scott says I did pretty well, although it is so strange for him to see me in makeup (strange for me, too) that he can’t really tell whether or not I looked natural on camera. Everything about it seems so artificial. The worms, however, looked just fine.

All of these early mornings are wearing me out. We spent the day with family and all I wanted to do was crawl into the guest room and try to sleep. Tonight I had a reading at Avid Reader in Davis—a good crowd, including many friends and family—and an only-in-Davis question: when you buy worm castings from a worm farm, have the worms been mistreated? (Picture worms chained to some kind of machine where they are forced to eat and…well, you get the idea.)

I assured the audience that worms on worm farms are well-fed and cared for, and gently separated from their castings when the time comes.

We’re on the way to Novato now—another early morning tomorrow, but fortunately it’s radio, which means no make-up. The only thing worse than waking up to an alarm clock is waking up to an alarm clock and then having to slather TV makeup all over my face.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Book Passage

A great day yesterday. Had a fun interview with a newspaper reporter—he’d obviously thought a lot about organic gardening and farming and how earthworms relate to that, so we had an interesting conversation about worldwide food production and soil fertility and all kinds of wide-ranging topics.

Then I was off to Book Passage and man, what a place to read. I mean, I’ve always loved hanging out there as a customer, but they really give authors the royal treatment. They wouldn’t let Scott and I pay for our lunches in the café, I got a really nice, thoughtful introduction before my talk, and afterwards, the staff gave me what turns out to be the traditional gift for authors who read at Book Passage: notecards embossed with my name.
I feel so unworthy.

I mean, T.C. Boyle, one of my favorite authors, has these notecards.

And now I know where he got them. I got mine from the same place.


Oh, and by the way, the talk went just fine, too. There were probably 30 people or so, many of them part of the Master Composter program in Marin. I’ll probably see some of them again on Saturday at the Marin Art & Garden Center, where I’m going to do more of a straightforward worm composting workshop.

After Corte Madera, we headed to Berkeley. I stopped at the two Cody’s locations to sign stock. While I was on Telegraph, I went into Moe’s and they had a couple copies in their new book section. I took them up to the counter, explained that I was out on my book tour, and the woman behind the counter said, “Do you have the worms with you?”

“Sure,” I said.

“No, I mean with you, right now.”

“Yeah, they’re right here in my bag,” I said.

“Oh, we’ll need to see them,” she said, so I pulled out the red wigglers, showed them off to the staff, and, having seen the proof, they let me sign books.

The workshop at Berkeley Ecology Center went well, too. I was warned that lots of people would wander in late, and that at least one person was certain to arrive just before the end of the workshop. Sure enough, there were only 5 or 6 people there when I started talking at 7:00, but by 7:30 there were probably 20 or 25 people in the audience. And as promised, a woman walked in at 8:15, just before the end of the workshop.

This Berkeley audience was probably the most sophisticated I’ve encountered yet. Many of them were already composting with worms, a few had taught worm composting workshops, they knew lots of obscure worm facts, and had very pointed and thoughtful questions. (if you feed worms dryer lint, what about the synthetic fibers in your laundry? Is it OK to feed worms horse manure if the horses have been given de-worming pills? What species of worms should I expect to find in the native plant creek restoration I’m working on?)

Whew! OK, Berkeley, I’ll check on all that and get back to you. People always ask me if I’m going to write a sequel (The Earth Kept On Moving? The Earth Moved Some More?) and if I keep getting questions like these, I may need to do one after all!

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Back In San Francisco

It was a drizzly day in San Francisco yesterday. Scott stayed behind at my parents’ house to get some work done on his magazine, so I’d be spending the day by myself. I got to Yerba Buena around 12:30, drove around until I found a parking garage, and hauled the laptop and the worms to the Zeum Theater, where the California Academy of Science is holding its lecture series while its permanent facility is being renovated.

I was their monthly guest lecturer—this is a free lecture for members and I think it cost $8 or so for non-members. The theater seats about 175 people—large enough that it made sense to bring the laptop and do a slide show with some photos of worms.

There were 50 people in the afternoon lecture, including a woman who sang a worm song to me. The song was actually a jingle on WKRP—the sponsor for Les Nesman’s show was “Red wigglers, the Cadillac of worms.”

Wow. Now, I’d forgotten all about that.

About 40-50 showed up for the evening lecture also, and this time there was a guy who told me a worm joke. This one loses something on the printed page because there's a little pantomime you need to do at the end, but I’ll do my best:

Guy goes ice fishing for the first time. There’s another guy out on the ice who’s clearly more experienced, so he turns to him and says, “Hey, this is my first time ice fishing. Got any advice for me?”

The fisherman says, “mmph mmph mmph mmph.”

“What was that?”

“Mmph mmph mmph mmph.”

“Sorry, I still can’t understand what you’re saying.”

The guy reaches in his mouth and pulls out a couple of nightcrawlers. “Keep your worms warm!” he says.

Ah, tales from the road. In between talks, I walked down to Stacey’s on Market Street to sign copies of the book. So far they hold the record with four copies in stock, and a couple paperbacks of From the Ground Up. Then I walked all the way to Clean, Well-Lighted Place for Books at the Civic Center, only to find one copy on the shelves. They had five or six, they told me, but they’d all sold. So I signed the one copy and headed back to Union Square for dinner before the evening talk. Got back to Santa Rosa at about 10:30 last night and fell into bed. Just finished a newspaper interview by phone, and in a few minutes I’m off to Corte Madera for a talk at Book Passage, then to Berkeley for a workshop this evening at the Berkeley Ecology Center.

Monday, April 19, 2004

Palo Alto

We arrived in Palo Alto yesterday around noon for my talk at Common Ground, an organic garden supply company. This was one of the few true worm composting workshops I did on the tour. About twenty people had called in advance to sign up. That’s a good crowd—a manageable number for a pretty interactive workshop. I had a stacking worm bin with me (sans worms, of course) so I could explain how it worked, and I had the worms on hand in their little plastic containers as always.

As I got started, people kept rolling in. The staff brought in more chairs, and finally the stools that were behind the counter, and a few of the garden benches they sell, until every chair and perch in the place was in use and there were 50 people in the room. About a dozen already had worm bins; many more were ready to buy one. It went very well—I got through the whole thing in about an hour, lots of people bought books, and we were on our way. Lots of cities and counties in the Bay Area sell worm bins to their residents, but the staff at Common Ground said they’d like to carry them too, so I gave them a few suggestions about suppliers. If you’re in the area and you’re looking for worms or bins, you might stop in and see what they’ve been able to put together.

After lunch, we stopped at Kepler’s in Menlo Park so I could sign stock. The idea is that if I swing by and autograph some copies, they’ll put an “autographed copy” sticker on them and put them on display, the books will sell better, and it just raises awareness in general around the bookstore. Also, I like to stop in and chat with the booksellers and thank them for supporting the book.

So Kepler’s knew I was coming and they’d ordered a dozen or so books, but like Bookshop a few days ago, they’d sold most of them by the time I got there and I only had 3 copies to sign. Ah well, at least it's selling!

Drove up to Santa Rosa last night for a radio interview with food author Michele Anna Jordan on her program “Mouthful.” We chatted for about twenty minutes—I like these live, chatty, interactive radio programs—and then went on to my parents’ house and to bed.

Today I have two talks at the California Academy of Science, one in the afternoon and one in the evening, and I’m hoping to swing by a couple more bookstores to sign stock.

Saturday, April 17, 2004

More Notes from the Road

Friday, April 15, Santa Rosa

I left San Jose at 11 to get to Crissy Field in San Francisco at 1:00. There was some traffic on 101 so I sat on the highway for a lot longer than I thought I would. At fifteen minutes before the event was scheduled to begin, I was just turning onto Lombard, still a couple miles from the event and not sure exactly where it was.

Ah, this is what I bought the cell phone for. But the only number I had was the office number of the person who set up the event—not a phone that would actually ring where I was scheduled to be. Ack. But I made it just in time and waltzed in with my worms. They’d set me up in a meeting room with a projector and a laptop.

Oh yeah, I have some slides on a CD. Where is that CD? I ran out to the car and brought it in. By then a couple people were sitting in the folding chairs, waiting for me. A few more people wandered in before the talk started. But it was a sparse crowd, to say the least. I went through the slides and launched into my talk about how I came to write the book. Over the next half hour, more people wandered in, but most of them had kids with them. And I’m not talking about 12-year olds—these were 5 and 6-year olds. Should I shift gears and make this into a talk for kids? I don’t know. It’s hard to do, midstream. And is there anything about my standard sort of talk that is age-inappropriate? What can I say about how worms mate? Can I make my little joke about how Darwin noticed that worms would continue mating even if they were exposed to light, proving that their aversion to light was not purely instinct but somehow governed by the worms’ ability to make decisions, to choose between mating and diving away from the light?

I mean, how does that information compare to what kids see in the average Pepsi commercial? All these questions and more run through my head as I finish my talk and pull a couple worms out of the dirt and hold them out to the kids. They are mostly girls, and they are all eager to hold the worms.

Saturday, April 17, 2004 San Jose

I was on a radio show called Garden Talk at Santa Rosa’s KSRO for an hour this morning. We had a good time—the two hosts were really laid-back and fun, and we had lots of calls from people who had questions about worms. My hour on the show ended at 10 and I headed down to Carmel—about a 3-hour drive—for a talk at Thunderbird Books.

The Buick I rented makes a little beep when it’s about to run out of gas. Good thing, because I was just blasting down the freeway to Carmel and not paying the slightest attention to the gas gauge. I can just see myself stranded by the side of the road, breathing into a paper bag and trying not to freak out about being late for my next event.

But I got the gas in time and made it to Carmel with an hour or two to spare. Enough time to grab some lunch and do a little shopping for a TV appearance on Thursday. Everything I have with me seems a little too dressy—this guy films the show mostly in his own backyard, and he usually wears jeans, so I think I need to be a little more casual. Fortunately one of the women who works at Macy’s has seen the show, so she helps me pick some stuff out. Between the new clothes (two outfits, the first too formal and ultimately rejected) and the TV makeup, this is going to be the most expensive 5 minutes of my life.

The talk at Thunderbird went fine. There were only about 12 people there, but as always, they were enthusiastic and full of burning worm-related questions. Two people took notes. I pulled out the largest of the three nightcrawlers and it impressed the crowd with its antics. Of course, I spilled dirt all over the table and made quite a mess, but nobody seemed to mind.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Santa Rosa

Tonight’s event at Copperfield’s in Santa Rosa was a benefit for the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center. They got a percentage from every book sold tonight and in the last few weeks. I hear they have a pretty amazing worm bin setup—15 or so big wooden bins that fill an area as large as the wing of the bookshop where I was reading.

It was another pretty good crowd—a few people wandered in late and I think that by the end of the evening we had 25 or 30, including a few that just happened to be in the store, heard me talking, and wandered over to hear more. As usual, there were several people in the audience who had some experience with worms—people who already had a worm bin, or were planning to buy one, and some gardeners who bragged about their own worm populations. There’s always a strange cranky guy in the audience—some guy who knows a couple of weird worm facts and wants to share them with the group. So we had one of those, too.

I’m a little worried about this clear gel I’m putting the worms in for these talks. It’s worked fine up to now, but lately the worms seem to be getting odd little injuries while they’re in this stuff. One nearly severed a tail, and I’m sure nobody who had been handling it had done anything that would have injured it, and another seemed to have burst a blood vessel tonight. So I’m going to quit using the stuff and just pull them out of the dirt to show them to people. It means that my hands will always be dirty and I’ll always have to travel with paper towels and those little hand wipes, but at least I won’t have to worry about any more worm injuries. They seem perfectly content in their little plastic tubs of dirt.

Tomorrow we get up early and head down to Santa Cruz. I’m going to stop by Bookshop Santa Cruz to sign stock, and then I have a reading tomorrow night at Capitola Book Café. This is my former hometown, so it should be a great crowd.

Thursday, April 15, Highway 17

Scott’s driving us to San Jose and I’m blogging, here in the dark car, with the laptop plugged into the cigarette lighter. Tonight was Capitola Book Café. I knew this would be a good event—I expected a few friends to turn out, and there had been a nice article in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, but I was still surprised to walk in and find that people were already jostling for seats near the front fifteen minutes before I was supposed to speak. A woman at the counter was holding a copy of my book and asking whether the author could sign it for her now because she had to leave early; the staff looked a little flustered so I sidled up alongside her and said, “Would you like the author to sign that? I think we can arrange it.”

Those are fun little author moments. I inscribed two copies for her.

I had a very appreciative crowd of 40-50 people tonight, including a woman who teaches worm composting workshops around town. She got a little extra publicity for her workshop alongside the notices that ran in the paper about my book, so much so that her workshop sold out and she’s having to schedule another one. So I made an announcement about that and let everyone know that they could buy worms from her, too.

People often bought my last book as a gift; it was so small and charming that it made a nice present. I don’t really expect anyone to give a worm book as a gift, but you’d be surprised how many I sign with the words “Happy Birthday” or “Congratulations on your new home.” Worm lovers are very sincere in their affection for the creatures and are genuinely happy to share their enthusiasm.

I didn’t put the worms in the Soil Moist tonight. I just pulled them out of the dirt and set them on my palm. The bookstore supplied some towels so I had some way to clean myself up before I signed books. It wasn’t so bad. I’d rather keep the worms happy.

I keep waiting for a bad event, one in which nobody shows up and it’s just me and the worms and the bookstore staff and I have to try to pretend that I don’t mind. It hasn’t happened yet, though. Tonight we sleep in San Jose and tomorrow I head to Crissy Field for a talk at their bookstore/visitors center, then I’m back in Santa Rosa for the night because I’ve got an hour-long radio interview there on Saturday morning. Back and forth, across the Golden Gate Bridge. These will be well-traveled worms before it’s all over.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Blogging from the Road

Here I am, blogging from the road as promised. Last night was my first event of the Bay Area tour. I got into Sonoma at around five and dropped by Readers Books to say hello. For some reason--and there was no good reason for me to have this feeling--but for some reason I thought this would be a really small event. There hadn't been a great deal of media coverage--just a small article in the newspaper, which was taped up in the window of the bookstore when I arrived--and a very short radio interview. I don't have a very extensive Sonoma mailing list so I'd only sent out a few postcards.

But the owner said they'd been getting good crowds for their events and pointed out that the Tuesday evening farmers market always brings people into town. Scott and I went for a walk around the square, had a little dinner, and returned to the bookstore around 7. There were quite a few people milling around. I snuck into the bathroom with my worms to get them cleaned up for their appearance. I always take them out of the dirt and put them in this clear polymer gel called Soil Moist at these events. Usually you mix a few Soil Moist crystals into potting soil to hold water and release it when the soil dries out, but I just use it straight as a temporary worm medium. They don't exactly love the stuff, but they'll tolerate it and it keeps them clean, which makes it easier for me to handle them.

Now, here's an etiquette question: when you're in the ladies' room rinsing off your worms and someone else walks in, should you warn them that you have worms in your hand, or make any mention of it at all? I mean, I'd hate for someone to walk up to the sink next to me to touch up their lipstick, get a look at the nightcrawler in my hand, and freak out. How do you handle a situation like that? I haven't quite figured it out.

By the time I started my talk, there were over 30 people in the audience. My fears about this being a small event were totally unfounded--30 is a great crowd for me. As always, they asked lots of questions and came up afterwards to see the worms and get books signed.

Tonight I'll be at Copperfield's in Montgomery Village at 7 p.m. They've set up the event as a benefit for the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center. Maybe I'll see some of you there.

Monday, April 12, 2004

I'm rushing around tonight getting ready to leave for the book tour. TV makeup? Check.
Toothbrush? Check. Compost bin? Check. Worms? Check.

It's gonna be quite a trip. 15 events and 6 interviews between now and next Saturday.
So this will have to be short--but I wanted to pass on some important infomation on worms and truffles. Also, say hello to the Worm Capital of the World. Before you go, brace yourself for a pretty slimy and squirmy worm photo.

I'm all set to blog from the road, so tune in tomorrow night after my talk at Readers Books in Sonoma. (and hey, if you're in the neighborhood, stop by!)

Sunday, April 11, 2004

At the Airport

Thursday, April 8, 2004 Cedar Rapids/Iowa City Airport, 10:10 a.m.

Ah, the glamorous life of an author. My flight's delayed. Wind out of Chicago is preventing planes from taking off. When I arrived at the airport, I found out that United had re-booked me on a flight tomorrow, but fortunately someone found a spot for me on a later flight today. If I’m lucky, my plane will take off at 2:00, but they’ve already told me that the more likely departure time will be 3:20. That means I’ll land in Chicago just as my flight to SFO is boarding. So if all goes well, I’ll sprint to my gate, get to SFO by dinnertime, and be home by around 9:00 tonight. Good thing I brought the laptop. I can get some work done.

Deposited the worms in an undisturbed section of Carl’s compost pile before I left. I think they’ll be happy there, and it will spare them another journey in the baggage hold.

Saturday, April 10, 2004

On Earth as it is in Iowa City

Wednesday, April 7, 2004 WSUI/KSUI Radio, 9:51 a.m.

Carl drops me off at the radio station and we agree to meet at Prairie Lights at noon and go to lunch from there. For such a small town, this is a surprisingly well-equipped and, as I come to learn, well-supported public radio station. The host of “Talk of Iowa,” Ben Kieffer, tells me that the average contribution by their members is among the highest in the country at over $100 per year, and that their day sponsor program, which lets a sponsor play a message on the air at several points during a particular day in exchange for a dollar-a-day annual contribution, is almost oversubscribed. Now, that’s my kind of public radio station. The staff at our local Humboldt County station, KHSU, would be green with envy to see the kinds of resources these folks have.

Fortunately, Sam James’ mother heard an announcement about the show and called the station to suggest that they add her son to the lineup, so Sam was on by phone. Ben also invited Mark Muller, a naturalist and artist and conservationist who has his own track record educating kids about soil biology. This has included baking a chocolate worm cake for kids that contains actual nightcrawlers, the idea being that, when the cake is sliced, the cross-section resembles a cross-section of soil. And the kids are all too happy, especially if their parents are watching, to take a bite of cake or even pull a worm out and eat it whole.


Ben promises that we’ll have callers during the hour. I’m never convinced that anyone will call a radio station to talk about worms, but Ben knows his audience, and sure enough, as soon as he invites listeners to call in, the phones light up. One guy has some questions about eating worms. Mark explains that he feeds them cornmeal for a couple weeks first to get the dirt out of their intestines, and I wonder about using worms in sushi, given worms’ longstanding and usually fatal association with fish as bait. Sam jumps in to explain that wasabi mixed with water is one substance that you can pour into the soil to force worms to the surface; they would, he said, emerge “pre-wasabi-ed” if you did that.

So you can see what kind of show it was. But the best moment in the show came when a farmer called to say that he was just about to head outside to plow his field and wondered now if he should think twice about it, given what we’d said about how much worms hate disturbed soil. We talked a little about no-till agriculture and the benefits of leaving the soil ecology intact, and then another call came through, this one from a farmer who was in the cab of his tractor at that moment and wanted to talk more about this no-till issue. What a connection to make with people! That’s the power of radio, and also the power of worms.

Here are Mark and Ben.

Prairie Lights, 2:10 p.m.

Lunch just around the corner from Prairie Lights with Carl and one of the bookstore’s managers, Jan Weismiller. Carl won’t let me pay for a thing, in spite of my insistence that I’m on my publisher’s dime. Good thing I remembered to bring him a bottle of wine from home. I may have to ship him a case.

Jan’s one of those committed booksellers (and she’s also a writer) who is just steeped in Iowa City’s rich literary culture. I asked Carl if people graduate from the university and never want to leave, and he said yes, that’s exactly what happens. The cashier at the grocery store has a PhD in comparative literature. It’s that kind of town.

I’m going to talk to some graduate students at 3:30. We’ve got some time, so Carl takes me for a drive in the country. He tells me that he wants to show me a farmhouse that he and Kate always wanted to buy. (Kate, the practical one, said it didn’t make sense to live so far away from the hospital, the grocery store, the university, and their friends. She was right, of course.)
I’m looking for landscapes to photograph so I’ll have something to paint in my oil painting class.

We turn a corner and I see an old limestone farmhouse with a big red barn and a shiny metal water tower next to it. “Stop here!” I said. “I want a picture.”

Carl laughed. “This is our house,” he said, pulling into the driveway. “We never did get a chance to buy it, but we did get to go inside once. You can ride a horse in the front door and straight out the back door.” Here's the house.

University of Iowa English Department, 4:35 p.m.

A small but enthusiastic group of students show up at my talk this afternoon. They want to hear about writing—how do I conduct research, how do I figure out what the story is, how do I weave in the personal, memoir-like side of the story with the research and the facts.

It’s fun to talk shop for a little while. Nobody asks me about this stuff while I’m on the book tour. They’re all there for the worms. It’s not often that’s it’s really about me.

Verizon Wireless Hell, 5:14 p.m.
(aka, Why I Hate Cell Phones, Reason Number 7,128)

Just got my first voice mail message on my cell phone. It is at this very moment that I realize that I have no idea how to retrieve voice mail, although I have been through the process to set it up. I follow the menu on the phone’s readout screen but get nowhere. It seems to dial some number—*628 or something like that—but I am not able to connect. I call the Verizon help line but I’m put on hold for what begins to seem like an expensive length of time. I’m a little anxious to get this message because hardly anyone has this number and they know they should only call it if it’s something important.

Carl also has Verizon but he’s no help. At nearly twice my age, he and I are perfectly aligned on the subject of cellular phones. “I don’t really know how to use mine either,” he tells me sympathetically. “I never have gotten into my voice mail.” But then he remembers that he’s pretty sure he was able to check it from Hawaii once, and there’s no reason mine shouldn’t work from Iowa.

Finally I get to a land line and call Verizon. I explain the problem and here is what the man says:

“You can’t dial star-whatever-it-is and access your voice mail when you’re away from your home area.”

“You mean I can’t check my voice mail when I’m on the road?” I ask.

“Right,” he says. “You can only dial that access number from your home area.”

“So if I’m traveling, which is the whole reason I got the phone in the first place, I am totally unable to check my messages?”

“Well,” he says, “You can call your cell phone number, and when you hear your outgoing message—”

“Call my cell phone number using what?” I say in what I think is a fairly patient voice.

“From a land line,” he says. “Call your cell from a land line, and then you can press a key to get into your voice mail”

I pause for a minute to take this in, and then begin again, very sweetly. “So can you see how if I had access to a land line, I wouldn’t need the cell phone?” I asked. “And can you also see that if I was in my home area, I also wouldn’t need a cell phone? Because I do have a phone at home that works just fine.”

“Yes, ma’am, I do understand,” he said. “Is there anything else I can help you with today?”

New Yorker cartoon: Guy walks into a cell phone shop and says, “I want one of those phones that makes phone calls.” Can I please have one of those, too?

Prairie Lights, 7:47 p.m.

Carl and I have a leisurely dinner at his house and arrive just in time at Prairie Lights. Sam James is there with a box full of worms in jars, many of them so large that they have to be coiled several times to fit in the jar. He’s also got photographs, posters, and several replicas of worms—a carved wooden worm, some anatomically correct plastic worms, a corduroy worm, and an earthworm necktie that someone made for him. Oh, and some live worms that he dug up just before he came to town, including one native worm from southern Iowa and several European species.

This is not my show. Sam is the star attraction tonight. I wish I could just sit in the audience and listen to him talk, but folks showed up expecting to see an author, so I’ll begin the evening by reading from the book and talking about it a little bit, then I’ll turn the mike over to Sam. Our talk is being broadcast live over a public radio show called “Live from Prairie Lights”—my second hour on the same station in one day. You can listen to it online.

We have a great audience. There was a full-page feature on the book on the front of the local paper’s Life section this weekend, which helped draw out a diverse crowd. There were students, gardeners, naturalists, and—best of all—farmers. Guys who had clearly come in from the fields in enough time to change into a good shirt and drive into town. This is not your usual author event crowd, but Prairie Lights is not your usual bookstore. The farmers took the mike and asked questions about the native and non-native worms in their soil and what their tillage practices might be doing to the soil ecology. Sam and I answered their questions the best we could. We took questions from the audience for half an hour, until the show concluded, and then most everyone there (how many people were there? 50? 60? 70? All the chairs were filled and people stood around the edge and sat on the steps) came up to see the worms, talk to Sam, and get books signed.

Carl asked a question during our talk, and when we got home that night, there was already an e-mail waiting for him from a friend who’d been listening on the radio and recognized his distinctive deep voice. While I knew I’d been talking into a microphone all evening, it had not really hit me that the audience was so much larger than the already sizeable crowd at Prairie Lights. Carl said that the store often gets phone orders for books after the show is broadcast.

This is Sam talking to our audience about worms.

Friday, April 09, 2004

The Road to Iowa

Tuesday, April 6 2004 Denver International Airport, 2:07 p.m.

I’m on my way to Iowa City with the worms. It may surprise some of you to know that Iowa City is a kind of Mecca for writers. The Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa is the most prestigious program of its kind in the country, and Prairie Lights Bookstore is certainly the finest independent bookstore in the Midwest. So when the owner of the bookstore called Algonquin and said, “If you’ll get her here, I’ll make sure that every worm person in Iowa shows up,” Algonquin knew what to do. They booked Prairie Lights as one of the first stops on the book tour.

It just so happens that Carl Klaus, founder of the nonfiction program at the University of Iowa, is a friend of mine, so he offered to put me up at his place. He lives in one of those roomy, comfortable old homes that seem to be everywhere in the Midwest—a slightly citified version of a farmhouse, on a sprawling plot of land in a neighborhood where no one has a fence around their property. Carl’s a gardener, too. We met because he wrote a book about his garden called My Vegetable Love. We’d met in person just once before, when I was on a trip through the Midwest to research The Earth Moved. I met Carl in person for the first time on the same day I met Sam James, one of the earthworm scientists I interviewed for the book.

This is going to be a unique book tour moment, because Sam is going to meet me in Iowa City with some of his preserved worm specimens. How often do you get to bring one of the “characters” from your book with you on book tour?

As I board the plane, I find out that I have to gate-check my roll-on bag for the flight from Denver to Iowa City. I did this from Arcata to San Francisco as well. The planes are too small for larger carry-ons, so you leave it by the side of the plane and pick it up as soon as you get off the plane, right there at the gate. Usually I keep the worms in my “small personal item,” a bag that also contains my camera, some food, and a magazine or two. But this time my “small personal item” is the laptop, so the worms had to go in the suitcase.

I worry about the worms in the baggage hold. How cold does it get in there? Is it pressurized? I know that people put their pets in the baggage hold, but I’d worry about that, too. I hope they make it. At least I know that Sam will be there with his worms.

Carl’s house, Iowa City, 11:45 p.m.

It’s been a long day. Three airports, three planes, two connections, but I’m here, and the worms are too, having come through their ordeal in the baggage hold with no problems.
Carl met me at the airport. His wife Kate died quite suddenly and unexpectedly just over a year ago. I knew Kate mostly through Carl’s books, and also through the one afternoon I spent with her and Carl. There’s a lot I could say about Kate, but for the moment I’ll just say that I can’t picture her face without also picturing the lunch she served us that day: the most elegant, artistic, composed salad I’ve ever eaten, complete with curried deviled eggs (oh, I can’t even think of them without my mouth watering—I’m afraid I probably ate 4 or 5 of them), and tomato aspic molded into the shape of Easter eggs. And asparagus and carved radishes and…and…and that was just the salad.

To bed. I have a long day tomorrow.

Monday, April 05, 2004

I Don't Love Earthworms This Much

Thank you, thank you, thank you to the person who sent me a link to Margot Knight's website. I really have nothing to add to this. I do hope you will go to her website and look at the rest of her earthworm photos. I would welcome your comments, because I am truly speechless.

Off to Iowa City to read at Prairie Lights and spend some time with my good friend Carl Klaus. I'm excited about this one--earthworm taxonomist Sam James is going to come to the reading with some of the extraordinary worms he's discovered over the years. It will be a truly unique book tour experience. I'll be sure to take some photos and you'll hear from me on Friday. (And yes, I promise to spend the weekend figuring out how to blog from the road.)

Saturday, April 03, 2004

The LA Diaries, Part Four

March 30, 2004 3:10 LAX
I’m a couple hours early for my flight home and oddly, all of the restaurants in this end of the airport are closed. At first I thought, “Wow, do they close on Sunday?” and then I realized that today is Tuesday. I have completely lost track of time. How am I going to have any idea what day it is during the long Bay Area tour? Oh yeah, my cell phone’s readout screen tells me the date. Finally, a good use for that thing.

Had two phone interviews with newspaper reporters this morning from the hotel room. Both of them went well—these interviews all tend to be easy, comfortable conversations with people who are enthusiastic about the subject matter.

I told one of the reporters that I traveled with the worms and she said, “No way. You take them on the plane?”

“Of course,” I said. “They’re just in a little plastic container filled with dirt. They hang out in the hotel room in between appearances.”

“Are they in your hotel room now?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“Put them on the phone,” she said.

Wow. No one’s every asked to speak to the worms before. I told her they were saving their voices for the talk this afternoon.

We arrived at Vroman’s around 11. They have a nice set-up upstairs for author events—plenty of space, a microphone if I need it, a table for the worms, and an enormous stack of books. It’s been selling well, they tell me. Do you suppose they say that to all the authors?

Anyway, there was a small but enthusiastic crowd—10 or 15 people in all—but some of them had come to Vroman’s to see my on my last book tour. It’s so nice to have that kind of continuity, that kind of connection with people. I chatted about earthworms and what it was like to track down earthworm scientists and figure out how to tell their stories, and after about a half hour people jumped in with questions. Eventually they all gathered around to see the earthworms and to look at some pictures I’d brought of the giant Australian worm.

Somehow during this process the lovely nightcrawler I’d brought sustained some sort of injury to its tail. I set it back in the dirt so it could at least retreat to a place where it felt safe. The audience members, bookstore staff, and I all crowded around, worried and not quite sure how its tail had come to be almost severed.

It was not until later that I realized how ridiculous it must have seemed for us all to be so concerned about the fate of one earthworm. But that’s what happens when you look at nature up close. Every individual organism starts to matter.

The LA Diaries, Part Three

March 26, 2004 10:27 a.m. LAX
No book tour stuff today. Scott flew into LA this morning for my brother’s wedding. I am reunited with my cell phone, so while I was sitting in traffic about 10 miles from the airport, he called me and we broke in the phone. I don’t really have the knack of talking and changing lanes, so we arranged a meeting place and I hung up. On the way into LAX, the cops stopped my car at an off-ramp and searched it. Heightened security at the passenger loading and unloading zone. Because I’m in a rental car, I did not know how to open the trunk or comply with any of their other requests. I guess they decided I could not be too much of a threat if I could barely operate my own car.

Random observations about cell phones:

1. I find that having one makes me want to use it. I keep hoping that someone will call, that the phone will ring. And I find myself thinking about who I could call. Does wireless technology create a need in us and then satisfy it?

2. Observed frequently around LA: Two people sitting together in a restaurant, each talking on their cell phones throughout the meal. Surely this is the beginning of the end--the decline of civilization.

Tonight’s the wedding rehearsal. The worms will stay behind at the hotel. It’s not their scene.

March 27, 2004 11:17 p.m. Holiday Inn
Glorious, glorious wedding at their home in Sherman Oaks.
My baby brother’s a married man. Folks, meet Rebecca Stewart.

March 28, 2004 9:04 p.m. Holiday Inn
Absolutely nothing to do today. I cannot remember the last time I had a day with so little to do. Saw the newlyweds off to their honeymoon, floated in the pool, ate sublime Indian food with my new in-laws. Early to bed.

March 29, 2004 9:12 a.m. KCRW, Santa Monica
Vacation’s over. I’m at the public radio station, which is located in the basement of a building at a community college. When I arrived, I told the guy at the parking booth that I was here for a KCRW interview. He asked me what I was going to talk about on the radio; when I told him, he took a step back.

“Earthworms! Really? You know, one time I was at Yosemite…” and he told a story of hundreds of nightcrawlers coming to the surface after a rainstorm at the park. He wanted to know whether or not it was too warm in LA to raise nightcrawlers—he needed them for bait. I told him they’d probably be fine. If it gets too hot, they can just burrow deeper.

The interview with To the Best of Our Knowledge went smoothly. I was all alone in the recording booth, just me and a copy of my book and the host’s voice in my headphones. It was a typical NPR-type interview, quiet and thoughtful. I was more thoughtful, too: more reflective, maybe, than I’d been with Nancy a few days before. I think we had a good NPR vibe going. I’m not sure when the show will air, but you can go here and look for it sometime around Earth Day, April 22.

4:46 p.m. Santa Monica Third Street Promenade
Just dropped Scott off at the airport and came down here to shop and get some dinner. I looked in the bookstores for my book. Borders had one copy that I couldn’t find at first, but it turned up eventually on a crowded shelf of gardening books. Barnes & Noble had a half-dozen of them prominently displayed, covers facing out, on the top shelf of the nature section, in the back half of the store with the computer manuals. Midnight Special, which recently moved off the Promenade because of skyrocketing rents, didn’t have it in stock, but the manager was excited about the book and promised to order some. I told him I was in LA from time to time because my brother lives here. He asked me to call their events coordinator about setting up a talk next time I’m in town. I told him I would.

I wish Scott didn’t have to go home early. LA makes me so lonely. There’s something so soulless about it, this image-conscious place where pop culture is manufactured and sold. For such a crowded city, it can feel very empty. Jason & Bec are in Hawaii on their honeymoon, both families have gone home, and I’m here for just one more day. The hotel seems so empty with everyone gone. Tonight it’ll just be me and the worms back in the room.

Thursday, April 01, 2004

The LA Diaries, Part Two

3/25/04 6:10 p.m. La Cañada
The worms and I arrive at Descanso Gardens. A guard stops us as we pull in. I roll down my window.

“Oh, you’re the worm lady,” he says. “Someone showed up here last week looking for you. She had the date wrong. She said she’d be back, though. So you’ll have at least one person here tonight. Come on in.”

Tonight I’ll speak in their main lecture hall. There’s a TV and VCR set up when I arrive. I’m going to hook my digital camera up to the TV and use it as a live video feed so the audience can see the worms in my hand. I call it the Worm Cam. They’ve been very excited about the Worm Cam here at Descanso. I make sure my cables are compatible with their TV, then I head out to walk around the garden for a few minutes before my talk. Descanso is known for their hybrid lilacs—they breed them to do well in warmer climates. The lilac garden is in full bloom, and even though the sun’s going down, the scent is overpowering.

8:45 p.m.
About 25 people showed up for my talk—not a bad turnout for a weeknight. Several people had worm compost bins and came to ask questions about them. A worm grower showed up, and a guy who runs a city worm bin distribution program, and a 4th-6th grade biology teacher. I talked for an hour, forgetting entirely to read from the book. This is a bad habit; Scott says I should read from the book at least a little bit so people will know that it’s a funny and readable book and want to buy it. He’s got a point, but I get tired of the sound of my own words & would rather just talk off the top of my head. I’m just so thrilled to have written a book I don’t have to read from—I can just talk about worms without even referring to it if I want to.
The Worm Cam went off without a hitch, although before I put the worms on camera, the large nightcrawler slithered out of the container I had it in (the lid was just sitting loosely on top) and started moving across the table. Fortunately I turned around and saw it there before it landed on the floor. That’s one thing about worms: when they are ready to go, they go. They are blind but fearless.

Anyway, afterwards people bought books, and I signed them. Everyone stood around and told me their worm stories and asked to hold the worms. My favorite story was from a guy who keeps his worms in a plastic storage tub that does not have any drainage holes in the bottom. He worried that they would get too hot in the back yard, so he set the bin in the swimming pool. It floated. Now the worms spend all day drifting in the pool, kind of like Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. He only takes the bin out of the water when the pool guy comes.

Welcome to Hollywood.