Amy Stewart

Back to School

Well, I survived my talk to 80 sixth-graders today. I wasn’t really afraid of the kids. Mostly I was just freaked out about being back in the sixth grade, as if walking into a middle school would somehow get me sucked back in time and I’d have to relive the whole thing all over again. Schools have that effect on me, and that’s not to say I hated school—I was a good student. It’s just that I like being a grown-up so much more than I liked being a kid. After I’ve been in a school, I always take new and unexpected pleasure in such mundane adult privileges as being able to drive, or eating whatever I want for lunch.

(I could not resist taking a picture of the sign—it’s a little Spinal Tap, isn’t it? Remember the scene where they show up for a gig and it turns out to be a puppet show?)

Anyway, they were a surprisingly orderly group, I thought, and much more knowledgeable about worms than I’d expected. One kid knew that they had tiny bristles—setae—that help them anchor their bodies in the soil, one knew that worms are both male and female, and, because there was a little confusion about the difference between a worm and a snake, I asked them to explain the differences and it turns out they knew quite a bit about snakes, too.

It was mostly boys who spoke up at first. I guess some things never change. But once I asked why the girls didn’t know anything about worms, they all started to raise their hands and I ignored the boys and called on them. One little blonde girl said that worms were disgusting and she didn’t want anything to do with them. But when I got them out—I’d brought one nightcrawler and four red wigglers—and asked for volunteers to hold them, she actually came up to me and put her hand out. In fact, by the time the worms had made their way around the library and it was time to return them to me, they were all in the hands of girls.

One kid asked if he could have a worm. It’s so funny, the way kids think that adults will just give them stuff. I told him, “No way, get your own worm!” He offered to buy one from me and I said, “All right, how much money have you got?” He backed down from the negotiations at that point. He must have realized that I was serious about taking his lunch money in exchange for something I dug out of the dirt in my backyard.

Worm Farming

Looks like I may end up in the worm farming business after all. I teach a fair number of worm composting workshops around town, and I always try to have someone there to sell worms and bins. You’d think Humboldt County would be crawling with worm farmers, but there’s really only a couple of people in the business, and they’re not always able to provide the worms I need when I need ’em. So yesterday I divided my worm herd in half and started a bigger worm box with the intent of having some extra worms I can sell in a pinch. This is going to be a much simpler setup than the stacking bins I prefer to use: the new worm bin is nothing more than a 25-gallon plastic storage tub with some holes drilled in it for air and drainage. I started the worms out in fresh bedding—coir, or shredded coconut fiber—and topped it with lots of shredded paper. Worms are actually quite content eating paper, and these critters will get a lot of it, along with their share of the kitchen scraps and coffee grounds. If I’m lucky, I’ll have enough worms to sell later this year sometime.

Meanwhile, if you’re looking for worms, I highly recommend Happy D Ranch in Visalia, CA. They ship worms all over the country, and they’ve been in the business for years. Tell Dorothy I sent you.

P.S. I’m going to talk to 80-100 sixth-graders tomorrow. I hope the worms are ready for this, because I don’t know if I am!

Earthworm Poetry

There was a nice write-up about the book in the San Francisco Chronicle today. It was a terrific review with one small error: she called me an Easterner. We Texans are sensitive about that sort of thing. Well, I guess Texas is east of California.

The Rocky Mountain News did a fun story on worms and slugs today, also.
Got a call from one of the owners of my local bookstore, Northtown Books, this morning. They want to do a worm-themed window display and thought they’d include a poem about worms. I suggested an Anne Sexton poem, Earthworm, from her book 45 Mercy Street. Here’s an excerpt:

Have you no beginning and end? Which heart is
the real one? Which eye the seer? Why
is it in the infinite plan that you would
be severed and rise from the dead like a gargoyle
with two heads?

More earthworm poetry coming soon.

Pub Date

Today is the official publication date for this book of mine. Pub dates don’t really mean much; the book has been printed for over a month, it’s already in stores, and many reviews have already been written. The pub date is just an arbitrary date that exists because—well, because there has to be a moment when your book has not yet been published, and a moment when it has. So this is that moment.

I’ll quote Anne Lamott, who had this to say about pub dates in her book Bird by Bird:
“There is something mythic about the date of publication, and you actually come to believe that on this one particular morning you will wake up to a phone ringing off the hook and your publisher will be so excited that they will have hired the Blue Angels precision flying team to buzz your squalid little hovel, which you will be moving out of as soon as sales of the book really take off.”

She goes on to describe a typical pub date around her house:

“Finally the big day arrived and I woke up, happy, embarrassed in advance for all the praise that would be forthcoming. I made coffee and practiced digging my toe in the dirt, and called Pammy and a few friends to let them congratulate me. Then I waited for the phone to ring. The phone did not know its part. It sat there silent as death with a head cold. By noon the noise of it not ringing began to wear badly on my nerves.”

That’s pretty much how it’s been around here so far today. Actually, Mary Appelhof called this morning—she’s one of the earthworm experts I interviewed for the book—to tell me how much she loves the book and how glad she is that I wrote it. She didn’t know that today was the pub date (until I told her), but it was a fitting way to begin the day. The phone is silent now, and I have work to do. Tonight I’m going to meet another author who is in town promoting her book, and then—did I mention I’m the theater critic in this small town where I live?—I’ve got a play to review. It’s an excuse to get dressed up, anyway. As for the worms…well, I’ll make sure they get an extra banana skin today. Other than that, it’ll be an ordinary day for them, too.

More Worm Media

The Good Worm had another media appearance today: we went to the Eureka Sequoia Garden Club, where all the perfectly-dressed, grey-haired ladies extended their hands so it could slither onto their palms. At one point I lost track of The Good Worm completely: it was being passed from person to person and I couldn’t even see it in the crowd.

I brought the worm home and put it back in the plastic, dirt-filled holding pen I’ve set up for it. It pushed its way underground as soon as I let go of it, but I think it it’s beginning to enjoy the limelight.

Did an interview yesterday with Mike Carruthers, host of a radio show called “Something You Should Know.” I expect it to air in the next couple of weeks. If you don’t get this show in your neck of the woods (there’s a station list on the website), you can also listen to it online once it’s posted there.Lots more worm news, and possibly some very interesting worm photos, coming in the next few days. Stay tuned…

Scent of a Worm

Worm fact of the day: there is such a thing as earthworm-scented perfume. You can get it from Demeter Fragrance, a company that also sells perfume that smells like grass, tomatoes, laundromats, and gin, among other things.

I phoned the company as soon as I heard about it and ordered three bottles. “Can you ship them overnight?” I asked, frantic with excitement.

“Of course,” said the woman on the phone, calmly. I got the idea she was used to overwrought customers like me.

The bottles arrived shortly. I tore open the package and stood holding one of the plainly-labeled bottles in my hand, trying to summon up the scent of earthworms in my mind. I thought of the garlic smell my composting worms were supposed to give off, and of the legendary lily-scented worms that are quite possible extinct now in Oregon. I remembered the nightcrawlers I’d dug out of my garden and tried to imagine what they smelled like. Nothing came to me. I just couldn’t pull that scent out of my memory. It probably didn’t help that I’d kept them at such an arm’s length, refusing to put my nose right down to them and breathe.
Finally I pulled off the cap and sprayed it into the air. It hit me, instantly familiar. Worms. No doubt about it. It was the smell of dirt and rotten leaves and compost piles, and also the faint scent of skin, worm skin. I don’t know how else to describe it. It was just vaguely—invertebrate.

I wasted no time getting in touch with Christopher Brosius, co-founder of the company. He told me that he created the scent for customers who liked their “Dirt”fragrance but wanted a “Mud” scent. “We called it ‘Earthworm’ because it smelled very much like the dirt in my garden after a heavy rain when the earthworms tended to come to the surface,” he told me. I wanted to know whether he’d brought worms into the lab when he was developing the fragrance, but he was quick to assure me that “there are no actual earthworms in the scent nor were any smelled during the development of it.”

Brosius said he often draws on his memories of his Pennsylvania childhood in developing his earthy, garden scents. “When I was a child I did fish fairly often in the summer. My family spent a great deal of time on the river. My father and I did occasionally dig up our own earthworms to use as bait. Oddly enough, however, I don’t associate the Earthworm scent with that particular experience – to me it smells much more like mud after the rain.” He wears the fragrance himself with floral scents like “Honeysuckle” or “Dandelion.”

He wouldn’t tell me much about what goes into the formulation of a scent like “Earthworm, except to say that it, like “Dirt,” is a blend of mosses, leaves, grass, wood, and bark: “basically the things that would eventually decompose and form dirt.” One of the newest fragrances in his line is “Thunderstorm.” I think about the way that earthworms crawl to the surface during a storm and wonder if the two scents, when worn together, would smell like “Earthworms On the Sidewalk After a Rainstorm.” Suddenly I can see the entirety of the earthworm story told in these fragrances. “Earthworm” and “Rubber” might smell like my plastic worm composter; “Earthworm” and “Grass” like the nightcrawler castings on a golf course.

“It’s a surprisingly popular scent,” Brosius said. “It sells at smaller upscale shops with a very sophisticated clientele. One customer who sells earthworms at the Green Market in Union Square buys it for her customers. And if memory serves, there is also a bait and tackle shop somewhere in Alabama that stocks it.”

Worms as Food

As much as I dislike the whole topic of worms as food, I feel it is my responsibility as perhaps the sole worm blogger in the blogosphere to pass on earthworm news when I get it. This latest story out of southwest Iowa reports on a website offering recipes that are easy to prepare in the outdoors.

Yep, you guessed it. In the Emergency Survival Food category, once you get past some pleasant and innocuous recipes for berry pudding and honeysuckle nectar, there it is, between the creamed grasshopper and the bee soup: Earthworm spaghetti. Prep time is just two minutes (the time it takes to boil 10-15 worms to death), plus however long it takes to dig the worms.
“Tastes good,” the recipe’s author Kevin writes. “Kind of like fish.” Kevin, I’m going to take your word on that. Now, didn’t somebody remember to pack a Cliff Bar?

More Worm Photos

Another photo of what is probably a young Aporrectodea caliginosa. In this picture you can really see the dirt moving through its body. It’s funny that I can still be so amazed by earthworms after all this time. The other night I enlarged this picture on my computer so that the worm filled the entire monitor, and I sat transfixed in front of it for twenty minutes.


I was planning on posting another worm photo today, but I’ve been distracted by some Big News: The Boston Globe published a terrific review of The Earth Moved in their book section. The reviewer is Anthony Doerr, whose short story collection The Shell Collector is imbued with a love of the landscape and a fascination with the natural world. He writes interesting and conversational reviews of books on natural science for the Globe, and you can imagine my excitement when I got to this line:

“[Rachel] Carson’s legacy is proof that science books matter, that good prose can change the world. On its own scale, Stewart’s book paddles along in Carson’s wake.”
I printed the review off the Internet and ran outside with it in my hands this morning, half-planning to read it to the worms. But they are deaf, and besides, they don’t know the Boston Globe from the Eureka Times-Standard. So I shredded a copy and fed it to them, along with their customary Sunday breakfast of coffee grounds and eggshells. They’re unimpressed with literary success, happy in their dark, damp obscurity. That’s as it should be. I expect nothing more, or nothing less, from them

More Worm Portraiture

It’s not easy to identify worms by sight, but I think this one is Aporrectodea caliginosa, also called a field worm or a grey worm. It’s an endogeic worm, which means that it does not come to the surface of the soil but does not build a permanent burrow, either. It lives its life entwined in the roots of plants, helping to feed the plant through its constant plowing of the soil. It’s fascinating to watch this worm move because you can actually see the soil in its gut moving underneath its translucent skin.