Amy Stewart

The Fate of the Good Worm

Thank you all for your concern about The Good Worm. It’s amazing, isn’t it, how once you get to know a worm as an individual you start to be concerned about its fate? (I know, you’re thinking, “Wow, she doesn’t even realize we were just humoring her.”)

Anyway, The Good Worm spent the day in somewhat larger but still cramped accommodations—one of those disposable Glad containers like you’d take your lunch in—and tonight I ran out to the drugstore and bought a big Rubbermaid tote, drilled some holes in it for drainage, dug a big hole in the middle of a vegetable bed that is not in use right now, and sunk the tub about halfway in the ground. I filled it with dirt, dropped The Good Worm (who seemed no worse for wear despite its adventures with the garden club ladies) into the tub, and sat the lid loosely on top.

It’s almost impossible to raise nightcrawlers in captivity. They just don’t take to it. That’s why there are still people out there who make a living picking nightcrawlers for bait. So I don’t expect this worm to settle down a raise a family in this bin, but I’m hoping it will be comfortable there for a month or two so I can use it again at one of my talks. If I find any more good worms, I’m going to toss them in the tub, too. There’s nothing worse than not being able to find a good worm a couple of hours before my talk’s scheduled to start.

(Feels strange to call the critter “it,” but to assign it a gender would be to overlook its versatility as a hermaphrodite.)

I often think about those bait pickers in Canada who spend the night outdoors, pulling nightcrawlers from their burrows to sell as bait. Some pickers can collect as many as 10,000 nightcrawlers on a cool, damp night, earning up to $300 by selling the worms to a wholesaler. That’s only three cents a worm, no great fortune. But to someone who enjoys working alone, in the solitude of the still night air; to someone who would rather make their living in the dark dewy pastures than in a cramped fluorescent-lit office, those worms are a livelihood. To bait pickers, an abundance of worms in a grassy pasture means one thing: a paycheck.

Worm Desserts


Gave a talk today at the Fortuna Garden Club and look what they had for refreshments! Worm parfait. I may have to have a contest for the best worm-themed dessert on the book tour. This one was delicious–crumbled Oreo, chocolate mouse, and, of course, a gummy worm.

A Good Worm


Sometimes you just know a good worm, the way you know about a good melon. I went digging for nightcrawlers today for my talk at the Ferndale Garden Club, and the first shovelful of dirt turned up a supersized nightcrawler—fat and long and surprisingly strong. (I’ll post a picture tomorrow) It whipped away from me and clung tenaciously to its clump of dirt, but I managed to get ahold of it and drop it into a Rubbermaid container with holes punched in the lid.

At lunch before the garden club talk, I said to Scott, “I got a really fine nightcrawler today. I’d like to keep this one. They don’t do well in captivity, but what if I sunk a big bin in the ground and dropped all the good worms I found in it? I just hate to lose a worm like this.”

Scott humored me, but I’m sure he was thinking, “One worm’s as good as another, and do we have to talk about this at lunch?”

Then we got to City Hall, where the garden club was meeting, and I pulled the worm out to check on it. “Wow,” Scott said. “That is a good worm.” There was just something about it. It was robust, almost muscular. You could see every anatomical feature perfectly. (Yes, worms do have anatomical features. I’m sure we’ll get into them at length over the coming weeks and months.)

The nightcrawler performed admirably for the ladies at the garden club, stretching out luxuriously on my palm to nearly three times its length, and even rubbing its setae (tiny nubby bristles on its underside) against my hand. Pretty soon everybody wanted the worm in their hand so they could feel the setae. One after another, these grey-haired women came up to me and said, “Now that’s a good worm.”

See? Sometimes you just know. I can’t explain it better than that.

Worm Scams

There have been warnings in the news again lately about worm farm scams. In general, the way this works is that you pay a company, say, a thousand bucks or ten thousand bucks or some amount to get set up in the worm business. They provide instruction, worms, maybe a worm bin, and then promise to buy the worms back from you for a fixed price per pound. The worms, they claim, will reproduce rapidly, get fat and happy, and you’ll make a fortune selling them back to the company at the contract price. Some of these companies claim to have buyers for the worms, like bait companies, municipal composting programs, and the like, but often their only customer is the next sucker buying into the scam. The money to pay their contracts comes mostly from new incoming contracts. It’s a classic Ponzi scheme.
Now, I’m not saying that every worm growing arrangement works like this, but I’ve heard enough sad stories about people who lost their money and got stuck with worms they couldn’t sell, to be wary of the whole thing. If you want to learn more, check out the Oklahoma Department of Securities, which prosecuted a worm contract operation recently.

There’s a personal connection here, too. My husband Scott’s grandparents bought into one of these contracts in the early seventies. They planned on raising worms to sell as fishing bait. Scott’s grandfather built several large boxes in the backyard to house the worms, but they ran into trouble when it was time to get the worms out of their bins and into little cartons for the bait shop. “I can’t tell you how many hours I spent picking worms out of that dirt,” Scott’s grandmother told me. “I’ll never forget that. We never made a dime off those worms.”

It’s not so unusual for people to find themselves with a backyard full of worm boxes and no market for the worms. Some people give up and stop feeding them, let them make their own way out of the boxes, let the colony of earthworms simply die off, or leave the boxes open as food for the birds. After all, it is no easy feat to find a good home for a hundred thousand worms.

In my family’s case, the worms found a good home with Scott’s uncle Peter, who had space for a large composting operation in the backyard of the Oakland commune where he lived at the time. The worms thrived there. “Five gallons of kitchen slop would disappear in about 24 hours,” he told me. “Eventually there were so many worms that trying to dig in that pile was like digging in hamburger. Ghastly, really. I was afraid my baby Nick would be eaten if he crawled in there.”

I’m starting to get invitations

I’m starting to get invitations to speak to school groups. A 6th-grade science teacher has invited me and the worms to talk to three science classes in the school library one morning at 8:30 a.m. (He’s promised me a double nonfat latte in exchange for showing up, showered and dressed, at this unreasonable hour). Why do I find the idea of talking to 80-100 6th graders so intimidating, when I don’t think twice about radio and newspaper interviews, or addressing 40 booksellers at a trade show?

I suppose the answer is obvious to any of you who have 6th graders at home. These kids are smart as a whip and they’ll say whatever is on their mind.

Gulp. I’ll let you know how it goes. Meanwhile, the Dallas Morning News ran a great review of the book–this is all the more exciting because I was born & raised in Dallas/Fort Worth. Home girl makes good. The review includes an enchanting illustration, and this poem, which appears to have been written by the reviewer, Alfred Bortz:

The reader just sits there and squirms
Uneasily coming to terms
Having suddenly faced
A developing taste
For wriggling and night-crawling worms.

Right on, Fred.

Get a load of this


Get a load of this bad boy. I found him thanks to a terrific Washington Post story about the benefits of leaf litter. Scientists participating in the Global Litter Invertebrate Decomposition Project (GLIDE) filled mesh bags with just one type of grass hay and left the bags in 33 sites around the world. They found—are you ready for this?—over 31,000 different creatures involved in the breakdown of the organic matter in those bags. Junior here is one of the microscopic nematodes that was feasting on the grass. (Their image gallery is a must-see.)

Welcome to the worms’ world. A handful of soil can contain millions, even billions, of microscopic creatures, and what do earthworms call them?

Dinner.

There you have it—soil ecology in one easy lesson.

Did I mention that a study once found over 90,000 nematodes in a single rotten apple? Nathan Cobb, a pioneer in the science of nematodes, once wrote, “If all the matter in the universe except nematodes were swept away, our world would still be dimly recognizable, and if, as disembodied spirits, we could then investigate it, we should find its mountains, hills, vales, rivers, lakes, and oceans represented by a film of nematodes.”

In other words, critters like the ones in this photo are everywhere, not just in the guts of earthworms.

Sleep well, folks.

Worms on Tour

The book tour officially kicks off next week with two talks to garden clubs here in Humboldt county. Usually my publisher schedules author events, but in a small town like this it just makes more sense for me to handle it myself. I’ll start traveling in March; until then, I’ll stick closer to home and speak to local groups.

I haven’t said much about the publicity part of this book, mostly because it feels a little self-indulgent. But I will say this: the response so far has just been amazing. I sent out a press release about the Humboldt County events and heard back from three or four reporters the same day. A story ran in the Eureka Times Standard yesterday; that morning three people called and asked if I could come speak to their group. I’m talking to garden clubs and 4-H groups, doing author fairs at the library, teaching a worm composting workshop at a nursery, and signing books at a garden gift store during Arts Arcata, a once-a-month event where shops stay open late, exhibit local art, and pour wine.

It’s your basic grassroots tour. I guess that’s appropriate for a book on worms. Later, when I go on the road, I’ll do more regular bookstore events. But even when I’m traveling, I’m hoping to stop at some nurseries and botanical gardens. And if there’s a 4-H group out there raising worms, I hope they’ll ask me to drop by and check it out.

Yellow-Bellied Worms

From time to time I write for Organic Gardening magazine. The great thing about them is that they are so diligent about fact-checking. There is no possibility that an error or even a rumor about, say, the benefits of cow manure, or the best way to stake your tomatoes, will slip by them. When I send an article to them, I have to footnote every fact in the story and attach a photocopy of my source—a reputable book, article, or interview transcript. I write for a lot of gardening magazines and newspapers, and this is the only publication I’ve ever written for that does this.

So a couple months ago I sent them a story about earthworms, and included a stack of academic sources to back up my assertions. But apparently I wasn’t careful enough—a statement I made about the yellow bellies of red wigglers caught the attention of the fact-checker. She wrote to me and said, “I didn’t see this in the backup or anywhere else. Is it from personal experience? Can you send backup?”

Hee hee. Yes, I suppose you could say I know this from personal experience. Eisenia fetida, the red wiggler, has a yellowish belly. It just does. I have ten thousand or more of them in the composter outside the kitchen door, so I know a thing or two about their bellies. I ran downstairs with the camera, snapped a picture of an upturned E. fetida, and e-mailed it to OG as proof.

Here it is, then. Submitted for your consideration: the yellow belly of the red wiggler.

Sex and the South Beach Diet

Answers to the two most commonly-asked questions about earthworms:

1. Most worms are hermaphrodites—they are both male and female. Their sexual organs consist of tiny pores on their bellies that are usually not visible to the naked eye. (Train a hand lens on a good-sized nightcrawler and you might get a glimpse of them.) To mate, worms slither alongside each other, head-to-tail, belly-to-belly, and one of them releases sperm, which travels to a female pore on the other worm.

I have often wondered if the—ahem—event—ever happened simultaneously for both worms, but as far as I can tell little research has been done on this subject. I have visions of bleary-eyed graduate students sitting up all night in the lab, waiting and watching. (There’s another dissertation topic for you PhD candidates, free of charge. Now all we need is a title…how about “Was It Good For You, Too? Simultaneous Orgasm Among Hermaphroditic Oligochaete.”)

To continue: after receiving the sperm, the worm excretes a sticky fluid that forms a kind of mucus shell around its clitellum, that thick band of flesh about a third of the way down its body. Eventually the worm will scoot backwards and slide out of this shell, and the ends will seal, leaving behind a cocoon. Imagine a tiny lemon-shaped object that is murky yellow or brown and about as big around as the worm that created it. Fertilization takes place in the cocoon and the baby worms emerge as fully-formed, miniature replicas of their parents.

2. There’s no need to worry about putting your worms on a low-carb diet. The worms in my compost bin cannot digest meat, dairy, or fat of any kind, so Atkins is right out, and they crave fruit, especially tropical summer fruits like mango. They also eat plenty of newspaper, surely a high-carb food, and they love plain rice, pasta, or bread. So if you made a New Year’s resolution to go on the South Beach Diet, think of it this way: you can eat all the lean meat and beneficial fats you want, and give those unwanted fruits and starches to the worms. ( From your hips to the worms’ lips.) More good news: they can’t eat the South Beach Mocha Ricotta Creme dessert, so you’ll have that one all to yourself.

Bookworms

If you spend much time looking up books online, you may have noticed that Amazon.com has a new “Search Inside” feature that allows you to search for particular words inside the text of books, as opposed to just searching by title, author, keyword, etc. What that means is that when you go to Amazon and do a search for the word “earthworm,” the following titles appear in the top 20 results:

Life of Pi, a magical work of fiction by Yann Martel in which the protagonist baits his hook with a shoelace, hoping fish will mistake it for an earthworm.

Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, in which the author describes a woman’s big butt as “speaking of many things, including “fertile fields,” “kitchens with banged-up pots,” “canvas shopping bags bursting at the seams,” and, you guessed it, earthworms.

The Universe in a Nutshell, in which author Stephen Hawking asserts that “our present computers are less complex than the brain of an earthworm, a species not noted for its intellectual powers.”

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,
which mentions a “telepathic, world-conquering earthworm, Mr. Mind.”

A novel by Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, called Survivor: A Novel, which makes reference to eating live worms.

Memoirs of a Geisha, which mentions a little boy that is frightened of worms.

Drop City, by T. Coraghessan Boyle. It’s not clear why this book is included on the list, but I’m a big T. Boyle fan, so as far as I’m concerned, he should be included on any list of books, regardless of the purpose of the list.

In some ways, this new feature of Amazon’s is a little irritating in that it supplies irrelevant and off-the-wall results. If I’m looking for a book on earthworms, Life of Pi and Memoirs of a Geisha are not going to do me any good. I imagine that sooner or later Amazon will have the good sense to remove this feature from their default search box and make it an Advanced Search option instead. Meanwhile, it does make for an interesting cultural study. Just for kicks, do a search for “invertebrate,” “larvae,” and “spineless.” Some novels show up time and again, with several worm-related words woven into the narrative, as if the author had a deep metaphorical connection with worms that manifested itself over and over in the work.

I see the makings of a doctoral dissertation here. I’ll even suggest a title: “As the Worm Turns: The Earthworm as Metaphor in Contemporary Literature.”