Amy Stewart

How Not to Eat a Worm

I made a point of not saying a word about eating worms in The Earth Moved. Yes, there are some cultures in which people eat worms, and yes, a couple of worm composting books out there include worm recipes, and there’s no denying the fact that worms are a pretty good source of protein, as any chicken will tell you. A shop here in Eureka sells crisp-fried worms (they are actually not earthworms but grubs), and yes, when I was a kid I thought How to Eat Fried Worms was a pretty cool book.

But…ewwwwww. I’m a vegetarian; I don’t even like the idea of eating a cow, much less a creature as noble as a worm.

So a guy in India has set a new record in the competitive sport of worm-eating. He had something to say about the whole experience—something I wish I’d never read and something I don’t want to repeat here, but I’ll provide a link for those of you with a prurient interest in such matters.

Lord of the Worms

Several people have contacted me already about the opening scene of “Return of the King,” which features an earthworm being impaled on a fishhook. Worms don’t get featured in movies much, so I guess my friends all knew what a big event this would be for me. But what about the larger symbolism behind that opening shot? Film critic Scott Foundas put it best when he wrote that the image of the worm was “definitive of the sustained interplay between things intimate and grand, organic and computer-generated.” Right on, Scott. I can tell that you totally get it about worms.

His words remind me of an enormous earthworm anatomy poster from the fifties that hung above my desk while I wrote the book. It depicted the life cycle of a worm from cocoon to maturity and featured a cross-section of a nightcrawler that exposed its five pairs of hearts and intricate system of ducts and veins and nerves.

I feel a little silly quoting from my own book, but there’s a connection between what Scott Foundas had to say about worms and what I was trying to say about them. I described the poster in a chapter on worm anatomy and said that “when I lead people up to the attic room where I write, they stand transfixed in front of the poster, as if they are seeing for the first time a map of the stars, or a photograph of the ocean’s floor. There is wonder in something so vast, but there is wonder in something so small, too.”

Book Stuff

In response to a couple of comments on this blog:

First of all, yes, the book should be available any time now. You can also pre-order it through your local bookseller. It’s been printed and I have exactly one copy, but many more are rolling out of the warehouse and into bookstores as we speak.

The official publication date for the book is January 23. Nothing really happens on a book’s pub date, at least not unless you’re J.K. Rowling. There will be no television appearances or long lines at the bookstore. The book will already be in stores by then, and I will have already done a few author events close to home. Shortly after that, the worms and I will head to the Bay Area, down to Southern California, and up through the Pacific Northwest. Looks like there may even be a stop or two in the Midwest.

Went to a party last night without the worms. It wasn’t really a worm kind of event. Still, everybody asked about the book and they did what people always do when the subject comes up: they said, “Hey, I have a worm story for you.” I don’t know what it is about worms as opposed to, say, bees or caterpillars, but everybody seems to have some kind of story about worms. I’ve heard about mothers who led their children on worm picking expeditions before fishing trips, toddlers who insisted on relocating worms off sidewalks after rainstorms, and rebellious teenagers who, despite threats of severe punishment from school officials, ate worms onstage during the high school talent show.

Other people, if they don’t have a worm story, seem to have a burning worm question, something they’ve been wanting answers to all their lives: If you cut a worm in half, do you really get two worms? (No. The head will grow a new tail, but the tail usually won’t grow a new head.) How do worms mate? (They line up head-to-tail and swap fluids. They’re hermaphrodites.) And what about those worms that survived the space shuttle? (Those were nematodes, microscopic cousins of earthworms.)

Which leads me to the David Sedaris story. I met him at his show here in Humboldt County a few months ago. Our local bookseller was supplying books for him to sign in the lobby; when I reached the front of the line she leaned over to David and said, “She’s just written a book about worms.” David looked up and said, “Hey, I have a question about worms. During my show I tell a story about the worms on the space shuttle, and a last summer I met a guy who said that they weren’t actually worms.”

“Right,” I told him, a little star-struck and therefore tongue-tied. I adore David Sedaris and felt like a fool talking to him. “Those were nematodes. C. elegans.”

“So why does everybody call them worms?”

“I don’t know. It sounds better. It’s like paying them a compliment to call them a worm. I mean, they are worms—they’re all part of the worm family tree—but they’re not the kinds of worms we usually think of.”

He nodded sagely and scribbled a note in my copy of Holidays on Ice thanking me for the worm information. I put the book on a shelf in my office alongside a collection of crusty old British books on worm anatomy and biology. Sedaris has a thing for strange old medical texts himself; I think he’d appreciate the tribute.

How to Take Worms to a Cocktail Party

If you ever want to take earthworms to a cocktail party, here’s my advice:

First, tell people in advance that you’ll be bringing the worms. Just talking about it is half the fun.

Second, let the worms get dressed up, too. They don’t want to show up at a party covered in dirt. No one will want to touch them and they’ll be treated like outcasts. Instead, buy clear water crystals like Soil Moist, which are available in the houseplant section of most nurseries. When you add water to them, they have the consistency of Jell-O and look kind of like chipped ice. (Usually water crystals are used to increase the water-absorbing capacity of potting soil.) The worms wouldn’t want to live in this stuff forever, but they’ll tolerate it for a couple of hours and they’ll look so elegant.

Third, get one of those little plastic containers about the size of a baby food jar to hold your water crystals and worms. It’s a little less space than the worms would normally prefer, but once again, they’ll put up with it for a while. Punch some air holes in the lid with a thumbtack.

You’ll need the smaller plastic container for the fourth step, which is to find something fabulous to carry the worms in. A little black bag, preferably in silk or velvet, is perfect. The more stylish it is, the more amazed people will be when you pull out your worms.

I have taken the worms to just one cocktail party so far, and it all went smoothly because I followed these simple steps. The party was a gathering of booksellers, publishers, and authors; many of them knew I had the worms with me and wanted to see them. A surprising number of people asked to hold the worms. I brought individually-packaged hand wipes with me, thinking that anyone who touched a worm would feel an immediate need to wash their hands, but as far as I can tell, no one thought twice about using the same hand they’d held a worm in to pour drinks, shake hands, or dip chips into salsa.

I left the party around midnight. Jim McManus, author of a book on poker called Positively Fifth Street, was going to give poker lessons into the wee hours of the morning. Even live worms can’t compare with poker, brandy, and cigars. That night, as the worms and I sat in traffic on an LA freeway, I realized that worms, like alcohol, smooth over any social awkwardness that one might feel at a cocktail party. The next morning, I didn’t have a hangover and the worms seemed no worse for wear. I slipped them out of their Soil Moist and into the damp earth behind my brother’s house, where I hope they are enjoying a balmy southern California winter right now.

Flying With Worms, Part Two

Sam James is a guy I met while I was doing research for the book. He’s the leading earthworm taxonomist in the country, if not the world. I went to see him at his laboratory at the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa. Folks in town called the students and faculty of the college “meditators,” as in, “We weren’t too crazy about those meditators moving in at first, but we’re starting to get used to them.” The meditators moved in thirty years ago. I guess Midwesterners are slow to accept newcomers.

I did not see any meditating going on when I went to meet Sam, but I did see plenty of worms. He has the lab of a mad scientist—enormous pickled worms in jars of murky fluid, wooden cabinets filled with tiny worms in vials, and intricate, hand-drawn diagrams of worm anatomy taped to the wall. Sam is one of those rare scientists who still gets to make new discoveries in the wild. He’s like a nineteenth-century naturalist. There are over 4,500 species of earthworms that have been identified, but many more have yet to be discovered. Sam goes to the Philippines once a year and brings back jars of exotic, wildly-colored worms. It is his task to categorize and name them. To fund his research, he hopes to set up a program that will allow people to have a worm named after them—or someone else—for a fee. Same way you’d have a star named after your child, or a rose named after your wife. To a worm lover, this is a beautiful idea.

More on Sam in the weeks and months to come. Meanwhile, I was worried about putting the worms through the baggage X-ray machine at the airport so I wrote to Sam for advice. (Thanks to Philip who posted a comment about asking the screeners to hand-check the worms. Oh, my. I’m trying to attract as little attention to the worms as possible. But they already wear those latex gloves, so maybe they wouldn’t mind thrusting their fingers into a container of worms in their own poo.) Mostly I was worried that the worms would be harmed on the way through the machine. There is nothing more demoralizing than a Rubbermaid container full of dead worms, let me tell you.

But Sam was very reassuring on this point. “They should be fine with the X-rays,” he wrote. “The most likely problem is overheating at some point in the transit process. Red wigglers are more heat tolerant than nightcrawlers, but much smaller and therefore less impressive.”

My plan is to travel with at least 3 species of worms: the red wigglers, Eisenia fetida, that live in my compost bin; the nightcrawler Lumbricus terrestris, and perhaps Aporrectodea caliginosa, the grey worm, which is commonly found around plant roots in garden soil. And Philip, you’re right—these worms will be taking a one-way trip. Some of them will have to endure several cities with me before I set them free, so they’re likely to be a little road-weary and in need of some TLC, but at my last event before heading to the airport, I’ll be looking for someone who can give my worms a good home.

Worms in the Heat

Erica asked in the comments if I had any advice about composting with worms during hot summers like the ones she has in Houston. As a native Texan myself, I can appreciate the problem. When I was in college, a non-profit I volunteered for held an annual “Anywhere But Austin in August” fundraiser, so named because truly, a humid Texas summer can be unbearable, for both worms and humans.

The worm most commonly used for composting is Eisenia fetida, sometimes called the red wiggler or the redworm. These critters prefer temperatures in the 60-70 degree range, and really can’t take heat much above 85 degrees. So in a place like Houston, you’ve got a couple of options:

First, consider setting up your bin indoors in a garage or basement. The trick is to make absolutely sure that this room stays cooler than the outdoor temperature. Sometimes a stuffy, non-air-conditioned space like this will actually get warmer than a shady area outdoors. Set up a thermometer in your garage/basement and another one in the coolest, shadiest area of your yard and compare.

If you do think your indoor location will be cool enough, go ahead and set it up there, but keep track of the temperature. On really hot days, think of the worms when you pour yourself a cold drink. Dropping a few ice cubes in the bin will cool things off and keep it from drying out. The contents of the bin should be about as damp as a wrung-out sponge, so just add a few cubes at a time to avoid flooding the bin. And never, never run water through your bin—it will upset the carefully balanced ecosystem in the bin and turn the worms, castings, and compost into a nasty, waterlogged mess. During a really nasty heat wave, you might try leaving the lid off (to prevent the worms from escaping, keep a thick layer of damp shredded newspaper on top and leave a light on), or turning on a fan.

If you don’t have a good indoor location, I’d suggest picking the coolest, shadiest, and breeziest area in your yard. If you plan to build your own bin, consider a wooden bin that is sunk into the ground. On hot days, you might leave the lid off but cover the worms with a thick layer of shredded newspaper or rice straw so they won’t be tempted to go exploring. Worm farmers often use a mister to keep outdoor beds cool and damp in hot weather.

Finally, be careful about the amount of food you add, especially in a large outdoor bin. Fresh food scraps do create their own heat in large quantities. Add food a little at a time or “pre-compost” it in another pile and feed it to the worms once it’s cooled down.

OK, tomorrow we’ll get back to the challenges of air travel with earthworms.

Tales of Airport Security

So I called United Airlines and asked them about taking earthworms with me on the plane. The conversation went something like this:

“Thank you for calling United.”

“Uh…hello…um, I have kind of an odd question about…uh, carry-ons, and…well, sort of…pets.”

(Pause) “OK, what’s your question?”

“Well, here’s the deal. I just finished writing a book about earthworms, and soon I’ll be going on a book tour and I’d like to bring some worms with me. They’d be inside a small Rubbermaid container about the size you’d use for a sandwich. I’ll have the container in my carry-on bag, and I’m just wondering if I’ll have any problems going through security.”

(Even longer pause) “Are these…like…man-eating worms?”

I laughed. OK, this guy was on my side. “No, no, they’re little red wigglers, the kind of worms you’d take fishing. I just didn’t know if the security people would get freaked out and think I was bring some kind of biological agent on board.”

“And these worms are going to stay in the container the whole time, or will you be taking them out on the plane?”

Now I think he was having a little fun with me. “No, I swear, they’ll just stay in my carry-on bag. Do you think it’ll be OK? I’d hate to have to surrender the worms at the checkpoint.”

“I think you’ll be fine. Why don’t you bring a copy of your book to show them—”

“Oh, that’s a great idea.”

“—and maybe even a letter from your publisher or an itinerary or something.”

“Perfect. I think that’ll work.”

“Good luck. Thanks for calling United. Is there any other travel we can help you with to day?”

I considered telling him that my next book would be about boa constrictors or Africanized bees, but I decided I shouldn’t push my luck. “You know, that’s probably enough for today,” I said, and hung up.

Tune in tomorrow, when I ask worm taxonomist Sam James if the worms will be harmed by the baggage X-ray machine…

Worms in the Snow

Sheila Lennon of the Providence Journal asks about keeping worms alive in the snow. If you are an ER fan, you might remember an episode several years ago (Episode 38, “It’s Not Easy Being Greene,” which aired on February 1, 1996, to be exact…I know this because of these crazy guys who are more obsessed with ER than I was in those days) in which a patient came into the ER with her Can-O-Worms and asked Carol to take care of it while she was in the hospital. The worm bin was mistaken for trash and thrown away; by the time Carol found it, a crust of ice had formed around it and she feared the worst. Fortunately, the worms had burrowed into the center of the bin and stayed alive. The patient gave Carol a box of worms so she could get her own colony started.

Sadly, the worms did not go on to have a regular role on ER after that. It’s a shame, really, that worms don’t figure into the plots of more popular TV shows…and I’m not talking about “Fear Factor,” which hardly portrays worms in the positive light they deserve.

So, the lesson to take away from this is that worms can tolerate some freezing temperatures, although their numbers will certainly dwindle when they’re not in their optimal 60-70 degree temperature range. Depending on the severity of the freeze in your area, you might:

Set the bin up in the basement or garage. Really, worms are quite self-contained and not likely to go exploring as long as you keep them happy.

Keep the bin on a sheltered porch and wrap it in an insulating blanket. They can go days or even a few weeks without additional food, so you won’t have to unwrap them very much.
If you have a larger worm operation in mind, build your bin so that it is sunk into the ground (some people use old refrigerators for this) and cover it well with straw, leaves, etc. Shredded newspaper inside the bin makes great insulation and the worms will munch on it, too. Just make sure there’s drainage (like holes covered with fine mesh screens) so the worms don’t get waterlogged.My worms sit on the kitchen porch where they are protected from rain. Here in Humboldt county, the temps reach freezing a couple dozen times over the winter, and once in a great while it’ll get down in the twenties.

My experience has been that worms are, overall, content with their lot in life. They are peaceful, docile, focused on the task at hand (so to speak), and not given to complaining about the cold.

Thanksgiving

The holidays have been good to the worms. They are still working on Thanksgiving dinner: Brussels sprout trimmings, potato peels, squash rind, and coffee, coffee, coffee. We had eight people in the house for two days and I think we went through an entire pound of coffee. The caffeine doesn’t seem to affect the worms, although I wonder if the acidity of the grounds is starting to throw off the pH in the bin. They can’t tolerate an acid environment, and it seems that as the pH drops, the ants move in. Although the ants don’t seem to bother the worms, it just gets to be a bit of a circus in the bins. I’ve already got sowbugs and a miniature white cousin to the earthworm called a potworm inhabiting the bin. And there are millions of microscopic creatures teeming around in the rotting mass of food, too: bacteria, nematodes, fungi, protozoa—all eating the food and becoming food for the worms. It’s a real miniature zoo on the back porch.

So I throw in some eggshells to help combat the acidity. The worms can’t eat the shells, but they crumble up nicely and eventually they’ll go into the soil along with the castings.
Speaking of worms and coffee, an AP story this morning reports on the effects of intoxication on worms. They’re speaking in this case about a nematode—a microscopic roundworm named C. elegans. When you read about worms in the news, they’re almost always talking about C. elegans. It’s the lab rat of the worm world. Those worms on the space shuttle were C. elegans, too. I tell you, the humble nightcrawler and the red wiggler almost never get their due.

Why Worms?

I suppose I should explain how I got into worms in the first place. I planted my first garden in Santa Cruz, California about eight years ago (and wrote a book about it called From the Ground Up: The Story of a First Garden), and it wasn’t long before I was buying every garden accessory and toy I could get my hands on. I had a serious Saturday-morning nursery habit. Most of my paycheck went to plants, rakes, shovels, and bags of compost. I was in deep.

One morning the nursery had a display of worm bins for sale. The bins, which are called Can-O-Worms, consist of three round stacking trays with small holes in the bottom. You stack the trays on a sturdy plastic base, introduce worms into the bottom level, and eventually they work their way through each level, eating kitchen scraps as they go. Once they’ve massed in the top tray, the bottom tray is usually full of castings—worm manure—that is ready to go into the garden. You empty the bottom tray, make it the new top tray, and keep going. The worms never leave the bin; they just move through each tray in an endless cycle of eating, reproducing, and—well, shitting.

It’s hard to say why the worms appealed to me so much, exactly. Part of it is that I wanted that worm shit, which is the finest cuisine you could feed a plant and extraordinarily expensive if you buy it retail. Part of it was that I liked the gear. A worm bin is hip, in an organic, northern California way. And part of it is just that a colony of anything is fascinating to watch. Ants, bees, worms—they all have curious customs, unfamiliar ways of life, and I thought I’d find them entertaining.

Now I have thousands of worms living in two bins on my back porch, and they’ve kept me entertained for years. They are good pets, loyal and hardworking, and they earn their keep. I wrote this book—the new one, The Earth Moved—for a lot of reasons, but one of them was that I wanted to pay tribute to the inveterate invertebrates that live their lives outside my kitchen door, devouring my coffee grounds and my morning paper, leaving their rich black castings behind.