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.