Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin

2 e fetida
On the event of Charles Darwin's 200th birthday, I am thinking about his fabulous book, The Formation of  Vegetable Mould, through the Action of Worms.  If you're going to read any book by Darwin, start with this one.   He did the most fascinating earthworm experiments and documented them in meticulous detail.  (And yes, I devoted a chapter and more to him in The Earth Moved.)

So in his honor, I have resurrected an earthworm quiz I wrote but never used when The Earth Moved came out.  Enjoy!

Match each quote with the person who said it.

1.    “I must own I had always looked on worms as amongst the most helpless  and unintelligent members of the creation; and am amazed to find that they have a domestic life and public duties!”

2.    “We even recorded the sounds of them eating.  And we’ve got worm tunnels you can crawl through to give you an idea of what it’s like—you know—what it’s like to be a worm.”

3.    “I’ve got so many new worms here, I could spend years identifying and classifying them.  I’m thinking about putting them all on a website.  People can get a worm named after them, or you could get one named for your husband for an anniversary present.  You know, like they do with the stars.  What do you think?”

4.    “Their sexual passion is strong enough to overcome for a time their dread of light.”

5.    “As few as 11 large earthworms can transfer a lethal dose of DDT to a robin.  And 11 worms form a small part of a day’s rations to a bird that eats 10 to 12 earthworms in as many minutes.”

6.    “I used to say that one ton of worms could eat one ton of garbage.  I was always thinking big like that.  Then I found out that Seattle had distributed four thousand worm bins.  I did some figuring and realized that worked out to ten tons of garbage going into worm bins.  That’s when I realized—it’s happening!  It just isn’t happening the way I originally thought it would.”

7.    “When stepped on, the worm curls up.  That is a clever thing to do.  Thus it reduces its chances of being stepped on again.  In the language of morality: humility.”

8.    “A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.”

9.    “I spent whole afternoons in the dirt, making my patch of ground flawless.  I even cleared the worms away, before I found out that all the tunnels they make give air, and probably other molecules I don’t know about yet, to the plants.”

10.    “People ask me, why bother cataloging earthworms?  Well, why catalog anything?  It’s how we learn about the world we live in.  Besides, some of these worms are going extinct. How do you know what you’re losing if you don’t know what you have?”

Who said it?

A.    Mary Appelhof, worm composting activist and author of Worms Eat My Garbage

B.    Joseph Hooker, 19th century British botanist

C.    Sam James, freelance earthworm taxonomist living in Fairfield, Iowa

D.    Charles Darwin, father of earthworm science and author of The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Actions of Worms, With Observations on Their Habits.

E.    Friedrich Nietzsche, 19th century German philosopher

F.    Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, on the role of earthworms as vectors in DDT contamination

G.    William Shakespeare on the earthworm’s transformative power

H.    Jane Hamilton, The Book of Ruth

I.    John Matthews, founder of the Giant Worm, a tourist attraction devoted to the ten-foot long Australian earthworm.

J.    John Reynolds, Canadian earthworm taxonomist whose collection of 100,000 earthworms resides with the Canadian Museum of Nature

The key is after the jump.

Those Naughty Non-Native Earthworms

8_minn_forest_floor Great stuff from Boostrap Analysis on the publication of some new data from the Minnesota research team I interviewed for The Earth Moved.  I devoted  a chapter to the time I spent there walking through the forest and talking with researchers Cindy Hale and Lee Frelich about their work.  It is true that non-native earthworms have moved into the forest thanks to our behaviour–using worms as fishing bait, laying acres of sod for golf courses near forests, and hitching a ride in fill dirt when a ranger station is being built, living in the roots of potted plants brought in for habitat restoration, etc.   It would have taken non-native worms a couple million years to move across North America at their own rate of speed, but we gave them a lift and finished the job in a couple hundred years instead.

A few things to remember about this research and about our little wormy friends in general:

First, the trouble that non-native worms are causing in the Minnesota forests have a great deal to do with the fact that those forests evolved without earthworms at all.  The northernmost parts of the U.S. were covered by glaciers during the last Ice Age, and native earthworm populations never did form in those areas.  So now non-native worms move in and do what (many species of) earthworms do:  they digest decaying organic matter and transform it into the lovely rich black castings you see here.  (This is a picture I took of the forest floor in Minnesota.) Great news in the vegetable garden, not so great in a forest that depends upon this thick spongy duff layer for seed germination, habitats, etc.

Second, Cindy Hale specifically asked me not to describe the worms as "destroying" the forest.  They are changing the forest, she said. This is not a black-and-white story–"where you once thought worms were great, now we know they are evil."  Instead, the lesson we should take away from this is that every ecosystem is unique, and must be viewed on its own terms.  A few particular species of non-native earthworms may have changed what can grow in this forest, but that doesn’t mean that all species of worms (and there are thousands) are harmful in all situations.  It does mean that when we are thinking about fragile ecological systems, we should remember to take a look underground, something Hale said that her collegues had not been doing.  Consider what’s in your soil when you’re doing habitat restoration.  Remember that even the smallest little spineless creature has power.

And finally, non-native earthworms are, for better or worse, in almost every American backyard.  If you live next to a wilderness area, I’d suggest that you think carefully before introducing anything non-native into your yard, plants included.  But if you live in an ordinary suburban or city neighborhood like I do, your garden already benefits from the glorious work of earthworms and other soil-dwelling organisms.  I’m not about to kick them out of my garden–even if I could.

Bottom line?  There’s nuance in this story, as in most things.  You can learn more about the Minnesota research here.

Via: www.bootstrap-analysis.com.

Come On, Touch It!

The Chicago Sun-Times on worm composting:

The process is odor-free and bug-free, but a certain yuck factor may nonetheless be keeping worm bins from really taking off. Pat Schwarze of the Building Owners Management Association of Suburban Chicago said members learned about vermiculture at a trade show last year, but nobody bit. "People are interested by it, fascinated by it, but they’re not sure they want to touch it," Schwarze said.

Link: www.suntimes.com.

More Praise for Earthworms

“Where there’s a healthy earthworm population, there will be 1000 miles of burrows per acre, she continues.

“Fields with earthworm tunnels absorb water at a rate of 4-10 times that of fields without worm tunnels.”

Worms also act as a biological filter, she maintains.

“They line their burrows with mucus which absorbs any pollutants, such as nitrates and pesticides, which are in the water. “

Earthworms help prevent erosion

Be Good to Your Worms

The Salt Lake Tribune reminds us that “bumpy lawns can drive some homeowners crazy. Even while acknowledging that worms are beneficial in the long run, many people ask how they can kill this lawn ‘pest.’ ”

Boy, does that drive me crazy. People, a lawn with a good earthworm population is a healthy lawn! Be happy! Celebrate!

Seriously, if you’ve got time to worry about little tiny piles of earthworm castings in your grass, you have way too much time on your hands. Go volunteer somewhere. Spend more time with your grandchildren. Write a novel. Or even better–rip out part of that lawn and plant a nice time-consuming vegetable garden.

Actually, once piece of practical advice: set the blade on your mower a little higher. The taller grass will hide worm castings, conserve water, crowd out weeds, reduce thatch, and create a healthier lawn overall.

Salt Lake Tribune – Food:

Invite a Worm to Dinner

In honor of Earth Day, Organic Valley Family of Farms would like you to hold an Earth Dinner to celebrate the planet’s bounty.

“Make it simple or make it splendid! From a potluck dinner to a masterful multi-course presentation–any style works for an Earth Dinner. The key is to know the origins of what’s being served-how it was grown, where it came from, who grew it, its nutritional value. Each dish brought to the table provides an opportunity for us to talk about its origins and its connections to our personal histories through the activity cards provided in this package.”

Yes, there are activity cards to spark your earthy discussion, including one that”makes players think creatively — e.g., pretend you’re an earthworm running for public office!”

I’ll give you a little while to think that over.

Earth Dinner Plan Your Dinner