Worms: A Love Story

For the last several years, I have kept five or ten thousand earthworms in a kitchen composter outside my back door. I feed them coffee grounds and banana skins, and every few months I scoop out the rich black castings, or earthworm manure, that they leave behind. In addition to producing fertilizer, earthworms are great pets—they are loyal, hardworking, and undemanding. I’ve become so interested in their habits and lifestyles that I decided to write a book about them. It was a fascinating year, researching earthworms.

“What’s your next book about?” a friend asked one night at dinner.

“Worms,” I said. It’s such a conversation-stopper.

“Worms,” she said. That’s all most people say at first.

“Yes,” I said. “Worms. Charles Darwin wrote a very interesting book on worms. It outsold Origin of Species during his lifetime. He was fascinated by worms. He took them up to his studio and played the piano for them to see how they reacted to different notes on the scale.”

She started to smile. It’s such a charming picture, old white-haired Darwin with his flower pots of dirt and worms.

“Then there’s this French scientist from the sixties,” I told her. “Andre Voisin. He believed that worms were responsible for the creation of all the major civilizations in the world. He had this map that showed where all the great civilizations started—the Nile, places like that—and overlaid on top of it was a map that showed the areas of the world with the highest concentrations of worms. Of course, they were the exact same areas. His theory was that because the worms were plowing the soil, the people were freed up to do things like invent math and build the Pyramids.”

This theory of Voisin’s makes innate sense. People nod knowingly at the notion that worms are responsible for the creation of all great societies. No one, when I have explained Voisin’s ideas, has ever argued with them. Music? Astronomy? Written language? Of course. We owe it all to the worms. The more I talk about worms, the more people warm to the subject.

“Now that I think about it,” she said, “my dad was interested in worms. He bought this piece of property on the coast, and I remember going out there when we were kids and helping him dig up one cubic foot of soil, then counting all the worms in that cubic foot. He said that we had so many worms because the earth had not been disturbed in so long.”

“That’s right!” I said. “Untilled soil has the highest earthworm population. That’s the newest thinking about organic gardening, that you should till the soil as little as possible and let the earthworms do it for you.”

“So you’ve got time to invent more math,” she said.

“Exactly,” I said.

I have always introduced my worms to visitors. At first I thought that everyone would want to meet them. Often I would greet guests at the door and lead them right to the kitchen porch, where I’d lift the lid off the composter and turn over the layer of shredded newspaper and coffee grounds. I would scoop out a handful of flailing red worms, their yellow bellies exposed to the light for one brief second before they dropped back to their bedding below. I wanted to show my guests how brilliant and accomplished my worms were. I wanted them to murmur their approval the way they might if they were listening to a piece of music I’d just learned on the piano, or inspecting an oil painting I’d recently completed.

Sometimes people are not as impressed with my worms as I would like them to be. Once when I lived in Santa Cruz, my parents brought some friends from England to visit. They were eager to see a coastal California garden in full bloom. I marched them without comment past the bougainvillea, Mexican sage, California poppy, and the orange and lemon trees. I led them directly to the worm composter and lifted the lid with a flourish. A hundred or so fruit flies drifted out of the mess of rotting peaches and dryer lint.

“These,” I said, already realizing how badly I’d miscalculated the event, “are my worms.”

My parents and their friends glanced down from as great a distance as they could manage. The fruit flies continued to swarm; the worms made an odd squishing sound as they dove away from the light into their mass of decaying food. One strip of newspaper, half eaten by the worms, announced the beginning of the Microsoft antitrust case. It looked like the end of the world inside my compost bin. I was so proud, but looking back, I realize that everyone else was appalled. I resolved to never show my worms to anyone unless they specifically asked to see them.

Now, I should say that fruit fly infestations are rare and easily prevented; I’d just gotten careless and forgotten to keep a really thick layer of newspaper on top. A worm bin is generally a neat, tidy, and not at all smelly operation, and plenty of people have been more than happy to meet the worms over the years. My uncle Jim came to visit recently and when I slipped outside to dump the vegetable scraps into the worm bin, he followed me and spent a few minutes out there, looking over the worms, discussing their feeding habits and birth rates. If you come to dinner at my house, this is how you ingratiate yourself to the hostess: you step out to the side porch to talk banana skins and carrot tops and smile down at the worms.

Researching the lives of earthworms has put me in touch with some of the leading earthworm scientists in the world (believe it or not, there are only a few). There is plenty of promising new research about the role of earthworms and their castings in improving plant growth, reducing plant diseases, and even preventing some pest infestations. Stay tuned for more news, and check my Events page for upcoming talks around the country.