The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms
Author: Amy Stewart Publisher: Algonquin Books
For earthworms, every day is Earth Day.
Those wiggly sojourners of the soil play a huge role in the world below—and above—our feet, inspiring Charles Darwin to write, "It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organised creatures."
That quote opens Chapter 1 of "The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms," (Algonquin Books, 2004) a book by Amy Stewart, who has come to regard worms with the same fascination as Darwin did.
Also the author of "From the Ground Up: The Story of a First Garden," Stewart was casting about for a new subject when she came upon Darwin's "The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Action of Worms, With Observations on Their Habits." Published in 1881, near the end of Darwin's life, the book brought to fruition an interest he'd had most of his life.
Stewart already had some experience with earthworms; she'd tended a Can-O-Worms bin for several years and used the rich castings in her garden in Santa Cruz, Calif. The worms meant enough to her that when she moved to Eureka, Calif., they came, too.
"They drove across the Golden Gate Bridge with me," Stewart said.
She pulled apart the bin, wrapped it in plastic, stuck it in the trunk and took off. During the six-plus-hour drive, the earthworms decided the warm, dark trunk would be an OK place to investigate.
"When I opened the trunk, they were all over the plastic bag. I was completely on my own to unload the bin. My husband wanted nothing to do with The Moving of the Worms."
Stewart summoned her inner little boy, corralled her worms and started a new garden. We should all be so dedicated.
I took her book home, considering it homework. I should have known better after talking with Stewart, an articulate, funny woman who made her passion for earthworms seem perfectly reasonable. I plopped down with her book and didn't look up for two hours. I don't even do that with a good mystery.
Most of us overlook worms, even in the scientific world, where research on them is sorely underfunded. Unless we're aiming to go fishing or digging in the garden, earthworms do not get our notice.
They should. And reading Stewart's book will tell you why. This is no little treatise on how beneficial they are for the garden or how to keep them happy in a worm bin, although there is that. Stewart, with Darwin as her main character and a host of other scientists in supporting roles, gives us the big picture in writing that is active and clear as a bell. Here's an example:
"Anything that's rotten will attract them, but they are not rotten themselves. Anything dead will have a worm writhing through it eventually, but worms are powerfully alive. I have come to understand, as Darwin had, that earthworms are not destroyers, but redeemers. They move through waste and decay in their contemplative way, sifting, turning it into something else, something that is better."
And so there is the heart of Stewart's book. In an almost philosophical way, she looks at the big picture. Yes, earthworms have accomplishments. They recycle the waste of the world into valuable, arable soil that supports plant life and, as an extension, all life. They sift through the soil as nature's most efficient plough. They reduce pollution. They may be an important key in modern agriculture.
But what may be their greatest lesson: Tiny creatures working together can achieve great things.
Stewart paints this picture for us perfectly. If, after reading her book, you're not in love with earthworms, well, I bet at least you'll appreciate them.
I hope so, anyway, because the same lesson applies to us. Working together, humans can change the world, for good or bad. Earth Day seems the right day to contemplate that.