Worms of Endearment

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Worms of Endearment

Credit: Alyssa Grenning, Philadelphia City Paper

In which our writer atones for his crimes against invertebrates.

by Isaiah Thompson

Published: Apr 28, 2010, Philadelphia City Paper

It all began last spring, when I decided I wanted to have a “garden.” I had no land, no yard, no community garden plot, no fire escape —not even a window ledge. But I had an office, with a window. And outside the window was a roof. And so I planted a haphazard rooftop “garden” —a series of plastic buckets and discarded Gatorade bottles filled with potting soil and housing a half-dozen tomato plants which teetered constantly on the brink of death.Steel your heart, gentle reader: While full of joy, this story begins in tragedy.

The tomatoes deserved compost, I thought, and the compost deserved worms to eat it. So I showed up at a friend’s one balmy Sunday, grabbed a shovel, and began stuffing into a giant sack shovelfuls of wormy muck from a year-old pile of rotting food in his backyard.

Getting it all back to the “garden” by bicycle —some 50 or 60 pounds, at least —was another matter entirely. The heavy sack teetered on my rear rack, and in order to make the 5-mile ride without losing it, I had to strap it down as tightly as possible. I recall, as I winched it down, seeing a single worm wriggle its way through a tiny rip in the bag, escaping to the ground. “Your loss,” I told it.

An hour later I had unpacked the bag and dumped its contents into a plastic tub. The worms were dead: all of them. They had been crushed, it seems —compacted to death on the ride over.

I sought atonement the only way I knew how: I went outside, dug up some worms and built for them a kingdom.

There are two ways to start a worm bin. One is to research the process, buy a starter population of the right kind of worms — Eisenia foetida, or “red wigglers,” especially suited to eating food waste —and carefully construct a worm-friendly habitat.

The other way is to do what I did: Ignore all information, stick a random bunch of worms in a plastic Tupperware tub, add some coffee grounds, and see what happens.

What happened, in my case, was slightly amazing: The worms homogenized. No sooner did I transfer my little colony to a larger bin than the fast-moving nightcrawler I’d seen hanging aroundvanished. The fat, grayish worms were gone, too. Instead, a single species of had taken over —thin and pinkish, with a band of yellow at one end: Eisenia foetida, an online species identification guide confirmed — red wigglers.

Nature itself had selected the right worm for my bin: If that isn’t a sign of forgiveness, what is?

The joy of raising worms is not, I would argue, the mere utility of having dinner scraps converted to free plant fertilizer.No: It’s the joy of discovery, of scientific exploration.

The worm is a mysterious beast, its ways endlessly puzzling, unfathomable. They like, for instance, to congregate —you can find them by listening to variations in the soft crunch they make below the surface.

In 2004, Indian researchers reported not a single instance of mortality in 15 weeks among worms living in pure cow, buffalo, horse, donkey, sheep, goat and camel dung. Spanish scientists found out worms can regulate the size — yet not the quantity —of their cocoons.

But these are rubber dinghies of knowledge in the great sea of the unknown: When I feed my worms coffee, do they get jittery? Did that nightcrawler die of natural causes?

Mysteries, all.

The worm bin, in short, is Mars: Mysterious fungi grow beneath pale plants that sprout in the dark; tiny, ghostly white mites feast on the dead. A molding glob of Chinese turnip pudding turned fetid in two days — yet was gone in seven.

Not long ago, I decided to tax the worms with a new challenge: I emptied out everything but the worms, and added back in 6 or so pounds of spent beer grains, to see how long it would take for that amber grain to become black soil.

Within 24 hours, the grains began to rot, and a pungent, sour stink wafted from the vents. Then the mixture began to get noticeably warm — then hot.

“It’s going to blow,” I thought. “I’m going to kill them all — again.”

For days, it kept up — the stench worsening and the heat rising, until the plastic walls were warm to the touch from outside. But, slowly, the bin began to cool. The smell subsided. A few days ago, I popped the lid to check: The blond grains had turned to rich black clumps, and the bin was as full of worms as I’d ever seen it. They seemed — for worms, of course — happy.

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