The Red Worm
By Dan Corbin, Wisconsin Worm Farm
“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 organized creatures.” -Charles Darwin
The first time I held a worm in my hand, I was surprised at how light it was, how harmless. It didn’t slither around or try to get away. Instead, it lay curled in a near-perfect circle, as if it had already accepted its fate.
The worm I held was a red wiggler, Latin name Eisenia fetida. It is in many ways an almost terrestrial worm, small and reddish pink, with faint stripes between each segment. It is a master composter, preferring a heap of rotting garbage to just about anything else. Dig around in pig, slop, barnyard manure, or a mound of damp leaves, and you’ll probably find red wigglers, eating and laying cocoons in the mess. But the worms themselves are not messy; this one slipped out of the pile of rubbish perfectly clean.
I would like to awaken the idea that worms are not only partners but teachers, and instill a regard for the least considered and most important part of our green world.
The worm that I held came out of my worm bin, a small composting operation on my back porch in which I deposit scraps from the kitchen. I don’t know how many of them live in the bin—ten thousand maybe. Sometimes, when I dig around in there, the worms are so thick that they look like ground beef set in motion, a mass of churning bodies. It is hard to think of them as individuals, but when it came time to pull one out of the bin and set it on my palm, I did spend a minute looking down at them, trying to choose the right one. A good sturdy specimen was working its way up the side of the bin as if it was ready for adventure.
The reason I was choosing a worm to hold was that it occurred to me that in all the years I’ve kept them, I’d never really examined one up close. Strange that I would have such an aversion to letting one get next to my skin. How was I to learn anything about the dark and damp place where the plants in my garden put down roots if I wasn’t ready to get intimate with this worm?
With one finger, I poked at the worm in my hand. It was completely limp. I could see a purplish vein running along the length of it, just beneath the skin. I curled my palm around the worm, folding it in half and in half again. It didn’t react. I began to wonder how a creature this weak could do anything, even move through dirt. Then, a few seconds later, it seemed tired of this expedition. It raised one end up—the head, I suppose—and extended one segment at a time into the air. Now, finally, it moved and left a little slime in my palm. I shuddered but didn’t drop it. This slime, this worm mucus, was its way of reacting to stress—stress that I had brought on, by pulling it out of its bedding and exposing it to light. The worm moved to the edge of my hand, and this time pointed its head down toward the bin, toward home. It was intent on getting back. Just then it looked like it was capable of doing something after all. It moved with purpose, seeking to escape, trying to return to its familiar habitat. I dropped it into the bin, where it ducked under a layer of damp newspaper and disappeared.
Wisconsin Worm Farm