This time of year in Illinois, the rains bring earthworms to the surface. They show up on sidewalks and roads, making it hard at times to run without crushing them underfoot.
I respect worms. They are amazing creatures in many respects. Way back in high school and college I dissected large earthworms in biology class. We learned the body parts inside and out. Evolution perfected earthworms to live in soil, and also create it. Few other creatures on earth can claim such a mutually beneficial relationship with their environment.
When it rains, earthworms have to crawl to the surface to avoid drowning in the water regions below-ground. They’re not evolved to crawl on hard surfaces that well, but they manage, hitching their long bodies along as they go. They move like caterpillars without legs, and don’t metamorphose into anything but larger worms. However, they do mate without worries over gender or defined sexuality. They exchange reproductive material, fertilizing each other’s eggs. The human race can learn a few things about gender fluidity from earthworms and many other creatures in nature. It’s not just “male and female” as so many like to contend. Much of creation doesn’t care about such things.
A big, fat worm is a joy to some and a horror to others. As kids we dug them up to use as fishing bait. A good rainstorm made the job that much easier. We would walk along plucking worms off the ground without a bit of digging. There was satisfaction in doing a good dig, however. The sight of shiny earthworms in dark soil is one of the most organic experiences of all.
Some worms were so big we’d have to split them into pieces to fit on a fishing hook. Despite our best attempts to bury the hook through the worm, the species called sunfish would often nibble away the worm bit by bit, like little piranha. Our bobbers would jiggle and we’d try to set the hook, but those darned fish were hard to catch. Or worse, they’d choke the worm down whole with the hook. That necessitated a long and often bloody hook extraction using pliers to grab hold of the hook and yank it out of the gut. Too often that left the sunfish wounded and twitching as it died on the surface.
I can’t say that fishing with worms is a legitimate example of the “circle of life” concept. There is too much human intrusion on the ‘circle’ for the colloquial concept of “life taking life” to hold true. I’m not much of an avid fisherman anymore for that reason. I’ve also seen worms respond to other human abuses. I once plunged an earthworm into a jar of formaldehyde. It literally tied itself into a knot as it writhed in the chemicals. That had a profound effect on me for some reason, as if it were a sign of a worm protest. That worm was a sentient being, at least in its ability to feel pain.
My guilt over taking life isn’t so profound that I stop and cry after stepping on a worm. Even the frogs that burst forth from our wetland and get squished on the roads don’t engender much lament. For every frog we see dead, there are thousands more that escaped to some other waterway. That’s how nature works. It is a numbers game by any measure you want to apply. The same holds true for turtles that crawl up a hill to lay eggs in the dirt. They dump their load and return to their ponds without a thought. Some eggs survive to hatch a new generation while others are found and gobbled up by raccoons or some other predator.
I reason that for every worm spotted on a wet sidewalk or roadway there are at least a thousand more still crawling around under the surface. Stats from the Nature’s Way Resource website document the prodigious numbers of earthworms: “25 earthworms per square foot of soil equal 1 million earthworms per acre. Studies in England have shown that in healthy soil forty tons of castings per acre pass through earthworms bodies daily. A new USA study indicates 12 million worms per acre which move 20 tons of earth each year.”
Talk about unseen strength! Those of us that have tried to pull a live earthworm out of its burrow know that worms are indeed strong. Their ability to hold onto their position in the dirt is totally impressive. We’ve all seen robins engaged in that tug of war for their dinner. The birds grab hold of the worm and stretch it out, but sometimes part of the worm breaks off to live another day. Depending on where the break occurs, worms can regenerate a new head and other body parts needed to survive. Talk about resilience! The human race can stand to learn a lesson or two from that example as well.
The message here is that worms really are inspiring creatures if you give them a bit of credit. So many of our “companions” here on earth are like that, regarded as lowly or beneath us, but we deceive ourselves. Without worms, the human race would probably starve to death for lack of soil in which to grow our crops. They do us a ton of favors and in some ways, the dirt flowing from their guts is the stuff of which food is made. We may depend on bacteria in our guts to process that food, but we really depend on worms in the soil to grow it. The same holds true for the gardens in which we plant flowers to enjoy their beauty. Flowers are beautiful, but in many ways they owe their beauty to the lowliest creatures of all, the worms. Every flower owes its life to a worm. So do you.
So next time you run or ride down a wet street covered with worms, give a little more attention to the earthworms you see along the way. Bend down a moment to look at them closely. Follow them a few moments as they travel, because for many people on earth, it is back to earth we go someday, to join the worms underground.
Makes you want to step over a few more worms here in life, doesn’t it?