Home & Garden Columns

The Worms Go In, The Worms Go Out

By Ron Sullivan
Friday November 03, 2006

I was working with a couple of young volunteers from UC’s redoubtable Habitat for Humanity group last weekend when one of them exclaimed, “Yuck! I found a worm.” 

Said worm was firmly ensconced in its burrow in the hard dry clay and I couldn’t pick it up to move it, so I advised the volunteer to weed on down the row and let the critter go on about its work. 

I’m not the daintiest woman in Berkeley, but I can remember feeling that way about worms. That was a very long time ago, longer than my co-weeder has been alive. I think I slugged Joey Williams when he presumed to chase me with a worm. I wasn’t really invincible in kindergarten—I quit playing Kill ‘Em, a sort of all-on-one neighborhood football, when somebody tore my favorite shirt in an illegal maneuver—but I had some years when I felt more akin to the poor worms.  

Some of us got our empathy with earthworms when our parents read Lowly Worm to us; some of us, like my lab partner, were still squeamish when we had to dissect earthworms in high school. 

I really hated the sound and feel of the scalpel when it cut the worm’s skin, though it was the formaldehyde that made me gag. Poor worm indeed. 

Gardeners learn to get along with worms even if we don’t find then cuddly. Like spiders and such predators, they’re on our side and we’d better appreciate their work. It’s reassuring to find them in the soil and the compost bin.  

In fact, as I mentioned last week, you can get specialized worm-composting bins for small spaces. When you run them right, they don’t stink even a little—I’ve seen one folk-art painted worm composter that doubled as its owners’ coffee table, and back when I was doing hard time at the Ecology Center there was a desktop composter – originally a card file—that was used as a demonstrator and squeal-inducer. 

Charles Darwin’s last book was about earthworms, which he studied and reported on with his typical exhaustive, careful attention. It would be fair to say he exalted the humble:  


The plough is one of the most ancient and most valuable of mans inventions; but long before he existed the land was in fact regularly ploughed, and still continues to be thus ploughed by earth-worms. 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. 


“Lowly” here is the antonym of “highly,” not any status designation.  

Recently, a close relative of the Willamette earthworm (thought extinct) was discovered in the Palouse Valley. I’m thrilled. I now have hope of meeting this creature, which can reach three feet in length and smells of lilies. 

There’s one in Australia, the Gippsland earthworm, that reached ten feet, and I’m sure would make a nice quiet pet. Maybe someday I’ll go back to Pennsylvania and chase Joey Williams with one.