Lumbrication

As the spring equinox approaches and the days get longer, when thaw has come and banished ice from earth, comes a magic night. In the dawn after that dark, hundreds and thousands little piles have appeared on the ground. Little, curly, crumbly humic depositions.

It’s worm poop.  The appearance of these worm castings means that winter’s grip is almost gone. This awakening, this great, mass defecating, is why the March full moon is named the Worm Moon.

Throughout the world, hundreds of different species of worms may be found. Most live in the soil. There are some  that specialize in decaying spruce logs. There are others that live only in trees! The giant earthworm of Australia, whose newly hatched babies are eight inches long, can reach an adult length of almost ten feet.

Charles Darwin, most famous for The Origin of Species, was also one of the world’s great lumbricologists. His landmark book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould, through the action of Worms, was first published in 1881. Darwin estimated that decent farmland contains up to 53,000 worms per acre. More recent lumbricological study suggests that the true figure is a range of from a quarter of a million to one and three-quarter million worms per acre. Wikipedia says, “…the weight of earthworms beneath a farmer’s soil could be greater than that of the livestock upon its surface. (Thank you, Wiki, for some of these fun worm facts…)

If you are ever in Australia, and are near the town of Bass, Victoria, stop in at the Wildlife Wonderland, which boasts a Giant Earthworm Museum. While there, you can crawl through an enormous replica of the worm’s burrow. Wait! There’s more! What might that be? Try: a giant sized, simulated worm’s stomach, in which you are free to explore.

In West Tisbury, Massachusetts, at the Wishetwurra Farm Earthworm Museum, you will find three different  species. The “regular” angleworm, the nightcrawler, and the redworm.

The angleworm is our standard “earthworm”, and is familiar to almost everyone who has ever dug in dirt, looked in puddles after a rain, or turned over a board lying on the ground. The angleworm is our ubiquitous, basic, garden variety worm. Here’s a handful. From the garden.

 My favorite childhood angleworm memory is that of digging for them in the woods in back of the Athearn’s house on Music Street. The dirt there smelled particularly nice, from some mint family groundcover. Back then, we were hunting for fishing bait. Worms were easy to find in the spring, but got tough to find when full summer came. Looking for them  late in the season, one hot, dry day, we saw estivation, or summer hibernation,  for the first time. The worms were curled up, quiescent, looking like teensy balls of pink yarn, in little round chambers, a foot below the surface, sleeping,  waiting for the return of  moisture and cooler weather.

Nightcrawlers, the big cousin of the angleworm, can be eight to ten inches long.  You want to catch bigger fish? Use bigger bait. On early Spring nights, especially when the grass is wet with dew or rain, these big worms emerge in large numbers. Such nights are the perfect time to go nightcrawling. Later in May, when the grass and clover are high, they’re harder to find.

Imagine a fog filled West Tisbury. Cones of streetlight brightness march down Music Street. The town is soaked and sleeping. Drops of water fall and splat from the sodden tops of giant elms. The G# note of the churchbell sounds. Multiple strokes on the hour, single strokes every half hour. If the night is quiet enough, you can hear the click of the clockwork’s escapement and the whirr of the striker regulator, just before the peal of the bell.

You have a big tin can in one hand and a flashlight in the other. The hunt is on. You hope to be successful. If you are, tomorrow you will fish for trout.

On a really good night the schoolyard, now the Town Hall yard, can yield five hundred or a thousand nightcrawlers. Sometimes they’re so thick that you can pick up a half dozen or ten before taking another step. There’s a trick to catching them. First you grab them, and then you must pull on them patiently and steadily, but not with so much force that they break. Sooner or later, they loose their grip, release from their burrows, and come from the earth. Into the can. On to the next. Sometimes you can get two at once. That feat requires finesse.

A grandson’s hands, with nightcrawlers.

When I was older, and starting to wear my farmer hat, I would get a bucket or two of these crawlers every spring, to release  throughout my newly established garden. Worms are wonderful tunnelers and eaters of organic material. The improvement they bring to soil is remarkable. The descendants of those imported nightcrawlers still roam the lawns and gardens of Wishetwurra Farm.

The  third worm of this lumbric trilogy is the redworm.  I first noticed this worm in the sheepshit piles at Old Parsonage Farm. Plain old dirt is not their favorite place. Redworms prefer moist locations. They love manure and compost best of all. They are workhorses of the dungheap and the compost pile. Workhorse worms, what an image!  Ride ’em redworm! How would you shoe a workhorse worm?

A handful of redworms.

Seven years ago, while visiting friends in Vermont, we noticed a small, covered plywood box, near the sofa,  in their living room. What??? They explained that the box was their worm bin, where all their winter food scraps went to be processed by their redworms. Their worms made short work of the scraps, and come spring each year, those wormbox contents went to their garden.

They proselytized vermiculture. After which they offered us a small container of their red friends. We accepted, took up vermiculture, and are “converts”. The descendants of these few hundred annelids, in bin, in compost, and in garden, now number in the thousands, if not millions. Our winter worm box inside the house digests food scraps in the cold time of year. In warm times the worms are moved outside to the big two-holer compost tumbler.

I went to a yard sale a few years ago, and at first passed by this machine. A hundred bucks seemed pricy. When I got home, I found out how much these cost new. I went right back, and traded them a portrait of Ben Franklin for this rig. Have never regretted the outlay.

All summer and fall, every four to six weeks, we empty first once side, then the other side of the tumbler. We distribute wheelbarrows full of this material to where they’ll be useful. Fresh loads of manure get inoculated with worms and compost, to speed decomposition.

Redworms in the compost tumbler.

Wishetwurra Farm now proselytizes vermiculture.

Want worms? We got ’em.

Happy to share.

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