Thursday, January 03, 2008

The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms

by Amy Stewart (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2004. 213 pp.)

You might ask what's feminist about earthworms. Well, for one thing they have no gender discrimination problems - they're all part male and part female, and as I would find out from reading this book they choose their mates partly by which other worm is the right length to match up the male and female holes of each to each.

Another thing they have in common with women is that working mostly completely beneath notice they can move mountains.

Not only can worms move mountains of earth - making it fertile as they go - they can move mountains of vegetable peelings and even mountains of shit. There's a lot in this book about the "domestication" of earthworms into waste recycling factories. I started googling for updates and found that pig-farm waste, a huge source of river pollution, is on some farms being turned into good fertilizer, thanks to masses of Eisenia fetida - the red wrigglers. As Stewart explains, there are engineering requirements to preserve the worms' health and get good product results, but these are pretty manageable.

Also, earthworm castings are much better for soil sustainability and productivity than chemical fertilizers. But, if this is to become a principal method of waste disposal, there has to be a market for the result. This and other tidbits in her book about nutritional values have convinced me that I ought to consistently choose organic produce when I shop, not just for my health, but to do my bit to drive up demand for better agricultural practices.

Of course, you can grow your own - including your own worms. Back in 1997, I interviewed the author of one of the early books on this subject: Worms Eat My Garbage, written by Mary Appelhof. I'm pleased to find that her recommendations are catching on quite widely. There are now several types of worm bins on the market for the small gardener, and Stewart cites ten different worm websites and web forums. Mary Appelhof's is . Appelhof passed away in 2005, but her website, like the worms, is more or less immortal.

Worms are wonderful, but they are not good for everything, by the way. When the dominant wormstock (immigrants from Europe) are introduced into forests that didn't have them before (by for example careless fishing-bait disposal) - the worms can destroy the indigenous ecology by eating up all the leaf-mould ("duff") that local plants and creatures require.

There's quite a lot about Charles Darwin in the book. When he'd retired from world traveling, he wrote his last book based on research in his backyard and home laboratory: The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Action of Worms, With Observations on Their Habits (1897). The old boy was apparently looking forward to being eaten by worms after his death (yes, it seems he really was an atheist - a believer instead in the mysteries of co-creation of beings) - but he was too famous for the burial he'd planned, and his corpse was carted off to lie next to other scientists immured away from the soil, in Westminster Abbey.

I think I picked this book up on sale at the Simon Fraser University bookstore. It was originally going to be a present for my sister who teaches school science, but I'm glad I read it before sending it away. I strongly recommend it as a pleasant and enlightening read, and also as a gift for anyone who reads at middle school level or above. I guess that's one more thing I'd call feminist about this book - it's sensible and plain-spoken - and, dare I say it? down to earth.

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