The Worm Whisperer

It’s a blustery day here in North Carolina.  It’s relatively warm for February (48 degrees F) and sunny, but the wind is blowing through the trees between 20-30 miles per hour.  Those blasts made me want to nestle down into my bedding and, uh,…meditate.  My friends the crows were calling out to me to join them, but still I resisted, burrowing further into my pillows.  No need to get out of bed YET…

Then I remembered hearing the rain beat down on my roof when I woke up briefly last night.  That was enough to galvanize me; I jumped out of bed, threw on some clothes, and hurried downstairs.

I had work to do.

Let me begin by explaining that we live next to a cemetery.  However, it is the lightest, brightest, best maintained, least depressing cemetery I’ve ever seen.  It seems more like a nature park than a cemetery, although my mother- and father-in-law and many of my husband’s aunts and uncles and far-flung cousins are buried there.  I like to take a walking meditation there every day, particularly in the morning, because it is such a peaceful and uplifting patch of mostly nature.

However, this morning’s outing would not be of a meditative nature. Today, what was called for was not my usual BlissFullU Carol, but my secret superhero alter ego––The Worm Whisperer!

If you, too, take nature walks, you’ve probably noticed that the morning after a good rain, the roads and paved trails are replete with worms.  Scientists aren’t completely sure why that is, but the prevalent theory is that when the earth has absorbed a lot of water from rain, the worms can’t breathe in the soil like they usually can and will suffocate or “drown” if they don’t come to the surface.  So many worms seek out the dry surfaces of payments and hang out there until the dirt has dried out and they can return to their usual habitat under the ground.

However, what I had noticed is that the morning after the morning after a good rain, the roads in the cemetery were littered with the carcasses of squashed worms.  And that made me feel kind of sad.  Worms are small, but they have their lives.  Plus, they are really important animals to our survival.  Their journeys through the soil allow water and oxygen to get in and carbon dioxide to get out.  They eat organic matter and release and recycle the nutrients in “dead” matter.  They mix up the soil, which makes it more productive and less subject to erosion.  They support the growth of good bacteria and fungi in the dirt.

Since just about every form of life depends upon the soil, and the soil depends on the worms, I don’t know that our system of life could survive without them.  So what I’ve been doing since noticing the worm slaughter is getting up on the days after rains, going to the cemetery, and trying to transfer the worms from the roads where they get stepped on or run over to flat gravestones nearby where they can await the drying of the soil in greater safety.

Now, please understand that I’m not a big bug person.  However, the process of raising a boy has forced me to get over many of the things about which I was previously squeamish.  Still, I try not to touch the worms with my hands, which I feel would be scary for them as well as unpleasant to me.  Rather, I try to pick them up with something they would be familiar with, such as a twig or pine straw or a leaf or piece of bark (that is my favorite, but is rarely available).

I’m not really sure if worms have “homes” or not, but just in case, I try to place them on a safe surface that is as close to possible as where I found them in hopes that they can find their way back if that is important to them.  I’ve also read that some scientists believe this surface time is when worms reproduce, so I almost always put several of them together on the same stone so no one will be lonely.

When I started this activity, I was amazed how different worm personalities could be.  Many simply allow me to stick a twig or piece of pine straw under their midsection and remain draped placidly over the item while I transfer them to their new locations.  But others will wiggle and twist and fall off their stick or leaf multiple times during the process of my trying to get them not many feet away from where I found them.

My big issue is that I’m in a race against time.  The cemetery gates are locked until 8:00 AM.  Soon after they open, our town’s maintenance staff comes driving in to inspect the site and clean up as necessary.  After a storm like this, the roads are littered with detritus from the wind and rain, and the driver will walk the paths with his leaf blower, clearing the paths.  But both his truck and his boots can mean the demise of many worms.

So I worked diligently until the church bells nearby rang eight times, indicating my time for rescue efforts had come to an end.  I try to get back to my house before the maintenance man can see me, just because his presence kind of breaks my connection with the land.  As I picked up a final few worms on the path back to my home, I realized I had moved 32 worms during this morning’s outing.

Now, I’m not sure how much of a difference 32 worms make in a 4.9 acre plot of land.  However, the worms remind me of the old story about the boy and the starfish.  In case you’ve forgotten, here it is:

One day, after a particularly high tide, a man came out to find the beach strewn with starfish that had been stranded after the withdrawal of the tide.  As far as the man could see, up and down the beach, were thousands of starfish, dying because they were out of their element.  The man walked down to the edge of the water, where a small boy was tossing some of the starfish back into the ocean.

“Boy, you are wasting your time,” said the man.  “There are thousands of stranded starfish on this beach, and they won’t last long.  One boy can’t make a difference with numbers of this magnitude.”  But the boy ignored the man, and threw another starfish into the water.  “Well, I made a difference for that one,” he told the man.

So I don’t know what difference being the Worm Whisperer makes in the grand scheme of things.  I only know there are 32 worm corpses I WON’T be seeing on tomorrow’s walk.  And being a Worm Whisperer allows me to start my day with service and connection…which, after all, is a pretty good way to start a day, don’t you think?


Three of today’s evacuees, resting on a flat gravestone about one inch above the ground




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