The Way of Worms

It rained Thursday. It rained quite a bit. I walked to the mailbox Friday, after the rain had stopped. As usual the gravel road was covered in worms. After every rain the worms are all wiggling across or down or whatever direction they want on the road. It is expected, it happens and has happened for many years.

On either side of the gravel road that leads to the county road where the mailbox is there are fields. These are heavily cropped fields usually are planted in corn or soybeans. There was that one glorious summer when flax was planted, but that was so long ago and it exists only as a fleeting anomaly in the history of these fields. (What was that farmer thinking? Flax?)

The eastern field is plowed and disced every spring. Discing, for the non farmers is the act of dragging a long row of metal circles placed on edge across a newly plowed field to break up the big clods of dirt. If the field has been covered in manure (before plowing) the disc helps break and distribute the manure into the soil where it can do more good. And yes, there is a reason for these farming details.

The western field is “No till.” This is supposed to be a better method of farming since it requires less tractor and machinery going over the field, hence less soil compaction. The field is planted with a drill, a large planter with rows of sharp fingers that drag through the dirt while spitting seed in the  narrow trench formed. I am no agriculturist, I just watch two different farmers with two different methods of farming plant, fertilize, pesticide and harvest these two fields.

What I have noticed over the years, is that the yields of the two fields is not that much different. The weed cover is not much different between the fields. In fact, except for the couple days when the eastern field is plowed, there isn’t much difference in the fields at all.

Here’s where the worms come into the picture.

All the years I have walked the road that separates these two fields, after a rain, there were worms on the road. I assume,(not a field biologist either) the worms are coming from the fields. I don’t mind worms, I feel a little guilty when I have to drive over them, and I try not to step on them when walking. But generally I have no emotional reaction to worms. Worms are worms, doing what worms do and so on.

I have noticed a change in the quantity and quality of the worms on the road over the course of all these years. Those first years of walking among the worms, I was impressed with the size and number of worms on the road. The worms were the long, fat pinky brown worms; nightcrawlers. They were thick around as a crayon- one of those kindergarten sized crayons, and very long…worms that stretched easily past a foot in length. They were all over the road, and up onto the black tops. It was impossible to not step on the worms. And they were moving, going somewhere, contracting and stretching and curling and rolling. It was like a huge worm occupation on the road.

I did say I don’t mind worms, but, as with anything, when there are so many of them the road appears to be moving, squirming under foot, I get a little repulsed.  I don’t like crowds, crowds of any kind.

On Friday’s walk to the mailbox I noticed the worms were out again. It wasn’t the same. The worms on the road were skinny, short, dark brown and dead. These were paltry shadow worms. There weren’t many of them. And they were dead, curled up, and drying out shells.

This is not the first time I have noticed a decline in the size and vigor of the worms on the road after a rain. In fact, I have noticed in past springs when there were no worms on the roads around here. There were times, in the past, when it was dangerous to drive the county roads after a heavy rain because the worm guts were so slippery it was like driving on ice.

Ewwwwww! Slimey roads are not fun. Worm guts however are not as bad or ewwwwy as say, frog guts.  Drive along a swamp some night in spring and watch for the frogs leaping in the headlights. Although, again, that is a vision of the past and not so much anymore.

So where are the fat happy worms of other rainstorms? I have to conclude that these worms are gone. They have left the fields and have moved on to other places, or just don’t exist anymore.

And who can blame them. Poor worms. Have you seen the state of the dirt in most farm fields? As far as a growing medium, it is as dead and sterile as dirt can be. Nutrients for crops come from big barrels attached to sprayers that crisscross the fields after planting.  Pesticides and herbicides are now applied directly to the seed and augmented with “pre-emergent”s. And then there is the two or three sprayings of more chemicals once the plants are growing. At the end of the season the fields are picked clean; so little of the chaff and stalks and leaves are left when the wind blows across the field in winter the snow turns brown.  The old practice of spreading manure from the farm animals on the fields is no more, or the ratio of animal waste to field acreage is so small the fields only get manure once every three or four or five years.   The dirt around here does nothing but hold the plants upright.

So, this dirt is nothing to worms. What worm can survive, must less grow fat and long and wiggly, without something to eat and turn into rich nutrient worm castings?

Friday I also worked in the garden. It is too early/ cold/ wet to plant anything yet, but I wanted to see if the asparagus was up and that meant cleaning the asparagus beds of the leaves and debris from last summer. Wow, there, underneath the compost and leaves and asparagus stalks I found worms. Real worms, fat, long and pinky brown. Happy worms.

I know the influx of nightcrawlers to the forests has caused and is causing a change in the forest diversity. I understand too many of them can change the make up of the forest, clear the forest floor of beneficial cover and all that.  I also know that fat happy worms are a sign of a vibrant nutrient rich soil, dirt that can grow plants without the need for the fertilizers in a barrel and the pesticides and herbicides. All of which are based on another commodity that comes from the ground- oil.

Yesterday it was announced, confirmed, lamented: The proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere broke 400 parts per million Thursday, according to one of the best climate records available. So why worry about a few worms? All the indicator species that have studied, watched, counted, and analysed are saying the same thing and yet we continue to ignore the warnings, disregard the signs, and insist that we must maintain the status quo.  I just think of those skinny short, curled up and dead worms on the road. Nothing to eat, overheated, nothing to drink. We are all headed the way of worms.