The Purpose of Worms: A tale of life and death in the garden

July 26, 2019

 

Every year when it gets hot, the worms come and sun themselves on the black tar of our driveway. One day, my daughter stops me. We are late for school, but she has to move the worms from their spot under my van wheels. I don’t want to run them over, do I? Of course, not I say and let her transport half a dozen of them to the moisture-rich grass. I’ve taught my children to value all life, even the squirmy, slippery, slimy kind, even the sort that seems short and pointless.

 

Last year, we had an insect cemetery in the garden. My daughter wrote names in permanent black marker on some rocks she found around the yard. Then she dug a tiny hole with the tip of her pointer finger, said a few words and buried the unfortunate thing — ant, bee, spider, beetle or worm — in the fertile soil where weeds would soon root and grow.

 

For a moment, watching one of the worms still in soil, I am reminded of high school biology. As a junior, I dissected a common Earthworm, splitting its body by gliding the scalpel down its shiny center and nailing it to the blue polyethylene mat with pins. “Scientific name: Lumbricus terrestris, Order: Opisthopora, Class: Clitellata, Phylum: Annelida, Kingdom: Animalia,” my teacher said without once referring to the textbook. Inside — heart, intestines, brain, organs--all both familiar and divine — I know this now because I look it up. But all I remember then was dirt, dark, gritty and wet. Maybe this made it easier for me to remove the worm’s insides and compare them to the chart in our books. Maybe it made it easier to see it as something dead. Scraping the dirt onto the white paper next to my dissection mat, I still feel a sad sort of pity for it.

 

I wonder later, back in the present, as my daughter stands next to me and we stare at the segmented round bodies fossilized in the tar, burnt up in the sun, what purpose they serve, what value they bring. Once a color between brown and purple, they are now the pale beige of dirt.

 

“Some of them were so close,” she says. They sit just beyond the border to the grass. As if, by some miracle — if time or God had been kinder granting them the extra time to move to safety, they would be allowed to live. Instead, they die under crystalline skies while the kids ride bikes up and down the driveway occasionally running a worm over on its way to freedom. Odds are, based on the number of dead worms against tar, they would have died soon anyway. My mind wanders. “The harmful rays of the sun kill them,” my teacher says. Would it be better to die under the dirt-encrusted wheel of a bike or basking in the blistering sun? This is the question I ponder while I make dinner and set the table.

 

Ever the empath, one of my definitive flaws, I imagine what it must feel like to burn to death as I brush my teeth, spit and turn out the bathroom light. What their bodies must go through, the sheer trauma and magnificent pain of drying out, shriveling to nothing but parched commas punctuating the black driveway. It is worse, I imagine, for those who were closest to the grass. Did they sense the plush, green shelter as they lay dying mere inches away?

 

This has become a part of my spring — dead worms on tar. I can’t seem to push the image from my mind, as I throw a hand up and excuse the universe for the offing of worms whose biggest flaw is venturing too far and being too slow. Worms are paralyzed by too much light. Another fact recalled from high school biology. They were, and remain, faulty by design yet, l imagine I see minute movement from a pale brown worm curled into itself. When I get closer, nothing. Death surrounds me, especially here on a tar driveway where the sun executes as it warms.

 

Poor worms. Poor murderous sun. The universe dictates things we cannot change. Worms serve no purpose at all but to burn up and suffocate in the life-giving sun. The one that feeds us and the plants in our garden.

“Earthworms spend most of their lives underground, creating complex burrow networks,” I remember my teacher saying from twenty years earlier as my teenage age body shifted on a wooden lab stool. “They are essential in gardens and farmland by contributing to soil fertility. Charles Darwin studied them for 38 years. He suggested they were the most important creatures on Earth.”

 

As I move the bodies toward the pet cemetery in the garden where everything else grows, I understand the value of all things. Even the shriveled worms, filled with tiny hearts and their own versions of brains, have purpose.

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