At Sharon’s Worm World in Ramona, they live on horse manure.

The care and feeding of pale wigglers

I found worms so small they might have been bits of thread. I held them very close to my face to make sure they were animate.
  • I found worms so small they might have been bits of thread. I held them very close to my face to make sure they were animate.
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.

Sharon McClachlan delivers worms to nurseries in a 1970 Chevy Nova that says “WORM WOMAN” on the trunk.

Sharon McClachlan delivers worms to nurseries in a 1970 Chevy Nova that says “WORM WOMAN” on the trunk.

On the last day of summer when the ground was as hard as adobe, I hacked down into it and brought up worms so I could enslave them in the compost trade. I felt I could give worms a better life and a good job. I bought them a glass terrarium. I covered them with soil that stuck together like brown sugar. I fed them moist flowers, bruised peaches, freckled banana peels, and wet tomato cores. For them I saved the pungent rinds of my oranges and the cold peels of my cucumbers. Mold like black fur began to coat the soil. Very little seemed to be going on. I fed them less. I worried they would starve. Then I read in a children’s book that worm pets should be fed every six weeks with “a bit of oatmeal and a few decaying leaves.”

I was both relieved and disappointed. The difference between a science student and an English student is the inability to stop imagining oneself as the subject under consideration. I saw the worms as tiny, grotesque versions of me — trapped, like the frog prince, in a limited form. They were moist, blind, and hairless, but surely they still wanted to dine at the human table.

My desire to be a good hostess didn’t lessen my disgust with the vermis, who seemed to deserve their Latin name, which we’ve given as “vermin” to rats and fleas. From the moment I took them into my care, I felt I was keeping Nosferatu, lord of the undead, on the front porch. Vermiculture recalled vampire movies, especially the Klaus Kinski film in which a vermian Nosferatu — pale, photophobic, and hairless — leaves Transylvania in a coffin of dirt. Vampires live in darkness and feed on death, like worms. "They shall lie down alike in the dust,” lob said, “and the worms shall cover them.”

But all that is superstition and dread. Everyone knows the earthworm is a good creature, the recycler incarnate. You can buy aerated plastic compost pails for $127 that come with worms and a collapsing paddle for mixing the rotten food and dirt. You can buy red Lumbricus rubellus that reproduce every seven days. I have a friend in Colorado who keeps mail-order rubellus in the back of the garden by the fence. Her box has no bottom to it, and when she wants to throw in her scraps, she lifts a wooden door that looks and feels like the lid of a pine coffin. But if you dig up your own worms instead of buying them, it’s the old world — Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, and Job — that comes to mind.

Before I had any worms, I knew the best time to hunt was after dark. But summer is the season of spiders in our grove. At dusk they build webs that stretch from one tree to the next, and they anchor the webs with filaments that reach from the branches to the ground like the ropes of a circus tent. Against a yellow western sky, the spiders are dark blobs in webs the size of a Twister game. It’s not a place for the faint-hearted recycler.

So I went out on a bright, sunny morning. I went to the only spot in the garden where the ground could be pierced with something smaller than a jackhammer. I put on a pair of gloves. I used a trowel, not a shovel, because I didn’t want to cut off any heads. (The truth about vermian regeneration is complicated. Take the beefy night crawler, who has 150 body segments. If you cut off 11 of his front segments, he’ll grow 4 or 5, and he’ll be shorter, but he’ll be fine. Hack off his behind to the 35th segment, and he’ll grow a new tail end, but a cut after the 11th and before the 36th segment is almost always fatal.) Like Dr. Frankenstein, who “saw how the worm inherited the wonders of the eye and brain,” I had a little bucket with me.

In the beginning, I found worms so small they might have been bits of thread. They were the color of raw steak. I held them very close to my face to make sure they were animate. Then into the bucket they went.

I found four bigger worms of the sort that wash over sidewalks in the rain and dry there when the sun comes out. They were Caucasian worms. You could see why they’re photophobic, with skin like that. Their skin is so transparent you can see vermilion blood in a capillary, excrement in the nephridia. They’re blue in places, like a wrist I had recently come across a pack of ants feeding on an earthworm in the morning sunlight The worm looked dead, but out of hatred for the ants (who, around here at least, inherit the eyes and brains of possums, mice, squirrels, and lizards), I splashed the worm with water. When I came back an hour later, the worm was covered with a new coat of biting ants, and it was moving. I sloshed it clean, picked it up, and covered it with cool, wet earth near the roots of the white camellia. I was not just a worm hostess, but Worm Savior.

Now I could do the same for his seven comrades. I dropped them into the terrarium. They stretched themselves out and puckered back, boring their way with a motion called “concertina crawling.” I’d never see them again unless I raked them up and held them quivering in the sun. They would keep away from the glass walls and consume my offerings very slowly, in total darkness, underground. Out in the grove, the free-range worms would come out at night after a rain and leave tracks in the wet dirt, engraving it with deep lines.

I assumed the worms would need cold dirt, rotten food, dampness, and long nights to survive. I was right about everything except the degree of dampness. When I first put the worms in the vermi-slammer (as it came to seem later on), I didn’t know why worms crawled to the sidewalk in the first place. I meant to find out, but I was enjoying the tea party phase of my research. Despite the tip about oatmeal, I was getting their little meals together and keeping them in the shade. One day during a Santa Ana wind I decided the dirt in the terrarium was too dry, so I poured water into the tank and walked away. If you already know that the dribbled piles of dirt beside tree roots and sidewalks are digested, excreted soil, you know that worms dig tunnels and rain floods them. You know worms leave the flooded tunnels to escape drowning. You know there was nowhere in my terrarium for a flooded worm to go.

Earthworms expand and contract on hot afternoons, digging their way toward cooler and wetter dirt, and then touching, with their blind annelid heads, the glass bottom of the terrarium, a stone, a tree root, or water pipes. A worm has five pairs of hearts, which are thin rings that pump blood through its vessels. It has a gizzard, intestines, and a brain. It can live to the age often if it avoids moles, shrews, skunks, owls, robins, toads, fishermen, sun, and former English students. At Sharon’s Worm World, Lumbricus rubellus and Lodrilus foetidus live not on oatmeal or peaches, but 100 percent horse manure.

“We take composted manure,” Sharon McClachlan says, “we stack it all up, we water it until it’s thoroughly damp, check the temperature to make sure it’s 80 degrees or lower, and add worms.”

Sharon says this in the middle of a horse farm in Ramona called Illusion Arabians, where 35 horses flick their tails, father what Sharon calls gorgeous babies and drop piles of manure that will turn into worm food. Beside the corrals and stables. Worm World is as cheery as miniature golf. It’s Disneyland for vermis. The worm beds lie in windrows, long narrow heaps of decomposing manure edged with pots of chrome yellow flowers and purple whirligigs. The wind, which is cool, blows through pepper trees and pink flamingos with spinning arms. The scarecrow is wearing a new shirt. To the south of the commercial beds, which sell for $500 each to nurseries and serious gardeners, Sharon’s own worms live among the roots of cilantro, giant onions, Early Girl tomatoes, crookneck squash, artichokes, catnip, and lavender. They work hard. They gobble that manure. They extrude the soil that makes berries. Honey ’n Pearl com, yellow bell peppers, and asparagus. Sharon stands over a cauliflower the size of my head and says, “This is one of the small ones. We cut an 11 -pound cauliflower.”

Sharon, who delivers worms to nurseries in a 1970 Chevy Nova that says “WORM WOMAN” on the trunk, was born in Long Beach, but she went to Clairemont High School, class of ’63. She read about vermiculture in one of her husband’s fishing magazines last year. Raise earthworms for fun and profit, the ad said. “So I mailed away $7 for the book,” she says, “and that was March 10, and as soon as I got the book, I figured, ‘Well, gosh. I’ve got horses. I can do this.’ " She bought $3000 worth of worms, which arrived naked in bags from “back East,” and she was selling their children by July.

When I ask Sharon if she’s ever seen worms mate, she says she sees it all the time—“They wrap around each other.” Earthworms are hermaphrodites. Each one produces eggs and sperm, so mating consists of a sperm exchange, similar to what happens at Christmas when you give things to people that they already have. The smooth roll of skin around a worm is its clitellum, where the cocoons of developing young are stored for a few weeks. The cocoons, which Sharon calls “capsules,” are honey-colored and round, like drops of hard sap. By raking her fingers through the worm beds, she brings up more gold eggs and hard mahogany-colored eggs that are near hatching. “There’re four to ten babies in there,” she says. “When they’re first born, you need a microscope to see them.”

True to the ad’s promise, Sharon has found vermiculture to be fun and profitable, but her friends and relatives thought it was a nutty idea. “They thought I was absolutely crazy,” she says. They’ve changed their minds now that she’s making money, and she feels nothing but affection for the worms, but “once in a while,” she says, “I think, ‘You know,' I’m just sittin’ here playin’ in the horseshit!’ ”

The breeze comes up again, she’s got worms in her hands, and a purple whirligig is approaching liftoff. The manure, once you put your hands in, smells fine. The worms, it turns out, aren’t even clammy. They’re warm. When I leave, Sharon is going to plant yellow pear tomatoes in their beds.

Back home, the worm situation wasn’t as bad as I feared. A few of the worms in my old terrarium survived the flood and went to live in my compost barrel for the winter. I dug up mates for them during the rainy season and gave them peels, grass, and strawberry tops until the barrel became a nursery for flies that whirled up at me every time I lifted the lid. I would have abandoned the whole project in disgust had I not discovered, upon coming home from Sharon’s, that the rotten swan gourds and old tomatoes had turned into loam and that a few Lumbricus rubellus were still crawling like concertinas in its black, wet heart.

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