AUGUST 2017

AUGUST  2017
FACING DOWN THE RULERS OF WALL STREET A HUNDRED YEARS AGO. THEY ARE BACK.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

LIVE BAIT: PART ONE


I am sorely disappointed. The celebrated “Tour de France” has become a sprint for a drug-testing-urine stained yellow jersey. American baseball seems more pharmaceutical than fantastic, and you’d get lousy odds that basketball referees are still entirely trustworthy. And the epitome of “pure sport”, the Olympics, has morphed into a five star marketing tool for Pfizer, Eli Lilly and GlaxoSmithKline. Sport for the sheer joy of competition has staked its final existence on the humble playing field of the Wallaston County Primary School, in Natwich, Cheshire, England.

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In this tiny village of 2,310 souls, one fish-and-chips shop and two hairdressing salons is held the annual hunt for the wily and wild Lubricous terrestris, watched closely by, as one observer noted, a few hundred amused humans and thousands of fascinated birds. And there is not a single endorsement contract in sight at the World Worm Charming Championships.*The International Federation of Charming Worms and Allied Pastimes (or IFCWAP, pronounced If Cap) has only 18 rules.

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Each “worm pitch” is a 3 meter by 3 meter box, chosen by a random draw. In each pitch two contestants (a charmer and a “Gillie”) may use any method of their choice to entice from the soil as many worms as they can within 30 minutes, with the provisos that they may not dig or turn the soil and they may not apply any liquid. In “Worm Charming” water is a “performance enhancing drug”. Copies of The Rules are available in 30 languages, including Tibetan and Latin, even though there is no record that anyone speaking Tibetan has ever even applied to enter the championships.

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The true charm of the sport is illustrated by rule 18, which states that all “charmed worms (are) to be released after the birds have gone to roost on the evening of the event.” Rule 18 is only one of the ways in which “Worm Charming” is differentiated from its more barbaric English cousin, “Fox Hunting”. In fact, there is no record of any creature, human or worm, being injured while worm charming, although the Darwin Awards does provide an unconfirmed incident in Norway in October 2002 when a 23 year old human male, presumably in preparation for the competition in Natwich, tested an experimental electrical charming device by inserting one electrode into the ground, holding the second in his hand and then sitting on a metal bucket. Because of the shocking lack of notations taken by the experimenter it is impossible to say if any worms were actually charmed. At the most, it may be surmised, they were amused.

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In fact the use of electricity to collect earthworms has been something of a "Holy Grail" as long as humans have been touching positive to negative. U.S. patent #1932237 was granted in October 1933 for an electric “Device for use in catching earth worms, insects, and the like”. In October 1948 patent #2450597 was granted for an “Earth worm disgorging device”. August of 1952 saw patient #2607164 for an “Electric device to bring earth-worms to the surface of the ground”. Patent #2770075 was granted in November 1956 for an “Electric bait getter”. In October 1973 patient #3763593 was granted for an “Apparatus for bringing earthworms to the surface of the ground”, and the “Worm Rod” was granted patient # 3793770, in February of 1974. And on February 29, 1988 the Consumer Product Safety Commission filed a complaint against P&M Enterprises of Caldwell, Idaho demanding a recall of the “Worm Gett’r”. Altogether, since 1971, 23 products of the American education system have been officially listed as killed while using commercially sold “worm extractor systems”, and God knows how many more intrepid inventors and electrically inclined souls who were too cheap to pay $5 for a dozen Lubricous terrestris. The internet is still crowded with geniuses each so thrilled and excited by their own inventiveness that they were willing to risk their lives to outsmart the humble uncommon common earthworm.

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Because of their simple soft body plan, lithic trails and fossilized castings – otherwise known as ‘worm poop’ – found in archaic rocks, we know that worms developed over 550 million years ago, making them pre-pre-Cambrian. That also makes them the ancestors to us and the red-billed oxpecker pecking at ticks on a hippo’s back, the hippo, the tick and everything in between. By the Cambrian explosion (it was really more of a fast fuse) worms had evolved into four groups; flatworms, ribbonworms, roundworms and Annelida, or segmented worms. It is the Annelida that includes Lubricous terrestris, the so-called “common European earthworm”, which is hunted with such furor and fancy on the field of the Wallaston School.

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Lubricous terrestris is the creature so nice they named it twice. Lubricous is Latin for ‘earthworm’ and terrestris means ‘of the earth’. In North America they are called ‘Nightcrawlers’, because that is when what they do is visible, or ‘Dew Worms’ because that is often present when and where they are visible. But they are also called Vitials and ‘fish bait’ because that is the only value they have to most humans. And initially I must admit to a certain lack of enthusiasm myself for this creature with 5 hearts, one head but no brain. But I was surprised by these slimy little wigglers.

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For example, contrary to “common knowledge”, Lubricous terrestris does not come to the surface when it rains. They come to the surface every summer night, rain or shine. They wiggle out of their shallow borrows to eat, to defecate, and to mate. And when an eagle-eyed American Robin (which is actually a wren) or a droll English black bird stomps about a lawn or garden, weaving their head back and forth, bent upon vermiphagia (worm eating), they are not charming their prey out of the ground. They are maneuvering for a better vantage point, the better to spy discretely down the narrow worm hole to spot the tasty resident slumbering the hot day away near the surface. Any worm near enough be seen is fair game. You might even say the birds go fishing for worms.

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The flashing stab of the beak is followed by a tug of war to determine if the avian gets a meal or if Vitials earns a reprieve. Lubricous terrestris extends minute hairs, called setae, and grabs hold of his burrow walls as if his life depended on it, which it does. The bird tugs. The worm resists. Usually the bird wins. Sometimes, if the worm is slimy enough and quick enough, the worm slides back into mother earth as if in a miniature dramatization of the novel “Dune”. In the occasional case of a tie, occasionally everybody wins. When the worm snaps into two pieces the bird gets a protein rich meal and if the worm keeps it's head (end) it grows a new tail, eventually. But if the remorseless carnivore gobbles down the head end or stuffs it into the upturned beak of his offspring, the wiggling remainder left behind is pretty much worm meat for the next bird or even worm to stumble upon it.

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In a rain Lubricous terrestris does come to the surface during daylight, but why? The logical answer is, of course, to avoid drowning. Lacking even a single lung, Lubricous terrestrisis forced to breath through their skin, which prevents them from holding their breath. They have no place to hold it in. This would appear to be a serious design flaw and if Lubricous terrestris did not have such an impressive survival record I would have thought they were surely on the verge extinction; proof yet again, that evolution has no respect for human logic. But more to the point, as any freshwater fisherman can tell you, a Nightcrawler can live for a surprising long time suspended under water, perhaps indefinitely. We may never know how long they can survive submerged because what usually kills them is the enormous fishing hook jammed through their bodies; that, or hopefully being eaten by a fish.

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All of which begs the question: how do you “charm” a worm? If rising to the surface in daylight is so often suicidal, why do they do it? The recommended technique for worm charming offers a clue. The IFCWCAP Rule number seven states that, “A garden fork (in American-ese, a pitch fork) may be stuck into the ground and vibrated by any manual means to encourage worms to the surface”. The process clearly works, as proven by the legendary Tom Shufflebotham, of Chesire, England, who at the first championship in 1980, charmed 511 worms in the 30 minute allotted time. But why did Tom’s method work so well? Not being able to ask Lubricous terrestris we can only surmise. So we shall.

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Lubricous terrestris has no brain, no lungs and no ears, but they do have rudimentary “light sensitive cells” that let them distinguish between light and dark. And those sensitive ‘setae’ which can detect the vibrations of burrowing, ravenous grubs and beetles and even something as massive and horrifying and relentlessly hungry as a shrew or mole. Obviously Lubricous terrestris only leaves it's burrow in daylight when it becomes more dangerous to stay underground. So worm charming, to the worm, might best be said to resemble those cliffs on the American Greast Plains over which Native Americans drove terrified, stampeding buffalo; except, of course, the worms are “put back” after the competition. Alas, the buffalo were not.

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It was that venerable optimist Ann Sexton who wrote merrily on “The Flurry of Flowers and Worms”; “Bit of the field on my table, close to the worms, who struggle blinding, moving deep in their slime, moving deep into God’s abdomen, moving like oil through water, sliding through the good brown.” But this charming view of our wiggly little friends’ was countered by the far more prosaic William Stevens in 1923 when he gave them voice in his couplet about the Princess Badroulbadour, who was married to Aladdin in 1001 Nights”. Said Mr. Steven’s worms, “Out of the tomb, we bring Badrouldour, within our bellies, we her chariot”. The passage reveals the function of most “charming stories”, to camouflage an unpleasant reality. Worms are not likely to be “charmed” in the conventional sense by a process that mimic’s their worst terrors. You might as well describe a lion stalking a child on the African Savana as “human charming”. But that may be taking worm charming far too seriously.

(Tomorrow - PART TWO)

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