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Sunday, June 01, 2008

LIVE BAIT: PART THREE

I suppose that the first great scientific insight into Lumbricus terrestris was written by Charles Darwain; “The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through The Action of Worms, With Observations On Their Habits’, which was published in October of 1881. According to the old man (he would die just 6 months later at the age of 73 and this was his last published work), there were 26, 886 earthworms per acre in England, and every year those little wigglies passed ten tons of soil through their guts, turning, aerating and fertilizing a new inch of topsoil every five years. “The plough is one of the most ancient and valuable of man’s inventions; but long before he existed the land was regularly ploughed, and still continues to be thus ploughed by earthworms. It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as these lowly organized creatures.”
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Darwin was so clearly charmed by Lumbricus terrestris that he decided to return the favor. “Worms do not possess any sense of hearing”, he noted. “They took no notice of the shrill notes from a metal whistle, which was repeatedly sounded near them; nor did they of the deepest and loudest tones of a bassoon. They were indifferent to shouts, if care was taken that the breath did not strike them. When placed on a table close to the keys of a piano, which was played as loudly as possible, they remained perfectly quiet….When pots containing two worms which had remained quite indifferent to the sound of the piano were placed on this instrument, and the note C in the bass clef was struck, both instantly retreated into their burrows…and when G above the line in the treble clef was struck they again retreated.”. How could you not admire and trust a man who was so utterly and gently fascinated with such a beguiling creature that he was drawn to play the piano for them? “The whole body of the worm is sensitive to contact….Judging by their eagerness for certain kinds of food, they must enjoy the pleasure of eating. Their sexual passion is strong enough to overcome for a time their dread of light. They perhaps have a trace of social feeling, for they are not disturbed by crawling over each other’s bodies, and they sometimes lie in contact…” Of course Darwin also cut them open to see what made them tick, but that was the scientist within him. And it is important to note that before Darwin wrote his book, Lumbricus terrestris was considered a garden pest, and killed on sight. His insights have thus saved millions of worms over the last 150 years; for one thing, few people eat worm pie anymore.
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On average Lumbricus terrestrsis lives four to eight years in the wild, assuming there is no intervention from a ravenous Robin. For Earthworms seem to have the double key to success; they are detritvorous, and hermaphroditic. Once they reach sexual maternity, at about one year of age, Lumbricus terrestrsis wiggles into a brief encounter, always on the surface, lining up side by side, head to tail with their “mate”. They then cover their joint selves with a mucus wrapping and exchange eggs and sperm. They then separate, never to “see” each other again…probably, but who the hell really knows – least of all, the worms? Eventually they produce a mucous sheath from their Clitellum (the bump about 1/3 of the way between head and tail). This slides forward over the ovum, where it captures an egg, and then over the packet of sperm, stored from the worm’s last brief encounter on a dewy summer night. Then the Lumbricus terrestris works the entire sticky clump over its head-end and abandons it as a lemon shaped amber colored egg or cocoon in the soil. The average worm produces up to 80 cocoons in a year, which, depending on soil moisture and temperature, hatch in as little as 3 weeks, or not until spring. And it is by this convoluted mechanism that Lumbricus terrestrsis, described by Aristotle as the “gut of the soil”, has conquered the earth.
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Our dependence upon worms is illustrated by Ms. Celia Warren who wrote the following lyrical amusement; “Noah let his sons go fishing, Only on the strictest terms: Sit still, keep quiet and concentrate, We’ve only got two worms”. On such a precarious foundation is the American $100 million live bait industry balanced, on the back of a creature without a spine which sells for a few pennies each even in George Bush’s devalued America. But for the past couple of years, in High Ridge, Missouri, the Jefferson County Public Library holds an annual Worm Race, won last year by a wiggler named River. And since 2000 the “Worm Gruntuin’” festival has been a tourist attraction in Sopchoppy, Florida, including a ball and the crowning of a “Worm Gruntin’ Queen”, who, presumably, along with her other duties, is charged with droppin’ her final “g’s”. “Grunters” drive a wooden stake into the ground and “whack” it rhythmically, to coax the worms to abandon their burrows, and is probably just as effective but not nearly as attractive a sport as “Charming”.
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There is a variation on “Charming” practiced in the English community of Devon which encourages the use of the stimulants outlawed in Wallaston; water, tea, beer and ale. Claims an Wallaston organizer, “The worms just get drunk and drown.” But now the Devon wormers have proposed “The Olympic Worm Charming Championship” to be held in 2012 on Edlesborough Green in Devon. It would coincide with the British Olympics, and is sufficiently far off in time to allow for a negotiated truce between those who worm for the joy of sport (and to benefit a primary school) and those who obviously crave attention (and hold their event out of the commercial establishments of a pub and restaurant). More to the point, in 13 years of competition the Devin Charmers, for all their liberalization of the rules, have never come close to Tom Shufflebotham’s magic number. And the Devon group has even been attacked by the International Worm Liberation Front who handcuffed the chief organizer for a time. But I suspect these “rebels” are more interested in charming themselves then in charming the worms.
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I suspect that before the arrival of the Worm Charming Championship in 1980 the most important event to have occurred in the neighborhood of the Wallaston Primary School was the Great Fire of Nantwich in 1583, or perhaps the Battle of Nantwich during the English Civil War. But compared to these minor disruptions, the annual fundraiser for the 1,377 young students beside the A509 is best described as earth shaking, certainly for the worms. This year the worms will “turn out” on June 28th. Gates will open at one, (admission is one pound) and you can claim a charming plot by paying three pounds. But your assignment of a specific plot is made by a random drawing. Charming begins promptly at two, and the official count begins at 2:30. The Trophy, :”…in the shape of a golden rampant worm”, will be awarded at four. And then everybody can start training for next year.
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