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Thursday, May 29, 2008

LIVE BAIT: PART TWO

I find it curious that there are no professional worm charmers, considering the mercenary foundation of the sport. In 1980 then headmaster of the Wallaston County Primary School, Mr. John Bailey, was searching for a way to raise funds. Dances were too stodgy and fraught with the threat of uncontrolled social interaction the English so dread, and certainly nothing they would want their young children involved in. The school was already holding bake sales and silent auctions. What was needed, Headmaster Bailey decided, was the drama of a competition. But, again, being British, it would have to be a non-competitive competition, something like cricket, in which two teams engage in a fierce competition that often leads to a long drawn out draw.
*
In addition, the competition had to be non-weather dependant, given the generally damp and gray English version of weather. And it had to be something which would encourage participation while discouraging physical contact, in order to avoid lawsuits and insurance complications. (If the insurance companies had their way, all intramural human sport would require fireproof protective gear, including a full helmet!) Furthermore, the event must avoid encouraging any excess of enthusiasm. What the Headmaster was looking for was a clean sport with a minimum of set up and cleanup time, and which would use the facilities the school already processed. Ideally there should be no rentals, no leases and no veterinarian fees or protests from animal rights groups; if the event required any non-human participation, it must revolve around a creature whose demise, even if it were to be bisected in full view of the public and their children, could still bring a smile to the lips of the average English antivivisectionists. To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, having eliminated all other creatures, the worms beneath the schools “pitch”, or cricket field, seemed the obvious choice.
*
That field of competition on “Charming Day” reveals that winning is not the primary goal. Mere participation is a victory of sorts, and a far more important victory than winning. Yes, that makes little sense to an American, but then neither does what happens on the Charming Field.
Contestants can be seen, “…tap dancing with magnifying glasses, and (the) “…hum of a didgeridoo (has even been heard)”. Some contestants have tried meditation, playing cellos, tapping bongo drums. even mounting and riding plush horses. “ Some hammer the ground with plastic tubes, or, indeed, plastic hammers. Others push a garden fork into the turf and strike it. Others play deep notes on a double bass, or tempt the worms with the music of a mouth organ. One person, in an inflatable fat suit, circles around on stilts. I hope the worms can see him but I doubt it.”
*
They can’t. And even if they could, it is unlikely that Lumbricus terrestris would be amused. I can state with little fear of contradiction; worms have no sense of humor. When your existence consists of burrowing through mud and litter, and being chased by moles and robins, of what use is humor? Or for that matter, of what use is irony, compassion, or even philosophy? It is much the same conundrum that perplexed Hamlet, over a long dead fool. Thus it is even unlikely that the worms would enjoy the not so ancient verse that sings, “First you’re sick, and then your worse, and then it’s time to call the hearse. They put you in the cold, cold ground, with all your relatives standing round. And all goes well for about a week. And then the coffin begins to leak. The worms crawl in and the worms crawl out, the worms play pinochle on your snout. They eat your eyes, they eat your nose, they eat the jelly between your toes. Your eyes fall in and your hair falls out. Your brains come dribbling through your snout. The worms that crawl in are lean and thin. The worms that crawl out are fat and stout.” It is not a cheerful poem, but it is descriptive.
*
Compare that ditty with the tribute in verse provided by Mr. Andrew Rudd, the first (and so far only) official poet laureate for the World Worm Charming Championship. “Come, come to me, blind-lurker, burrower, mulch-eater, twist-curler, soft survivor, ….flexible friend, cranny-squeezer, shade-lover, moist drinker, dew-sipper, …humble worm, mortal worm, beak-tugger, bird-resister, …tiny miner, soil-sapper, spaghetti loop, micro-gut,…muscle-ringed, knot-twister, cold-sleeper,…neglected, ignored, come, come to my, charm.” It could almost be set to an atonal Nursery Rhyme.
*
But why is it that no one has ever surpassed or even tied the magic number of 511 worms achieved by legendary Tom Shufflebotham almost 30 years ago? Could it be that the worms are trying to tell us something about global warming? What, them too? Or could it be that the worms on the pitch of the Wallaston County Primary School have grown smarter over the last 30 years? Or, could it be that the Wallaston pitch has been “over charmed”? Worrying also is that the heaviest worm charmed in the history of the competition was back in 1987, a 6.6 gram monster, brought down by the suspiciously named Mr. N. Burrows.
*
The second year of competition saw just 302 worms charmed by the winner (Mr. M. Bennion) and in 1983 Mr. S. Goodwin could only corral 217 worms to claim victory. 1983 saw a brief return to abundance when Mrs. C. Paul was able to capture 248 wigglies to claim the trophy, but the middle eighties were a time of Lumbricus terrestris scarcity. Over the three years, 1984 through 1986 inclusive, just 184 worms graced the winner’s buckets. (It reminds this observer of 1968, the year that Carl Yaztremski won the American League batting title with an anemic three-oh-one). In 1987 and '88 the school pitch bounced back with 214 and 265 worms, but the decade ended with a pathetic 79. The last time any contestant even topped 400 worms was Miss G. Neville in 1993, (487). And the average since 2000 is just 243 worms per year, well under half of Mr. Shufflebotham’s truly Babe Ruthian catch.
*
Still, the evident decline in worm numbers has not led to a decline in competition. In 2003 there was a tie with two plots each producing 167 Lumbricus terrestris. In accordance with the rules, the Gordian knot was severed with a five minute “Charm off”. Lea Clark and Robert Oltram (plot 134) were able to draw out a further 13 worms, but Richard and Rodney Windsor (plot 131) drew a triumphent 14 worms to their bucket, and were declared the official winners. Five years later and the village is still abuzz about that hair's-breath victory.
TOMORROW: PART THREE
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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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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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Monday, May 26, 2008

GOD AND THE ALTER COCKERS

I remain amazed that religious zealots continue to believe that morality can be legislated, as proven yet again when General Rezar Zarei, the chief of the infamous “Chastity Police” in the capital of the religious “New Think” kingdom of Iran, was arrested last year in a brothel with six, count ‘em, six, prostitutes. And why does prostitution never get credit for helping to create full employment? Yes, it’s degrading and demeaning work, but so is being a janitor. I have been a janitor, and trust me, when people are being polite, you are invisible. When they do notice you, they usually treat you as if you are what you have to clean up. So don’t tell me that a woman selling her body is demeaning herself, not in a capitalist economy. If anybody is demeaned in prostitution it’s the customer. Paying a prostitute is like paying somebody to chew your food. Never mix religion and sex. Once you get those two confused you are on a slip-n-slid directly to hell.
*
General Zarei was chosen by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to prosecute sin in Mohammed’s city on the hill. Under General Zarei’s tutelage (and endless lectures on television) single men and women learned that dancing together could result in a whipping, married couples learned that holding hands in public could result in a whipping, and women learned that showing their hair in public could result in a whipping, wearing make-up could result in a whipping, wearing colorful clothes might result in a whipping, or in any way shape or form pissing off the “Chastity Police” could result in a whipping, and maybe death by stoning, and not being stoned in a fun way. So when this sanctimonious hypocrite lined up six prostitutes in a brothel and ordered them to strip naked and then pray, he could not plead ignorance of the law: just a gross violation of the “yuck” factor. And this year when the General committed suicide in prison I joined everybody else on earth in saying, “Good riddance to bad rubbish”. *
And for the devotedly devout in Iran it was supposed to be that simple. Alive the General was a reminder that religious zealots might be men of God but mostly they are just men. Dead, he was out of sight and out of mind and quickly forgotten, which is the traditional mindset of theocracies from King David to the demigod from Crawford. Thus it becomes clear again why the Bush administration is so obsessed with the threat posed by Iran, a nation of 70 million people, with an annual gross domestic product of just $852 billion, mostly oil pumped from an aging infrastructure (the U.S GDP is $13 trillion, or more than 13 times bigger). Looking at the Ayatollahs is like looking in a mirror for Shrub, and as the old Mills Brothers song says, “You always hurt the one you love, the one you shouldn’t hurt at all….So if I broke your heart last night, It’s because I love you most of all.” Its clear logical thinking like that which got O.J. Simpson arrested for a double homicide, and got America into an argument with the tar baby that is Iraq.
*
There have long been rumors that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and the Tehran “Chastity Police” are funded in part by a protection racket in Teheran’s red light district. They justify this by pretending that it keeps them independent from the “moderate” politicians who would seek to restrain them. But it also means that it is impossible to clean out the sin of prostitution in the city without a wholesale counter-revolution to remove the very people who are supposed to be guarding the morals of the city. And it also means that the Iranians are having just as much luck channeling violent young men and pain-in-the-ass alter cockers into productive pursuits as the rest of the whole damn world at any moment in time over the last 10,000 years. I call this “The Centurion Problem”, after the Roman soldiers who so beautifully exemplified it. Violent young men with no respect for their own or anybody else’s mortality make great soldiers because all you have to do is give them neat toys and point them at an enemy. With an army of such men, commanded by grumpy old soldiers, you can build an empire, which will last until they notice that it’s a lot easier to pillage and rape at home, than to march all the way to someplace far away before you can start burning, pillaging and raping.
*
So it is not an accident then that what the Crawford Prophet has in common with the Muslim extremists is a blind faith in an irrational God. The very concept of God is irrational, which does not mean there is no Allah or Christ or Yahweh or Dharma, just that he/she/them/it cannot be rational because faith is not rational. Nor is it rational to go to all the trouble of lining up six prostitutes, getting them naked and then ordering them to prostrate themselves in prayer, not without at least praying with them, for Christ’s sake! But the real trouble is not having faith. The real failure of Shrub and the Chastity is that they are the blind presuming to lead the blind.
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