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Sunday, October 16, 2011

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.”
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?
Continued Darwin, “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…” This man loved his worms. 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.
Because of their simple soft body plan the only record we have of the evolution of worms are their lithic trails and fossilized castings – otherwise known as ‘worm poop. We do know that the wigglies' developed at least 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 (350 million years ago -more of a fast fuse really) 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 ‘Night crawlers’, 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. However, on closer inspection, the behavior of these slimy little wigglers speaks of a creature with hidden attributes.
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. You might even say the birds go fishing for worms.
The flashing stab of the beak is often followed by a tug of war to determine if the avian gets a meal or if Vitials earns a reprieve. When threatened, 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 beaks of her offspring, the wiggling remainder left behind is pretty much worm meat..
In the heavy 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 has no place to hold their breath. 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 logical point, as any freshwater fisherman can tell you, a Night crawler 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” such a creature? If rising to the surface in daylight is so often suicidal, why do they do it on the Wallaston School's worm pitch? The recommended technique for worm charming offers a clue. 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 minutes 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.
As stated earlier, Lubricous terrestris has no brain, no lungs and no ears. But they are not without a perception of reality. They have rudimentary “light sensitive cells” that let them distinguish between light and dark. They are also able to use those powerful and  sensitive ‘setae’ to detect the vibrations of burrowing, ravenous grubs or even something as massive, horrifying and relentlessly hungry as a shrew or a mole. So obviously, Lubricous terrestris only leaves it's burrow in daylight when it becomes more dangerous to stay underground. So worm charming, to the worm, must resemble those wild fires set by Native Americans, which drove the terrified, stampeding buffalo over a cliff; except, of course, the worms are “put back” after they stampede to the surface of the Wallaston Primary School . 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 poetic view of our wiggly little friends’ was countered in 1923 by the far more prosaic poet William Stevens, when he gave them voice in his couplet on the Princess Badroulbadour, who had married  Aladdin in "A Thousand and One 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 Savanna as “human charming”. But that may be taking worm charming far too seriously, which has been known to happen.
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 a double lock on evolutionary success; they are detritvorous, and hermaphroditic. Once they reach sexual maternity, at about one year of age, Lumbricus terrestrsis wiggles from one brief sexual encounter after another, always on the surface, lining up side by side, head to tail with their “mate”. And they are indefferent as to the sex of their partner, which is okay since their partner's sex is bisexual, just like thiers.
Once their sexual organs are in joint contact, the happy pair cover themselves with a mucus wrapping and exchange eggs and sperm. They then separate, never to “see” each other again…probably, but then who the heck really knows – least of all, the worms? Eventually they produce a mucous sheath from their Clitellum (the bump about 1/3 of the way up from their tail). This slides forward over the ovum, where it captures an egg, and then over the packet of sperm, stored since 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 next spring. And it is by this convoluted mechanism that Lumbricus terrestrsis, described by Aristotle as the “gut of the soil”, has conquered the earth, and us..
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 the derivities devalued America. And that is only the beginning of our debt to this creature underfoot. 
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 although not nearly as attractive a sport as “Charming”.
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 for whom worm charming is pure sport (and to benefit a primary school) and those for whom charming is an excuse to imbibe alcohol.  
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 accused of supporting the International Worm Liberation Front, a member of which handcuffed the chief Wallaston Primary School organizer for a time. But I suspect these “rebels” are more interested in charming their fellow humans  then in charming the worms.
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 past year the worms “turned out” on Saturday, June 25th. Gates opened at one, (admission was one pound), and you could claim a charming plot by paying five pounds. But the assignment of a specific plot was made by a random drawing. Charming began promptly at two, and the official count began at 2:30. The Trophy, :”…in the shape of a golden rampant worm”, was awarded at four. In 2011 the most worms charmed was 256, (Dave and Sam Ashman) and the heaviest (and a record setter) at 12 and 8/100ths grams was charmed by daughter Amy and father Nick Sproston. So now everyone can get started training for next year. I'll bet the worms will be ready. To enter you may contact Mike Forrester at chiefwormer@wormcharming.com. And I hope you do. 
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