'I'm always looking for the Hows and the Whys and the Whats,' said Muskrat, 'That is why I speak as I do. You've heard of Muskrat's Much-in-Little, of course?'
'No,' said the child. 'What is it?'
- The Mouse and his Child. Russell Hoban.

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Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Worms.



When my boys were young, they couldn't say the 'er' sound in 'worms'. They replaced it with 'or', as in 'more'.
It was a quirky and extremely specific speech defect; temporary, but amusing while it lasted. They could not read at the time, and in any case, it wasn't that they had seen the word 'worms' because it extrapolated to any 'er' sound. 'Words' were 'wards', 'girl' became 'gorl' and 'dirt' was 'dort'.
So I was asked for permission to dig for warms in the dort, for how to spell the ward 'gorl', told that baby boards eat warms, and other examples I have forgotten. Cute.

Cute might also be a description for this piece of writing from the late 1700's, by Gilbert White, early naturalist:

"Lands that are subject to frequent inundations are always poor ; and probably the reason may be because the worms are drowned. The most insignificant of insects and reptiles are of much more consequence, and have much more influence in the economy of Nature than the uncurious are aware of, and are mighty in their effect, from their minuteness, which renders them less an object of attention, and from their numbers and fecundity.

Earth-worms, though in appearance a small and despicable link in the chain of Nature, yet, if lost, would make a lamentable chasm. For, to say nothing of half the birds, and some quadrupeds, which are almost entirely supported by them, worms seem to be the great promoters of vegetation, which would proceed but lamely without them, by boring, perforating, and loosening the soil, and rendering it pervious to rains and the fibres of plants, by drawing straws and stalks of leaves and plants into it, and, most of all, by throwing up such infinite numbers of lump of earth called worm-casts, which, being their excretement, is a fine manure for grain and grass. Worms probably provide new soil for hills and slopes where the rain washes the earth away ; and they affect slopes, probably to avoid being flooded. Gardeners and farmers express their detestation of worms ; the former because they render their walks unsightly, and make them much work ; and the latter because, as they think, worms eat their green corn. But these men would find that the earth without worms would soon become cold, hard-bound, and void of fermentation, and consequently sterile ; and besides, in favour of worms, it should be hinted that green corn, plants and flowers, are not so much injured by them as by many species of coleoptera (scarabs), and tipulae t (longlegs) in their larva, or grub-state, and by unnoticed myriads of small shell-less snails, called slugs, which silently and imperceptibly make amazing havoc in the field and garden.

These hints we think proper to throw out in order to set the inquisitive and discerning to work.

A good monography of worms would afford much entertainment and information at the sae time, and would open as large and new field in natural history. Worms work most in the spring, but by no means lie torpid in the dead months : are out every mild night in the winter, as any person may be convinced that will take pains to examine his grass-plots with a candle ; are hermaphrodites , and very prolific."

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In my search for a good image of a worm cast to accompany this post, I came across this one. But oh dear, look at the words. It appears not much has changed in over two hundred years... What a pest those worms are!


To provide balance, here is another recent piece of writing about worms. This comes from an old blog of CJ, Geeb's brother.

"Have you noticed how very rarely one comes across worm casts on the lawn nowadays? They used to be all over everyone's lawn at one time but now they are quite a rarity....

Unfortunately the worm population of many parts of the UK is under great threat at present from the New Zealand Flatworm (Arthurdendyus triangulatus and related species). The upper surface is dark, purplish brown with a narrow, pale buff edge. The underside is also pale buff. They are pointed at both ends, and ribbon-flat. A mature flatworm at rest is about 1cm wide and 6cm long. When extended, it can be up to 30cm long, and proportionally narrower. This interloper first arrived in the UK in the 1960s and feeds exclusively on earthworms. It can reduce the numbers to below detectable levels in the right conditions. The species common on Merseyside and in the South-west is the orangey-red (Australoplana sanguinea var alba).

A worm cast (also known as worm casting or vermicast) is a biologically active mound containing thousands of bacteria, enzymes, and remnants of plant materials that were not digested by the earthworm (Lumbricus terrestris and other species). The composting process continues after a worm casting has been deposited. In fact, the bacterial population of a cast is much greater than the bacterial population of either ingested soil, or the earthworm's gut. An important component of this dark mass is humus which is a complicated material formed during the breakdown of organic matter. One of its components, humic acid, provides many binding sites for plant nutrients, such as calcium, iron, potassium, sulphur and phosphorus. These nutrients are stored in the humic acid molecule in a form readily available to plants, and are released when the plants require them. So despite the fact that in large quantities worm casts used to look unsightly they were good for the soil..."

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The last word from me: Every time I set out to explore an insect (or critter) recently, I have found the same phenomenon: PARADOX. Within such a diverse group of animals, I expect to find a contradictory mass of information and beliefs. But contradictions and paradoxes keep occurring within a species too... How very fascinating.


5 comments:

  1. I had no idea there twenty five species of earthworm in the UK. How strange that in the 1700's there may have been some strange misunderstanding about the impact of worms on gardens and farms. Nowadays I think everyone who works the soil realises that worms are wonderful.

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  2. Yes, YP, misunderstandings are excusable in the 1700's when spontaneous generation was still a widely held belief... But did you click on that contemporary green 'Science for a Better Life' image...?

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  3. Worms have always fascinated me for some reason I cannot explain. I used to be fascinated as I watched Blackbirds jumping up and down to simulate rain so that the worms would appear (and get gobbled up). Of course, since then I've discovered that worms can learn so they are not even at the bottom of the intelligence chain (hmmm). I think we should have a Save The Worm and Save The Soil movement.

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  4. Well! I didn't know blackbirds did that! How interesting.
    I heartily approve of your suggestion. You can be CEO. Of the STWSTS movement.

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  5. The slogan coud be: We Turn for the Worms!

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