Every evening I walk down the garden path, carrying a green plastic bucket full of fruit and vegetable peels, seeds, leaves, stalks and whatever had been inedible in the day’s food intake. The large wooden container at the far end has a slatted lid, covering the incredible non-stop 24/7 activity that is my compost heap. At a first glance it looks totally inactive, no more than a multi-coloured mass of plant material in varying states of decomposition, a chaotic still life, or rather still death, of the plant kingdom. But at a second glance that mass – or mess – is teaming with silent life. A corps of grey woodlice, looking like miniature tanks, is marching across the box, accompanied by several shiny, fast-moving beetles, while a large spider scuttles towards the middle with a curious sideway gait, like a Western hero loping towards a gun fight. They all belong here; so do the snails that leave shiny silver trails all over the wooden slats. But what I am interested in lives in huge communities at a trowel’s depth below the surface: my vast colony of Lumbricidae , AKA earthworms, and they are the true non-stop activists of this heap.
I find them fascinating. So did Charles Darwin, who studied them for forty years and wrote a scholarly book about his findings. He went to endless trouble to find out the worms’ food preferences, which turned out to be wild cherry, carrots and raw fat rather than raw meat, and he concluded that they “enjoyed the pleasures of eating”. He also tested their sense of hearing by blowing a metal whistle, shouting, and getting his son to play the bassoon very loudly – imagine that most eminent of scientists with his long white beard SHOUTING at worms! – but to no effect. The creatures seemed to be stone deaf and only responded to vibration.
Back to my box and the here-and-now. I’ve disturbed the worms and they wriggle wildly. What I know about them is that each segmented tube-shaped animal, which is basically no more than a full length digestive system, breathes through its skin, has five hearts and the rare ability to change its sex at will if a suitable mate of the right gender can’t be found. Sounds like an excellent quick fix, but it still takes two to produce offspring, which arrive in small translucent cocoons and look like minute pieces of white cotton. They are often deposited in eggshells or avocado skins for extra protection; clearly, worms are caring mothers.
They are also eyeless, deaf and apparently boring, but they are the life force of the soil and Nature’s champion recyclers. They create burrows, aerate the soil and help it to retain moisture, they gather autumn leaves and pull them underground, they cope with tough refuse without having teeth (how?) and are partial to teabags and paper. My worms have worked their way through my shredded bank statements and other sensitive papers. but, experts say, they dislike onions, garlic and citrus peels. Above all, they produce that rare treasure, humus, the fertile topsoil on which plants depend to thrive.
At present two million tonnes of topsoil are lost globally every year, through floods, erosion, wind damage and industrial farming methods. At this rate soon there won’t be much left. Without topsoil, no plants. Without plants, no food. Without food – ?
Consider it. With all our dazzling technological powers, wealth and inter-planetary sophistication we can’t do what these small tube-shaped creatures do day and night, endlessly: produce fertile soil and maintain Nature’s cycle of growth, decay, death and new life. We couldn’t survive for long without them.
If that doesn’t make you feel humble, nothing will.