The spade cut into dirt that in summer was rock hard. But it had softened a little after months of rainy, drippy, fog-filled days. I lifted out a chunk of compacted earth and turned it over revealing long taproots of weeds now pointing skyward. As I crumbled it apart with my gloved hand, a giant earthworm fell free and back into the hole.
Another shovelful of dirt revealed more earthworms. Some big and fat, pink or gray, almost five inches long; some tiny, like bright coral wire twisted into switchbacks making their length impossible to determine. How did these damp creatures shining with moisture stay so clean crawling through dirt? And how did they stay moist through a summer so dry it turned the earth to stone? In this compacted earth were worms–many worms–living in dirt but looking cleaner than the most fastidious among us.
I took all these worms as a good sign. I was digging a new garden bed in an area that had long held only weeds and a path leading out into the wild. Earthworms indicate healthy soil–or at least that’s what I have come to believe. But how did they manage, these soft-bodied creatures, to get through this dirt that was so hard it took a fair amount of effort for me to break it apart? As each clod broke off in my gloved hand, worms appeared. (I have always been a little squeamish about these slimy creatures and only recently have I been willing to pick one up even with a glove on.)
I began to take notice. I started watching for them, noticing different kinds, looking at their movements, trying to figure out what pleases them and what does not. I found I had more questions than answers. They seemed to move forward never satisfied with being left where I found them. Or were they backing up? Their pointy ends tested the ground. Were they looking for an opening? Their bodies rippled along behind them, first long and thin, then short and fat as they flowed forth after I had so abruptly revealed them. They wiggled and stretched and finally disappeared back down into the soil. Had this hard packed earth swallowed them or were they swallowing it?
When they fall, do they all land right side up like a cat? I watched to see if they tried to turn over, if they spiraled around from their head to their tail trying to right themselves. As worm after worm, large and small, fell, I watched. And not once did I see any indication of turning over. Do worms know which way is up? So many questions! I was sure I would find answers.
But then it became clear. There was really only one question that mattered and the answer was not so easy. Why do I care?