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GP 6 July 2005: And the Earth Moved

Balmy Times.  During the last half of the twentieth century, we largely ignored the forces of nature and the truly cataclysmic events because we lived in a wonderful bubble where one year was more prosperous than the next, the TVA and the Army Corp of Engineers promised to stop every flood, and Dr. Salk and company more or less stamped out polio. 

But with the turn of the century, the good life has bumped up against harsh limits (just ask California): hurricanes and global warming are out of the starting gate and ready for quite a run, and the governments of most of the advanced countries have become inert or downright destructive.  There’s more than one reason why everyone has become so nostalgic for the 20th century—as they were wont to say during Harry Truman’s reign, “we never had it so good.”   

The Sweep of Nature.  We now have a resurgence of a literature that flourished under the Victorians, dramatic histories of the power of nature, the forces of the solar system, and the littleness of man.  In Edwardian eyes, we only amount to a brief bubble on earth, soon to be extinguished.  For a good summer read on the supernatural power of nature, Simon Winchester comes to mind.  He’s a journalist who educates and entertains about everything from the Oxford English Dictionary to the history of topographical maps.  For high nature drama, however, one would look at his Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883, about a humdinger of a volcanic blowout that took place in Indonesia.   

Or you can look at another work that probes Asia.  It was well inside China, where Westerners did not go, that friends of ours met Winchester and family coming down river several years ago.  We guess this resulted in The River at the Center of the World, the story of the Yangtze, the river that made China what it is.  Of course, according to Winchester, it would not have been the river that set the civilized world in motion except for the fact that tectonics created a sudden diversion of the river at Shigu, a Great Bend that kept the waters inside China.  To paraphrase The New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell, here was a real tipping point, orchestrated by the sly hand of Mother Nature. 

Remaking America.  It’s another less flashy work, however, that we find more spellbinding, provocative, even amazing.  The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms by Northern California garden writer Amy Stewart.  It’s much too fertile a book for us to capture even half of what she has to say.  In it we discover the profound effect worms have had on us, and learn of new roles they may play in the 21st century.  A flock of reviewers has sung its praises, and we like best what Baltimore Sun bookman Michael Pakenham, who is a new discovery for us and a very incisive critic, has to say about it: “Stewart writes clearly, and sometimes poetically.  Her fondness for Darwin is unbridled and her enthusiasm for worms approaches adoration.”  We recommend the whole of his analysis to you; see www.amystewart.com/em_reviews_long.
htm#sun.  If you need a second opinion about this marvelous book, read Anne Raver, who is the gardening poobah at the New York Times.  Raver, incidentally, is great on well wrought gardens (www.amystewart.com/em_reviews_long.

European Culture in America.  We make a great deal out of the divergent nationalities that make up America, and the polyglot culture they have created here.  But the greatest migration is less talked about, as Ms. Stewart reveals.  “As familiar as … [a] nightcrawler may seem, it is not indigenous to North America.  In fact, many of the works commonly found in American garden soil are not native.”  Many of our native worms probably got wiped out by the Ice Age 10,000 to 50,000 years ago.  It is the Europeans—underground Europeans—that have created the basis for American agriculture, since these wormy processors have vastly enriched the lands that have made our farms awesomely productive.  Surely it can be claimed that Lumbricus terrestis (the nightcrawler) and other European relatives have had more impact on North America than the people, the habits, or, indeed, the flock of diseases that flowed in from the Old World.  Charles Darwin estimated that there could be as many as 50,000 worms at work in an acre, but modern scientists have found that some land harbors a 1,000,000 or more.  That’s a lot of wormpower. For a quick overview of the world of worms, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earthworm.   

Darwin’s Greatest Passion.  After all his work on Origin of Species, we learn that Darwin settled down to his real avocation/vocation.  Of course, he had a fling with orchids which we must investigate: he chronicled this in 1862 in On the Various Contrivances by Which British and Foreign Orchids are Fertilised by Insects.  But he saved the best for last, coming out with Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms in 1881.  He could not get enough of worms, working hard to establish their intelligence and their other sentient capacities: 

The billiard room at Down House was now devoted to worm experiments which included Darwin shining different colours of lights at them at night, his sons playing different musical instruments to them, different scents and kinds of food.  Other stimuli were ignored, but a bright white light or a touch of breath would make them bolt “like rabbits” into their burrows.  They appeared to “enjoy the pleasure of eating” showing “eagerness for certain kinds of food”, sexual passion was “strong enough to overcome ... their dread of light”, and he saw “a trace of social feeling” in their way of “crawling over each other's bodies”. Experiments showed that they dragged leaves into their burrows narrow end first, having somehow got a “notion, however rude, of the shape of an object”, maybe by “touching it in many places” with a sense like “a man ... born blind and deaf” and a rudimentary intelligence.  (From  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darwin_from_Insectiverous_plants_

Waste Disposal.  Ms. Stewart discusses efforts to reclaim burnt-out lands with the aid of earthworms.  Equally striking are advanced experimental attempts to use earthworms as a means of  dealing with both animal and human wastes.  Scott Subler, a scientist out of Ohio State University, has founded his own worm compost company.  “We can process 250 to 350 tones of manure per year,” said Subler, and the worm castings can be used widely in gardening.  See Living Soil at www.livingsoil.com.     

In Orange County, Florida and Pacifica, California, engineers have devised recycling plants to deal with human waste.  Her uncle David Sands is involved with the Calera Creek Wate Recycling Plant, off Highway 1 in Pacifica.  There’s just one problem.  The marvelous plant produces 95% water, useful for irrigation.  But 5% of the output consists of smelly biosolids.  That’s where the worms come in.  Processing the solid residue, they take some smell out and puts some enrichment in.  Then the solids are useful for gardening and don’t have to be taken away to some sinkhole disposal site. 

Worms and Infrastructure.  As you can see, worms are a vital part of our agricultural infrastructure.  In this century, they may become part of system for getting rid of wastes, a giant size problem. They only remind us to pay attention to the unseen processes that make our lives possible.  

Infrastructure, as we have said, is America’s biggest problem and biggest opportunity.  It is broken, outmoded, and vastly undercapitalized.  There is not a piece of it—our electric grid, education, government, public transportation, computer and telephonic networks—that is not in trouble.  Every bit of it has wormholes in it.  As we have said in “Courtly Congressman Amory Houghton, Jr.,” the Eastern United States should make the infrastructure industry fundamental to its future economic development.  There’s a nickel to be made there.  Infrastructure probably will be where the real money will be made for the next 25 years, and the wise investor will put many long-term dollars into this sector. 

P.S.  A speech (at Stanford in February 2005) and subsequent article (April 10, 2005) by Paul Volcker, onetime chairman of the Federal Reserve, who put the U.S. economic machine back in order during his tenure, reminds us that the global economic mechanism is also broken.  More infrastructure that’s really out of whack. “Under the placid surface,” he says, “There are disturbing trends.”  Policymakers in Europe, the U.S., and China have neither the will nor even the committed focus to remedy the global imbalances that put us in a dangerous place.  In Volcker’s eyes, China and the Asian economies need to work their exchange rates up against the dollar; Europe and Japan must stimulate their economies domestically; and the U.S. has to get its savings rate up.  See “An Economy on Thin Ice” at www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/
A38725-2005Apr8.html.  Incidentally, we wonder why Stanford University has not posted a speech of this seismic significance on the Internet.  Just as we blinded ourselves to natural events in the 20th, we are ignoring global economic forces in the 21st.  

P.P.S.  Worms are everywhere.  Here is one list we found of some 137 words containing “worm”: (www.morewords.com/contains/worm).

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