Here we are, back in lockdown again. In the last lockdown I escaped by joining Alfred Russel Wallace in the jungles of Malaysia in the blog “IN A FEVER”, this blog only goes as far as Stonehenge, but features one of the most important animals on earth, the earthworm, and the man whose best-selling book “The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms with Observation on their Habits”, first published in 1881, studied the worm in magnificent detail.
Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) famously sailed around the world on HMS Beagle, a voyage which sparked off his work on evolution, but for most of the rest of his life he was becalmed in the village of Down in Kent. His health was poor and he lived very quietly with his wife Emma and their children and studied a wide variety of animals and plants, beginning with a seven-year study of barnacles.
His book on worms was his last book. He was a frail old man but he looked at worms with the curiosity of a child. To find out if worms could hear he played the tin whistle to them, his son played the bassoon and Emma the piano.
He studied the effect of the worms’ burrowing and casting on soil fertility and on the level of the soil. He noted how stones laid on the surface of the ground gradually sank as the worm casts built up the soil around them. He investigated worm activity at Roman villas whose floors and walls had sunk under the ground, and visited Stonehenge to measure the build-up of soil around fallen monoliths.
In the conclusion of his book he writes that: “Worms have played a more important part in the history of the world than most persons would at first suppose. In almost all humid countries they are extraordinarily numerous, and for their size possess great muscular power.”
A worm cast under my clothes line
Darwin had given up going to Church years before he died, though he was not militantly anti-church unlike one of his followers, the scientist Thomas Huxley, who relished using Darwin’s evolutionary ideas to challenge the power of the church. When Darwin died though, Huxley changed his tune and was one of those who pressed for Darwin to be buried inside Westminster Abbey for the prestige it would confer. Emma didn’t go to the service at the Abbey, preferring instead to walk in the garden where her husband had studied worms. I’m with Emma on this. Here are the views of the Worm God.
The Worm God Speaks I am the Worm without End my infinite circles surround an endless intestine. I came to power in the age when dinosaurs stomped over earth and furry things scuttled around their feet. Just lately a bifurcated animal decided worms are lowlife and humans were made to rule earth, but one of their old men delved into the world of worms and marvelled at the stupendous power of their intestines that process detritus and excrete fertility in massive quantities over billions of years. He explained that worms cultivated the planet long before Adam’s sons dreamt of ploughing it. When old Darwin stood in Stonehenge’s circles he knew the dynamic guts and muscular circles of legions of worms could entomb monuments with towers of wonder-shit. Darwin's body is confined in Westminster Abbey's worm free environment, prepared for a wormless and soil free heaven, but give us time and worms will reclaim his detritus. That is my hope at least but sometimes I worry that the barnacles he loved for seven years of his youth will get to him before us. The earth is fickle but one thing’s certain; over many epochs endless multitudes of gutsy worms created Gaia’s glorious skin.