Two Tales of Earthworms

I love children’s picture books, and I also love earthworms (the latter discussed in a previous post), so it’s not surprising that two of my favorite picture books feature this lowly but supremely important tiller of soil. hair in my dirt Gary Larson’s There’s a Hair in My Dirt presents a decided contrast with Diary of a Worm (story by Doreen Cronin; charming pictures by Harry Bliss). Of course part of the difference is that Larson’s book is really meant more for adults. One of my favorite bloggers, Isaac Yuen of Ekostories, wrote about Larson’s book here, providing a useful summary and thoughtful commentary.

Both books engage with plenty of humor. Some of my favorite lines from Larson include: “Mother Worm . . . . tried to make their home as cheery as possible, even going so far as always putting silverware on the table—despite the fact that none of them had arms.” And “[Harriet] was as excited as a tapeworm in a meat patty!” From Diary of a Worm there are humorous references to Junior Worm (as I call the unnamed first-person narrator) eating his homework and telling his sister that “no matter how much time she spends looking in the mirror [a puddle on the ground in the drawing], her face will always look just like her rear end.”

Along with the hysterically funny one-liners are some much needed reminders of important truths. From Larson: “As any worm with half a ganglion knows, the plants did a little more than just make the air crisp and clean—they made the air air! Every molecule of oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere was put there by a plant.” My husband especially enjoyed Larson’s reminder that the grey squirrel, though “cute,” is an aggressive invader that has driven out native Red Squirrels (and attempts to invade people’s attics, as well—the source of my better half’s quarrel with them).

Diary of a Worm by Doreen Cronin; illustrated by Harry Bliss. One of my favorite books!

Diary of a Worm by Doreen Cronin; illustrated by Harry Bliss.
One of my favorite books!

Diary begins by informing the reader that “Mom says there are three things I should always remember: 1. The earth gives us everything we need. 2. When we dig tunnels, we help take care of the earth. 3. Never bother Daddy when he’s eating the newspaper.” Junior Worm ends his little tale by concluding: “It’s not always easy being a worm. We’re very small, and sometimes people forget that we’re even here. But, like Mom always says, the earth never forgets we’re here.”

Both books also address the question of humans and their relationship to the natural world. For Larson, this is the heart of his book, addressed in an unabashedly moral tale told by Father Worm featuring a “beautiful young maiden” named Harriet whose sentimental and well-meaning but uninformed interventions in Nature ultimately result in her rather gruesome death when she “rescues” a mouse from a snake—a mouse infected with a deadly disease. Yeah, not really a children’s book. (Although little boys may well like it because of that—as Larson reminds us, some things about biology can’t be changed.) Like the little worm, the reader is tempted to ask, “What kind of story is that?”

But Larson’s gruesome little satire is designed to illustrate a very specific moral: “Loving Nature is not the same as understanding it. . . . Connections . . . are the key to understanding the natural world.” And earthworms, it turns out, are crucial in this natural web: “We till, aerate, and enrich the earth’s soil, making it suitable for plants. No worms, no plants; and no plants, no so-called higher animals running around with their oh-so-precious backbones! . . . Heck, we’re invertebrates . . . . Spineless superheroes, that’s what we are!”

Diary‘s examples are more specific, giving the reader a visceral sense through the drawings of how a worm might respond to activities that many humans engage in without giving them a thought: “Fishing season started today. We all dug deeper.” Followed by a worm’s-eye view on the next page of child playing hopscotch, “a very dangerous game,” that nicely illustrates E.O. Wilson‘s parting words in his introduction to Larson’s book: “Just watch where you step; be careful of little lives.”

Both contain appealing illustrations, Larson’s with his trademark critters that manage to look anatomically correct even while wearing harlequin eyeglasses and a beehive hairdo (for Mother Worm), while the humans are typically Larson: goofy-looking, overweight, and rather grotesque. Harry Bliss’s drawings in Diary of a Worm strike a nice balance: whimsical without straying into cutsey—the be-spectacled worm father and baseball-capped son no more anthropomorphic than Larson’s worm family, the background details such as bottle-cap seats for the little worms in class a charming way of showing the small dimensions of the worm family in a way that relates to children’s experience.

Where Diary differs most strikingly from Dirt is its portrayal of inter-species friendship between Junior Worm and Spider. Obviously in the real world, the two seldom meet and Spider would be more interested in Worm as potential food if they did. Nonetheless, the interactions between Worm and Spider nicely illustrate how each differs from the other, giving the reader a good sense of how special and unique each kind of creature is. To quote from Wilson’s introduction to the Larson book: “We all need one another, each in our special niche.”

Each of these books does indeed occupy its own special niche, and each is well worth perusing multiple times for its richness in both text and pictures. Their minds and hearts engaged by books that teach love of Nature, future generations will be better primed to follow Wilson’s parting dictum: “Just watch where you step; be careful of little lives.”

I [heart] Earthworms

Ekostories’ excellent post on Gary Larson a couple of weeks ago (There’s a Hair in my Dirt, May 26) inspired me to write about my love for earthworms.

In those faraway days when I was working in the garden instead of on a manuscript, I encountered earthworms on a daily basis. My fascination with them began when I started to read about organic gardening and discovered the wonders of these diggers of the deep.

Diary of a Worm by Doreen Cronin; illustrated by Harry Bliss.
One of my favorite books!

Earthworms are nature’s primary way of tilling the soil. A garden rich in earthworms will have lovely, richly textured dirt from the worms’ gentle activity and fertile excrement, but the worms are picky. While they can easily be found if you dig deep enough beneath the grass or an undisturbed patch of ground, garden beds are not always a hospitable environment. Sun, wind, and rain are all dangers to worms if they’re directly exposed, so a bare dirt bed without any sheltering leaves or mulch isn’t a place where they’re going to settle in and make a home.

The best way to attract these little workers into your garden is to compost and mulch. The worms make their way into the compost heap, moving upwards from the soil below (I assume), and come into the garden along with the compost. Layering a blanket of leaves or mulch on top of the bed will give them protection and allow them to flourish. You’ll have wonderful soil and your plants will enjoy the added nutrients a rich soil brings.

But my reaction to earthworms is not merely utilitarian; it is emotional. I love the squirmy little critters. They’re touchingly vulnerable, especially when it rains. Many a time after a big rain, I’ve picked up a worm from the sidewalk and placed it back on the grass, under a leaf if possible. And many a time, I’ve passed dried-out worms that were caught in a cloudburst and then scorched on the pavement by the sun. Or worms that someone has trod on with careless feet.

I know, I know, there’s more than a whiff of sentimentality in this, too uncomfortably close to the blithely unaware Harriet satirized in Gary Larson’s book, but I’m not ashamed of my feelings. Like so much of the natural world, earthworms are both vital and vulnerable, and that vulnerability arouses my maternal instincts. I want them to flourish. I want to protect them.

Part of it, too, is a childish delight in creatures often dismissed with a “yuck!” But unlike spiders, snakes, and other “creepy crawlers,” worms don’t bite. They don’t sting. They’re safe to handle. Perfect for my combination of wimpiness and love for playing in the dirt.

What’s your favorite non-cute-n-cuddly critter? I’d like to know!

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