Country diary: let’s hear it for the unappreciated earthworm


I’m digging, and it’s a bad day for it. Moving soil from one place to another in a fog of breath, and after the dip in temperature, it’s hard. As the shovel goes into the soil in one place and the edge breaks into sections, I spy something. Something completely unusual. And entirely expected.

I peer at it, a glistening vein in the soil, like some kind of organic cable, or weird, flinching root. A pulsation runs down it, the sharp, low sun of the morning lighting it up amid the matt of unthawed soil. I know nothing about it – other than that without it, we’d be doomed.

Could there be a creature with an image more damned than the earthworm? It is for ever destined to be caught by the early bird, speared on a cartoon fish hook, or at the very least disturbed in its work by a shovel. Get buried, and you’re “worm food”. A food chain of crippling weight presses upon this squishy, hydrostatic organism. Moles behead them and collect bodies as sustenance, like inverse battle scalps. Children are fascinated by one cleaved in half, because it’s all right when it’s a worm: it will survive and make two.

It won’t. That’s one of many myths about the worm. And they’re not all the same – far from it. We have 27 species, of thousands worldwide. Some burrow vertically. Some burrow horizontally. The fat ring towards one end is called a saddle, and is the core of the reproductive system. They can clone themselves, or reproduce sexually. They’re bristled, which is how they move. They are hermaphrodites. And in cold snaps like the one we’ve had, they die, or dig deep – or lay egg cocoons that look like unpopped corn kernels to carry on their work. They are interesting.

Moreover, the earthworm absolutely – and literally – underpins our everything. Waste managers and ecosystem engineers par excellence, they masterfully work, fertilise and irrigate our soil. Critical, but unpleasant – and therefore doomed to be unappreciated.

This one is now ominously still. I wonder for a minute if I’ve killed it. I hope I haven’t. But this being a worm, there will be something that will ensure it doesn’t go to waste if I have. The definition of a perfect organism, perhaps. Maybe we can learn something from it.


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