Tuesday, March 15, 2011

AS THE WORM TURNS – Close Encounters of the Dirt Kind

Those of you who follow my work here or on my sporadic travel blog, El Viajero Contento, know I'm fascinated by how so many of life's wonders lie hidden to first glances, and how finding them takes an extra measure of curiosity, creativity and patience.

I often think of how much I learned about that kind of discovery from my maternal grandfather.

SPARKS OF INTEREST
It was Grandpa Janssen who let me sharpen his darts on the hand-powered grinding wheel in his garage. When he saw how intrigued I was with the shower of sparks, he indulged my fascination by asking me to sharpen stuff that didn't even need sharpening, like scraps of steel rod or big five-penny nails. He's the one who showed me how ants feed on the nectar that oozes from peony buds. He would pull apart a bleeding heart flower and use the various parts—resembling two pink rabbits, two white slippers, a dagger and, of course, the heart—to illustrate a little fairy tale.


But of all the wonders Grandpa helped me experience, the one that seems to best exemplify the process of discovery was hunting for night crawlers.

We were going fishing one day and needed live bait. Grandpa had a garden, so I figured it would be easy; just give me a spade and an old coffee can and let me dig around for some worms. Now maybe he feared what I'd do to his garden, or perhaps he just needed to keep me occupied for a while, but he had another plan. You can imagine how mystified I was when he said that, instead of a shovel, we'd use a hose.

I imagined the green blades and brown thatch as a Lilliputian rain forest, undergoing its annual inundation by a Lilliputian Amazon.

It was an exercise not just in discovery, but also its companions, patience and faith. Grandpa turned on a gradual flow of water and brought the business end of the hose to the middle of the small back yard where he set it down on the grass. He told me to sit down, watch and listen, and then went into the house.

SOIL SEARCHING
A ten-year-old boy doesn't have much of an attention span. It seemed like an hour before anything happened. To pass the time, I imagined the green blades and brown thatch as a Lilliputian rain forest, undergoing its annual inundation by a Lilliputian Amazon. I was thinking of how all the critters—the ants, sow bugs, centipedes and beetles—were either adapting to or fleeing the deluge.

Suddenly bubbles started popping up through the flood. Then there was a different kind of movement. At first I barely noticed it through the grass and the bright reflection of sky and clouds on the water, but night crawlers were emerging from the soil, with their distinctive "two steps forward one step back" slithering motion.

 

Parts of their mauve- to putty-colored bodies glistening with iridescent highlights of blue and red. 

Besides the now-obvious fact that these guys could drown, I learned a lot about night crawlers that day. They're fast; if you try for one before it's about two thirds of the way out of its hole, it'll duck back in before you get a grip. They're strong and brave; sometimes one will hold on so tight that it breaks in half before letting go. And they're colorful, some parts of their mauve- to putty-colored bodies glistening with iridescent highlights of blue and red.

I've never looked at night crawlers the same way since. Despite my admiration, though, I still use them for bait. How can someone who professes reverence for all of life do such a thing? I'm afraid that's a worm of a different color.

4 comments:

Everett said...

Thank you for reminding me of the wonders of "wasting" time with Grandpa Janssen in his garage and back yard.
Everett

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hey Cous. -- Did you ever get to behold the smokey mystery of Grandpa and his pals playing cribbage in the basement?

Bern'e Krausse said...

Wonderful story and recollection Jeffrey. One of the best gifts in life is to have someone teach us how to span our attention into wonderland.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Thanks, Bern'e - I'll bet you've had many such teachers -- and that you've become one yourself!

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