First off, let me stipulate that were I not wearing gardening gloves I wouldn’t be able to bring myself to pick up a squirmy wriggling unfurling earthworm. But then, up until the last couple of years I didn’t do much gardening either, so for the most part the point was moot.
Inch by inch, I am reclaiming our massive suburban lawn from the ever-thirsty grass, and in its place I am creating (or, trying to create) undulating beds of flowers. While green is actually my favorite hue, my goal is to have as much of the yard as possible be a riot of color. And so, Saturday and Sunday both found me crouched over, sifting dirt off seemingly endless clods of grass and, naturally, encountering hundreds and hundreds of earthworms.
The better part of a lifetime ago, my grandfather tried to introduce me to the wonders of the lowly earthworm, or the Phylum Annelida, as he never ever would have called it. Early in the morning he would kneel in his own garden to pluck unwary worms out of the earth. Back then his yard—a large sloping thing rushing down to the shores of Newton Pond in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts—seemed impossibly huge to me, a little girl who had grown up mostly in army-provided tract houses or apartments in the city. But Grandpa was not gardening on those mornings, he was collecting bait.
Newton Pond—known at Grandpa’s house as “The Pond,” as if the town weren’t spotted with so many others—was idyllic, but fraught with dangers for me. Though Grandpa waded out as deep as his barrel chest to tend the shore, long strings of seaweed lurked just under the water ready to grab my legs (is it still called seaweed if it’s in a lake?). His sturdy homemade wharf gently rocked on the waves, threatening at any moment to buck like an untrained horse and toss me into the water where my bathtub fantasies of being a mermaid would do me no good as I most assuredly drowned.
It wasn’t all foreboding, of course. Me, my little sister and the boy down the street, Matt, used to walk for miles and miles—well, probably just under one mile, really—to the “Sand Pits” at the end of Sewell Street to cadge old truck inner-tubes from the operators there. By the time we got them back to Grandpa’s house we were hot, sticky and completely covered with black soot, three dark little gremlins threatening to track filth into my grandmother’s tidy ranch house. Once Grandpa had patched and cleaned the tubes, we’d pump them up, tie them to the wharf and enjoy hard-earned sodas as we floated contentedly and watched the speed boats go whizzing by, squealing at the wake created with each pass.
But there was also the fishing. Having collected sufficient worms, Grandpa would pull out three fishing rods—little ones for my sister and I and a full sized one for him—along with fishing line, hooks and a bucket. He’d select a worm from the pile, letting that weird pink articulated body curl around his fingers. Then he would spear it onto the hook, showing me how to get it firmly impaled so that the fish couldn’t just make off with it. He’d hold another worm in his palm, offering it to me with an encouraging smile, while I shook my head so fast I risked self-inflicted whiplash. After we pulled in the fish, I refused too to take it off the hook and watched in dismay as each one flopped and struggled on the wharf. I’m not sure if these were sun fish or calico bass that my grandmother later enthusiastically turned into what I seem to remember her calling “kipper soup,” but either way I wasn’t going to eat something I’d seen die. Eventually my grandparents would give in and feed their two exhausted, sunburned, traumatized grandchildren a few slices of cheese pizza.
Now it’s at least 35 years later. My beloved grandfather died of a cancer that robbed him of the muscles and strength of which he’d been so proud. My grandmother followed many years later, slowly drifting back toward her childhood of Lithuanian dances and Depression-era memories. I am told the house on Sewell Street is almost unrecognizable as the little green house I once knew so well, though I suspect The Pond looks much the same.
And our dirt is more clay-like than I feel like "dirt" should be. When I turn shovels full of it over, it seems impossibly dense and heavy. Yet, somehow, these tiny creatures make their way through it until I find them flailing and searching when they are suddenly exposed to the air and the light. I still don’t want to spear them with a fishing hook. Nor do I want to subject them to a quick submersion followed by the attentions of a hungry fish. Nor, frankly, do I really want to touch them.
But they remind me of capacious endless summers past, when I frolicked on palatial grounds, ventured along enchanted paths to reach a mysterious desert, rode atop giant swells and was indulged beyond reason by my doting grandparents. So I gently work these worms loose from the grass roots and carefully place them in an already cleared space so that they can loop and squirm and squiggle their way back to their underground lair.