by Amy Stewart, appearing at the Portland Home & Garden Show, Expo Center, 2060 N. Marine Drive, Friday Feb. 25, 3 pm, $10 gen. admission
When I was nine years old, Nicky Leonard told me she'd give me a dollar if I ate a worm. I agreed immediately, but as tough as I thought I was, I couldn't bring myself to chew the still-wriggling body. Instead, I submerged the worm in some sugar water and swallowed it whole. The peculiar feeling of nausea that I experienced for weeks after this questionable accomplishment returned as I was reading the first chapter of Amy Stewart's The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms, when she revealed that up to one million worms can inhabit an acre of soil. Picturing a subterranean landscape of writhing worm bodies--like "ground beef set in motion"--made me want to hurl. It's a testament both to Stewart's quirky, engaging writing and to her contagious fascination with her slimy subjects that by the end of the book, my queasiness had completely subsided.
Stewart's interest in worms began with a gardener's respect for healthy dirt. It's commonly known that as worms move through the ground, their droppings enrich the soil, but Stewart suspected that there was much more to the creature than nutritious poop. This suspicion was shared by none other than Charles Darwin, whose last book was devoted entirely to the habits of worms.
Alternately poetic and pragmatic, Stewart traces the development of wormology from Darwin to today. The book is full of interesting trivia, from the salacious details of worm sex (slimy and hermaphroditic), to the existence of the "Oregon giant worm," which can grow up to three feet in length and could be lurking under your feet right now.
Stewart hits her stride, though, when discussing potential applications of earthworm power. Worms can eat almost anything, including toxins, and their digestive powers have been found to actually break down certain pollutants. Efforts are underway to use worms to process human waste at sewage treatment plants. Through a combination of extensive research and affectionate writing, Stewart elevates the earthworm from a lowly garden dweller to a complicated, mysterious creature with the power to shape human destiny.