Sure as anything, the first string of warmer sunny days was bound to bring a price of something regrettable like an equal measure of cold and wet. Northland weather is about as reliable as a trollop’s vow. Both are highly changeable. Thinking “Darned cold for June,” I stepped from the car and began crossing the paved lot, careful not to step on the many loose “shoelaces” ahead of me. They were not shoelaces, of course, but poor doomed worms brought down in a final stretch for freedom that sadly ended badly.
It is not easy to be a worm. The ground had barely thawed before they were forced by flood to seek higher terrain. Lacking perspective, a worm can only plug on in hope. Its long history of racial survival doesn’t have a memory of paved parking lots as unfriendly to earth burrowers as boiling water is to shrimp. Doomed and having no knowledge of this, a remarkable number of shoelaces reach the middle of the asphalt Sahara only to expire in mid-stretch, though a few (perhaps obeying the earth’s rotation) form coils like wet curls. Think of it. The middle of a good-sized parking lot is a huge achievement for a worm. These are the Hercules and Achilles of their race, only to be all but ignored, turned to mush, or gobbled quickly by knowing gulls who serve as parking lot vultures. I pity and honor the valiant worm. Why, I ask myself, with so much energy did they not first climb a tree for a view of the best escape route and then begin their pilgrimage? Perhaps the wise survivors do just that. Who’d notice a worm thirty feet up a tree? Not I.
Drowned worms are not new in my life. I confess having inflicted this fate on many. Humans are not sensitive to the needs or feelings of worms, nor do we respect them. In the wild, their principal admirers and devotees are boys intent on acquiring bait. I did that. In my family I was the chief drowner of worms, a title given by my father in recognition of a fishing passion that didn’t always show proof in the form of fish. Whilst the worm was drowning, my occupation was waiting. I lacked the patience to do this successfully and often wandered off to throw rocks, slash shrubbery with stick swords, and pursue other things a lot more occupying than waiting for a worm to gasp its last or become a fish snack. Oh, I caught fish, but there was lots of exploring, napping, wading, swimming, and daydreaming to make my treks more than worthwhile. Despite the annoyance of flies, it was many times more pleasant to sprawl alone on a bed of fern and discarded clothes than be in my room or (far worse) push the mower over a lawn that never stopped growing. It wasn’t cruelty on my part that put a container of worms in the refrigerator. I put them there for their preservation, a reality Mother refused to consider, so I only got to do that once, along with needing another worm-hunting trip that night to replace the bait Mother send to a better world via the toilet. It can be sad and difficult to be a worm.
In grade 10 there was biology class. A good many of us looked to that as a potential opening of the secrets of life, which to a favored few of us were well-thumbed pages visited early and in some cases often. For most, such as me, there was more promise than revelation. We were given worms (rather larger than the local sort) and told to dissect them. Writing that line brings sharp images to mind. If there was excitement in uncovering a worm’s gonads, we didn’t discover it; at least I didn’t. The next image (and here I truly admire the worm for being less smart than we humans) is trying to imagine such a scene today, when a biology class would be assailed by worm rights advocates, environmental health groups concerned over formaldehyde fumes, and an armed police force or two to do surveillance and vigilant scalpel patrol.
I don’t recall anyone getting cut doing dissection or any scalpels turning up later in knife fights behind the old gym. Some of us didn’t like cutting up worms or frogs, but most of us did it with the same teenage charm we employed for school lunches. It was there on a tray with some gravy and mashed whatever, so we ate it. In the case of dead dissection material, we laid them open, sliced, pinned, and were done with it. With as many worms as I hooked and drowned, I was in no way scarred from slicing one apart on a wax bed. There may well be consequences to breathing formaldehyde fumes, but those don’t seem any more lethal or serious than the consequences of squinting at tiny screens with overworked thumbs, which face today’s younger generation. As for a scalpel, I was unable to steal one. As a teenage boy I was obliged to attempt this. I suspect only a rare male in biology wasn’t a scalpel coveter. The powers in charge knew this and acted accordingly. They knew we’d get over this huge disappointment and soon go back to pulling each other’s shirts loose and knocking books from arms in the halls. Our pleasures were as simple as our perspectives, which were about high as those of the worms we lorded over. But things are so much better now, and duller, and really not too much better when one mean viewpoint merely replaces another.
I’ve left out details of the worms’ utility in nature and of our human fascination with them as symbols of human frailty. Remember chanting “The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out”? I wonder if children still sing that and if anyone knows what pinochle is anymore. And there we have two topics for another time.