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Life Here: Making Life Out of Compost

We had gotten out of the truck and were getting ready to go into the Montshire Museum when Cedar, who is 2, pointed to the bed of the pickup and said, “worms.”

Cedar is a boy I have babysat since he was 9 months old and we have become best friends. I almost always know what he is saying now, as he is a most articulate little fellow, but that time I was nonplussed. “Worms?” I asked. “Oh,” he replied.

He says “Oh” when he means yes, which I consider a  charming interpretation of the English language. In back of the truck were two wooden boxes with holes in the sides, and a bunch of skis. “I don’t see any worms,” I said, with some polite doubt in my voice, as if a worm might rear up from among the skis at any minute. We went off to the Montshire, which should have a display about worms, as far as I’m concerned. (I  formed this opinion after I researched this essay.)
Later, Cedar’s mom told me her vermiculture had died. I’d gotten used to putting her organic garbage in a separate clean container so she could feed it to her worms, which lived in the basement. I hadn’t heard of keeping worms in the basement and was charmed that they lived there, like some quiet, useful pets. Apparently, they’d gotten too cold, and perished. Cedar’s Dad had moved them to the back of his truck, so he could dispose of them in a rural area. They were, after all, strictly organic.
After she told me this the light dawned. “Ohhhhhh,” I said. “So that’s why he told me there were worms in the back of the truck.” I was tickled that his pronouncement wasn’t just some childish mistake. I should have known. He’s usually very accurate in his observations.

Not knowing much about vermiculture at that point I asked Cedar’s Mom if they might just be in hibernation. I wondered if they might wake back up when they got warm. I suggested I take the worms and put them on my compost, so that if they did wake back up they’d find themselves in a lovely new worm Eden, already populated by a thriving community of other worms.

I am loath to kill any creature, even a worm. She agreed with the plan.
Cedar and I went outside equipped with a plastic bag and some spoons. The boxes were now on a bench by the door, so I lifted the top off the first box and looked at the contents. All I could see was dirt mixed with finely shredded newspaper. I hacked at the mixture with the hand cultivator I saw lying in the box, and discovered it was like trying to dig cement. Cedar’s Dad had told me it was frozen, but I hadn’t realized just how frozen. The mixture had made a kind of adobe, and there was no way I was going to chop it enough to spoon it into my bag. So I closed the box back up and played with Cedar, who had discovered that his large spoon worked well as a shovel. I swept the stairs while he piled snow back on the steps. I would say, “Hey, you’re putting snow on my steps!” and he would laugh, and say “again.”
 I would turn my back, he’d put snow on the steps, I’d react with mock dismay, and so it went. I have gotten in touch with my inner 2 year old.

Later, at home, I looked up vermiculture. I discovered that most people use red wigglers, Eisenia foetida, or European nightcrawlers, Eisenia hortensis. They must be kept at around 70 degrees, and when they die they are really dead, not just in suspended animation. When they digest home compost, like eggshells, leaves, peelings and grains, they excrete “castings” which are, basically, dirt.  The dirt is of a high quality, and is purified of most contaminants.
I also looked up earthworms, because I was curious about what they did in the winter. I discovered that many worms die each year, after laying a packet of eggs. Others, like nightcrawlers, dig down under the frost line, where they curl up and wait for warmer times.

Worms do a vital job, disposing of organic waste, and do not receive proper respect for it. Next time you call someone a worm, you should think twice about the insult.

I decided that even though the red wigglers Cedar’s Mom used were really dead, I should put them on my compost anyway. I told her that once Cedar’s Dad got them out of the box, he should put them in a garbage bag and I’d take them home. In the meantime, Cedar’s mom told me the garbage was really piling up. She hadn’t realized how much the worms ate. I told her to add the garbage to another bag and I’d use that too. I have a horror of putting organic material into a landfill. It seems like a terrible waste.

I think I’ll bring Cedar to my house once I get the bags of dead worms and garbage. I’ll show him where my compost piles are and I’m sure he’ll be entranced by the piles of frozen banana peels and coffee grounds. He’ll probably poke at it with a stick. Then the crows and squirrels will come and take their tithe.

Out of such moments is a life made.