Thursday, June 30, 2005

Nematode 911

Today I had a flashback to the rainy season, coming across a worm inching its way across the sidewalk. Usually, you don't see that very much in the summer, but it is a very common sight in the winter rains--I am told that they come up out of the soaked ground, so apparently they are on the sidewalks, parking lots, and streets trying not to drown.

The trouble is, there are many other things on the cement, none of them very good for little worms. That time of year, you see lots of squashed worms who got out of the ground to breathe, only to encounter a foot or a bicyle or a car, and that was the end of it.

Out of revulsion at seeing too many needless worm tragedies, I have become a worm rescuer of sorts, taking them out of the hostile environment and putting them back in their home. I used to just use whatever was at hand--a leaf, perhaps--to pick up the worm and return it to the grass. Then I began noticing likely sticks on my walks, and carrying them home to take with me prophylactically on future walks.

There is a very narrow range into which the perfect worm stick falls--too narrow, like a pine needle, and the worm just falls off when you try to pick it up. Too thick, on the other hand, and it's hard to get under the worm--you can inadvertently injure it that way. Also, the worm characteristically does not appreciate the help; you have to not only pick it up, but balance a squirmy animal while you carry it to its destination. A worm is not perfectly uniform along its entire length; there is a clitellum, or wide band, closer to the mouth end. So the center of gravity is not at (length of worm)/2; it is shifted forward, and a little experimentation will help you to estimate it successfully almost always, at least until it starts squirming too fast.

When he heard about my requirements for the perfect worm stick, my friend Dale made me a customized worm fork, pictured below.

Dale is a fine craftsman in wood, as well as in other venues such as horticulture; he has a nice eye for detail, and integrates function with symbolism in his work. (For the upcoming anniversary of the death of a young climber friend from cancer, he has made a clock out of a wonderful piece of old wood that looks just like a craggy rock face.) The specifications for the fork were my contribution; the leather handle for attaching it to a backpack, and the clitellum were totally Dale's ideas.

Now, thanks to Dale, I have a really nice stick for rescuing worms, although I have put it up for the season, not expecting to need it until the rains begin. But I do have a nagging question--is it really helping the worms to put them back in the grass? Apart from the obvious examples--for example, they need relocation because they're headed for the freeway on-ramp--it is the wet grass that they were escaping from in the first place, after all. I hope that in rescuing them from squashing, I'm not condemning them to drown. I'd welcome thoughts on the subject from anyone who knows more about worm anatomy and physiology than I do.


At 2:39 AM, Anonymous Lei said...

That's a serious worm forklift!


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