Earthworms & the unseen
Lessons from the Garden
ALANDA GREENE explores the question, “What am I not seeing?” and celebrates paradox, impossibility and synchronicity through her musings on earthworms.
I grew up in a city at a time of large green lawns and cement sidewalks. The connected streets and crescents and curving suburban neighborhoods had an easily navigated network for pedestrians and cyclists and mothers pushing prams to walk long distances without ever having to cross a street. It was wonderful and safe, and we cycled and ran everywhere.
After a rain, however, these sidewalk thorough fares were not so great for earthworms. With the dampness on the cement, the worms would begin a journey from one dirt haven to another. But many did not make the long distance, in worm terms, before the sidewalk became dry.
It saddened me to find twig-like desiccated pinkish pieces on the cement. When I found one still alive, I picked it up and placed it in the grass or tossed it to safety.
Rain in the garden doesn’t lead to overground earthworm traffic. I do not find dried out carcasses. The worms incur different threats. In spring, keen to fill the wide-spread mouths of newborn chicks, robins hang about close to where I turn over soil in preparation for planting. They forgo usual reluctance to come so close in response to the compelling need of newborns, brazenly hopping near my feet to grab exposed worms. Although worms are not the main food of newly hatched robins, they are still a significant food source. In the two-week period before leaving the nest, a young robin can eat 14 feet of earthworm dinners. Three or four young ones in a nest, nests in various places in the yard – the wisteria, the workshop, the cedars, the hazelnut – means the easy pickings I provide are worth the parental risk to move in close.
I cherish these earthworms, and the robins too, and encourage their presence in the garden. When people comment on the garden’s good soil, I give credit to these wiggly workers and all they provide. Even though it takes more work to turn the ground with a garden fork, rather than a mechanical tiller, it seems to encourage more worms, so I choose the fork. Shovels slice too many worms while a fork seems to slide around them.
The straw mulch that covers the garden over winter and lies between beds the rest of the year is a moist source of organic material that the worms eat, nutrients going in one end and out the other as worm castings.
They are a terrific source of soil nutrients, balancing the soil’s pH, loosening and mixing the layers. They break down organic matter to make nutrients available to plants, and create burrows that allow oxygen and water to reach deeper levels of soil, as well as the roots of plants. Charles Darwin referred to them as nature’s ploughs.
But in the same way that I was hardly aware of these helpful organisms until finding them stranded on the cement, I often forget about them as I work in the garden. They are in the unseen part of the soil, noticed during the inadvertent offerings to robins, remembered when asked about why I don’t mechanically till, or when suddenly visible as I turn a pile of compost or dirt.
In Signs of the Unseen: The Discourses of Jalaluddin Rumi, this well-known Sufi poet, story-teller and teacher of the 13th century offers words to nudge, exhort, prod, and remind his listeners to seek the wealth of the hidden treasure. Coming to the seashore and wondering where there are pearls, or even if there are pearls at all, Rumi asks, “How is one to obtain a pearl merely by looking at the sea?”
He encourages those he instructs to let what is hidden in their hearts be brought forward and made visible. “It is like the root of a tree,” he says. “Although it is hidden from view, its effects are apparent on the branches.” Often he gives a clear reminder to what is implied here: humans need to remember this hidden, unseen realm, and then the signs of it will be obvious. When not acknowledged, the treasure is invisible and forgotten, its existence denied.
In the moments that bring them to awareness,
I am reminded of how much of the
really important work is going on beneath the surface,
whether it’s in the garden or in other dimensions of my life.
Sometimes it seems that other beings of creation understand the unseen better than humans do and don’t need to be prodded with discourse. Earlier this year in late winter, it was still cold, still snowing, but each day the amount of light was increasing as the days grew longer. In the root cellar, however, it remained as cold and as dark as it had been through the previous winter months. Yet when I reached to take potatoes from their box, small nubs of new sprouts dotted them. These potatoes knew. They knew it was time to get ready for growing. But how did they know? What were their clues in that dark, cold, apparently unchanged room? Not anything I could perceive.
Barbara Kingsolver wrote a collection of essays titled High Tide in Tucson. In one of them, she tells of a researcher in 1954, F.A.Brown, who brought oysters from their Connecticut seabeds to the basement of a laboratory in Illinois. For a couple of weeks the oysters kept their behavior to the rhythm of the coastal tides they had known, mouths open to siphon in their plankton nourishment, then closed in their shells. But then the rhythm of this tidal stimulated activity changed. Still acting in unison but not to a recognized tide pattern, the researchers finally calculated that the oysters were responding to high tide in Chicago. It had been millions of years since a sea bed covered this land, but the hidden rhythm of those ancient tides was still perceived by the oysters and they adjusted to it. They made the unseen visible.
Many decades ago, the participants in a weekly class at Yasodhara Ashram were asked to reflect during the coming week on the question: What am I not seeing? At first, I thought it was a strange question, somewhat irritating. How could anyone answer a question like that? If I could see it, then I wasn’t ‘not seeing’. If I couldn’t see it, how could it be known? The question seemed to loop around itself in an impossibility, a paradox of reason. But of course these kinds of questions are not like the homework I had been given at school, to bring back an answer and find out if it was right or wrong. It’s the kind of question meant to initiate more questions and reflection, with maybe no hope of an ‘answer’ but great possibility for expanding thought and perception. Great enough to last a lifetime.
Not long after bringing this question home like a puppy that had followed me and moved into the house as a lifelong friend, I received a postcard in a newsletter. You have to keep your mind on what you cannot see, it read. I laughed aloud at the synchronicity. This card has remained pinned to the bulletin board above my desk. I want the reminder of what is hidden, of what I am not seeing, so I can expand the remembrance. I want to remember the worms and give them their due, along with the other hidden treasures.
Article by ALANDA GREENE
August 02, 2019
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