”It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world as these lowly organised creatures. Without the work of this humble creature, who knows nothing of the benefits he confers upon mankind, agriculture, as we know it, would be very difficult, if not wholly impossible.”
CHARLES DARWIN, 1881
Our townhouse backs a golf course. A long par-five is our backyard, and I so enjoy not having to mow it. Giving the golfers a wide-berth, I often use the cart path for morning and evening walks around ours and two adjoining fairways. Circling back to our place, the distance is just over a mile. I walk our dog, Benji, on the golf course too, as do a few other pet owners in our neighborhood, the Enclave at Thorntree. With a poop bag at the ready, I am one of the more responsible pet owners, I am proud to say. I keep our dog on a leash too, except when we play fetch. He’s really good at playing fetch. He knows that a tasty treat is waiting for him each time he returns the tennis ball, so not even an occasional squirrel crossing the fairway to run up a tree distracts him from the game.
I picked up our little great granddaughter after school the other day and I brought her to our place. My wife, her Oma, was helping her finish her “What-I-Want-to-Be-When-I-Grow-Up” project, so she had work to do after school. But she wasn’t anxious to get started right away.
“Opa, can we play awhile?” she asked after I had parked the car in our garage.
“Yes, honey,” I answered. “What would you like to play?
“Let’s go dig,” she said, not waiting for my answer and grabbing the long-handled plastic play shovel we brought back from fun on the beach at Galveston last summer. While I checked to make sure that there were no golf carts on the fairway, she made a beeline for the closest sand trap behind our house.
She removed her shoes and socks before stepping into the sand. She loves the feel of sand between her toes and she longs to return to the beach.
I cautioned her about digging too deep and getting dirt mixed in with the sand. She was careful not to do so while she made several piles of sand. I supervised while keeping an eye out for any golf carts pulling up adjacent to one of the fairway’s tee boxes. The particular sand trap we were in was a good 350 yards downrange from even the ladies’ tee, so I knew that we’d be safe and have plenty of time to rake smooth the sand piles and fill the holes before any golfers could come into range to threaten us with a hit.
After 10 minutes or so, I handed my little darling a rake, signaling to her that it was time for us to leave. She dutifully raked and smoothed the sand while I picked up her shoes and socks for the walk back to the house.
“Opa,” she asked, “what are these little piles of dirt?”
“Those are worm castings, honey.”
“Yes, honey,” I said. “ Worm poop.
“EEEYOOOOO!” she screamed. “Worm poop!?” After this, she was extremely careful where she chose to step as we walked back to the house.
“Why do they poop, Opa?” she asked.
Recognizing the opportunity for a teaching moment, I said, “All God’s creatures have to poop, honey, and we are oh so very fortunate that worms poop the way they do. Without earthworms, we would not have the fertile soil that we need to grow this pretty grass.”
“Or carrots, or celery, or broccoli either, right Opa?” Pretty perceptive my little girl, wouldn’t you say?
“That’s right, honey. Worm poop is the best natural fertilizer there is. And long before people figured out how to make artificial fertilizers, farmers had been spreading manure on their fields from farm animals like pigs and cows. Some farmers still do. But worms take care of the spreading part all by themselves. In addition, they bore holes through the soil so that air can get in and they do much of their pooping down low where the roots of plants can make best use of the nutrients in their poop?”
“Yes, honey, nutrients. Nutrients are chemicals like phosphorous and nitrogen which are in dead animals and plant matter. These nutrients are easier for living plants to use after these dead things, organic things, have been digested and excreted by earthworms.”
“Excreted?” my granddaughter asked.
“Excreted means being passed out of the body — like when animals go to the bathroom, like Benji does when we walk him out here to do his business. Scientists who know about these kinds of things tell us that nitrogen availability in earthworm poop is five times greater than in soil that has not been first digested by earthworms.”
For those who might want to know more about this process, about how earthworms help to make soil fertile and other ways that they contribute to surface ecosystems, go to http://sciencelearn.org.nz/Science-Stories/Earthworms/Earthworms-role-in-the-ecosystem.
“Opa, you’re the smartest man in the whole world,” my little granddaughter said.
I am so grateful today that geography was my major in college and that I took interesting classes like the geography of soils. Because of that, and my years of teaching geography to freshmen high school students, I had a ready answer to my little darling’s question. And, because of that, she thinks that I’m the smartest man in the whole world.
Life is good.
Thank you, God, for earthworms, and for curious little girls.
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