Saving the planet, one worm at a time

My Western Massachusetts home is not far from an 800-acre state park. As a wildflower lover, I eagerly await the springtime arrival of dew-fresh trillium blooming along the park's less traveled foot paths. Over the summer months, I enjoy wandering through open sunny spots that nurture wild blue lupine and an array of yellow and white daisies.

Where I enter the park begins as nothing more than a meandering trail of matted grass and deep ruts carved by dirt bikes. It abruptly ends near an asphalt roadway, which acts as a circular loop around the local swimming hole that beckons sweaty young children during the summer months.

After walking my favorite three-mile route an endless number of times, I finally realized that the likelihood of my spotting wildlife was almost nil. Deer avoid the open course; no self- respecting fox, coyote, or rabbit would chance being there because they'd have to dodge bikers, joggers, and the far-too-frequent cars blasting the latest rock songs.

I decided the next best thing I could do was search for creatures that no one seems to care about - whatever they might be.

So one hot muggy afternoon last June, I put on bug spray and headed off to see what I could find. It was the kind of day that sends trickles of sweat down the small of your back just because you are breathing. I was almost to the asphalt road when the sky turned a threatening steel gray, and ragged patterns of raw electricity shot out at the trees along the park's horizon. After dashing to a nearby pavilion, I stood and watched as raindrops as large as jaw breakers skimmed across the ground as if it were greased.

When the sky finally cleared, I stepped back onto the muddy path and my feet immediately sank into an oozing coolness that rapidly engulfed my sandals. Each step produced a distinct sucking sound as I grappled with this marvelous earthy glue. By the time I reached the pavement, a brown crust had formed around my ankles. It peeled off like bits of tree bark and made my white legs look more like the trunk of the glorious sycamore nearby.

It was then that I spotted them on the roadway, wriggling under clouds of steaminess where the sun had baked the asphalt just a short time ago. Earthworms - at least 100 of them - swept there by the rain, desperately searching for a cool, dark haven.

Behind me I heard a car approaching. Unaware of these tiny creatures, a white convertible with four teenagers hurried by. I shook my head - surely they'd never know, or even fret, about the worms they had run over. Was it meaningless to care? After all, here I was, a sentient species looking down at nature's lowliest pawns. I recalled my biology lessons: Worms nourish soil with their castings, and their tunneling aerates the land. These silent creatures go about their business undetected by human ears. Yet I believe I did hear them for the first time.

For whatever reason, that afternoon I became a worm plucker, taking upon myself the duty of rescuing worms.

I quickly discovered it was impossible for me to hold more than one frenetic creature at a time. So I walked to the side of the road and set a single slithering body down on the safe moist earth. Showing neither gratitude nor concern, it poked through blades of grass and was quickly gone.

I gathered more. And more. Had anyone seen me, I am sure they would have given me wide berth. Imagine seeing a dirt-speckled woman, mud squishing between her sandaled toes, daintily placing worms by the side of the road, one by one. But when I returned home, I felt oddly satisfied.

Soon, I realized that being a worm plucker didn't end after one rainy-day visit to a park. It became something I felt obliged to do, over and over.

Later that summer a boy, perhaps 7 years old, was walking behind me on a neighborhood street. It had rained only a few hours prior. As I strolled down the sidewalk, I caught sight of worms struggling on the warm pavement. Without hesitation, I stooped down and lifted each one to safety.

I could see that the boy was carefully keeping his distance and would timidly stop whenever I did. I guessed that he was trying to make sense of my actions. Finally, as I turned to cross the street to go home, he called out, "Hey lady, you missed one!"

I turned just in time to see him pick up a worm and tenderly place it on a patch of grass beneath a holly bush. I could have said something clever, something grown-up, or maybe even tried to hide how silly I felt at that moment. Instead, I waved my hand and whispered, "It's your turn."

You can save the whales, protect the wolves, or even leave timberland alone for a solitary bird if that is what you feel is necessary to save this planet.

I, on the other hand, will continue being a worm plucker.

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