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Earthworms: the squishy, squirmy heralds of spring

That musky, earthy scent of worms after a spring rain is a sure sign that flowers and warmth are on their way.

By Patricia P. Miller / April 7, 2008



You know it right away. You know it instinctively, and you're even waiting for it. One warm, humid day in early April when conditions are just so, you open the screen door, hear the first birds sing, look down on the driveway and sidewalk and decide that, yes, the air smells of spring.

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I'm not talking about the scent of daffodils, lilacs, tulips, or hyacinths. I'm talking worms. That unmistakably wormy, fishy, musky, earthy smell of worms – on the driveway, across the sidewalk, in the grass, on the road. Earthworms everywhere.

Ever since the years of my early childhood, I have marveled at the profusion of worms that appear after a warm, spring rain, often on a morning when the sun first beckons you outside to watch and listen. As I traveled the slanted, cracked, concrete driveways and sidewalks of my youth toward elementary school, I proceeded with great care, avoiding the squirmy, icky worms that tried to interfere with my small footsteps.

I hopped and skipped over the live ones and the dead ones. Lacking an understanding of the role of light, temperature, and water at that age, I knew only that the worms' spring appearance foretold warm school-free days ahead – the best possible news for a young student soon to be set free to enjoy a long, hot summer. You know, the kind of summer where you laze on the porch, read old books, play Monopoly with your brothers, lose because they cheated again, and then agree to play another game anyhow.

When I was older and rode my bike to school, I developed the inquisitive, somewhat experimental attitude of a young scientist: I liked to ride right over the worms, just to see what happened. Squish! Pretty exciting when you're 10 years old and a despotic tyrant in your own little world.

You could get the same divisional effect from roller skates, the shiny metal ones that clamped to your Buster Brown shoes and made a great scraping sound as you bumped along the concrete, skate key swinging in wide arcs from a neck string in time with the push scrape, push scrape, of your metal wheels.

Great rumors ran around the playground that told of worms growing new heads and tails and going right on with life, doing worm things in double the numbers than before. But by the time I studied 10th grade biology and actually had to dissect an earthworm, girlish prudery and horror replaced my scientific interest. Yuck! Worms. Disgusting.

I forgot about worms and spring rain as life took more interesting and complex turns. But lately, I find myself fascinated again by this annual ritual of expectation and renewal. Now I wonder what actually brings out the worms, which seemingly happens by magic and universal compulsion and agreement on some certain spring morning when the air is heavy and still and rain slicks the ground.

Scientists say the worms are drawn out of hiding by moisture and that, after all, it's mating season for worms, too. The population has to grow by some means other than 10-year-olds determinedly squishing them with bike tires. We need worms for fishing, animal and bird food, soil aeration, and as harbingers of spring. And where would our spring robins – early birds or not – be without the worms?

Mark Twain said, "Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get." Expectation is one of life's greatest joys, and anticipating spring's arrival is high on my list. The smell of worms is followed, after all, by the scent of apple blossoms, roses, and daisies. I find that I can be more tolerant now of the annual rite of sidewalk decoration staged by the worm population. After all, it tells me that better things are just ahead.

And after a long Michigan winter with snow, ice, and below-zero wind-chill temperatures, the smell of worms isn't all bad. That odor reminds me of life returning to the earth, light lingering longer, warm spring rain, and the icy grip of one season grudgingly giving way to the gentler embrace of the next.

Bring on the worms.

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