Guess I’ll Go Eat Worms

Words by
Monica Ramirez
| May 13, 2014

Man’s best friend is not the four legged canine, as popular culture would have you believe. In fact, man’s best friend has no legs at all. They’re slimy, wriggly and shy and their culinary choices and interior decorating skills were once studied by none other than Charles Darwin himself. I refer, of course, to the humble worm. Or the composting earthworm, to be precise.

For hundreds of thousands of years these little fellas have been polishing off leftover organic matter, kindly and selflessly replacing it with their deliciously mucusy humus. And although earthworms are famed for their poo, tirelessly concentrating nutrients into “vermicasts” is not their only party trick. Earthworms aerate soil, encourage plant growth hormones, nitrogen fix, and increase biological resistance of crops – all of the good things. Trust me, they are the true Rambos of the underground.

And after chatting to local worm guru and artist Richard Thomas about the power of the worm and the limitless uses for these genial little tubes of existence, I’m starting to re-think that old “go eat worms” taunt.

Monica: So Richard, when did this love affair with the worm begin or is it something a person is born with?

Richard: I grew up in the country and have been really interested in environment and ecology since I was a teenager. When I left school, I spent a year in Tasmania living on my Uncle and Aunt’s self-sufficient farm with a 2-acre food garden. It was spending my day composting, working draught horses and milking cows, that really got me going down this path. I spent a lot of the time since Art School creating installation and  sculpture projects based on natural systems and ecology. I started Wormlovers in 2002 around the time I did my first interactive worm powered art installation in Japan. I’ve always been fascinated by growth and decay in nature and the ceaseless movement of energy and  throughout nature, and the intertwined biotic and abiotic processes that cycle life and energy

Your involvement with worms is so varied and spans so many different levels, from the cut throat world of worm business to working with councils and schools and artistic ventures. What is your underlying message is when it comes to earthworms and composting?

There’s a saying in Complexity Theory: “Surface simplicity, deep complexity. Surface complexity, deep simplicity,” which describes vermicomposting perfectly. In practical terms, I would advise “keep it simple” and let nature take care of the complexity. Apart from that, there are four or five things that are worth keeping in mind, without needing to get too bogged down in lots of rules:

  1. Food: don’t overfeed the worms. Only add more food after half the previous feed is gone. Most people feed more than the worms can handle and then it rots and stinks before they can eat it.
  2. Balance carbon and nitrogen: plenty of shredded newspaper, cardboard or hay should do the trick.
  3. Keep cool: insert a frozen bottle of water during heat waves.
  4. Oxygen: keep the feed layer nice and fluffy so there’s plenty of air for maximum decomposition efficiency.
  5. Sprinkle lime to keep the worm farm sweet, and deter most pests.

Tell us about some of your most interesting initiatives. Where have you been most surprised to find yourself talking about worms?

It always amazes me how worms are a great leveller (no pun intended). They seem appeal and fascinate people from all works of life and all cultures. It must be something to do with an innate connection people have with the earth and the soil and the incredibly complex and yet simple processes of composting, nutrient flows and growth. Worms are simultaneously involved in the processes of growth and decay and I guess that’s pretty profound ‘cos we are all continually growing and decaying invisibly and constantly. It’s just that you can see it all happening in a worm farm. And its a great party conversation as anyone who eats food is a potential worm farmer. So I guess that means everyone! I’ve had great worm conversations from corporate boardrooms, to the back blocks of rural Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand.

In terms of interesting projects, there are so many. Right now we are working with Zoos Victoria to look at worm-composting systems for processing and value adding to their animal manures, so I’m getting up close and personal with a lot of zebra, elephant, giraffe and hippopotamus turds! We also have a really exciting interactive worm farm installation project coming up later this year for MONA in Tasmania which will be launched as part of National Science Week.

Lunchtime!

Any other technologies blowing your mind right now?

The Hungry Bin worm farm! It’s a small miracle and all my dreams come try as far as worm farm design goes!

I hear the man himself Charles Darwin found worms to have quirky and quite individualistic characteristics. Being around them so much, have you found the same?

Yes, they do seem to have some fascinating behaviour characteristics. Just when you think you understand what they are up to, they will do something completely out of character. They seem to be very inquisitive and nomadic. There is some conjecture as to whether they have a brain or just a nervous system. We have a common ancestor around 600 million years ago. As for their intelligence, I guess they do have some innate intelligence in that they are a key agent in soil ecology and therefore, connected to the larger cycles in nature such as the hydrological cycle and the nitrogen cycle, and even climate. Perhaps they are a kind of super organism in the same way that termites and bees are. They seem to have a collective (un?) consciousness and react to their environment in a very sensitive and collective manner.

Worms are being turned into flour (yes for eating!) in Mexico… I have to ask, have you ever eaten a worm?

Yes! We cooked some up for a project in Japan a few years ago. They were a bit rubbery so I need to work on the recipe a bit more. They are high in protein and I believe they are used in Chinese medicine too.

And for all us budding worm farmers, worm lovers and worm contemplators, any last words of wisdom?

Without worms we would not exist. Worms were instrumental in creating most of the arable soil in the world. They evolved parallel to plants. No worms, no soil. No soil, no plants. No plants, no humans! This quote says it all:

“Soil comes first. It represents nature and sustains the entire world. Everything comes from the soil and returns to the soil. Water which nourishes life is held by the soil and so is fire. The sun, the moon, and the stars are all related to the soil. The soil is a metaphor for the entire natural system. If we take care of the soil, the soil will take care of us all. Through the soil we are all related and interconnected. We depend on the soil. All living beings depend on the soil.”

Satish KumarThree dimensions of Ecology: Soil Soul and Society

Richard Thomas is the director of www.wormlovers.com.au

NOTE: Slider image by Georgina Reid, all other images by Monica Ramirez


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