Monday, February 1, 2010

Notes from the Underground

I have never cared much for pets. I grew up with cats and was as indifferent about them as they were about me. My brother once asked me to baby-sit his four cats for a few months. They were indoor cats. I was violently allergic to them so I put them on running lines in the backyard. When I came back several hours later they were all calmly suspended in mid-air, hanging by the neck as if out of some particularly demented Booth cartoon from The New Yorker. Taking the near strangled felines down from their nooses I realized that domestic animals and I simply were not meant for each other.

Now I'm older, wiser, more compassionate and absolutely in love with my new pets. Even though I never let them out of the basement, I'm just nuts about them. I look in on them everyday and regret that they only need to be fed a couple of times a week. I'm so crazy about them that although I started with 1,000, I quickly bought another 500 and have now bred more than 10,000. They're quiet, clean, obedient, fun to watch, never need to go to the vet, like living in the basement, and, here's the best part, they eat my garbage. They're just great and I'm totally insane for them. They're worms.

It all started last spring, just before Earth Day. For several years I'd been carting kitchen scraps to the community garden in San Francisco's Fort Mason for composting. This invariably involved putting a bucket of wet, stinky, molding slop into the car and then having to empty it into a garbage can of even more fragrant molding slop at the garden. And when the stuff ultimately evolved into compost there never seemed to be any left for me, my more aggressive fellow community gardeners always having beaten me to the latest harvest of "black gold."

It was about that time that a notice arrived from SLUG (the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners) informing me of a composting program subsidized by the City. If I acted immediately, a Wriggly Wranch Worm Farm (a $49.95 value) could be mine for the unprecedented low price of $20.00 (worms not included). I raced to Cole Hardware and was soon back at home with my Wriggly Wranch and two quart-size ice cream tubs, each containing about 500 rust-colored red wrigglers.

With great expectation I put the Wranch together, and fluffed up the Wranch's worm "bedding" with the anticipation of a newlywed fluffing up pillows on his wedding night. After sitting on the shelf for who knows how long, my newly purchased worms appeared nearly catatonic. Still, I had visions of churning out large quantities of quality compost on a weekly basis. After all, the literature said that the worms could eat up to their weight in garbage every day.

As instructed, I emptied the worms onto the bedding, covered them with strips of moistened newspaper, closed the lid and left them alone to settle in. Well, almost. I just couldn't leave them alone. They looked kind of lost and helpless. I wanted to see them burrow down to the business of making compost. And they looked hungry.

Defying the instructions that said not to feed them for the first two weeks, I took some lettuce trimmings and a few banana peels down to the basement. When I opened the Wranch a week later I learned that worms cannot be rushed. They hadn't even looked at what I had given them which had turned into a fuzzy carpet of mold. I scraped it off, picked out the few worms that had dared to climb in, said my apologies, and started over. Being a successful worm owner would not be a simple as I had first imagined.

Over time I've come to better understand my worms' dietary needs. Avocado skins they will avoid for months. But put a piece of slightly overripe cantaloupe in the box and a vermicultural orgy commences with thousands of inch-long wrigglers sliming their way over each other into a thick ball of oozing, living spaghetti. Like childbirth, it's simultaneously grotesque and absolutely riveting. My three year-old daughter can't watch them enough. She'll blissfully pick up a handful of worms, select one, and stroke it as though caressing a cat under the neck. Or she'll hold a piece of food above their tray while calling, "Here wormy wormy worm." (Like I'm going to tell her worms don't have ears?)

After six months of experimenting, I've fallen onto a favorite recipe. Here it is; into a food processor place any combination of banana peels, egg shells, salad trimmings, and used coffee filters with grounds. Purée. Pour over worms. They love it. My wife, however, finds this process completely disgusting and leaves the kitchen each time I joyfully call out "Time to feed the worms" and begin loading the food processor. Her retreat from the kitchen was particularly fortunate the time I tried to food process watermelon rind. The thick skin jammed under one of the blades causing the entire machine to skip madly over the counter.

Invariably, over-confidence gets lion tamers into trouble and as my worms and I grew more comfortable with each other, I, too, was headed for a fall. The Wriggly Wranch instruction manual firmly cautioned me against giving the worms much citrus. Facing a pile of grapefruit peels, I thought a little vitamin C couldn't hurt them. Into the food processor the peels went, creating one of the more pleasant and zesty slurries I've created. A week later, when I lifted the top off my Wriggly Wranch, a disgusting cloud of tiny flies rose into my face. Citrus. Red wrigglers. Not a good mix.

Now we are back on better terms. My initial 1,500 worms have multiplied countless times. The "castings," as the compost the worms leave behind is called, is a wonderful, dark, dense humus. The "tea" they excrete has transformed a pot of scrawny calla lilies into a portrait worthy of Imogen Cunningham’s viewfinder. Best of all is the smell. Each time I open the Wranch the fresh, clean, warm aroma of new soil rises into my nostrils. It smells like the humid floor of a tropical rainforest just as the sun begins to warm the day. Delicious.

One thing you cannot, however, expect from worms is gratitude. Unlike dogs, or even cats, worms do not come running at the sound of the can opener. They will not brush up against your legs or beg on their haunches as you try to put down their food. If anything, worms tend to dive for the cover of darkness when their box is opened for feeding. And there's no taking them out for walks. No teaching them stupid pet tricks. A box of worms will never land you on David Letterman. For the dedicated worm owner (as I have become), satisfaction comes from watching them transform kitchen garbage into beautiful rich soil -- while remaining blissfully ignorant of how they do it.

"Do worms have teeth?" I asked my wife not long ago, wondering aloud about how in fact they do do it.

"Do worms have teeth?" she repeated in a defeated, incredulous tone as she left the room.

"No really," I called down the hall after her. "What do you think? How do they chew all that stuff up?"

“Why don’t you subscribe to Worm Digest?” she suggested.

After nearly a year, my worms have eaten their way through two stacking trays of scraps and I will soon add a third. According to the instructions, when that last tray appears to have been more or less converted to compost the castings in the first tray will finally be ready for use.

It's been a long slow wait for the one cubic foot each tray contains. Recently the worms have become much more active. Their diet remains the same and yet they are positively frisky when I feed them.

“What do you think is going on with the worms?” I asked my wife as she was trying to sleep. “They’re multiplying like crazy.”

“Enough with the worms already,” she moaned. “Let me sleep will you.”

“Yeah but...” I began before I figured it out. “Nina, Nina,” I said. “I know what’s happened. It’s because we switched from decaffeinated coffee to regular coffee. Ha!”

“Oh give me a break already,” my wife pleaded, turning away from me and yanking the covers over her head.

“That’s got to be it,” I insisted. For a couple of weeks I had been giving the worms two coffee filters a day of Peet’s dark French roast grounds. My red wrigglers were buzzed out of their minds.

“What?!” Nina turned back to me infuriated with having been awakened. “You think worms are mammals? You think caffeine affects them?”

“I don’t know? Are worms mammals?” I said.

“Do they nurse their young?” Nina asked, before storming out of bed.

I suppose all in all it would have been easier just to buy some compost at the garden supply store. But then I wouldn't get to use the food processor so often. And I wouldn't have become a pet lover.

A version of this story originally appeared in the March 5, 2000 edition of the San Francisco Sunday Examiner Magazine.

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