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A Discovery of Worms

            As a young child my time in the city was often spent in lower income housing, moving to a new home almost every year. When I was five, we lived in a townhouse on a busy street just a short distance from a power substation. There were no parks in our neighborhood but my younger brother and I soon discovered the hedges that were planted all along the brick wall that surrounded the substation. Ignoring the tower and the thick buzzing cables, we would find the small opening and disappear behind the hedges, crawling on our hands and knees along the entire length of the wall. This was our own private piece of nature; a secret world that no one else seemed to know existed. 

On one visit, it had rained for a few days and we were thrilled to discover a large number of earthworms near the surface of the dirt behind the hedges. We had never seen so many worms together in one place and were both delighted and fascinated. I found an old margarine tub in a pile of garbage nearby and together we filled it with worms. We carefully carried our treasures home, intending to keep them as pets. When we arrived at the front door we proudly presented the margarine tub to our mother who looked at the worms with disgust. Then seeing our filthy hands and clothing, she ordered us straight upstairs to the bathtub. She made us leave our worms outside on the doorstep while we bathed and later, when we snuck out to retrieve them, they were gone. I remember crying and feeling that I had lost something precious. 

Thirty-five years passed. It was my second year living here at the cabin and I had just finished writing my Masters thesis and was looking for a fulltime job. This was not by choice; I needed to pay my mortgage. I found a temporary position with the Government of Alberta (with the Ministry of Education, Department of First Nations, Metis and Inuit Education—perfect as my graduate degree was in Educational Policy Studies specializing in Indigenous Peoples’ Education.) Unfortunately the office was located in the city and required an hour and a half commute each way. I promised myself that this was just a temporary situation until I found something closer to home. In the meantime, it meant waking up at five o’clock every weekday morning to walk my dog, dress, make a smoothie, and leave home by six in order to be at work by seven-thirty. It also meant going to bed by 8 pm every evening.

My body soon became accustomed to my new schedule and I grew to love those early walks in the woods behind the cabin. At this strange in-between hour it would still be dark when Lucy and I left home. As we walked, the sun would slowly peek up over the horizon and by the time we arrived home it would be daylight. On clear days, this early light was often deep yellow in color, giving the morning an otherworldly quality. There were different smells at this early hour as well: crisscrossing highways of scent trails made up of animal musk and fresh scat overlaying the damp earth. Every morning I looked forward to being greeted by the hawk who would wait until we were directly under his tree before calling out to us and then flying away. There were many other magical moments and chance encounters to look forward to: fleeting glimpses of deer and moose, finding new mushrooms or plants I had never seen before, eating small handfuls of ripe berries with their burst of intense flavor, and sipping tiny cups of morning dew offered by curled leaves lying directly on my path.

One morning, I experienced yet another unexpected magical moment. Lucy and I had just arrived back home from our walk. It was warm and the ground was still moist with dew. I was a short distance from my back door when I suddenly felt a presence, or more specifically, like I was in the presence of many. I had felt this sensation once before while living in Inuvik, Northwest Territories. On that occasion, I was walking behind the government buildings in the 24-hour darkness of winter when I suddenly felt like I was not alone. I looked up and saw that I was surrounded by hundreds of huge ravens roosting on the warm pipes that lined the back and sides of these buildings. It was an incredible experience, and now here I was again twenty years later in my own backyard in broad daylight feeling that same presence again. I instinctively looked up but saw nothing but sky and tree canopy. I looked around me but no one was there. I finally looked down at my feet and was amazed to see that all around me on the surface of the ground were hundreds (maybe thousands?) of huge dew worms! They were all mating, paired together in their 69 positions. I held my breath and remained very still, not wanting them to suddenly disappear but they didn’t seem to be too concerned by the presence of this human. I watched them for at least ten minutes when I decided that I just had to go and get my camera to document this experience. When I returned a few minutes later, the worms had all disappeared without a trace. I was disappointed but still deeply moved by the experience. What a privilege to be given a glimpse of something usually hidden from human—and early bird—observers! I had so many questions: Do earthworms always mate above ground? Do they always mate in large groups like this or was this coincidental? Did they mate nightly, weekly, monthly, or annually? How did all of the worms know exactly when to come up to the surface to mate? Was it timed by the Moon or was there some kind of communication among the worms? 

I realized how little I knew about earthworms but the fascination of my five-year-old self had been reawakened and I now carried these questions inside of me like a margarine tub full of treasure. All I needed now was an opportunity to do a bit of research and to spend more time with worms, observing and learning from them. I did not have to wait long. A year and a half later I gave birth to a child: a little boy who loved nothing more than to play in the dirt, searching for worms.