The Glory Has Departed
Norma Boeckler, Artist in Residence
Bethany Lutheran Worship on
Monday, March 28, 2016
Darwin’s Dilemma – The Earthworm
The premier soil creature for the gardener is the earthworm. They are so fascinating that Charles Darwin spent 40 years studying their effect on the soil, but he emphasized their role in raising the level of the soil rather than increasing its fertility. Every discussion about Creation versus evolution begins with Darwin, so a chapter on the earthworm is especially worthwhile.
An earthworm is all muscle, which is one reason they are so effective. The entire body is devoted to the task of wiggling through soil. Bristles on each segment give it traction in the soil and also help for movement on the surface. The earthworm is one long digestive tube through the middle of those muscle rings. It eats its way through soil, and a crop grinds up what it consumes, with tiny rocks and sand. But the worm itself does not digest. The bacteria eaten break down the sugars and feed the host. The worm does contribute calcium carbonate—like Caltrate and other calcium supplements—to sweeten the soil. The earthworm is unique in producing this chemical.
The calcium carbonate glands are part of Darwin’s Dilemma, a mystery science cannot solve. Why does the earthworm do this? The purpose is beyond modern scientific protocols, because science cannot explain purpose. Science observes and reports but cannot explain why. The earthworm benefits, because this creature likes sweeter soil, and this chemical (a base) changes the pH of a soil, making it more base. For some reason we call that sweet without having the taste of sugar. The calcium also benefits plant life with the calcium supplement, because the chemicals needed by the plants are made more available with the right pH.
The exception is with those plants that thrive in acid soil – rhododendrons, azaleas, and evergreens.
The calcium is excreted from the earthworm in the form of castings or manure, which also concentrate other valuable minerals for crops.
The worm’s digestive enzymes (or, properly, those produced by bacteria in the worm’s intestines) unlock many of the chemical bonds that otherwise tie up nutrients and prevent their being plant-available. Thus, vermicastings are as much as seven times richer in phosphate than soil that has not been through an earthworm. They have ten times the available potash; five times the nitrogen; three times the usable magnesium; and they are one and a half times higher in calcium (thanks to the calcium carbonate added during digestion). All these nutrients bind onto organic matter in the fecal pellets.
Worms can deposit a staggering 10 to 15 tons of castings per acre on the surface annually. This almost unbelievable number is clearly significant to gardeners: the ability to increase the availability of nutrients without carting in and adding tons of fertilizer is about as close to alchemy as one can get.
Teaming with Microbes, p.
The tons of castings, per acre, left on the soil annually, should give any gardener pause, time for a wry grin. Nothing is more sacred in old-time gardening that moving soil and compost. Double-digging is almost sacramental in gardening. Elaborate charts are drawn about how to dig down six feet deep and move tons of soil around, until nothing is where it was before. This back-breaking chore is the equivalent of being a daily communicant in the Roman Catholic Church. Knowing what we do now, there is plenty of reason to let God’s little gardener do this work and not destroy the structure and elaborate fungal jungle that was already in place to feed and protect plants.
Earthworms do far more than fertilize the soil. Although they seem singularly built and designed for digging, many other benefits of the earthworm are remembered with advantages:
· Tunneling aerates the soil, making it lighter and easier for the roots to penetrate.
· Opening up the soil for air also lets rain and water penetrate more deeply.
· Secreting nitrogen products through the skin adds to greening up the garden.
· Surface action attracts and feeds birds, who add insect pests to their diet.
· Living and working the soil means holding a vast supply of moisture and nutrition in their bodies.
· Dying allows the earthworm to make one more donation to the soil.
Gardeners have always associated a large earthworm population with soil fertility. The Egyptians saw this lowly creature is the basis for turning the annual flooding of the Nile into a blessing of organic matter worked into the soil – for free. The British studied this phenomenon and wrote about the meaning behind ancient Egyptian awe of the earthworm.
Whenever one form of life in the soil is featured, others also get honor due. Ants engage in similar tunneling work and serve as God’s little undertakers, disposing of dead insects, and food for birds that enjoy. Slugs are the animals that everyone hates, since they leave a slime trail on food plants and damage fresh, tender seedlings. However, slugs do most of their sliming and shredding work underground while serving as food for others, water storage for the soil. If one creature’s benefits are not a great enough marvel, then the Creation gardener should consider all of them working together at once. The creatures and plants balance and limit damage, always improving the soil, launching destructive attacks – such as aphids against roses – but providing a food base for the beneficial wasps and flies that must have a pest to feed its young.
In contrast, intelligent man must use elaborate plans to get a new church building completed. The plumber may design a heating system that will not work. The workers may not come on time or do their work to perfection. Money must be raised or borrowed, and conflicts are created by the size and color of the kitchen. At the dinner celebrating the success of the project, the bishop offers a prayer of congratulation for efforts honoring God.
Meanwhile, all of God’s Creation is doing this work without man, feeding all the creatures and building the soil for the next generation. Each bug arrives on time and does its job. The birds come and go on schedule. The microbes carry out the most elaborate exchange of useful chemicals for feeding that plants that ultimately feed them. And to quote Shakespeare, “A man can fish with the worm that ate a king, and then eat the fish he catches with that worm.”