May holds her workers carelessly in two hands, as a rich woman might hold various strings of pearls. Some rear in fright or fury, others spill over her palms, dive-dropping back into the dank dirt of their work.
I step back. The smallest of shuffles but May pays too much attention to those she cares for to miss a trick like that. She stretches her arms towards me. The worms cling. This is not the time to leave her. Here, she says, dripping dirt onto hot concrete. You want to hold them?
I take a measure of the glint in her eye, press my hands against the scrawn of my hips, mock-glower, No, I do not want to hold them.
There’s the small dimple that plays around in her cheek when she’s having fun. That’s not nice. Worms have feelings too.
We cackle, May such a non-clucky hen and me, as broody as they get. Both of us almost done with laying eggs.
The last of them push around her open clasp. The grains of dirt from their bodies find a place to settle in the creases of her open palms. May has well-creamed nurse-hands. A worm longer than my longest finger explores the web separating the spread of two of her fingers. It pauses a long moment.
Has that one got a name? I ask.
Go to sleep Rex, she says. Nigh-night. She opens her hands to the darkness.
As Rex drops down, others of May’s encased worker-pets froth to the top of the open compost drum, gnash their bodies along its lip, wave their sensor-like thickness. May says, They eat everything, these worms. She looks me up and down. They’d eat you down to those bones in less than a month.
May sees I’ve had enough and puts the lid on it all.
We leave the rot of our respective families, leave the worms to their dirt.
My worm-whispering friend deals in death for a public hospital. Intensive care, this is what she does with her life. In her work unit, where she cares, intensely, May’s heart once stopped like a clock. Her body was shocked back into movement by her colleagues. They move fast, in that place, where anything can happen.
May changed with the metal that was put in her chest. Fibrillation put grit in her mind and for a while, she refused to travel. Security investigating her chest made her anxious. The kind of anxious that sticks like Golden Staph.
She knows the beat of her heart intimately now, an old friend who intends to do her wrong. Timing bothers her as she bothers it. She stopped wearing her grandmother’s clock soon after we met. Her electronic field charged up her shift to independence. Fragile mechanisms still break with the force of her energetic matter.
Soon after May’s heart stopped and was restarted, she turned to the intensity of worms. She keeps them in her garage, in two plastic drums, hot to the touch in summer, warm in the coldest part of winter. The drums throb with life. Breaking it down, making it new.
They would starve if they relied on the scraps left from what May cooks for herself, but May’s sister and partner bring offerings of lidded kitchen waste every few days, in exchange for the vibrant plant food created by the worms. May’s small plot can’t manage the dirt she helps bring into this world.
May calls for my help when her worms need more scraps than she and her sister and her sister’s partner can assemble. I make a bin in my kitchen, label it so my boy-men get it right. No citrus, no onion. My partner worries about pineapple tops and avocado seeds. May assures us there’s no problem, they get through whatever she gives them. Potato peelings, apple cores, tea leaves. All the details of my family’s life. And mine. Wasted almond meal. Papaya seeds I really should be eating. Dodgy non-organic life decisions gifted to those pulpy reticulating worms. In less than a month the worms swim in the wet mess of my waste.
My offering is guilt-flecked. Plastic beads in the teabags, cyanide in the apple seeds, latex in the papaya skin, rank inflammatory bready almond scraps, green spuds. I step back, culpable, every time.
May’s writhing compost, co-created by May and her loved ones, is spreading out, casting stories. Another spell she’s drawn me into.
We are turning, May and I, into our witch potential. Her nose, my chin, our sprouting moles, the scars we wear like tattoos. Our leavings, gathering to form us back into the earth.
I don’t pretend to know Rex from her other singular worms but I do know not to mix May’s dirt with the dirt that started me. Rex and company would bully out the small red-brown worms that live down that way. May assures me her comrades are not the killer Tiger Worms, destroying indigenous species by the handful. These are local. The Lark, an old friend of ours, sourced them for May, years ago, when they voted closer. Lark’s politics are dark green, she has a heart as soft as moss. How could her worms be the enemy? May has adopted out generations of these worms. Suburbs away, some of those backyards.
Destructive generation, their bodies, my body, boundary-defying ecosystems, worming out beyond my measure. Millions of worms in one hectare means hundreds in the regulation chute of dirt dug out for a coffin.
Fetid rot, the thought of all those systems breaking away from my body’s leaking pulsing skin, just as my body breaks into the bodies close to me. Worms turning within me, others leaving in hordes, moving as my skin rots and sheds.
Skin. No more a container than a capital letter and a full stop.
As a kid I was called a bookworm. I still reticulate into books, and more and more my body of worms opens cans of words that escape my life. I cast on, I cast off. What’s here today might be gone tomorrow. I pull threads of words out from the castings of my life, knit them in throes of upcycling. Storms of debris.
After my excisions, leftovers form the body of my work. Remnants of repression, rejection, retention, a body formed by what breaks away. The possibilities of words are always mutable, sometimes irrepressible, and often they hide in the dark, turning like worms in a graveyard, breaking down the matter that surrounds me, forms me, forsakes me.
Breaking in, breaking out, festering words declaring my life. Writerly insistence that worms its way on, no matter how much of me breaks down.
All that matter as a me that comes and goes, all the wormy words of my world always remade.
In time may grace feed me to the worms that I love best with all my words.
Ecology of Junk
Women of a certain age are closer to an end than a beginning, but this is no finish at all, as the resurrection thinking of Pippa Marland and John Parham proclaims. ‘Everything may perish, but nothing dies. Life eats us up, junks us, carries on; but it also composts us. In some form, we keep on living’ (2014, 7). Junkie worms.
Is it living? Or another life? Dull debates, says Timothy Morton, philosopher-poet of ecology. Why not just accept that ‘consciousness can exist without a specific skin in which to wrap it’ (2010, 81)? Skin is a human’s largest organ.
Karen Barad spins a similar web, threading physics and discourse into all kinds of matter, right down to mysterious quantum moves. I cannot step away from these worms, Barad’s perspective reminds me, any more than they can worm away from me. We share an ‘asymmetrical’ mode of ‘enactment’ where ‘no one/nothing is given in advance or ever remains the same’ (2010, 264). Intra-acting, bodies drifting together and apart. Complicating things, entangling worms.
Those worms. They make themselves at home, like a virus, like bacteria, like the human body that Karen Schaumann and Heather Sullivan call a ‘small scale eco-system’, no different to those of other animals and plants and these ecosystems that ‘live in, on, and with us’ (2010: 105). Some kind of immortality.
Material reduction helps in this era of eco-systems warping with human doings. Back in the nineties, when the melts of the first part of the next century seemed stoppable, Greenpeace offered hair strand testings to those prepared to send them a sample. The rising eco-politics of Stacy Alaimo were given a boost by her mercury-tainted results (2010: 20). There is no being that does not carry the poison of this world’s despoilment.
May’s worms, entrapped in their plastic drum, can do very little other than survive and work to serve the allocation where they find value. But it may only seem this way from what I can see of the way that the world works. They might be working on saving us all. Or not.
May’s worms represent one of 6,000 worm species so far known to the humans of this world (Blakemore). As old species are lost, new ones are found. Twenty-five entrants to human knowledge were recently categorised by Canada’s citizen scientists (NatureWatch (a). Venerating worms as saviours is not new. Cleopatra held them sacred and ensured their generational tenancy, Aristotle called them the guts of the dirt and Darwin studied them for more than half his life (NatureWatch (b)). I also attend. These inhabitants and makers of tender soil need regard more than ever.
Alaimo, Stacy (2010). Bodily Natures: Science, Environment and the Material Self. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Barad, Karen (2010). ‘Quantum Entanglements and Hauntological Relations of Inheritance: Dis/continuities, SpaceTime Enfoldings, and Justice-to-Come’. Derrida Today 3:2 240-268.
Blakemore, Rod (2015). ‘Australian Earthworms.’ Australian Museum https://australianmuseum.net.au/australian-earthworms.
Marland, Pippa and John Parham (2014). ‘Remaindering: the Material Ecology of Junk and Composting’. Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism 18:1 1–8.
Morton, Timothy (2010). The Ecological Thought Cambridge. Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press.
NatureWatch (a) (2014). ‘Wormwatch is getting the dirt on Earthworms’. NatureWatch https://www.naturewatch.ca/wormwatch/
NatureWatch (b) (2014). ‘Did you Know?’ NatureWatch https://www.naturewatch.ca/wormwatch/how-to-guide/worm-facts/
Schaumann, Caroline and Heather Sullivan (2011). ‘Introduction: Dirty Nature: Grit, Grime, and Genre in the Anthropocene.’ Colloquia Germanica 44:2 105-109.