I’m enjoying seeing the robins proudly perching on my fence. The robins are enjoying seeing worms out on the grass — and they’re very proud of their catches. The circle of life continues.

Some of my early childhood memories involve my older brother collecting buckets of worms for a fishing expedition. The image of these worms, pink and slimy, writhing around in the bucket, was disturbing. I didn’t like the worms, but I was sorry to think of them being fastened on hooks as bait for fish. The fish too were soon to die, of course. More circle of life stuff.

There are many ways in which worms can make one uncomfortable: the pallid, slimy look of them, the way they squiggle, their underground nature. Some therapists suggest that in dreams worms symbolize negative feelings of degradation or weakness. In everyday life, worms have unpleasant associations: when we die, we become food for worms; a difficult problem becomes a can of worms; unethical people worm information out of us, or worm their way into things. Wormy food is infested or damaged. Wormy people are weak, unpleasant or untrustworthy.

But recently I’ve encountered other ways of looking at worms. Gardeners delight in worms and have always known about their importance. Growers study composting techniques, and sometimes have been known to buy worms. You can buy them by the pound or inch at a store near you, or you can order online.

My friend Al McWilliam, a Vancouver artist, says “Worms are the ultimate transformers: they take waste and turn it into something valuable.” Inspired by the transformative contributions worms were making to his compost, Al took photographs of worms burrowing through his compost and made large prints of the results. These photographs have been shown io various settings and about five years ago they were turned into signs with the text “Development Permit Application,” under the auspices of Other Sights, as part of Vancouver Western Front’s multi-site exhibition called “Urgent Imagination:”


The exhibition encouraged viewers to reflect on what development means and to consider the kind of development that is taking place underground, not just the rapid development above. As part of the exhibition, Meredith Quartermain read a poem about worms called “How to Remember.” In it, she asks, “Earthworms who eat rotting leaves in temperate forests are invasive species, but Homo sapiens who burn down forests for hamburger farms are creating wealth?”

Al says he sees the worms as “kind of beautiful and elegant,” which would be a stretch for me, but I have to acknowledge that they do valuable work. In fact, as world-renowned Canadian scientist and humanitarian Ursula Franklin has pointed out, they present a useful model for social change and development:

“Social change will not come to us like an avalanche down the mountain,” she said. “It will come through seeds growing in well prepared soil – and it is we, like the earthworms, who prepare the soil. We also seed thoughts and knowledge and concern. We realize there are no guarantees as to what will come up. Yet we do know that without the seeds and prepared soil nothing will grow at all… we need more earthworming.” (For more on Ursula Franklin, read her book The Real World of Technology based on her CBC Massy Lectures.)

Maybe the pandemic has presented us with the critical need for earthworming, not just in the creation and cultivation of gardens, but in thinking about how we might prepare the soil for social change. What seeds of thought and knowledge and concern could we be planting as we emerge from our isolation? Like it or not, this is a time of change, so let’s keep up our earthworming, preparing the soil and choosing the seeds that matter.

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