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Opinion: Tiny movers of earth, and also our hearts

NPR's Scott Simon keeps hundreds of compost worms like this one in a bin on his balcony.
Scott Simon
NPR's Scott Simon keeps hundreds of compost worms like this one in a bin on his balcony.

Important world figures have come and gone all week at the United Nations General Assembly. But some of the most vital figures in our lives can be almost unseen. As Charles Darwin once wrote, "It may be doubted if there are any other animals which have played such an important part in the history of the world as these lowly organized creatures."

Darwin wasn't speaking of politicians, but earthworms. I've learned a lot about worms in recent times.

Our family did not get a pandemic puppy. We already have a dog. But we did acquire worms. Hundreds of worms now gobble, eliminate, and procreate in the dirt of a black plastic bin on our balcony.

We've named each worm after a local public radio station. My wife and I pop the top and say, "Hellooo, WBEZ! Howdy, KQED and WBHM! You're looking lovely today, Ideastream!" We've also named a worm for BJ Leiderman, who writes our theme music.

Our worms subsist on scraps we scatter over the dirt: cast-off lettuce leaves and cucumber shards, carrot shavings, abandoned green beans, and forsaken grains of rice. As the weather gets cooler now, we cloak their worm metropolis with shreds of newspapers. Online editions won't work.

As Amy Stewart writes her extraordinary 2004 book, The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms, the wiggle of worms through the dirt "alter its composition, increase its capacity to absorb and hold water, and bring about an increase in nutrients and microorganisms."

This makes our food, and our very lives possible, she notes, even as worms are almost invisible to us as we go about our days.

We spray water over our worms, and it soaks their castings, then distills down into a liquid humans call Worm Tea. It is not Earl Grey. Worm Tea abounds with vitamins and nutrients. We pour it into pots and planters, where it has reawakened flowers, herbs, and peppers. We bottle Worm Tea for neighbors, who attest that this elixir restores vivacity to their sun-scorched greenery. I'm tempted to splash Worm Tea over my thinning hair.

"They move the earth," Amy Stewart writes of worms, "a remarkable accomplishment for a creature that weighs only a fraction of an ounce."

Some weeks, it's cheering to remind ourselves that in the wild welter of news that seem to flash so quickly by, the most remarkable work is happening, steadily and without fanfare, just beneath our feet.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.