24 january 2010

They are commonly abundant in garden mould, or in any rich loamy soil containing a liberal quantity of decaying vegetable matter, and may be caught at night in any quantity by going stealthily over short grass meadows or garden grounds after a shower, with a lantern and candle. Numbers will be found feeding upon decaying vegetable matter over the surface, their bodies extended to their full length, while their tails remain within the mouths of their holes, to which they withdraw with the quickness of thought on the least vibration being communicated to the earth; hence the necessity of the collector treading lightly as a passing spirit. It is only through feeling the earth quake by the footstep that they become sensible of the presence of an enemy, as they possess neither the organs of sight nor hearing, so that, if the worm-hunter only takes care to tread softly upon the bosom of his mother earth, he may gratify his taste for music at the same time by singing 'Excelsior' or the 'Hundred Pipers' at the top of his voice for anything the worms will care about it.

from A.S. Moffat, The Secrets of Angling

I forget when it was, but I was still living with my parents. I had a book out of the public library. I read not the passage above, but something similar, about how worms come to the surface on warm damp nights. The whole thing was a serendipity: I looked at the clock - ten o'clock on a summer evening. I opened the window and leaned out into warm humid air. All I needed was a torch and I was off to the park. Most natural history quests are hit and miss, a matter of perseverance and patience, but this was a scene from a fairy tale. There was no search needed: they were there for the asking in the torchlight, worms by the thousand in the damp grass. Big worms and little worms, single and in copula, with more arriving every minute it seemed. It was difficult to take a step without treading on their bodies, but they seemed oblivious to my feet. A touch from a finger or a blown breath surprised them though, sent them underground in a flash.
I haven't looked for them since. In a way I haven't needed to. It was love at first sight that night.