Copyright 2017 by Lori-Ann Willey
As a child, I used to dig for fishing worms for what seemed like hours on end. A pointed “spade” was always nearby. My sisters and I were not shy in grabbing it and start digging away. Were we going fishing? Maybe, at some point, yes, but one can never have enough worms ready and waiting. Most fishermen know that.
The other day, I chatted with a friend about worms. I know. Probably not the most interesting topic for some, but he and I both agreed that “worm hunting” was something that we could do for hours on end. If it was a rainy night, as kids, we’d often be outside with flashlights and a pail. We called it, “Jackin’ for crawlers”.
What does the title have to do with worms? Not much yet, but it is where it all starts for me. I always loved digging in the dirt. It fascinated me. I didn’t mind finding the creepy crawlies. Hell, they went into the pail, too! Fish just don’t eat worms, you know. If the fish aren’t biting, then they don’t want the bait you offer. Plain and simple. You've gottah change it up.
I learned at an early age that once the soil is disturbed, you can expect surprises to grow in amongst the grasses. There was a spot where we always dug worms, as they seemed more plentiful there than other spots in the yard. My father would do most of the labor work. He’d stick the shovel to the ground, stomp on it and pull it back to lift the soil. Then, he’d flop it over, grass side down. Most of the worms hid in the root system of the grass. The job of plucking worms fell onto my sisters and me. I don’t think either of us minded the task.
After the soil was turned over, often, my father would leave us girls to pick through the soil, shake the sod pieces and see how many worms we could find. Often, too, he’d leave the shovel so we could shovel through the loose soil. After we plucked all the worms we could find, creepy-crawlies, too, our job was to backfill the area with the loose soil, laying the sod on top.
|My twin, Lora-Jean, and two friends, Little Ronnie and Billi-Jo|
Sometimes, one of us girls would try to dig the untouched ground. Sometimes we succeeded. Sometimes, we didn’t. I remember once I tried to dig as my father had. I was just a little thing, but I stomped on the shovel to no avail. I did more of a balancing act than digging by far. Then, I decided that I needed to jump on it with two feet instead of just the one. Well, I wasn’t tall enough to do that either! My mouth came down upon the shovel handle something wicked! I busted my lip. I cried. I bled. I probably ran to my parents, but I don’t remember. What I do remember is after that, next time, I was more careful. Those who know me know that I probably didn’t ever get my lip again, but where there is Lori-Ann, there is a way to get hurt. Avoiding the repeat hit in the lip, I’ve jumped on the shovel many times and my foot or feet would slip. I’d end up with some nice cuts and scrapes on my legs. Such things didn’t’ stop me much as a child …or even today at 50, for that matter.
When I was nine, we moved from our 13-room house in Pittsfield, to a 4-room house at the end of a dead-end road that the Town of Palmyra wouldn’t even maintain. There, we had no running water, and our lifestyle was quite different. I loved playing in the fields, climbing the trees and taking my pony for a run through the woods. Woo wee, do I have some stories to tell about doing that! I must’ve watched too many cowboys and Indian shows! Looking back, I’m shocked I’m still alive!
Like when we lived in Pittsfield, in Palmyra, we had a favorite spot where we dug for worms, too. Then, I was old enough to use a pointy shovel (what I called a spade, then and now). If the mood struck, and it always did when I saw the spade, I’d dig for worms. This was especially so in the springtime. I knew that summer meant doing a lot of brook fishing for trout, so that meant we’d need a lot of worms. I was always up for the task. Again, then, and now.
It was in Palmyra that I’d dig through the soil just to see the colorful layers below the surface. I knew I dug too deep to find worms, but as I dug, I no longer looked for them, but instead, I dug to see the different layers and how they changed, their colors and what lived “there”. I’m like a toddler that goes through the “why” staged. That stage never left me. I always wonder why. Lots of times, I’d dig until the hole was too deep to dig any further. Doing this, I learned that worms don’t like the gray areas (clay), the brownish red layers, or much deeper than 18”. Most worms found were within the first foot. I knew what clay looked like, but the reddish layers confused me a bit. When I asked my father, he said it was iron. That confused me even more because all I knew of iron was used in industries. Clearly, that soil was not the same.
Those layers were the start of my love and fascination for “dirt”. Toward the end of the summer, and well after we stopped digging for worms, my father noticed some wild ground cherries growing in the same area we dug for worms. They were native, but we had never seen them before. Not there. Not anywhere within walking distance either. We were told to leave them alone to see what would become of them. Every day, I checked the plants, studied their leaves, the blossoms, and how the flowers turned into fruit. Fascinated, I was!
My father said that the seeds must’ve been brought to the surface from digging for worms, and then, back-filling the holes kept them closer to the surface. Hearing that sent my mind thinking. I was 10 years old by then, but after that, I remember always being on the lookout for plants growing individually from others. I knew that birds ate seeds, berries, etc. then pooped them out as they flew. So, that accounted for some of the “pop ups”. Animals are “guilty” of such things, too.
However, it taught me to be very vigilant about nature. Having my parents’ curiosities by nature and of nature, I always studied things in the wild. I still do. “Why is that here?” I always scratched the soil and looked at its color. The trees and plant life around them. In the sun or shade? Near water? Dry? Wet? Always questions I had to answer and I answered each by observing or digging the soil.
People say that I’m a Naturalist and that I missed my “calling”. I should laugh. I call it curious observances with the patience, the want, and the ability to connect the dots to formulate theories. Nature is a love. I don’t doubt that. I embrace it, even.
Last fall, my sister posted a picture of a plant that she called wild sauerkraut. I had seen it before, but I didn’t have a name for it. She is quite knowledgeable when it comes to plants. We share our knowledge with each other, teach each other, hypothesize and ponder together. Learning. We’re always learning. If we don’t know, we research, learn, and then, share with the other. Maybe, it was the way we were raised. Maybe it is just how we learn best …hands on, trial and error, problem-solving. Not so ironically, we both live off the grid.
About three summers ago, I had a bunch of loam dumped in the camp yard. With it, I shoveled and wheelbarrowed it many countless hours on end to fill depressions, make garden beds, etc. I am still moving that loam with my 3rd “spade”.
It was late summer when I saw a new plant spring from the edge of the pile. It was a plant that I had not seen for many years and never up this way. So, when my sister posted a photo of her wild sauerkraut, I had to go examine my plant a bit closer. I hadn’t taken the time to do so until then, but every day, I paid it a visit. As suspected, it is what she called sauerkraut. It grew in the same type of soil as her plant …the same proximity of the water, too. I tasted it. It was tart …lemon-like. I researched further. It is sheep sorrel. I’ve eaten “sour clover” (wood sorrel) all my life, but never sheep sorrel. I liked it, but I much more prefer the “sour clover”. I even let the sour clover grow in my garden for snacks and use some in cooking, too.
So, like the wild ground cherry in my childhood, it is hard telling how long that sheep sorrel seed laid dormant in the ground, just to be exposed to the right conditions for germination. When the guy dumped it, he said, “It’s from the bottom.” Some seeds can lay dormant for many decades. In some cases, many centuries …even up to 2,000 years! So, when I hear of a plant “gone extinct”. I smile. I know there is hope for their return still. The current conditions just may no longer be adequate for them in our changing world. In the now, if you will. I’m all for hope.