I plunged my shovel into a big old pile of shredded mulch this afternoon and sure enough, I did it again.
I sliced an earthworm in half.
And now tonight, with the sun gone down and the murder weapon back in the garage and me sitting here alone with my thoughts and my conscience, I face the question: Did I do a good thing or a bad thing?
There was a time, covering most of my life, when I would have been pretty sure it was a bad thing, and felt an appropriate degree of chagrin.
Truth is, this was not the first earthworm to fall victim to my shovel, nor will it be the last. Earthworm life in most gardens is cheap.
My remorse is also tempered by the fact that there can be a second act in earthworm life. In most earthworm species, the head half can grow a new tail, and in some species, the tail can grow a new head. Mark that down as a thing that earthworms can do and people can’t.
Anyhow, to those of us whose interaction with earthworms comes mostly from gardening, earthworms traditionally are all good. They loosen up the soil, they provide nutrients, they’re a good snack for the birds. I’ve never understood why sometimes in a rainstorm they wiggle onto the sidewalk where they shrivel up and die, but I’m sure they have their reasons.
So I like earthworms. I see them in the soil and I’m happy, and I’ve always assumed the earth was happy, too, which makes earthworms a good thing.
Then a couple of weeks ago I picked up the Times and was reminded that the earthworm, like life, has grey areas.
This article harked back to a 2013 study that raised the specter of potentially adverse environmental impact from some earthworms. They were unintended consequences, I’m sure, but scientists warn that it could be consequences nonetheless.
The simple concern, as my single-cell civilian brain understands it, is that by burrowing into leaf litter on certain forest floors, earthworms are liberating some of the carbon that has been trapped there.
Keeping carbon trapped is a good thing, because released carbon accelerates climate change.
This new article updated the 2013 warning by noting that earthworms are migrating north. They are now being found in boreal forests, the northernmost forests up in places like Canada and Alaska, where previously the cold temperatures froze them out.
As the Earth gets warmer, everywhere, earthworms are returning to those boreal forests for the first time since the Ice Age. The real Ice Age, not the movie.
Boreal forests over the centuries have been a carbon sponge. Their leaf litter has absorbed it. So the return of earthworms has the same effect as an army of Paul Bunyons scuffling through the leaves with lumberjack boots. It loosens the leaves up and shakes all that carbon loose — way more carbon, it turns out, than gets freed up by boreal forest natives like moose.
So now, making the planet’s most sweeping and dire long-term environmental challenge all about me and my mulch pile, I’m wondering if I need to rethink my attitude toward earthworms.
Is reducing the earthworm population actually a good thing? Am I ameliorating or accelerating climate change? If I see an earthworm wriggling away, am I helping to save the planet by grabbing my shovel and terminating it with extreme prejudice?
Okay, I’m not going to do that. I still like the little critters, even though my pal Charles and I, around the age of 10, used to dig them up and impale them on hooks when we went fishing.
What I do think is that the earthworm dilemma, in its own bizarre way, reflects a widespread challenge of modern life. As science learns ever-more about how natural and man-made phenomena interact and affect each other, more and more of our decisions require more nuanced understanding. Things that once seemed just plain good — like, oh, say, treating wood with chemicals to make it last longer — now are recognized as having both positive and negative aftereffects.
Apply that to a thousand other situations, from food packaging to the merits of fossil fuel, and you see why some people throw up their hands and just take the easiest path.
Trouble is, that’s the wrong path. However exasperating the advance of science may sometimes make our lives, pretending that science doesn’t exist, or is someone else’s problem, always makes things worse.
That said, I will be back at the mulch pile tomorrow. There will be more earthworms and, frankly, more executions. And tomorrow night I still won’t be sure, planet-wise, whether I’m part of the problem or part of the solution.