This column originally ran on March 24, 2016.
Last week marked a personal victory: I touched an earthworm. On purpose.
Since I am, at least in a general sense, a gardener, you would think I am forever touching worms — running my hands through the rich soil and marveling at the serpentine creatures that tunnel through it, aerating it while breaking down the organic matter.
I know earthworms are highly beneficial creatures. There’s just one thing: They’re gross.
I’m not sure why I feel this way. While I am by most measures squeamish, I am not afraid of touching snakes or frogs or mice or fish.
I do fear critters with numerous pairs of legs. I freak out when insects crawl on me, and if a spider touches down on any part of my body I react in a vocal and spastic manner that has, on more than one occasion, prompted concerned strangers to call 911.
But worms don’t have legs.
I think it goes back to my childhood. In much the way that reading Carrie turned me off prom, I think reading How to Eat Fried Worms when I was younger must have something to do with it. I don’t remember much of the book, but I think it involved a kid contemplating eating worms on a bet and anticipating the awful event in great worm-eating detail. I believe there was mention of ketchup.
The revulsion that grabs me when I think about touching worms has inspired me to go 48 years without ever making skin-to-skin contact with one. Until last week, I thought I could keep this up for the long haul. My obituary (which I’ve been working on for years) even reads, “She was most proud of her children and grandchildren, and the fact that she never touched an earthworm.”
That last bit is going to need some editing.
Last Monday morning, I pulled into the parking lot at work, and there, in the middle of the pavement, 30 feet from any soil, was a squirming worm. How had it gotten there? Was it en route across the lot, taking a shortcut, when it cramped up? Had an early bird, flying overhead, gotten — and then lost — the worm? Or had the poor thing, lounging in our muddy driveway, found itself wedged in my tire treads and gone on an unexpected and dizzying tour through Middlebury, ending up in this forbidding blacktop landscape?
In any case, I couldn’t leave it out there in the open. Either it would become bird food or, because Lumbricus terrestris is not known for its nimble dodging and weaving skills, it would get run over.
I squatted down and attempted to scoop the worm up with the tip of my car key. Just then it twisted and I lost my leverage. I tried again. A couple of times I got the worm onto the key and a foot or so off the ground before it fell. If I kept “helping” this poor creature it would be dead in no time. I was at a loss.
I could leave the worm to die in the parking lot. But that went against my general live-and-let-live philosophy. I could ask someone inside to come move it. But that would mean tarnishing my reputation in the eyes of my coworkers, who see me as a capable problem solver who never falters in the face of adversity. (If you ever saw me trying to put paper in the new copier, you would know this is not true.)
I had to save the worm.
I shuddered. I cringed. But it came down to one thing: Just because I had never touched a worm before didn’t mean I couldn’t do it. And rationally, I knew it wouldn’t kill me; almost every person I knew who had ever touched a worm had survived.
After a few false starts — and after I worked out a plan so that if I blacked out, I would fall in between two vehicles rather than out in the open where I myself might get run over — I picked up the worm between my thumb and forefinger. Just like that.
On the inside I was shrieking like Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween, but a casual observer would have noticed only a normal human walking purposefully toward a grassy area at the edge of the parking lot. I dropped the worm in a sheltered spot and then hurried inside to wash my hands (just in case worms secrete poison from their pores).
I have to be honest: Touching a worm wasn’t that bad, regardless of what I might have read in some fictional story when I was younger.
I wish I could say the same about prom.