For one of my garden beds I decided to sequester some carbon in the form of a tree and overgrown bush clippings I'd collected from the space before I started working with it. I dug into the ground to create the foundation of a hugelkultur mound, and it was there that I discovered something rather horrifying about my garden: I have no worms!
Monoculture and Lifeforms
I live in a townhouse and am surrounded by a monoculture of grass lawns, the borders of which are delineated by ant-infested pine needles dumped off and spread throughout the year. When I moved in, my backyard consisted of two wildly overgrown rose bushes and two poorly placed trees. This season I've been working back the rose bushes, and have so far removed one of the trees, with the intention of eventually removing the other as well.
I have a couple goals with the space. First, it's really important to me that I be able to grow at least some of my own food. Right now this means growing vegetables using veganic methods, but my hope is to incorporate vegan re-interpretations of biodynamics and a native plant majority in the coming seasons as well. I also hope to begin making foraging a greater part of my diet plan.
Secondly, I want to have a net positive impact on local wildlife. For me, it's not enough to be vegan in the sense of abstaining from consuming animal products. The level of damage wrought by modern agriculture on Earth's wild spaces is appalling, and I want to not just cease being part of that but find a way to work as a healer in that dynamic as well. I want any garden spaces I create to also serve as mutual aid spaces for local pollinators, migratory birds, possums, and other critters.
This second point includes worms.
The Ethics of Vermiculture
In the past, I've dumpstered old dressers and nightstands to turn into worm composters. At times I've been able to harvest their compost for different herb gardens I've grown, but for the most part these projects have been limited to my year-or-two long stay at any given apartment. For the worms, this meant being dumped in the backyard when it was time to move.
I can't go back and un-dump or un-farm worms, but as I am growing into my values on the matter, I don't want to repeat these choices. First of all, using captive worms in compost bins is a form of animal agriculture, and if we care about animal cruelty, we need to especially consider where we're acquiring our composting worms from. Red wigglers--the most common breed for composting--are also the most common breed used for fishing bait. Can we be certain that our composting worms are not commercially available to us because of the fishing industry?
Secondly, depending on bin design, we are literally keeping them from their natural habitat, even if we are providing them a more constant supply of food and safe living space than they would find there. We are interfering with their evolution and tampering with the ecosystems they come from. We are domesticating yet another species and rarely if ever considering the potential consequences of doing so.
On this point, it's important to note where our worms come from. I'm unaware of anyone doing worm composting who does not use red wigglers. These worms are originally native to Europe, and given their fast breeding cycle, they would seem to me to be a potentially disruptive invasive species anywhere outside their native habitat. So when, like me, amateur vermiculturists decide to move on and just dump their worms in their non-European backyard, we're helping to disrupt the native ecosystem, and who knows what repercussions we've set in motion by doing so?
A New Direction
As with apiculture, conventional vermiculture suffers from a dynamic informed by capitalist exploitation of farmed animal labor and an anthropocentric worldview that is ultimately destructive to the planet we live on. In our reckoning with modern life in the era of climate change, new dynamics of human-animal interactions are necessary, and vermiculture is no exception.
What does supporting wild, native worm populations look like? While I am perhaps open to the idea of temporarily providing breeding and feeding spaces to native worms via a worm composter, the larger picture really is that the landscape must be reclaimed for their existence. Worms are a critical component of soil health and the vitality of our ecosystem.
With my garden in particular, I plan to continue monitoring for worm populations to emerge. I have several organic matter (non-animal ag) composters at work already producing veganic fertilizers that will hopefully help both my plants and these soil-tending species my garden presently lacks.
The present absence of worms from my garden is both alarming but also a challenge I am eager to work with. What better place to start making hypotheses about regenerative Earth healing than a garden plot with no worm life to begin with?
Pat Mosley (NC LMBT #16882) is a licensed massage and bodywork therapist in the Winston-Salem area. His work is rooted in compassionate touch, permaculture, and deep ecology with the resilience of all Earth's children in mind. Connect with him via email to email@example.com