So how did I get to be “the worm lady?”
Next week, I will have my last worm day of this school year, and I’m sad.
For five years now, I have been volunteer-teaching a class on the composting worm at Acequia Madre Elementary School in the historic, residential area of Santa Fe. It is a small school, only about 177 students, very charming, very friendly, and graced by a beautiful garden where students learn how to grow all sorts of flowers and vegetables. All that time, I have worked with Barbara McCarthy, a third-grade teacher who lives on a farm and is passionate about environmental issues. She is retiring this year after teaching at the school for almost 30 years. It feels like the end of an era, and I have the most wonderful memories of my time with her and her students.
So how did I get to be “the worm lady?”
It started when my younger sister, Kate, inherited a worm farm southeast of Albuquerque from her late partner. I was living in Tennessee at the time and volunteered to help her develop promotional materials. Through my research, I became fascinated with eisenia foetida, better known as the red worm or the red wriggler or wiggler. When I divorced and headed to Santa Fe to make a new life, I immediately began to help her with the worm farm on weekends.
For three years we worked very hard to make it go, and hard physical labor was involved tilling 39 raised beds measuring 4′ x 8′ in a big barn. We worked in shredded newspapers, horse manure, and vegetable and fruit garbage from a wildlife sanctuary. Unfortunately, a tragic event decimated the population. A Tennessee Walking Horse breeder inadvertently donated manure from horses that had recently been “wormed.” It took us a while to figure out what had happened, and at that point, Kate called “Time out.” The enterprise was never profitable, and she had a very successful software consulting business that needed all her attention. The High Desert Worm Farm was shut down.
While it was operational, we attended many conferences about organic production, selling containers of about 2,000 worms each that we harvested ourselves. (Very tedious work.) Teachers would often come up to us at these events and say something like, “I’d really like to work with worms in the classroom.” The idea intrigued me, and so I set about writing The Red Wriggler Teaching Manual, which contained lesson plans on how to use the worm to teach science, language arts, social studies, and math. Barbara McCarthy and Bonnie Granieri, a teacher at Alvord Elementary which has since closed down, gave me the opportunity to try out my curriculum with second and third graders.
I always embarked on a class whimsically hoping that the angels would be with me. Nevertheless, there would be times when I returned to my car thinking, “Well, I’ll never try that again.” At other times, I would exit feeling as though I were walking in the light. It was that much fun, that rewarding.
I’ve always found children very interesting and enjoyable to be with, maybe because my inner child’s mind has never grown up. In the early grades, they are still full of wonder, and they always love the first day when I bring worms to class and let them examine and draw them. As time goes on, they learn about worm anatomy and reproduction and how castings are so rich in microbes and nutrients that they are called “black gold.” The students acquire new vocabulary, they draw pictures to illustrate concepts, and they learn about the environmental problems created by the use of artificial fertilizers and chemical pesticides. Sometimes we have taste-testing to see if they can tell the difference between organic and conventional fruits and vegetables. It’s fun to watch them concentrate as they chew.
Believing as I do that they will be facing huge challenges with climate change, I worry a little about their future. Like the red wriggler, I’m afraid they are going to have to learn how to turn some garbage situations into gold. In every class, however, there are always a number of students who really stand out as especially dynamic, thoughtful, engaged, and creative. I look into their animated faces and know they will be all right, that they have extraordinary potential in ways that will be revealed later. And I know that they will have plenty of worm knowledge that could be important to survival.
As the year comes to a close, I tell them that they now know more about the composting worm than about 98% of the people in the entire country, which I believe to be true. The challenge is to find a medium of teaching others, from very young children on up, about the importance of composting garbage with the red wriggler. The solution, I suggest, is to create a fairy tale. I give them the outline and the introduction. The title is “The Prince and the Dirty Kingdom,” and the plot is as follows:
A kingdom is overrun with garbage. People leave it in the market, they throw it out their windows, and the manure from cows and horses is everywhere. The kingdom stinks, it is full of flies, and people are sick a lot. The king has a beautiful daughter, Princess Claire, and he decides that he will kill two birds with one stone. He will give Princess Claire in marriage to the prince who brings the best idea for solving his garbage problem. Since fairy tales so often have the number three in them, there will be three princes. I proceed to set the scene for them, up to the moment when the three princes enter the hall to present their idea to the king, who will be advised by Merlin the magician. Of course the winning prince will propose using the composting worm. I ask the students to suggest less satisfactory ideas for the other two princes and to name all three princes, which they always seem to find vastly amusing. I depart with that information in hand and return with the completed story for the last class of the year.
The class will happen next week, so if you would like to know how “The Prince and the Dirty Kingdom” turns out, you’ll just have to come back then.