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The reader just sits there and squirms,
Uneasily coming to terms,
Having suddenly faced
A developing taste
For wriggling and night-crawling worms.
As garden columnist and book critic for the North Coast Journal, Amy Stewart understands that a good book can be about a subject as commonplace as the ground beneath our feet if the author has a passion to share it. She knows an enticing title will draw readers to the bait, and a pleasant idiosyncratic style will keep them hooked. Those elements are precisely what she delivers in The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms.
She begins the narrative with the story of Charles Darwin's "surprisingly popular" last book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould, in which he concludes that worms evaluate the materials they pull into their underground network of tunnels and are able to choose the correct end to draw in first. More than instinct is at work here, Darwin wrote, basing his conclusion on meticulously documented observations.
Besides being a methodical researcher, Darwin was also an engaging writer, in part because of his ability to anticipate readers' questions, a skill which Ms. Stewart shares. His book notes that many worm species are common to widely separated continents. When separate finch species can emerge in nearby habitats with a geographic barrier between them, what can enable worm species to span oceans? He concludes, incorrectly, that they or their reproductive material must somehow be able to travel on the wind or across water.
The correct explanation, as Ms. Stewart remarks in a chapter that shares the book's title, is continental drift, a phenomenon unknown to Darwin. That is one of many small but delightful surprises in a well-crafted and well-organized succession of stories with worms as either protagonists or in nearly hidden but important supporting roles.
Ms. Stewart digs up a variety of fascinating facts and unanswered questions. When are worms an unwelcome invading species and when are they an unrecognized but central element of a habitat's ecology? Are humans domesticating worms, or have worms already domesticated themselves, taking advantage of changes in local habitats that result from human activity?
And all the while she is asking those questions, she is laying out her own idiosyncratic view: "I still say there is no finer pet anywhere.... [A] herd of worms will earn their keep, no doubt about it. They'll take care of the garbage, fertilize the lawn, and bait your fishhook.... They'll provide the kids with science projects and show-and-tell offerings for years to come... with a minimum of fuss and expense."
And thanks to Ms. Stewart, readers everywhere will develop an unexpected but not unwelcome taste for worms.