As the Worm Turneth


Photo by Yaniria Sanchez-de Leon–University of Idaho 2005


My mother told many stories about growing up on a wheat farm in the rolling fertile Palouse hills of eastern Washington state during the Great Depression years.  One was about the fabled Giant Palouse Earthworm, said to inhabit the deep soil of those lonely farms, and occasionally surfacing during cultivation with the horse drawn equipment.

This was no ordinary worm;  this cream colored invertebrate, first described by a zoologist in 1897, could grow up to 3 feet long.  It could move quickly through the loose topsoil, burrowing deep when threatened.  When it was turned up to the sunlight by the plowshare,  all work would cease in the marvel of  such a hidden creature.  This worm smelled like the essence of lilies but when handled, it defended itself through a release of fluid from its jawless mouth–the old farmers said it could “spit” a yard away.

I believed this was yet another of my mother’s “mythical” stories of life on the wheat farm and considered the “Giant Worm” a  fairy tale sharing shelf space with Pegasus,  dragons and centaurs, the stuff of Gary Larsen and “The Far Side”.

However, the Worm turneth “real”.  It actually does exist…we think.

The last time a scientist (University of Idaho) found a Giant Palouse Worm was in 2010.  There have only been a few sightings because the worm can move faster than a shovel, easily detecting the vibrations of humans disturbing the soil. So it has remained elusive, or more likely, adversely impacted due to intensive agricultural practices of the last century.  Environmental conservationists asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to institute protections for the Worm by declaring it an endangered species but it was denied such status.   Somehow the Federal Government is not eager to put resources into a Worm that prefers to stay 15 feet under. Perhaps the Worm shall one day have its day in court.

Actually this modern fable is only partially about saving a fantastical Worm that no one can find; it is also about ever-present environmental battling for preservation of land in its natural state versus development–even modern agricultural development in some of the most fertile soil in the world.  Scientists have put electric shock waves into the ground in an effort to drive the Worms to the surface so we have actual specimens to study and admire and then to call truly endangered.   If I was being shocked out of my comfy little dirt home, I think I’d dig deeper, rather than rise to the surface for poking, prodding,  and photo ops.   And I’d certainly feel like spitting.

I want to believe there must be a whole vital civilization of Giant Worms way down deep, dancing the night away in lily perfume and laughing at all the antics up under the sun.    Some day they’ll rise to make their grand appearance, and like a cross between protected prairie dog towns and a child’s bedroom ant farm, humans in all our wisdom and protective instincts might create Giant Palouse Worm colonies in the soil with underground viewing chambers.

Then we can stare at the underground cream colored marvels, and they can stare… and spit… back at us.




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