– for Manitoba Gardener.
We had seen plenty of evidence during the day to suggest there were wolves in the area. Just after moonrise we left the warming shack behind and crunched our way back along the trail as quietly as we could. Eight grade eleven students, their teacher, a retired naturalist and two chaperons were on a school sponsored winter camping expedition. Buzz, the naturalist, stopped us at the top of a knoll. He cupped his hands to his mouth and let out a low, slowly rising howl. We stood, each expectant face bathed softly by the full moon, waiting for the wolves to call back. Buzz repeated his call. Total silence. No response. Or so we thought.
Earlier that day we had skied the trails and river ways around Whirlpool Lake in Riding Mountain National Park looking for evidence of animals large and small. We learned that even here, where there are no farms or towns for miles, we humans have over played our hand, hunting to near extinction the wolf and the fisher. Our carelessness with the wild around us could perhaps be excused in years gone by, especially when we didn’t know the effects of our actions. What seems less excusable is that we persist in our aggression even when we know how important our interconnectedness is with the wild. We reintroduce and protect the wolf and fisher on one hand, and on the other devastate our most reliable wild partner.
Lumbricus terrestrus, the humble earthworm doesn’t inspire awe or empathy, and so it may be difficult launching a defense campaign on its behalf on prime time TV. If there was an Oscar, though, for best supporting actor in our annual horticultural drama, the earthworm should win hands down. The worm is no less wild than the wolf and no less shy about being in human company. But it is infinitely more beneficial than any animal to the productivity of our farms, gardens and communities. “It may be doubted,” wrote Charles Darwin, “whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world as have these lowly organized creatures.” Earthworms, like stay-at-home dads and moms, aren’t generally respected for their contributions to the common good. In their relentless, methodical way, worms ingest organic matter and soil, mix these with digestive juices and leave behind castings tailor made, in nutrient content and ph level, for the plants above and around them. Worm castings are rich in micronutrients and have five times the nitrogen, seven times the phosphorus and eleven times the potash as an equal amount of prairie soil. In a one thousand square meter garden of worm-rich soil they can contribute as much as 150 kgs of castings in one growing season. All they ask of us is to be left alone.
Sadly and ironically, it’s the synthetic fertilizers and pesticides we use in our soils that cause earthworms the most grief. Nitrogen fertilizers, derived from natural gas and most commonly sold to gardeners as urea or ammonium nitrates, sulfates and phosphates, are the most harmful because of the acidic conditions they create in the soil. In root crops where pesticides are injected into the soil, these unpaid worker-worms are poisoned along with the targeted worms and insects. We have all seen tired, hard pan soil that is devoid of earthworms. It lacks the transforming abilities of worm rich soil, making it increasingly dependent on fertilizers brought in from great distances; like feeding soda pop to a baby when breast milk is available.
Organic farmers and gardeners have proven that we can live harmoniously with and derive great benefit from the wildlife in our soils. Organic standards prohibit growers from using petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides. These standards also go beyond the ‘must nots’ by providing a list of ‘permitted materials’ that can be used to amend the soil, prevent disease and deter unwanted insects. Organic growers use compost, green manure and nitrogen fixing plants like peas, beans, clovers and alfalfa to stimulate biological activity. Nitrogen fixing plants take nitrogen out of the air and deposit it in the soil through their fine roots making the nitrogen available to a companion or a successive crop.
Increasingly homemakers are searching out organic and natural foods. By so doing we as a society are supporting this gentler, long-term approach to agriculture. This is not, though, only about growing food. Conventional farmers, it can be argued, at least learn to apply the chemical they use in a measured way. According to a survey I heard recently, on average, urban gardeners use twice as much synthetic chemical per square meter on their lawns and gardens as farmers do on their fields. In their patient way, organic growers are inviting us to walk more gently on this earth and offer safe haven to our wild partners, even if we can’t hear them calling on a still, dark night.
We all tried out our howling voices that night. We didn’t hear the wolves respond. But the next day when we went back along that path, there were wolf tracks all around the area where we had been standing. Both they and the worms know about intelligent life on this planet. Most of the time, friends, it ain’t us.