Be Heading Towards Worm Regeneration

An earthworm at its one week post-execution check-up

Several weeks ago, I was working on repairing a set of stone stairs. Some of the stones had fallen loose and the whole hillside that they ran down needed a retaining wall anyway. Unexpectedly, this lead to an opportunity to learn about worm regeneration.

Stair-capped stone retaining wall
The stairs leading into our dooryard. We just love building this kind of long-lasting, beautiful, sustainable stone-work!

While digging, my shovel severed the head of an unfortunate earthworm. I was saddened by this, but also curious to see how much harm I had actually done to the poor creature. I had heard that earthworms had incredible regenerative abilities, and I wanted to see if this was true. So I gathered some tasty looking loam and left it above ground inside a jar along with my vermian victim. Definitely not a sound scientific study, but enough to satisfy my curiosity. A week later, I checked inside the jar. To my utter astonishment and joy, the afflicted annelid (a Lumbricus terrestris) slithered lethargically in the soil. And not only that, the severed stump of its head had completely healed over!

An earthworm at its one week post-execution check-up
A previously beheaded Lumbricus lazarus on the recovery one week post-execution.

And if this picture isn’t enough to convince you of the liveliness of this headless earthworm, here is some videographic evidence as well:

The undying earthworm, one week after an unfortunate encounter with a shovel blade.

After I had verified its indisputable vivacity, I replaced its loam and this time interred the jar and worm (not a burial as a funerary procedure, but rather as a return (in earthworm terms) to the land of the living) and waited two more weeks.

On the second checkup, the amazing annelid was nowhere to be found, and I presumed it to have returned to the great underground, to live tilling the soil till, tilling, it could till no more. While this experience put me in awe of the regenerative abilities of earthworms (on top of their amazing work ethic and indispensable role in soil health), it also has reduced my reservations about digging in the soil, which inevitably carries the risk of accidentally disturbing or dissecting them, if it is done for a good purpose.

Disturbing the ground is often an unavoidable part of essential building projects, such as building a house. Digging in the ground is often the only way to provide a firm, level foundation for a building. And for us hobbit-hole enthusiasts, it is absolutely unavoidable. This experience has added weight to my conviction that Tolkien’s hobbits were far more ethically, environmentally, and technologically advanced than we are in terms of housing. I think it is far better to temporarily disturb a hundred earthworms (most of which live in top soil, anyway) and build an underground house than to condemn a pregnant strip of land to be the bearer of a barren building for years. Even if worms are harmed in the process, most of them will regenerate; it seems they were designed to endure this kind of thing.

Learn more about earthworms’ regenerative capabilities:


The Loon Adventure

On Sunday [May 28, 2018], as my family was coming back from church, we noticed some commotion by the side of the road.  There were people by the side of the road looking at an apparently injured loon.  Someone had called Joel Rosenthal, who runs an animal sanctuary.  Joel’s animal sanctuary is only accessible, by vehicle, by fording the Greenbrier River.  It had been raining fairly hard for the past few days and the river was very high.  Joel misread a river gauge, thinking the river was low enough to safely cross, and decided to cross the river and take the loon from us.  My Dad and Abram, my older brother, put the loon into a feed-sack we had in the back of the car, with its head sticking out, and bound the bag shut with string so that the loon wouldn’t escape.  We then drove to the ford where Joel had crossed with a large Unimog.  Unimog is a brand of truck with very high ground clearance.  This Unimog had a front-end loader, and had water streaming out of the bucket from its recent crossing.  Joel took the loon and started to cross the river.  As he went, the engine started to run slower and slower as the Unimog went through the swollen river, until about 15 feet from the opposite shore the engine stalled, stranding both Joel and the loon.

        Dad and Abram drove off to try to find a canoe, while the rest of us stayed behind to watch Joel. Joel managed to swim safely to shore.  Dad and Abram drove to our mother’s house and borrowed a canoe.  Upon returning Dad tied the canoe to a tree with a long rope to test if Abram and he could paddle across.  Dad and Abram could not handle the canoe well enough, and Dad decided that it would be too dangerous to cross by canoe.  Dad and Abram, returned to shore and we drove home.  Since we couldn’t get to Joel’s from that side of the river we decided to try to get to Joel’s place, usually described as accessible only by fording the river, from the other side of the river.  That night Dad looked at maps and talked to people who knew the area.  We planned to set out the next morning.

        In the morning we set out to reach Joel’s. On the way we bought a topographic map.  The closest vehicular approach on the map, to Joel’s property, on that side of the river was about three miles, but that road had been closed.  We drove to the next closest approach, that appeared to be about 6 miles from Joel’s property on the map.  The proposed route was to climb over Pond Ridge and follow Oldham Run to Joel’s property, but someone who knew the area had advised us to walk on top of Pond Ridge to avoid the thick rhododendron growth next to Oldham Run.  We began walking.  We crossed a stream and climbed up what we thought was Pond Ridge.  When we reached the top, we consulted the map that we had purchased earlier, and discovered that it was not Pond ridge, but only a knob at the end of it.  Abram, Dad and I climbed up, then down two more steep hills and up again, until we finally climbed to the top of Pond Ridge.  Dad decided that Pond Ridge was too difficult to follow because it wasn’t a straight flat ridge. It bent, dipped and curved and would be very difficult to stay on, so we followed a dry stream course down to Oldham Run and decided to brave the rhododendron thickets.  Oldham Run had thick rhododendron growth on both sides of it as promised.  For about five of the six miles we walked up and down the sides of the extremely steep valley and sometimes crawled on our hands and knees through the rhododendron thickets.

         We got tired and stopped to eat lunch roughly 2/3 of the way through.  Eventually the valley widened, and the rhododendron was only near the stream course.  We found several old railroad grades and the walking became much easier on the flat ground, with little to no rhododendron, for the last one or two miles.  It took us five and a half hours to get to Joel’s property.

        Once at Joel’s we needed to get the loon out of the truck.  The river had gone down a lot during the night and was only waist height.  Abram waded out, attached to a rope, to the Unimog and got the loon out.  The loon had not died during the night from stress or fallen off the seat and drowned.  Joel looked the loon over and could find nothing wrong with it.  We took the loon to a pond and released it.  It dipped under the water and splashed around and went to the other side of the pod.  It began fishing and staying clear of us.  It was uninjured, so we inferred that the loon had made a mistaken landing on the wet pavement and was unable to take off again.  We were tired from our long walk, and we decided to get the Unimog out of the river tomorrow.  

        The following morning, we pulled the Unimog out of the river. Joel had a lot of heavy equipment, but most of it did not run. The largest easily available vehicle was a four-wheel drive Kubota tractor.  We drove it to the river and tried to pull the Unimog out.  Dad stood on the back of the Kubota tractor and chained it to the Unimog.  The tractor tried but could not pull the truck out.  It dug large ruts in the river bottom and nearly got itself stuck.  As the tractor drove out of the river, we saw it spitting a thick white liquid out of the engine breather.   Dad explained that the engine oil and water that had leaked in from the river, had been churned together into a thick liquid that had the consistency of a milkshake.  We drove the Kubota back to a building and immediately changed the oil to prevent the engine from destroying itself without proper oil.  The oil in the tractor was still mixed with water, but it was good enough to run for a while after we drained a lot of the water-oil out of it and put new oil into it. 

 Dad and Joel drove the Kubota across the river to get a bulldozer to pull the Unimog out.  It took Dad half an hour of working on the battery of the bulldozer to start it.  After the bulldozer started, Dad drove the Kubota back to its enclosure, and Joel drove the bulldozer back to the Unimog, and pulled it out of the river easily. 

Once on dry land Dad began looking over the Unimog because it might have sucked water into the cylinders of the engine and destroyed itself.  After looking it over for a while, he began to slowly hand crank the engine.  After determining that there was no water in the cylinders he started it, and it ran fine.  Apparently, what had happened was the duck bill drain on the fuel filter had become old and cracked.  It had sucked in a mist of water that wet the filter.  The wet filter could not suck enough fuel through or the mist of water absorbed too much heat to allow fuel to ignite, causing the engine to stall.

        In the end, the loon was perfectly fine and so was the Unimog.  Joel drove us back across the river where my brother Michael met us to pick us up.  Michael drove us back to where we parked our car, and we drove home.  We were all satisfied that it had gone remarkably well.

Encounter With a Baby Mouse

On Monday, July 29, I began mowing an overgrown plot that we call the North Garden with a scythe. It led me to consider the deceptively-simple question, “should we help animals?” What is the proper relationship between mice and men and, more broadly, man and nature?

Me standing amid the vegetable carnage holding my blood-stained scythe.

I mowed a little over half of it before we all took a break from work to swim in the creek. 

The next day was taken up by piano and Tae Kwon Do lessons, so I resumed mowing on Wednesday, right after breakfast. I had not been mowing for a very long time when I heard a “squeak squeak” noise right in front of my scythe blade. I pulled back some weeds to see what had made the noise and found a blind baby mouse. It was only about two inches long including its tail and was covered in short soft grey fur. It was very cute. It struggled a little when I first picked it up but then settled down and went to sleep in my hand.

The baby mouse curled up in my shirt.

I wasn’t sure what to do with it, so I postponed my decision by letting it curl up in the folds of my shirt, which I had taken off to keep cool. I continued mowing for a little while longer until my dad came looking for me; it was time to hang laundry. I told him what I had found and he said that if he had found the baby mouse he would have simply let it be but I could raise it as a pet on my own if I wanted. I stayed with the mouse a little while longer trying to decide what to do with it; on one hand, it was very cute and I wanted to keep it, but on the other hand it would be a big responsibility and, after all, adult mice can be very destructive. At the time, I assumed that if I did nothing it would surely die, so I felt my decision was very important: is it okay to kill mice? In the end, I decided to postpone my decision further and go help hang laundry. So I put the mouse in a place where I thought I could find it again and went to do exactly that. While I hung laundry, I came up with a poem to describe the conundrum I felt I was in:

Voice recording of the poem.
 Oh little mouse, left in the field:
You want my house, I yearn to yield!

We once were friends, in Eden, but:
Alas it ends, our bond is cut!

But can the mice, and fallen men,
Who aren't nice, be friends again?

Can mice and men, of fallen ken,
Be friends again, as they were then?

The answer to this riddle true
I have no clue; I wish I knew!

But until then, farewell fare mouse,
With naught from men, not help nor house.

Tragically, this poem answers the question, “should we help animals,” in the negative. But, of course, it refers to the specific situation of the abandoned baby field mouse, not animals in general; perhaps we are doomed to be at war with some creatures, but we should try and live in mutually-beneficial harmony with them as much as possible.

After hanging the laundry, I returned to the North Garden, convinced that I would find the mouse dead of cold. I was surprised and somewhat relieved when I did not find it, but I still thought it must have died and I felt in a way responsible for its death because I did not help it when I could have. I thought about it more as I went back to the creek to see if a stone I had balanced on end at the creek on Monday was still standing. Miraculously, it was, and I had a wonderful time balancing more stones and walking in the woods:

But even then I was in a melancholy mood due to my experiences with the baby mouse. I planned on bringing up the subject at supper to try and answer some of the questions raised in my poem, but I couldn’t work up the courage and other matters ere being discussed. So I almost missed out on the invaluable experience that followed after my siblings had gone to bed and I finally worked up the courage to bring up the subject with my father. To my surprise, I started crying almost immediately and continued uncontrollably for about half of our long discussion. First, my dad apologized for taking the matter of the mouse so lightly when I told him about it the first time; neither of us had realized at that time how important it was going to be to me. We discussed the Garden of Eden and what it was really like versus the current natural order of things. For example, were there carnivores in the Garden of Eden? If so, how could they have been in harmony with other animals? Can we justify killing other animals by looking at the current natural order in which killing other animals is common practice? Is this bad, or is it part of a different kind of harmony in which the carnivores, parasites, etc. serve to limit the population sizes of herbivores, which would otherwise grow to destructive proportions, and to select for stronger, faster, smarter animals that might otherwise become weak, stupid, and complacent in the absence of danger? Are these qualities fostered by carnivores good in themselves and worth the sacrifice of many lives of weaker animals? Should humans try to fit into the current natural order of things or should they seek to restore the Garden of Eden? How could we go about doing that? My dad presented the example of the Fisher King in C. S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength who had trained the mice in his house to pick up crumbs from the floor and never poop in the house. That sounds wonderful, but could that actually be accomplished in real life? Another inspirational example from C. S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy is that of the Green Lady in Perelandra  who teaches the animals and tries to raise them up to her level of consciousness.

In the end, we did not, of course, definitively answer any of these questions, but I am very glad we had the discussion because helped me not only express my feelings, but learn their true depth and gravity. It also brought me hope for the little mouse when my Dad suggested that perhaps the mouse had gone away with its mother or scurried off to a better hiding place, instead of the alternative of being eaten by a predator.  That brought another insight which is that often when one sees a baby animal seemingly abandoned, especially in the case of fawns, most of the time this is because the mother has left for a bit to find food or the like, not because she has abandoned her baby. So most of the time it is better for the baby not to interfere, something I did not consider when I first discovered the baby mouse.