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Lions Roar : January 2009
SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2009 35 ON DARK MORNINGS after nights of heavy rainfall, I find earthworms stranded on the concrete sidewalk that leads to my front door and on the as- phalt pavement that winds through the woods along Chico Creek. Caught on these alien plains, the worms contract and expand their little segmented bod- ies as they inch toward certain death— certain death because if left exposed to even the palest sunlight, the rays will kill them. They will shrivel down to a crusty hardness, like a twisted twig or a stiffened length of discarded leather shoelace. I can’t leave the earthworms to die. I simply must return them to the lawn or put them under a shrub. But an earthworm is actually difficult to take hold of. Their bodies are coated with a lubricant that allows them to move smoothly through the little channels that they create underground, so when you take hold of one, you’ll find it’s very slick and will easily slip from your fingers and fall back on the concrete. Not only that, an earth- worm’s response to being touched is to wriggle and twist about in order to free itself. I’m aware that a certain comic absurdity attends the image of a seventy-seven-year-old man struggling to save the lives of earthworms that are fiercely resisting rescue. Seeing them per- plexed by the loss of familiar habitat, however, calls up my own loss of familiar ground—the fields and family farms of my youth that have given way to shopping malls and freeway interchanges. Am I not, like these bewildered creatures, also caught out on the pavement? It’s not unreasonable to feel this way in a world en- crusted with structures of our own invention, a world where so much of the natural order, rhythms, and textures of the living earth lie buried beneath the works of our own hands. It’s not a new circumstance, and it’s not just about worms. A century and a half ago, Gerard Manley Hopkins, witnessing the engines of industry unleashed upon the land, saw firsthand the high cost of the human ambition to control and subdue: Generations have trod, have trod, have trod; / And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; / And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell; the soil / Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod. Yes, we have more in common with earthworms than we might at first suspect. I’ve learned that lumbricus terrestris is the scientific name for the worms I pick off the sidewalk and that a typical lumbricid, like we humans, has a brain, albeit a rudimentary one. And, like us, it has a heart. In fact, it has ten hearts—five pairs that pump blood through a closed circula- tory system like our own. And while it’s true that earthworms eat dirt, it must be admitted that we do too. Since soil is the basis for all terrestrial plant life, can it not be said that I’m com- pelled to eat from the very dirt under my feet? And if the im- probable transformation of sunlight to chlorophyll by way of photosynthesis is the critical support for the entire earthly food chain, don’t the worms and I share an unavoidable appetite for sunlight as well? And can’t it be said that I eat the worms them- selves, since their castings feed the plants upon which I in turn feed? That the worms and I and all of creation are wrapped The Ten Hearts of an Earthworm They have five pairs of tiny beating hearts. But what really makes earthworms precious, says LIN JENSEN, is simply that they exist. PHOTOBYTHOMASBÖLKE LIN JENSEN is senior Buddhist chaplain to High Desert State Prison in Susanville, California, and founder and teacher of the Chico Zen Sangha in Chico, California. His latest book is Together Under One Roof: Making a Home of the Buddha’s Household (Wisdom Publications).