We clambered down the bank to Tonto Creek just below the fish hatchery, abristle with fishing rods. Kasondra, the most determined angler among us, fished her way downstream to a churning pool cradled in slick stone. Jessica clung to her infant daughter’s hand.
I like pan-fried trout as much as anyone, but I was hungrier for the creek’s scent and sound. I’d brought a Styrofoam bucket of nightcrawlers and gave wordless thanks as I baited my hook. Wordless, because I couldn’t think of a prayer to thank a worm that might give you a fish that might fill your dinner plate. The sun and the rain and the apple seed, yes, as the childhood rhyme goes, but not a writhing invertebrate with a hook in its digestive tract.
Robin Wall Kimmerer writes of reciprocity: If an animal feeds you, she says, you should return a gift in kind. What gift can I give a worm? I wondered. Or a fat freckled trout from a stream? The question stuck in my mind as the afternoon blued into evening. Not a bite, but I didn’t really mind. My last worm still had some kick in it (metaphorically speaking) so I released it into the leaf mulch, aglow in this moment of mercy. Later, driving home, I remembered European nightcrawlers are invasive in North America. So much for reciprocity.
Earthworms evolved on Pangea and became global citizens when the supercontinent broke up. Glaciers flattened a good chunk of North America during the last Ice Age, and their retreat left a wormless world behind. Northern trees came to rely on thick blankets of duff that kept their roots from freezing. When Europeans arrived, they brought worms with them, in potted plants and the seams of their shoes. The underground invaders munched and mixed the soil, to the detriment of native plants. One study in Minnesota found the leading edge of an earthworm invasion can eat 10 centimeters of leaf litter down to bare dirt.
Glaciers never touched Arizona. Perhaps native worms thrived here. Perhaps oak, pine, and columbine wouldn’t mind the uninvited guest. I emailed ecologist Mac Callaham, who wrote back: “The short answer to your question is that I don’t know. I have long suspected that there are native worms in wet spots of the Southwest, but the truth is that nobody has really systematically sampled the earthworms in these habitats.”
Nobody knows if native worms live in Arizona. It seemed so fundamental, so simple: worms or no worms? The gap in knowledge troubled me. Wherever we end up on the journey toward reciprocity, surely we must start by knowing our neighbors’ names.
Callaham explained that invasive worms move fast—not under their own steam, but shipped in crates of soil or sold at bait shops, aided and abetted by anglers like me. He said, “If you go into any city or town or farmstead in the country and you dig a shovelful of soil, the likelihood is probably 95 percent that you will find an earthworm of European origin. Maybe more like 99 percent. They’re extremely well-adapted to moving around with human beings.”
I confessed I left a worm at Tonto Creek on my fishing trip.
“You really shouldn’t do that,” he said.
Everyone’s personal ecology is a haphazard mix of harm and healing—we eat, but we also plant. We approach the land that sustains us with both gratitude and grief. Neither response is possible if we don’t know what’s worth protecting and what’s already been lost.
Callaham gave me his answer to this dilemma: When he goes fishing, he uses lures. Momentarily I had a crazy, bigger vision: to replace European worms with native ones on fishhooks and in compost heaps. I could see the signs in the bait shop windows: Local Cage-Free Worms Sold Here! But it’s just a story in my head, a world that doesn’t exist. What does exist is this dark soil beneath my feet, terra incognita. What is real is the tug on the fishing line, the trout sizzling in the pan.
One Sunday afternoon, my sister Kasondra and I sat at the kitchen table and she taught me how to tie trout flies. Feather, fur, twist of silk: benign imitation for a hypothetical fish. As we worked, I learned their names: woolly bugger, elk hair caddis, pheasant tail prince. ✜
Melissa L. Sevigny is the author of Mythical River and Under Desert Skies. She lives in Flagstaff.