Op-Ed

What can stop the worms? How about a 60-year-old asphalt driveway?

As an enthusiastic if inept gardener, I recently had a big section of my driveway jack-hammered up, so I could increase my vegetable output.

It wasn’t at all like lifting a rock and finding all kinds of wiggly creatures busy below. The dirt under the 60-year-old asphalt was still and dry and compacted. I chipped away at it and dug deeply but discovered not a single worm or earwig, not even a roly-poly or any other trace of underground life, except an ancient, withered root. I imagine that root was surprised when, pushing its way along as roots do, it suddenly found itself at such a hostile dead end.

And what about the hapless worms? They must have been minding their own wormy business, having gooey, hermaphrodite sex, eating organic material from dead things and turning it into soil when hot, sticky asphalt annihilated their world.

According to Kirk Fitzhugh, curator of polychaete invertebrate zoology at L.A.'s Natural History Museum, we used to have our very own specialized species of Southern California earthworms. They were finicky, not cut out to serve or survive contact with gardening humans. Wherever we planted stuff, we inadvertently replaced them (to put it delicately) with more cooperative varieties who had hitched a ride from Europe and Asia in imported plants and ship ballast. But even these hardy interlopers couldn’t survive a driveway pour.

I imagine it was like a summer horror movie, the sunlight and water and air abruptly blocked, and Our Friends the Worms frantically squirming to the far edges of my driveway to escape, while scads perished on the way.

That driveway would have been be an enormous expanse for a worm to cross. If they headed the wrong way, they’d reach the street, which is an even more immense worm killing field — almost infinite, as my street segues into the next block, and the next — sidewalks, roadways, parking lots and freeways. All that pavement strictly inhospitable to worms.

In fact, once you begin evaluating the city by worm criteria, you, or at least I, find our insatiable desire to encase hunks of land is yet another instance of our disregard for the voiceless and meek.

Aristotle is supposed to have called worms the “intestines of the earth.” In our age of preoccupation with cleanses and probiotics and the bio-balance in our guts, I’ll just leave that there.

Meanwhile, to bring that patch of former driveway back to life, I could bury a dead animal there, and water the grave site frequently, waiting for bacteria to colonize and decompose the critter, and enrich the dirt around it. But my pets are all in good health, and as a vegetarian I currently have possession of no cadavers.

Another option would be to scoop out the lifeless dirt, haul it away and dump it somewhere. But where? (And how weird to have to throw away dirt, like someone in a hazmat suit disposing of toxic waste.)

The next step would be to buy new, livelier dirt to fill the big hole I made. Then dump in my compost full of worms and hope they settle in, finding enough to eat so I won’t just be consigning them to a mass grave. I’d say, “Be the Adam and Eve of the underground! Go forth and multiply! Recreate the fertile Earth. Pay no attention to the ghosts of those who died before you, in this very spot, smothered by my indifferent species.”

I can’t quite do that to them. At least not yet.

Luckily, there’s also the lazy person’s wait-and-see, semi-hydroponic option. I chopped up and sifted the hard, dry dirt, doused it with plenty of water and dotted it with flower and vegetable seeds. Now, to my delight, a few radishes have sent up shoots, as have some pumpkin seeds!

It’s too soon to celebrate the successful resurrection of the dead earth. There has been no sign of wigglies on the ground, but a few butterflies have shown interest. And I do believe there is reason to hope for worms.

Amy Koss is the author of “Side Effects,” and many other books for teens.

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