The day I cried over worms 🪱

An essay on infestation, remediation, and “solastalgia” as a personal experience of climate grief.

This dispatch is about the jumping worms that infested my garden last summer, which are also wreaking havoc on ecosystems across the U.S. It is a personal story of home, as well as a nod to gardening as a form of ecological caretaking. If you’re also dealing with jumping worms, my tips for remediation are at the very bottom.

— Willa

I was pulling up weeds in my garden one warm day last August when the biggest, juiciest worm I’ve ever seen slithered out of the dirt. It was almost 8” long, iridescent, and as thick as my pinky finger. Grabbing my phone, I shared a video to Instagram. “LOOK AT THIS FAT HAPPY WORM,” I boasted.

It didn’t take long before a few gardener friends started DMing me the bad news. “Uh, that’s a jumping worm,” one wrote. “Those worms are invasive! Kill it!” said another. Sitting down, I took off my dirty gloves and started googling. Instantly, there it was: The huge worm from my garden, all over the internet alongside headlines calling it “destructive,” “aggressive,” and even “evil.” My heart sank. Feeling embarrassedly clueless, I kept reading. 

Jumping worms, aka amynthas agrestis, are also known as snake worms, crazy worms, and wood eels. They hail from eastern Asia, and were inadvertently introduced to North America at some point in the 19th century. Their population reached a tipping point about a decade ago, and since then their spread has been exponential. Climate change has also ignited their proliferation, as milder northern winters mean the worms aren’t reliably killed off by an annual hard freeze. To date, jumping worms have been identified in 34 states, but they’re likely present in more.

The reason they’re “bad” mostly boils down to their large, unceasing appetites. Jumping worms can consume an entire year’s worth of leaf litter in just a few weeks, turning all that nutrient-dense decaying matter into barren soil that is heavily prone to erosion. And unlike the worms we’re used to seeing when we dig down into the dirt, jumping worms only dwell in the soil’s top layer, which just so happens to be the part of the earth that many native species depend on to breed and seed—especially in woodland ecosystems. Plus: They spread very easily, and there is no known way to eradicate them at scale. And: they reproduce without mating, with each worm capable of making upwards of 20 cocoons a month. Gulp.

At this point, I felt a bit sickened. But I still wondered: “Aren’t worm castings good for gardens? Even if these worms are harmful to forests, could they at least be beneficial for gardeners and farmers?” I kept reading.

Unfortunately, it looked like the answer was no—at least not when you have a full-blown infestation. As jumping worms digest garden soil, they quickly strip it of beneficial microbes and mycelia, leaving it dry and pellet-like. This checks out, as I’d recently noticed my garden’s dirt had become oddly reminiscent of brown Dippin’ Dots. Now I knew why: My garden had been turned into a massive pile of literal worm shit. 

Looking up from my phone, I realized I’d been googling for nearly twenty minutes. As my eyes re-focused on my physical surroundings, I saw flowers bobbing in the breeze as honeybees and butterflies slurped their nectar. Beyond my garden fence, the late-afternoon sun reflected brightly off of the tall beech trees that make up the majority of our forested land. Our home is surrounded by the forever-wild Catskills State Park, which stretches for thousands of mountainous acres to the west. Feeling our garden’s proximity to these protected woodlands, my anxiety mounted. I started to picture an army of massive, hungry worms slithering below my feet, snaking dutifully out of my garden and into the forest beyond.

With this image, a lump of sadness inflated in my throat. There I was, crying because of worms.

Later that day, while still stewing in my wormy research project, I discovered a citizen-science report attempting to quantify the emotional upheaval gardeners go through upon realizing they have a jumping worm infestation. This report is unlike any I’ve seen before in that it chronicles a shared experience of personal grief in relation to an invasive species. As I read through the project’s findings, I was somehow comforted to learn that nearly a quarter of people with infested gardens had also broken down in tears because of the worms. And, oddly, more than half of respondents said they’d suffered from nightmares about the worms. “Something to look forward to,” I thought to myself.

The report also notes that it’s “common for gardeners and landowners to go through the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) after jumping worms are found on a site, [and] jumping worms may cause gardeners to experience solastalgia, i.e. stress caused by environmental change.”

I re-read this word: “solastalgia.” I hadn’t heard of it before. Looking it up, it’s a term that was coined in 2005 as “a new concept in human health and identity.” 

As for its meaning, “[While] nostalgia describes homesickness or a state of sadness caused by being away from one’s home, it can be rectified by returning there… This is quite the opposite of solastalgia, which describes the experience of chronic trauma, longing, or hopelessness due to negative or distressing changes to the home or ecosystem you are still in due to the impacts of climate change, weather events, fire, or other environmental factors.” [Source]

I was struck by the monumentality of that description, and by how much it resonated. Already that summer, Canadian wildfires had filled our skies with toxic orange haze, hoards of ticks had taken over our backyard, and my home state of Vermont had been pummeled by unprecedented, flooding rainfall. Even before finding that first worm, it was a summer of solastalgia. And this was just my experience of being personally affected by climate change, as someone who’s lucky enough to live in an area that, so far, has not been hit by any actual disasters. Sigh.

In the grand scheme of things to be upset about, I know the multiplying worms in my garden are of minor importance. But gardening has taught me so much about how everything is intertwined, and about how life itself works. As things seem to get progressively worse, it has kept me feeling excited for the future.

So on that particular day, I couldn’t help but feel like the worms in my garden were a harbinger of doom.

*

Today is a cloudy mid-winter day. As we approach spring, I have had half a year to reflect on my first-ever Solastalgia Summer. I’ve also had time to further research the worms in my garden, as well as “invasive species” more broadly. While jumping worms remain one of my top enemies, I’ve learned enough to have hope, and to feel optimistic about my future gardening pursuits. 🙂

One thing I’ve found somewhat calming is that the proliferation of non-native species within ecosystems is not a new phenomenon. In fact, most worms in the U.S. are non-native, and virtually all worms in the northeastern states came from somewhere else. Native worms of North America apparently disappeared over 10,000 years ago when glaciers from the Pleistocene ice age wiped them out, and it wasn’t until the 1600s, when European colonizers came to the Americas, that earthworms were reintroduced.

The flora and fauna of this world have been on the move for eons, whether via their own locomotion or by hitching a ride. And if evolution is truly the survival of the fittest, then what we’re seeing now is evolution on steroids, with human activity and climate change as the wild-card X factors. As our environment destabilizes, this process will likely continue to speed up, and long-established ecosystems will be further disrupted. It is a brutal cycle, but it’s simply reality at this point.

So where does all this leave us—or, for the purposes of this newsletter, leave me?

I return to the idea of solastalgia. Perhaps somewhat selfishly, I am thinking of my home, of the dirt (and worms) beneath my feet, but also of the notion of home more broadly.

“Home” is such an evocative word. It is where we live, and where our families live; it’s where we feel we belong. Beyond giving us shelter, home is a place we create through intentional worldbuilding. A sense of belonging comes naturally when we care for our homes, and understand ourselves as privileged dwellers within a nurtured universe.

In the case of the home we share outside our walls—the natural world, as opposed to the built—I don’t think this changes much. Our homes are not just structural containers or points on a map. They are familial relationships with animal and human kin, weather patterns, beloved plants and trees. Home is the gentle slope of the earth beyond your house, the smell of warming soil in spring, the neighbors on your block or the family of birds in the tree outside your window. Our homes are communal ecosystems and topographies of shared experience, memory, and care. For those of us lucky enough to feel firmly rooted to our homes, we have a responsibility to look after these micro-ecosystems, and to try to understand our roles within them.

*

With proximity comes familiarity. In the face of climate upheaval, perhaps remediation can be relational. While the worms’ appearance initially made me fear for my future as an at-home gardener, what I’ve come to realize is that gardening is actually my best weapon against the worms. In this way, ecological caretaking can unfold as a kind of allyship with the species who share our homes.

As we head towards spring, I am thinking about gardening as a form of remediation, and about home-making as an opportunity to deepen my relationship to this land—as well as to life itself.

How can I be an ally to the native species who live here too? How can we, as individuals, contribute our labor and attention in ways that are truly beneficial, truly regenerative? Is it possible at this point? I’m not sure—but I’m excited to try.

To get started, I will be doing what I can to support beneficial native species, especially pollinators like bees and butterflies. In particular, we’ll be planting lots of milkweed, bergamot, aster, coneflowers, and black-eyed susans—all of which are perennial, meaning that once they’ve established themselves, they’ll come back each year.

I will also attempt some basic jumping-worm population control using organic tea-seed meal (see below for my full remediation plan). Will it make a difference? Only time will tell.

Beyond this, I’ll keep listening to people who know more than me, and I’ll share what I learn with anyone who’d like to talk. Managing jumping worms seems to be more of an art than a science at this point, and it feels as emotional as it is hands-on-laborious. The more we help each other out and share resources, the better.

Before I sign off, it feels important to note that despite last year’s infestation, my garden mostly thrived.

As the worms continued to multiply alongside our zucchini and zinnias, I braced for the worst—but nothing seemed that negatively affected. I had to water very regularly to keep the pellet-like soil from drying out, and our second planting of lettuce failed. Otherwise, it was the best garden we’ve ever had. (Since the worms only ruined the top ~4″ of soil, and the infestation didn’t start until late summer, my theory is that the established plants were able to draw plenty of nutrients from their deep roots.)

By fall, I had become accustomed to the way dozens of worms would surface each time I harvested root vegetables or pulled up weeds. My toddler had fun carrying the largest worms around in his tiny hands, collecting them as a kind of game. It was unsettling, but we coexisted.

All in all, the worms have served as a reminder that ecosystems are nuanced and mysterious. While we do our best to help the native species whose homes are threatened, we should also not underestimate the resilience and intelligence of these natural systems. And as things keep mutating, I plan to appreciate the beauty that’s still here, and grow more of it wherever I can.

^ Wiley playing with a “big wooohm” last summer

If you’re also dealing with jumping worms, I’m including my remediation plan below—plus some general plans for bolstering the native ecosystem(s) around our home.

Worm-remediation plan:

1) Rebuild my garden’s soil health. We’ll add 2-3” of high-quality compost to each garden bed. This will help rebuild the layer that the worms destroyed, and will ensure new seedlings can thrive, and direct-sown seeds will germinate.

2) Kill off the first jumping worm hatch. I plan to apply organic tea seed meal to my garden in mid-May, right before planting out my seedlings (apply 6-12 lbs per 1,000 sf of soil; simply sprinkle it on top and then heavily water your garden). Where we live, it’s been cold enough to kill adult jumping worms. However, their cocoons will be ready to hatch once the soil warms up. Killing these newly hatched worms will make my garden less susceptible to another infestation.

3) Keep up the composting and mulching. As the worms deplete our soil, we’ll need a lot of fresh compost to keep our plants happy. Also, mulching is a great way to keep moisture in the soil, even if jumping worms have dried it out. Aim for ~4” of mulch on the top of your garden beds, as this top layer keeps weeds down and locks moisture in.

Native-ecosystem-bolstering plan:

1) Plant as many flowering native species as I can. This past fall I saved a ton of native seeds, and I plan to sow them all around my yard and gardens.

2) Support honeybee populations. My husband is getting into beekeeping this year, and will be setting up a hive in our back field. I’ll also be planting a ton of annual flowers this year in addition to the native perennials I mentioned above, including bee-attracting blooms like borage, poppies, sunflowers, cosmos, and zinnias.

3) Leave our lawn as wild as possible. We’ll leave areas of our yard unmowed for the salamanders, grasshoppers, and pollinators. At some point we’ll need to figure out an approach to managing the ticks in our yard, which are an even larger menace than the jumping worms, but that’s a story for another time… 

I’m sure I’ll add to this list as the growing season draws nearer. If there’s something you plan to do, or if you have a relevant tip or story to share, please respond to this email to let me know. I’d love to hear from you!

<3 Willa