You can learn a lot while walking in circles.
Today I learned about worms and life. It rained last night. At 9 a.m., the paved surface of the Swarthmore College running track was still damp from the downpour. On the track’s middle lanes, large numbers of worms lay marooned. A few hours before, their limbless bodies were winding and wriggling in the wet. But what now? The rain had stopped, and soon the sun would draw the water from each worm’s reddish-brown skin. Those that failed to return to the moist earth were destined to die.
These worms were in a crisis. Did they know it? Would they recognize their problem and do something about it? Did they have the instinct, knowledge and strength to survive—to creep resolutely across the hard track to safety?
As I made my rounds, I watched the worm drama, resisting the urge to rescue each annelid by picking it up and flinging it onto the grass. “Let nature take its course,” I thought.
The truth is, though, ever since my brother died of cancer 20 years ago, I’ve had trouble letting harm come to anything that lives—including slugs, snakes, flies and creatures traditionally thought of as repellent. If there’s a bee in the house, I guide it to a window with a newspaper and let it fly off. I’ve been known to capture mice under overturned pots and relocate them to the woods. I mourn road kill, fallen butterflies and unhatched eggs.
Once, in a corner of a hallway, I saw an invertebrate struggling piteously in an approaching arachnid’s web. I couldn’t stand it. With bathroom tissue, I picked up each separately—but I didn’t flush them down the toilet. Rather, I put them outside, one in the flower garden and one in a tree. True, the spider will simply go out and find some other living breakfast. But what else could I do? If reincarnation is true, one of those bugs might be someone I once knew.
Walking on the track, looming high above the worms, with the power to save each life but choosing not to, I felt analogous to a deity. I wondered, “Is God overwhelmed by the never-ending number of people who need help, as I was overwhelmed by the number of imperiled worms? If God fails to intervene and stop a person’s death, does he feel helpless or guilty?”
I watched my worm children. Some writhed without direction; others lay still; some headed straight for the track’s grassy edges; one bound itself up in a knot. “Just like humans,” I thought. “Just like us.” What do we do when faced with a crisis? Sometimes we struggle against fate, getting nowhere. Sometimes we tie ourselves in knots. Worst-case scenario: We become immobilized, unable to function. Too few times, we face problems head-on and, no matter how hard or how painful, do what has to be done.
Amazing. On that quarter-mile track I found a mini-metaphor for life and death, joy and suffering, self-help vs. self-immolation, the mystery of God and the universe.
I also learned that I’m glad I’m not a worm.
Swarthmore writer Kathye Fetsko Petrie is the author of the children’s book Flying Jack (Boyds Mills Press) and the editor of Local LIT (locallit.com), an online calendar of literary events in the area.