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Digging for Giants

To protect its habitat, William Fender must first prove that Oregon’s largest earthworm still exists.

By Bill Donahue

William Fender is an unassuming man—thin, with a pallid complexion and wire-rimmed spectacles. When he steps into the Oregon woods wearing a pair of faded, hole-pocked jeans, there is a quiet rightness to the scene—an old hippie sort of tranquility. The only thing that seems odd is the pitch of the shovel. Fender, 52, carries it high over the ground and loose in his hands, like a priest holding the censer while dispensing incense in church. The shovel dangles and swings and, as Fender strides over the moss and ferns and rotting, downed limbs, he registers these sights as a sort of background music. What he is looking at, really, is the dirt.

On this warm May afternoon, in a little spit of suburban forest just south of Portland, he is looking for compact soil—for a deer trail, optimally—and he is thinking of the intricate universe wriggling beneath.

William Fender is the foremost authority on the Oregon giant earthworm, which lives in one of the nation’s soggiest—and worm-richest—areas, the Pacific Northwest. It is he who wrote the definitive 1995 paper "Native Earthworms of the Pacific Northwest," which notes that the region’s 100 indigenous species favor "fine textured" soils rich in clay. Judy Jacobs, an endangered-species biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says, "If I have a question about worms, I call Bill."

On the 40-minute drive down here from Portland, where we both live, Fender shared several little-known wonders of oligochaetology—that is, the study of worms. Worms, he explained, have been around for over 65 million years: "They survived the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary asteroid. A history of the planet is written in the cells of worms." Fender added that long-ago Oregonians pressed the oil that oozes from worms into "deep infected wounds," to capitalize on worms’ antibiotic qualities, and that in some cultures people actually eat worms.

"Have you ever eaten worms?" I asked.

"Once," Fender said, but did not elaborate.

I’d first met Fender a few weeks before, at a coffee shop, where he was waiting for me in the corner. On his table, he’d propped up a little sign to identify himself. Rendered in ballpoint pen on a wrinkled paper bag, the sign said, "WORM."

On today’s eco-battlefield, worms are marginal players. No worm—indeed, relatively few invertebrates—has ever been listed as threatened or endangered by the Fish and Wildlife Service. To Fender, who ekes by as a computer-support technician, this is a sad thing. To him, the worm is an emblem of all things good and forgotten—of those unsexy but indispensable parts of the ecosystem that must be shored up and saved. "Our whole approach to the earth has changed," he told me at the cafe. "The scientific community has moved away from an awe of nature—of worms, say—toward an engineering mindset. Taxonomy is out these days, and we’re very enamored of biotechnology. They’ve come up with a rabbit that glows, but what good is that if we don’t know anything about the planet we live on?"

Fender said things like this in a near monotone, with a flat, beleaguered look in his eyes. But now, in the woods, he shovels so ardently he is grunting. "Look for lemon-shaped worm castings," he instructs me, bending low in search of mini–bowel movements, his nose dripping with sweat. His words are rasping huffs between shovel thrusts. There’s a practical side to all this rushed toil (worms quickly contract, making their bodies short and fat and less findable, when they first sense disturbance), but it’s driven, too, by a certain . . . fever. Fender and I are here to pursue the Holy Grail of American worms, Driloleirus macelfreshi, the Oregon giant earthworm, a creature that can grow to three feet in length. The giant is pencil-thick and white and its spit smells like lilies. It has not been sighted since April 29, 1981, when Fender himself found one on the very patch of maple and fir we’re working now. It is so rare that currently it can’t even be considered for endangered status; the Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t protect species that may be extinct. Unless Fender can prove that substantial populations still exist, the worm’s habitat will remain vulnerable.

He’s most likely to find the giants here in the Willamette Valley, the 12,000-square-mile flatland surrounding Portland, where the Missoula flood deposited hundreds of feet of mucky sediment—perfect worm habitat—back in the late Pleistocene. The Oregon Trail pioneers who tilled this soil in the 19th century turned up thousands of them. And today, their progeny could still be around. Maybe. The valley is now home to 2 million people and vast berry farms and hazelnut orchards, and twisting amid all the Wal-Marts and air-conditioned tractors are legions of invasive European worms, which are the reddish-brown wrigglers we’re used to hooking on fishing poles. Humans do plenty of damage to native worms, slicing them up while working the soil, and ruining their habitat with chainsaws and pesticides. But the Euro worms, which arrived stateside centuries ago in the ballasts of boats, inflict their own harm: Each time they swallow and excrete the giant’s beloved acidic soil, they make Oregon’s dirt more neutral in its pH.

The giant is elusive. A team of six Oregon State University students in April 2000 spent 100 fruitless hours searching its historical habitat. Fender was likewise shut out recently when he spent 200 hours stalking. Still, though, he digs—always three fast, deep cuts at the soil—and he bends to pore over the dirt. We search for an hour. We find dozens of European worms—"weeds," Fender calls them—and at one point Fender snaps his head forward, rapt over a wormhole he finds in a dirt clod.

"Hmm," he muses. "Promising."

But that’s all it is—promising. The hole’s maker has long since retreated deep into the earth, and eventually we head back to the car, hopeful that down the road, in the next swath of woods, the giants are waiting for us.

When we think of long-shot searches for wildlife, we think, usually, of mythic creatures: the Loch Ness monster, dragons, bigfoot. But the truth is that, more and more, such hunts are focused on real, vanishing animals. In Mississippi’s Pearl River Wildlife Management Area, six elite ornithologists were hired in 2002 to spend 30 days looking for the ivory-billed woodpecker, known for its "frantic aliveness" and unseen since 1944. The scientists found no sign of the bird. Likewise, in Tasmania, at least nine search crews have combed the wilds for the Tasmanian tiger-wolf, a striped, six-foot-long marsupial, since it was last seen in 1936. The best they’ve come up with is "possible footprints."

But these searches lack the gravitas of the hunt for the giant earthworm. Worms are so basic to life that Charles Darwin spent much of his career studying them—cultivating them in clay pots, counting them, playing the piano to confirm their deafness. Darwin even made his final book a paean to their modest hard work. In The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Action of Worms, With Observations on Their Habits (1881), Darwin sniffed at a critic who dismissed worms for "their weakness" and thundered, "It will be difficult to deny the probability that every particle of earth forming the bed from which . . . old pasture land springs has passed through the intestines of worms."

Scott Black, the executive director of the Portland-based Xerces Society, shares Darwin’s passion. Black argues that worms should be used, along with predators such as the northern spotted owl, as barometers of forest health. "A worm moves short distances in its lifetime," reasons Black, whose group is the only one in the nation focused solely on saving invertebrates. "If you can’t find them where they should be, you know the soil you’re standing on is out of whack."

Xerces hopes to sponsor a search for the giant earthworm at some point. But the organization has a paltry budget, and the giant is, Black concedes, "just one of many prospective projects." There are over 5 million invertebrate species on Earth, says Black, an entomologist, and every day, "dozens to hundreds" are going extinct. "Each one," he says, "plays a role in its ecosystem. It’s like we’re tearing the cogs out of a great machine. The machine might work after you tear out ten cogs, but what happens when you tear out a hundred?"

Environmental policymakers are just beginning to see, with Black, that biodiversity is crucial. Since the early 1990s, the Fish and Wildlife Service has hastened slightly in adding invertebrates to the endangered-species list, which was once the almost exclusive domain of charismatic creatures like grizzlies and eagles. The lowly Zayante band-winged grasshopper is now listed, along with the Ohlone tiger beetle and 184 other spineless creatures. In California, the Sierra Club and several other groups recently helped San Diego and Riverside Counties craft a Multiple Species Conservation Program, which protects the habitat of 85 at-risk species, including the Riverside fairy shrimp and the wandering salt marsh skipper. Tucson is currently developing a similar plan.

Still, the bias toward "pretty" animals persists. While there are 22 butterflies on the endangered list, there is only one fly. It will probably be a very long time before a worm is listed. "I think even spiders might have a leg up on worms," says Black. "Spiders have a certain scary panache." Last year, he notes, Warner Brothers released a horror film called Eight Legged Freaks."Worms," he says, "just don’t get that kind of attention."

Indeed, the world of worms has long been shrouded in obscurity and bad luck. When I call Canadian John Reynolds, the editor of Megadrilogica, the world’s only worm journal, in his Kitchener, Ontario, office, he tells me that he has just published his 29th book, Nomenclatura Oligochaetologica, and that he has surveyed worm populations in "almost every U.S. county east of the Mississippi" while traveling to conventions of the Masons, in which he serves as a Grand Master. But he is forced to make his living supervising drivers for a trucking company. And other worm experts have had it far worse, Reynolds says: "Most people in the field die young. There was a guy named Richard Tandy who wrote his doctoral thesis on the Pheretima worm in Louisiana. He couldn’t get a job; he committed suicide when he was around 30. And there was Bill Murchie, who worked out of Michigan on taxonomy. He died of a heart attack when he was in his late 40s."

The Babe Ruth of modern oligochaetology was an American, Gordon Gates (1897–1987), who is revered for advancing the once heretical notion that terrestrial worms reproduce asexually. Gates, too, suffered for his obsession: While he was teaching in Burma during World War II, the Japanese destroyed a worm collection he’d been amassing for 25 years. He managed to escape to the United States, though, to begin a new collection (of worms sent to him for inspection by U.S. Customs agents) and to commence, in the late 1940s, a collegial correspondence with a woman from Oregon, Dorothy McKey-Fender, William’s mom.

Dorothy was then a self-taught expert on earthworm systematics. Her husband, Kenneth, was a mail carrier who happened to be a renowned connoisseur of soldier beetles. On weekends when the ground wasn’t dry, the couple ventured to remote spots throughout Oregon to do fieldwork. Dorothy saved her worms in test tubes and then dissected them on a desk in the living room. She recounted her arcane findings to Gates. "The gut varies" among some worms, she wrote in 1971, "from having a simple groove opposite the typhlosole . . . to [having] a deep caecum in that segment or even a series of caeca."

William Fender did not hear the music in such language until the mid-’70s when, as a young researcher for the U.S. Forest Service, he was randomly asked to study worms. He thrilled over the "puzzle" of their biogeography, and over worms’ "odd and variable" reproductive habits, and in 1977 he at last summoned the courage to write his own letter to Gates: "I feel that I almost know you already. . . . Your ability to bounce back from the loss of your specimens and notes during the war will always be an example to me." Gates’s reply: "Dear Fender: Welcome to the ranks of Oligochaetology, very thin as always."

Inspired, Fender stepped up his research. For Megadrilogica, he wrote a 37-page opus, "Earthworms of the Western United States. Part 1. Lumbricidae," which catalogued the invasive Europeans. For the Canadian Journal of Zoology, he wrote a paper arguing that early scientists placed far too much emphasis on worms’ kidneys when determining family and genus. Often, Fender collaborated with his mother, who appointed her text with delicate pen-and-ink drawings of, for instance, a certain worm’s "suctorial pharynx"—a set of front-end muscles that a predacious worm uses to literally suck its prey toward its digestive glands.

Dorothy McKey-Fender is still writing (on predacious worms, at the moment), and after coming out of the woods, Fender and I visit her at her house in McMinnville, Oregon. She is a robust old woman—86, with white hair—and she is wearing an orange paisley skirt as she holds court from a tattered red armchair. Stacked within reach is a staggering array of literature: Earthworm Ecology and Biogeography in North America, The Oligochaeta, a foot-high stack of old newspapers. The pile looks like chaos to me, but as we talk Dorothy nimbly plucks documents out of it for my review.

"Luther Altman’s 1936 doctoral thesis on Oligochaeta in Washington," she says derisively, handing me a large volume. "After he wrote this, he never looked at another worm."

Eventually, Dorothy rises and slowly, on bad knees, leads us outside to a small wooden shed and throws open the door. "Well, here it is," she says unceremoniously. The largest worm collection in the United States, outside the Smithsonian. Everywhere—on high wooden shelves, on cabinets, on the floor—there are old bottles and rusted Bugler Tobacco cans filled with tilting glass tubes containing worms preserved in formaldehyde. There is the Kincaidodrilus kincaidii, which is a foot long and mauve and roughly three times as thick as a strand of spaghetti. There is the Arctiostrotus perrieri, which seems tiny and brittle in its tube, like a decaying yellow stick, and hundreds of worms that were collected in the ’50s and are yet to be named. In all, there are over 3,000 specimens and, standing there, amid a faint acrid smell, I feel as though I’ve happened upon a hidden vein: the untold story of the place where I live. For a few minutes, I just wander the room, stepping over boxes, to take in the bounty. And then finally I pick up a tube labeled "Driloleirus macelfreshi, 4/29/81." The huge worm inside sort of billows in its ancient liquid, and then it settles back down into swishy, boneless stasis and sits there, eerie, sad-seeming, and harboring secrets.

Scientists know that the Oregon giant earthworm burrows deep in the ground—as much as five yards down—and that it subsists on the underside of decaying pine needles, bits of wood, and the odd insect. They know that it is not the biggest worm in the world; that distinction goes to the Gippsland giant, an 11-foot Australian worm. They’ve determined that each Oregon giant has both male and female genitals and that it can, as such, mate with any other adult giant that it finds, twisting around, blind and deaf, underground.

Current knowledge does not extend much further, though. "We can only guess at their life span," Fender tells me as we drive back to Portland. "It could be 5 years; it could be 20. Nothing’s been done on their physiology. We know little about their nervous system or their digestion, and I’d like to know if there’s anything we could do to keep them going in the presence of invasive species. I’m wondering, could we help them if we made the soil more acidic?"

It’s incumbent on humans, Fender believes, to try to crack such mysteries—to understand our intricate world. "What I’d love to do," he tells me, "is take the next two to three years and work up all the species we’ve collected—to describe them for scientific journals."

He probably won’t get to it any time soon. Fender is currently moving his wife and eight-year-old son into a new home (the last house he owned burned down) and also working full time. I suggest that perhaps he might have more time for researching worms if he finished the graduate work he abandoned decades ago, in soil science at Oregon State University. He is dubious. "It used to be," he says, "that scientists studied nature as a way of looking into the mind of God. Now it isn’t like that. Most science these days is being financed by corporations or political interests seeking specific results.

"I’d rather not be part of that sort of thing. What I like is the word ‘amateur.’ It stems from the Latin word meaning ‘to love.’" Fender turns away from me now, somewhat regally, to stare out the window. "I’m an amateur," he says.

Over the next four weeks, I do not hear from Fender at all. I call him several times. I send e-mails imploring him to write back. No response. Now, I have been blown off many times in my life, but never by an amateur student of worms. I get a little ticked off. I remember what Fender’s colleague, biologist Sam James, told me: "I got a call once from the Forest Service, asking to survey worm populations in the eastern Columbia River basin. I told them, ‘Try Bill Fender.’ They said, ‘We did. Nothing happened.’ Bill is hovering around the fringes of the earthworm world," James continued. "It would be great if someone described the specimens in his amazing collection, but he doesn’t have the time and, without his giving up, I’m not going to work in the Northwest."

Kierán Suckling, the executive director for the Center for Biological Diversity, also expresses dismay with "quiet, retiring scientist types. At first," he says, "they’re shocked that groups like ours want to make so much noise. But you need to make noise. Every animal needs a publicist. Had someone intervened on behalf of the giant earthworm in the late ’70s, when Fish and Wildlife first made it a candidate species, the worm would’ve gotten on the list. There would’ve been money for surveys and research; there would have been an effort to halt development."

I can’t argue with Suckling. I am aware that today’s most effective eco-warriors all pack cell phones. But I know, too, that the equation is complex. The human world is losing diversity as quickly as the animal one. Ancient languages—whole cultures, even—are being felled by homogenizing forces like television. People who once might have been blacksmiths or weavers are now actuaries and publicists. In such a context, there is something exquisite—noble, even—about a man who proclaims himself an amateur student of worms. I keep after Fender, hopeful that he will take me out for one more giant-worm search. I go to his doorstep finally, cutting past the smashed-up Volkswagen bus up on blocks in the driveway, and hand a typewritten plea to his wife, Kyrstin, who runs an organic vegan bakery called Radical Notion. Within ten minutes, there’s a message on my phone machine: Suddenly, William Fender is very eager to meet.

On our last trip, on a cool, wet day in June, we go out on a limb. Instead of staying in the Willamette Valley, which Fender considers quite searched for giants, we drive to the only other place the species has ever been found—the Coast Range, where one James Macnab unearthed a single specimen in the mid-1930s.

We look by a relict streambed, where Fender gets a whole squirming shovelful of foot-long Driloleirus michelsoni. We look in a bog rife with skunk cabbage and sedge and find several unnamed species of little native worms writhing a couple inches under the surface, and then we sit beneath a huge Douglas fir, taking shelter from the rain as we eat tofu pâté. Eventually, we drive to another site and climb a steep bank and dig at the top.

We do not find the Oregon giant earthworm, and when we get back in the car, Fender says, "This is the first one that seems to have disappeared," meaning the first of the Oregon native worms. "Twenty years ago, I didn’t think it would happen. I thought we had more time, but now I don’t think so. I think we’ve lost this one."

There are some who disagree. Dan Rosenberg, the wildlife ecologist who ran the Driloleirus macelfreshi survey for Oregon State University, tells me, "Just because a species is hard to detect doesn’t mean it’s not there. With the giant, you’re looking for a needle in a haystack. It might be down there." But now this comment strikes me as so much scientific noodling. The world’s leading authority on the Oregon giant earthworm is slumped beside me, his blue jeans slathered in mud. We drive back to Portland in silence, listening to the clack of windshield wipers against the cold rain.


Bill Donahue writes for Mother Jones and Outside magazines. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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