STAFF OPINION: Watch your step

By Havi Stewart | November 11, 2019 3:43pm
Havi Stewart, reporter for The Beacon.
Media Credit: Annika Gordon / The Beacon

Walking to and from class on a rainy day, I suspect most of you are oblivious to the hundreds of little lives beneath your feet. Maybe some of you take note of the hordes of these slippery creatures, while others may only notice them once they see the disturbing sight of a gutted worm lying helplessly on the sidewalk. Despite your level of worm awareness, I guarantee all of us have inadvertently been the agents of hundreds of worm deaths. 

 I have a hard time accepting that we carelessly kill worms this way. I am that dork who will deliberately tiptoe around each worm and occasionally even stop walking to move them off the path into less dangerous grounds. Embarrassing as it is to admit, it breaks my heart ever so slightly to see people seemingly disregard the lives of smaller beings. 

To some of you, my opinions may seem a little whimsical, and that’s fine. But respecting the lives of all creatures regardless of their size is something that I have been taught to do since childhood. 

My dad has taught me and my siblings that killing an animal for food is acceptable; however, ending a life just for sport, or whatever the other reason may be, is misguided. In my family, even the smallest bugs (with the exception of flies and mosquitos) deserve life.

 I’m not saying that if you step on a worm you are inherently a bad person — we have all done it. I'm merely suggesting that being conscious of all lives (no matter how small) can minimize the harm humans do to the environment.

I know we all live busy, stress-filled lives, and are balancing the weight of the world on our shoulders. But really, can we not spare a fraction of a second to make the microdecision to dodge the worms and avoid annihilating innocent lives? 

 If you live in Portland, observing worms frolicking on the roads and sidewalks may even become monotonous. An average of 156 days out of the year, Portland experiences some form of precipitation, giving worms an especially desirable living environment. 

 Contrary to popular belief, worms do not surface to avoid drowning underground. Earthworms do not have respiratory systems. They breathe by exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide through their skin and some seriously slimy mucus. Worms are actually happiest in damp soil, and most species can even survive several days underwater. 

 The lingering question then arises: Why do worms choose to travel up to the surface when it rains? There are a few theories surrounding why this may be.

It is suspected that many worms may take advantage of the weather to travel longer distances than they would be able to underground, without having to worry about drying out in the sun. 

 Other people think that earthworms need to come to the surface to mate. While this applies to some worms, only a few of the 4,400 known species of earthworms are shown to surface for solely mating purposes.

Another theory is that worms are confusing the sound of rain with the sound of predators or danger, making their way to the surface to escape. Worm catchers even take advantage of this reaction and try to trick worms by using vibrating sticks and saws or wooden stakes.

Regardless of the reason behind worms coming up out of the ground during rainstorms, we tend to come across them frequently. If worms manage to survive their trips above ground, they can live exceptionally long lives. Nightcrawlers have an average lifespan of between

6 to 9 years,and red worms have an average life span of 2 to 5 years

While earthworms may seem to be quite insignificant creatures, they are actually vital to soil health. Earthworms contribute significantly to making nutrients more accessible to plants through their transport of carbon dioxide, water and organic materials from below ground to the surface. The tunnels that worms create underground also bring air into the ground and enrich the soil, helping roots to grow deeper and produce stronger plants.

 Despite the fact that worms contribute to the health of the environment, there are more reasons that I think people should take into account while strolling down a worm-infested sidewalk. I believe that all creatures are deserving of life and respect. I think that if everyone was collectively more conscious and aware of their surroundings, we could minimize the harm humans do to even the smallest of creatures. 

I invite you to consider purposefully avoiding the herds of worms you see the next time you find yourself on a wet sidewalk. Surely we all have the time and energy to pay the sliver of attention necessary to reduce the worm carnage on the UP campus, or at least to save your fellow dorks from the small heartbreak of worm guts. 

Havi Stewart is a reporter for The Beacon. She can be reached at