A few days ago, when I was ‘Taking a break,’ I was gripped by Adam Phillips’ essay on Darwin, worms, and digestion. When Phillips says Charles Darwin “commemorates, and rejoices in, the [worms’] powers of digestion” (55), I’m definitely in. Since then I too burrowed into the rich ground of Darwin’s The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms.
It’s been quite an alchemical experience, as I burped my way through Darwin’s book (my gut telling me I’d had way too much coffee when I was trying to lure the worms out from under their blanket with ever more coffee grounds). The experience reminded me of when I was working on a radiophonic essay on alchemy and its transformations [Separation Anxiety: not the truth about alchemy]—and I went through all the seven stages of alchemy in the process. Dissolution was painful and the coagulation was intense, but it was putrefaction and fermentation that was the most challenging and transformative of all. Time for a new category for the blog — digestion.
I like that the worms call me to think about alchemy again now, years later. Alchemy is an alluring knowledge that is all about affinities and transformation… just like the project working with worms. It’s turning out that alchemical transformations and affinities abound once we tune in to them. Not just digestion – there is also shredding. We seem to be kindred Kin here, as Donna Haraway might have it… us with our shredding habit and the worms with theirs. (As I said in the early days of the blog, we shredded a lot of paper for a previous art work, and now we’re feeding the shreds to the worms to digest and transform. (Strangely, looking back, we actually did try to eat them ourselves in that work, but not too successfully– there were just way too many to digest.)
I’m inspired when Darwin speaks about the intimate co-compositional moments in shredding and digesting: “The leaves which they consume are moistened, torn into small shreds, partially digested, and intimately commingled with the earth…” (79) And so we feed the worms our shredded leaves of paper to do with what they will, to transform in their alchemical habitual way. There’s an unexpected intimacy here as we wait and wonder…
And thinking about wonder, when I was looking for what Jane Bennett said about alchemy in her wonderful The Enchantment of Modern Life, I remembered how important her work has been for us. It made me sense how enchanting the worms are in the work they are doing with us. Darwin, too, seems enchanted by worms and his amazement is infections. But, bowing to science, he also fills the book with calculations to demonstrate the power of worms. That I didn’t mind– they seemed to make him happy– but I have to say I did gasp as I read of the eviscerated worms sacrificed to science to explain the chemical functioning of their digestion. Sadly, it seems that quite a few worms suffered in the writing of that book, paying a price for the glory of worm-kind. At the same time, though, I feel drawn to the Darwin who is not bowed by science, who tells stories of running around old buildings with his sons and working at home observing the eating and burrowing habits of worms. And I laugh at the Darwin who gently blows tobacco breath at the worms as part of his enquiries into their senses. These passages where he speaks as a more attuned, amateur scientist, are for me far more alluring and thought-provoking than his descriptions of their dissected digestive tracts.
But I think I like Darwin best when he’s discussing the worms’ favourite foods. And the way he’s moved by their consciousness, their attentiveness, their intelligence and the sensitivity to touch of their whole bodies. And when he assures us how hugely important part a worms play in the history of the world. And when, asking what Vinciane Despret calls the ‘right questions,’ he is rewarded by the surprises of worms’ responses—as, for example, when together they bury the tired concept of blind instinct: “But it is far more surprising that they should apparently exhibit some degrees of intelligence instead of a mere blind instinctive impulse, in their manner of plugging up the mouths of their burrows.” (103)
What I’ve responded to in Darwin’s engaging worms is what Phillips calls his “artful science” (55). Like Despret I appreciate Darwin’s recognition of animals’ agency and aesthetic sense (37-38). This is a far cry from the scientists Despret questions for being out of touch with the affects and effects of their relations with the animals they study.
I’m happy to be coming back to Despret. I realise that I’ve digested about as much science of worms as I want to and it’s time to think about art again. So I return with relish to her artful writing and her first chapter (“A for artists”). Stirring words about the importance of the achievements as “beasts and humans accomplish a work together. And they do so with the grace and joy of the work to be done.” And so she finishes, “Isn’t this what matters in the end? To welcome new ways of speaking, describing, and narrating that allow us to respond, in a sensitive way to these events?” (6)