It’s been worth the challenge of early rising to go the Moreland Station Waiting Room to see people enchanted with the worms (early birds and all that). Those early morning commuters are the most enthusiastic visitors to the waiting room. Lots of great conversations, more tips for worm farms and composting from them and we try to give a few to people new this whole world.
Alex and James haven’t (yet) gotten into worms but the attraction is clearly there…so watch this space.
Francis has a worm farm already but has had the same experience as us, sometimes they flock (do worms flock?) to the top and don’t shy from the camera and sometimes they burrow down (we all hope that’s where they are). Maybe someone can explain this over the next few weeks–there’s some pretty experienced wormy people in Brunswick. Francis loved the castings our worms provided–it’s so rich and generous!
And then there was Sophie–I think she was feeling the joy of the worm portraits! As we watched the mesmerising worms in the video together, our conversation drifted from worms to gardens to cats. We’re both entranced by the way that once you enter the world of animals (that special moment when they let you in) you have to respond to their timeframe, as we did with the worms who don’t turn up to be photographed at our convenience — we had to wait. Watching the worms eating the shreds that we’d recycled yet again from an earlier art project, Sophie told me her own shreds art adventures.
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)
We went to see the film Kedi, the other day, following seven of the many cats that roam the streets of Istanbul. It was deeply moving and surprising and we’re still thinking about it. I know, this is supposed to be about worms, not cats, but like our companion cats, they help us think.
Kedi cats have so much to say about the city of Istanbul and its people and Islamic culture. They tell of relationships between people and animals and a city quite different from those in Australia, say, where cats are classified as either domesticated or feral.
Kedi cats invite us to think about how relationships of care and shared vulnerability can affectively and ethically connect us and other creatures. Anat Pick beautifully figures “creaturely vulnerability,” proposing that it is material obligations and shared bodily vulnerabilities that characterize the creaturely commonality and “point of encounter between human and animal” (Creaturely Poetics). What Kedi cats add to this story is that care does not need to be based on ownership and sentimentality.
I think this is part of the appeal of working with worms too. Yes, all paths do lead back to worms… One of the many allures of worms is that they evoke neither sentimentality nor a desire for ownership. As unexpected artful collaborators these vulnerable creatures demand different entanglements of care — that we haven’t worked out before — and that, in a way, our project together is about elaborating and thinking about.
Slowing right down, attuning in to the worms’ rhythm, I went for a morning wander by the Yarra River, thinking I might come across some other worms to bother with my camera. I started out listening to a program live on ABC radio which weirdly enough was all about slowness–the universe is definitely telling me something. As I crossed the pipe bridge, some walkers alerted me to a pair of mopokes in a nearby tree. What’s a mopoke, I wondered?
I only managed a couple of shaky distant pictures — but I’ll put them up so you can see the beautiful Yarra gum trees. It’s difficult to tell if they really are mopokes or boobooks as they also call and are also called. I hope so, I love these names– though they could be tawny frogmouths, also wonderfully named worm-eating owls (oops, sorry worms). A moment of enchantment, as Jane Bennett would have it, “intense enough to stop you in your tracks and toss you onto new terrain. (2001, 111)”
Stopped in my tracks, I’ve gone back to read the blog from the beginning and realise we haven’t really described the project that this blog is part of. Working with Worms is a collaborative, durational, art project where we feed the worms and they transform ‘dead’ matter into live soil. Where it will end, we don’t know, we have no specific expectations but there are a few wild dreams. Meanwhile we’re going with the flow of the project that entangles waiting, conversations, faeces, transformation, and environmental concerns. Waiting is fundamental to our process — just as it is an important part of many other artists’ practices – involving an attentiveness to time, to ‘silence,’ to process. It’s what artist Lyndal Jones calls a “becoming earth,” a responsiveness to the “insistences of the ground.” For us, it’s the insistences of the ground’s worms that we want to attend to. This is a project very much in progress, or rather very slowly in progress, it being winter and the worms taking their time as we’ve noted in previous posts. While they settle in, we’re being bookworm, reading and blogging– all of us working slowly and sporadically.
Three books for the beginnings of this project. Difficult to decide where to start but Vinciane Despret is calling the most insistently. What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions? How can I resist her first chapter, “A For Artist: stupid like a painter?” The challenge is not to quote every provocative and enchanting sentence. Like this one “But above all, this enchantment arises by the grace of the attunement between living beings” as animals and people work together. “No single response has the power to sanction the meaning of what is happening, and this very uncertainty, which is similar to that which we witness in a a display of magic, is part of what makes us sensitive to its grace and enchantment.” (4)
attunement…enchantment…uncertainty…these call out to be categories, now that i’ve wormed my way into wordpress and I’m digging down into categories, heading for subcategories
“O for oeuvres: Do birds make art?” will be next.