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Ode to an earthworm. November 21, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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Responding to our recent post, “The Fallow Way,” Benjamin of The Deep Middle (http://deepmiddle.blogspot.com/) noted that he couldn’t think of a single poem praising winter. Our friend Ben couldn’t either, so I quickly pulled one of my favorite books off the shelf and started paging through. The book is Friends, You Drank Some Darkness, a collection of poems by three great Swedish poets, Harry Martinson, Gunnar Ekelof, and Tomas Transtromer, in the original Swedish with English translations by Robert Bly. Our friend Ben figured the Swedes would know a thing or two about winter.

Though I found several poems that were set in winter, notably Martinson’s “No Name for It” (“Namnlost”) and one of my favorites, Transtromer’s “Solitude” (“Ensamhet”), I found no poems about winter. But I did find a great poem about earthworms.

Like, I suppose, all gardeners, here at Hawk’s Haven we’re earthworm-worshippers. We rejoice to find an extra-fat earthworm wending its way through the leafmold or the compost, or looking disoriented when we trowel up the soil in our raised beds. (“Oh, thank God! We didn’t hurt it!”) We lovingly feed kitchen scraps to the earthworms in our earthworm composter—a gross extravagance we stopped trying to resist after lusting for one for at least ten years—and we haul the composter, box by box, into the greenhouse for the cold months and out into the shade of the roofline during the warm months so the earthworms who live there will be comfortable. Call us ridiculous. Call us gardeners.

At least, as John Lennon says, we’re not the only ones. From the time of Charles Darwin, whose book The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms is something of a cult classic, scientists have observed earthworms with fascination. Their ability to regenerate when severed, their pragmatic procreational abilities, and their ability to transform the structure of soil while unlocking its nutrient content have all generated both interest and respect (and, in the case of their regenerative powers, at least, no small degree of envy). Our friend Ben was not totally surprised that a Nobel prize-winning poet would turn his talents and attentions to writing a poem about earthworms. But I was surprised, I confess, that a Swedish poet would write about earthworms. Cold as it is, I didn’t even know that there were earthworms in Sweden. The things poetry can teach us!

I’ll give you Martinson’s earthworm poem in a second, I promise. But first, our friend Ben would like to say a few words about weather. That human life, that all life, would be shaped by the weather in areas of extreme climates such as our own desert Southwest, the Sahara, or the Arctic Circle, is not surprising. But the truth is that wherever we live, our lives are shaped by our climate. Its extremes determine our activities and emphasize the difference between rich and poor. (In extreme cold or heat, the elderly poor die in their unheated, unairconditioned tenement apartments while their wealthy counterparts head to Florida or the Caribbean or Monaco to escape the cold or to the great ski resorts and spas to escape the heat.) The general population may pretend, or even believe, that weather is trivial, and continue their routines as best they can however hot, cold, rainy, snowy, or dry it is outside. But the rising cost of fuel oil and electricity may bring us all back to our senses in a way that the sensational coverage of wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, and other natural disasters has not.  

As gardeners, we are acutely aware of the weather. But, unless we move to a dramatically different area, we may not be as aware of climate and its effects in general. That’s where garden blogs come to the rescue. To read about the garden adventures of, say, Tyra in Sweden (http://waxholm.blogspot.com/) as opposed to Chaiselongue in the Languedoc, basking in the glorious Mediterranean climate of the Midi in France (http://olives-and-artichokes.blogspot.com/), is an education, to say the least. I almost wept last night to see Chaiselongue’s beautiful lemon tree being planted outdoors and the great buckets of tree-ripened olives her friends were giving them from their abundant harvests. Our friend Ben resolves to a) be kinder to our potted lime and lemon trees in the greenhouse and b) bribe someone into giving us a potted olive tree for Christmas. 

But about those earthworms. Here is Martinson’s poem. I’ll give it to you in Bly’s translation, and in the original Swedish for any Swedish-speaking readers who happen by. But alas, being a Luddite, our friend Ben can’t figure out how to reproduce the accent marks over the letters, so the Swedish will probably look ludicrous to you all. However, it seemed better to give the original than to ignore it, since I always love to see the original words spill out, to compare them, their sound and sense, to the translation, even when I don’t speak the language. And in this case, it’s also a reminder of how much English owes to the languages of the Vikings who conquered and settled the British Isles. Finally, let me just note that, for gardeners in general and earthworm lovers everywhere, the answer to Martinson’s “who” is a resounding “us!”


        The Earthworm

Who really respects the earthworm,

the farmworker far under the grass in the soil.

He keeps the earth always changing.

He works entirely full of soil,

speechless with soil, and blind.


He is the underneath farmer, the underground one,

where the fields are getting on their harvest clothes.

Who really respects him,

this deep and calm earth-worker,

this deathless, gray, tiny farmer in the planet’s soil.



Vem vordar daggmasken,

odlaren djupt under grasen i jordens mull.

Han haller jorden i forandling.

Han arbetar helt fylld av mull,

stum av mull och blind.


Han ar den undre, den nedre bonden

dar akarna kladas till skord.

Vem vordar honom,

den djupe, den lugne odlaren,

den evige gra lille bonden i jordens mull.



1. nancybond - November 21, 2008

I had not read the Earthworm poem, but he is, indeed, the underneath farmer. 🙂

Here’s one poem I like that celebrates winter. Then again, L.M. Montgomery celebrated most things. 🙂

A Winter Day by Lucy Maud Montgomery

The air is silent save where stirs
A bugling breeze among the firs;
The virgin world in white array
Waits for the bridegroom kiss of day;
All heaven blooms rarely in the east
Where skies are silvery and fleeced,
And o’er the orient hills made glad
The morning comes in wonder clad;
Oh, ’tis a time most fit to see
How beautiful the dawn can be!

Wide, sparkling fields snow-vestured lie
Beneath a blue, unshadowed sky;
A glistening splendor crowns the woods
And bosky, whistling solitudes;
In hemlock glen and reedy mere
The tang of frost is sharp and clear;
Life hath a jollity and zest,
A poignancy made manifest;
Laughter and courage have their way
At noontide of a winter’s day.

Faint music rings in wold and dell,
The tinkling of a distant bell,
Where homestead lights with friendly glow
Glimmer across the drifted snow;
Beyond a valley dim and far
Lit by an occidental star,
Tall pines the marge of day beset
Like many a slender minaret,
Whence priest-like winds on crystal air
Summon the reverent world to prayer.


Thank you, Nancy, how lovely! Silence has all the Megan Followes versions of “Anne of Green Gables” and adores them; doubtless they’re one of the things that makes her want to visit Nova Scotia!

2. nancybond - November 21, 2008

And this, if you don’t mind the second comment. I knew there was a Bliss Carman poem about winter that I liked very much — he was a writer from New Brunswick and had an amazing talent for descriptive writing, as is perfectly illustrated in this last stanza from “The Winter Scene”:

…When the day changed and the mad wind died down,
The powdery drifts that all day long had blown
Across the meadows and the open fields,
Or whirled like diamond dust in the bright sun,
Settled to rest, and for a tranquil hour
The lengthening bluish shadows on the snow
Stole down the orchard slope, and a rose light
Flooded the earth with beauty and with peace.
Then in the west behind the cedars black
The sinking sun stained red the winter dusk
With sullen flare upon the snowy ridge,–
As in a masterpiece by Hokusai,
Where on a background gray, with flaming breath
A scarlet dragon dies in dusky gold.

Isn’t that beautiful? It’s one of those poems that is even more lovely when read aloud. The poem surely celebrates winter. (I do love poetry…and this has become an interesting challenge. 🙂

Oh wow, Nancy, that is a lovely poem! As a lyric poet myself, I think ALL poems should be read aloud. And I love Hokusai and his winter scenes—the great, haunting visuals that, like great music, convey more immediacy to the senses than words ever can, though we poets try and try. Thank you for this! And please feel free to add as many as you find. We’ll all enjoy reading them!

3. Benjamin - November 21, 2008

IF we can’t depend on the Swedes, who can we? But then again, think about their winters–would YOU celebrate that? Maybe we need poems from, oh, Florida or Oklahoma, places that get very occasional and quick-melted snows. I think we need an anthology: 32 Degrees, Poems in Praise of Winter.

Go for it, Benjamin! And no, of course we wouldn’t celebrate that, which is why we’re holed up here in Pennsylvania. We ourselves fantasize nonstop about a place that was, say, 60 degrees in winter, maybe 75 degrees in summer, yet still had a dramatic change of seasons. Sigh…

4. Becca - November 25, 2008

Ha! I should have known my heroine would have a poem about snow and winter! I was reading one of the Anne books when I realized spring didn’t start everywhere in late February. I was shocked to discover that she wrote of snow lying on the ground in June.

I was also thinking that a poem about winter might be found in some of Tolkien’s works. Of course, he was greatly influenced by the Norse as well…

Sigh. I think that so-short growing season might kill me, Becca! Otherwise I’d be so tempted to move farther north and spare myself the unbearable (to me) heat and humidity of our summers. Hmmm… Tolkien. I don’t think there are any winter poems in his Hobbit or Ring Cycle; I’ve read them so many times I think I’d remember! But there might be in some of his other works. Worth a search, for sure!

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