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A vermicular mystery

It is not everyday that you suddenly find yourself the owner of dozens of new exotic pets. Of course, it wasn't just any day either, it was on Boxing Day that I discovered these unexpected additions to our household.

It is not everyday that you suddenly find yourself the owner of dozens of new exotic pets. Of course, it wasn’t just any day either, it was on Boxing Day that I discovered these unexpected additions to our household. Maybe something Santa forgot and meant to drop off at a different house?

After we had indulged in homegrown acorn squash for our holiday meals, I ripped out the squash plant that was only feebly clinging to life in its container by the south-facing window. Its duties were done, its produce harvested and it didn’t seem to look forward to staring at the January snowscape on the other side of the frigid window pane, so I consigned it to the frozen compost pile. Out came the seed packets: what to plant now?

After much discussion, Sam and I decided on sowing radishes, spinach and lettuce. Fresh homegrown produce in February - wouldn’t that be nice?

While Sam went outside for manly pursuits with the chainsaw, I dug into the soil of the big planter to loosen things up a bit. My hands met with a startling squirming sensation. Stifling a shriek of horror, I looked at the soil in my hands - it was wiggling with worms.

Gasping, I shook the snaking critters off my skin. Worms? Now how many of you Yukon gardeners have encountered earthworms in your diggings up here? I had never come across a single worm here and was under the impression that we live in an earthworm-free climate.

Telling myself not to be such a sissy, I leaned in closer over the planter and poked around in the dirt with the fire iron. Squirming uncomfortably in the air were countless of three- to 4-centimetre-long bluish shapes with reddish ends. Now how on earth had they got into my planter in the cabin? A scary possibility came to my mind: could they be insect larvae that would pupate over night and fill the cabin with dozens, no, hundreds of wildly whirring and buzzing things? I recoiled from the container. Outside with it, let the beasties freeze!

But curiosity won over disgust. After all, I never harboured any squeamish feelings towards worms before, it’s just that when you live somewhere where they supposedly don’t exist and then find a thriving colony right in your living room, a bit of mental adjustment is needed. I whipped out the laptop and turned on the modem to find answers to this mystery via the equally mysterious process of transmitting and receiving data through space and the satellite dish.

Blessed be the internet. To my great surprise, I read that there are apparently three worm species native to the Yukon in those areas that escaped glaciation during the ice ages. These vermicular Yukoners go by the names of Bimastos parvus, Dendrobaena octaedra and Dendrodrilus rubidus, but that didn’t solve my riddle. None of the pictures bore more than a passing resemblance to our subtenants and to the best of my knowledge, our nook of the woods wasn’t spared by the ice age glaciers.

Did they migrate up from elsewhere? Is there a subterraneous revolution going on, triggered by climate change? The soil in the planter is just a mix of regular potting soil and top soil from around our place. The internet sources did mention that imported worms are thought to have a negative effect on the local flora but that this is an understudied field. Apparently there is a dire shortage of worm specialists in Canada.

I considered this unforeseen career option opening up before me - becoming a wormologist. Maybe at some future point. I began to dream of the fantastic results that the worms might yield if nursed along inside throughout the winter and then set free upon the compost heap come summer. Excellent chicken feed and fishing bait as well.

But what if they were a non-native worm species that had magically popped up inside our cabin? Not a good idea to let them loose on the rest of the landscape then. Or perhaps these are insect larvae after all, although they do look like earthworms to us. But until our vermicular studies are more advanced, we just can’t tell. So to be on the safe side, we ended up dragging the planter with its lively occupants outside, presumably to succumb to the cold.

We’ll check for survivors in spring. But we did keep a few in a jar, just to find out if they will pupate and reveal themselves to be insects. And if they don’t, we hope to find a wormologist in the summer who can identify these wiggly intruders for us.

Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who

lives at the headwaters of the

Yukon River south of Whitehorse.