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worm / angleworm

angleworm – The common worm found in the soil, without legs or appendages. The species belong to the genus Lumbricus. — Webster, 1882

worm – Originally, a creeping or a crawling animal of any kind or size; a serpent, caterpillar, snail, and the like. An animal of the inferior grand division of Articulates. — Webster, 1882

The Earthworm. Among agricultural workers perhaps the earthworm receives the least attention. Its value to the land is seldom appreciated. It bores through the soil making little tunnels in every direction, thereby admitting the air and moisture not only to the soil, but through the soil to the subsoil. During the process of boring it eats its way along, thereby grinding up the little particles of earth, rendering them finer and in better condition to retain moisture. – De Smet News, 1904

Laura Ingalls WIlder’s angleworms are more commonly called earthworms today. The name originated from the fact that these common segmented ground worms were a preferred bait used by anglers, a person fishing with an angle (a rod with baited hook at the end of a fishing line) rather than a fisherman using a net, such as Charles Ingalls uses to catch Lake Pepin fish in Little House in the Big Woods.

In Little Town on the Prairie (see Chapter 2, “Springtime on the Claim”), Grace is fascinated by the angleworms that Pa disturbs in the soil while planting corn. When they’re exposed by Pa’s hoe, the angleworms wiggle their way back under ground. Grace notices that both halves of a worm accidentally cut in two by the hoe will “burrow back into the ground,” but this isn’t exactly true. While the tail portion might wiggle for a while and end up covered with soil, the tail will eventually die. Lacking vital organs located between its mouth and the clitellum, it is incapable of regeneration, which the “head” end of a healthy earthworm might do if cut in half. The clitellum is the thicker non-segmented portion nearer to the anterior (mouth end) of the worm that the posterior (rear end). Earthworms are hermaphrodites, meaning that each worm has both male and female sex organs.

It’s always best to leave earthworms to their work and not cut one in half on purpose!

In 1881, the year that the stories told in Little Town on the Prairie begin, naturalist Charles Darwin published his last book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, the result of his work studying how earthworms “ate through” the soil while turning, aerating, and enriching it as they went. You can read Darwin’s earthworm study HERE. Although many early farmers thought worms were pests and should be destroyed, readers were educated by Darwin’s study, and many Dakota Territory newspapers reported on the benefits of the lowly angleworm.

Earth-worms. We read that a recognized authority in agricultural affairs has written the following, which seems no exaggeration of facts: “In view of the formation, extent, richness and importance of the vegetable mold of our north-western prairies, it is established to a certainty that the United States is in possession of one of the greatest treasures in existence, which is not surpassed in value and importance by all the precious metals in the bowels of the earth.” To provide for the real necessities of man there is no comparison between the value of such earth and mineral treasures, and yet Darwin has shown that to the common earth-worms we are indebted for all such rich mold; for they have been years ahead of man in plowing it, turning it over, and mixing its constituents intimately so that it will require a great many bountiful crops to exhaust the soil. But this treasure, as well as the deep laid treasures of coal, gas and oil, man is doing his best to exhaust in the shortest possible time. –Dr. Foote’s Health Monthly, in The Canton (Dakota Territory) Advocate, December 1883.


Earth Worms. If you were to see a jar of earth in which a great many earth worms has been placed, you would doubtless conclude that they had been gathered by some fisherman, and were to do duty as bait; but I wish to tell you of a jar of worms that belonged to a naturalist who had collected them that he might study their habits.

He soon found that they form for themselves little burrows in the earth, in which they rest quietly during the day, coming out to look for food by night. But how can they tell day from night? Have they eyes? Can they see? Mr. Darwin, after close study, concluded that they have no eyes, but that the front part of their bodies is sensitive to light; for, if he concentrated, by a lens, the rays of a candle upon their heads, they dashed into their burrows like rabbits; if, however, he shaded their heads and cast the light upon some other part of their bodies, they took no notice of it.

Can they smell? Mr. Darwin buried bits of onions and cabbage in the ground. These they soon found, guided to them by the sense of smell. They showed that they liked the taste of some articles much better than that of others. Thus when bits of green and red cabbage were placed side by side they always chose the green, but would readily leave either for celery. Nor do they crave an exclusively vegetable diet. It was really amusing to see them striving to secure firmly in their jaws bits of meat which had been fastened by long pins. Night after night they would tug at them, in their struggle reaching half out of their burrows.

Can they hear? They seemed to pay no attention to any noises in the room, but if the jar in which they lived were placed upon the piano while the keys were struck, they seemed to be frightened by the vibrations thus felt, and soon retired to their burrows.

Are they of any use to man? If you will look into the garden around their burrows you will see little mounds of earth, not very high, but very fine. It is said that in India these mounds may sometimes be seen as high as six inches. This earth has been brought to the surface by the earth-worm; part of it he has removed while making his burrow. When we consider the numbers of earthworms throughout the soil in all parts of the world, and the fact that each one is throwing up these earth-castings, we will see that they are all busy in making the soil of our fields and gardens very fine and porous.

At one time Mr. Darwin, wishing to ascertain the amount of mold that would thus be worked over in a given time, had lime spread upon a meadow, leaving it undisturbed for ten years. Immediately these little farmers began operations. Here and there they burrowed through the lime, leaving around their homes their little castings of fine soil. Gradually this pulverized soil covered the lime and it disappeared from sight. At the end of ten years holes were dug at various points through the meadow, and then it was discovered that the lime was three inches below the surface; those three inches representing the amount of fine mold brought up by the earth-worms. The castings thus thrown out on sloping hillsides are washed down into the valleys by the rains; thus the little earth-worm may be laying bare the surface of the mighty rocks as well as pulverizing the soil.

We have often heard of the coral insect–more properly, coral animal, for he is no insect–which, out in the ocean, slowly builds up islands for man’s habitation. We may now regard out familiar earth-worm as his fellow worker, as a “planer of the mountain side, a maker of fertile, alluvial corn lands,” and thus an unconscious friend to man in his agricultural operations. -Mrs. V.C. Phebus, Wessington Springs (Dakota Territory) Herald, November 1883.


angleworm (LTP 2; PG)
worm (FB 17; BPC 18, 26; LTP 2), see also leech (a type of worm) – Wilder describes grasshopper egg cases as being “worm-like” (meaning longer than wide) in On the Banks of Plum Creek