Johns Hopkins University Press

Charles darwin's The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms (1881) was the last book he published before his death the following year. The conjunction of worms and the author's death seems almost too on the nose. Yet, as a number of critics have observed, Worms is a surprisingly joyful book. Jonathan Smith, for example, writes that Darwin found the work of worms in reshaping landscapes "a cause for marvel and celebration rather than despair" (245). The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips makes the case even more strongly, declaring that Darwin looked to earthworms for "spiritual nourishment: for consolation, for inspiration, and even for the joy that for Wordsworth was nature's greatest boon" (46). Worms is no funereal valediction. It is "counter-elegaic" (Phillips 55), full of enthusiasm for the strange, teeming life beneath the ground we walk.

Since reading Worms, I have begun to perceive the world around me differently. When I walk through my neighbourhood, I no longer see just the trees and the birds; I have also started to cast my gaze down at the ground and to notice tiny holes in the earth, often marked by a small mound of pebbly black earth. These are worm burrows and worm castings, and, as Darwin points out, they may be small, but their impact is vast. Earthworms, Darwin shows, exist in great numbers—one of his sources estimates 53,767 to an acre in rural England—and they digest enormous quantities of soil, enough to plow the land, smooth out uneven terrain, and bury ancient ruins (159). "It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world," Darwin concludes, "as have these lowly organised creatures" (313).

The worm book is mostly remembered now as one of the first scientific works to recognize and describe soil bioturbation. And a few animal-studies critics have latched onto the book for its innovative argument that worms are intelligent—Darwin contended that their efficient ways of dragging leaves into their burrows attested to something more than instinct.1 But, as this essay will argue, Worms can also be read as a work that digests the Victorian virtues of didacticism, self-cultivation, and domesticity for the Anthropocene.2 It teaches readers who might always have found worms slimy, unpleasant, or uninteresting to feel differently about these creatures. Earthworms, in Darwin's writing, figure as good gardeners and good housekeepers, making the earth into a home for themselves and, inadvertently, for us. His worm-keeping enacts and makes visible forms of interspecies hospitality that are more valuable than ever today. [End Page 81]

Victorians' embrace of self-cultivation and domesticity has come to seem staid to many readers. The latter makes critics rightly suspicious because of its role in patriarchal ideology; the former is premised on a liberal humanist model of the subject that is outmoded these days. But I would argue that it is precisely these most Victorian elements that, with a little creative reading, are the most useful contributions Darwin's worm book can make to the environmental movement. The sort of self-fashioning I have in mind is less about Bildung and more about a sensory, affective pedagogy that transforms us on the level of feeling and habit rather than on that of conscious thought. Likewise, the sort of domesticity I have in mind is less about enforcing bourgeois norms and separate spheres, and more about accepting and offering hospitality, even across species. Living well in the Anthropocene is not just a matter of right thinking; it is also about cultivating affects and practices that can sustain us with the others we depend on. We might well despair at the abundant, biodiverse lifeways we are losing, but if we are willing to learn from Darwin and his worm-keeping successors, we can find ways to make, on this damaged planet, good homes for ourselves and others.

"These Lowly Organised Creatures"

In turning my focus to earthworms, I join a recent shift in animal studies that pays new attention to animals that are small, uncharismatic, or purportedly lower on the great chain of being. Traditionally, two breeds of Victorian animals have attracted the most notice among scholars: the sentimental, pedigreed pet and the exotic wild animal imported from the colonies. Harriet Ritvo's magisterial The Animal Estate explains Victorians' fascination with both of these animal types as expressions of cultural beliefs about class hierarchies and empire. Victorians imposed their ideas about the proper social order onto the animal kingdom. As Ritvo points out, this projection involved the social construction of both "good creatures"—well-bred dogs, prize cattle, noble horses—and "bad creatures," which included unruly wild animals and street dogs, accused of spreading rabies (15–30, 175–79). More recently, Ivan Kreilkamp has explored how the Victorians constructed good creatures through domestication, bringing pets into the bourgeois home as objects of sympathy and sentiment (1–2, 13, 16).

Recent scholarship in animal studies has turned its focus to various classes of "bad creatures." Lucinda Cole's recent book, Imperfect Creatures, for example, looks at vermin in the early modern period: "fleas, worms, wasps, maggots, and other swarming things" (2). Cole argues that what was most threatening about vermin was their "prodigious powers of reproduction" (4). This collectivity differentiated vermin from the dog, orangutan, and lion, which were individual subjects that could engender sympathy. In Victorian studies, Jeanette Samyn's work on insects explores another class of bad creatures: parasites. Samyn explains that while entomologists such as Louis Figuier found value in parasitic insects, moralists such as John Ruskin were horrified [End Page 82] by these parasites' apparent cruelty. Ruskin even wrote that Figuier's insects made him "sick with disgust" (qtd. in Samyn 92). Not all insects were bad creatures, however. Cannon Schmitt's essay on Victorian "beetlemania" demonstrates how the study of beetles exemplifies an "affective epistemology" that combined scientific knowledge with "a powerful and peculiar emotional charge" (37). For naturalists such as Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, beetles were alluring animals that sparked the pleasures of the hunt.

Schmitt calls for scholars, especially those who study science and literature, to "take seriously the affective, visceral, animal, and familial modalities of knowing that inform or underpin the production of human knowledge about the natural world" (48). This essay aims to answer that call by considering the affective dimensions of Darwin's earthworm studies. Earthworms are not cuddly like lapdogs, impressive like elephants, or beautiful like birds of paradise. Like the vermin that Cole describes, they are more likely to be thought of en masse than as individual, sympathetic subjects. But Darwin's worm book suggests, and recent work in environmental humanities affirms, that they are nevertheless good creatures: good for the soil, good for gardeners and archaeologists, good for thinking with and for fostering ecological feelings.

It would not be controversial to analyze the feelings elicited by a major work such as Origin of Species or Descent of Man—indeed, a rich subfield of Victorian studies is devoted to close readings of Darwin.3 The worm book, despite selling well upon publication, has gotten comparatively less attention from literary critics. Those few who have studied it, however, have found in it a rich and open-minded evocation of invertebrate experience. Eileen Crist, for example, argues that its chapters on worm habits stand out in the history of biology for their representation of worms' "subjective world" (3). Anna Henchman likewise reads these chapters as important forays into worm phenomenology, which is based in touch rather than vision. "One of the primary accomplishments of Darwin's Worms," she says, "is that it serves as a guide to what it might be like to be a worm, given their perceptual make up, habits, and range of motion." Finally, George Levine's assessment of the worm book finds it an exemplary expression of the Darwinian ethos: "Darwin's world is not dead and insensitive, not merely mechanical. Its vitality, abundance, complexity, richness are, rather, almost overwhelming in their possibilities, and the world reverberates with sensibility, even the worms' world" (Darwin Loves You 150).

Darwin himself offered the best justification for paying attention to worms and to Worms. In his introduction, he attempts to deflect the criticism that worms are a minor or unimportant topic for natural history. "The subject may appear an insignificant one," he admits, "but we shall see that it possesses some interest; and the maxim 'de minimis lex non curat,' does not apply to science" (2). The Latin phrase means "the law does not concern itself with trifles." Darwin's defence of apparently trifling things as just the [End Page 83] opposite applies to all his scientific work, not only Worms. After all, when skeptics doubt the large results of worms' small labours, it is "an instance of that inability to sum up the effects of a continually recurrent cause, which has often retarded the progress of science" (6). What Darwin means is that, just as people once doubted that small geological causes such as erosion could have reshaped continents, or that small biological variations could lead to speciation, so they now doubt that something as small as worm castings could bury a Roman floor or a fallen pillar of Stonehenge. But the little things add up. For Darwin, attending to them becomes more than a scientific principle; it is also an ethical one. Even little things like worms contain worlds for the observer who is willing to pay them the respect of close attention.

Learning to Love Earthworms

How can one become the kind of person who cares about worms, the kind of observer who perceives the worlds in dirt? One might start by digging around in the yard, turning the compost pile, or reading Darwin. Such experiences can cut through indifference, weaken disgust, and strengthen more positive emotions toward these creatures. These experiences take part in what Ben Highmore calls "affective pedagogy," a way of training and transforming oneself on the level of feelings and taste, not just on that of the intellect (134). Drawing on the sociological distinction between ethos—a set of affective forms and norms one absorbs from one's cultural background—and eidos—"the rational, logical, reasoning self"—Highmore suggests that a person's ethos can be changed through deliberate exposure to new sensory experiences (128–29, 130). He further suggests that this sort of affective education can have ethical and political consequences: "if our 'affect horizons' are the result of deep pedagogy, then an affective politics that wanted to expand the aesthetic realms of communities would need to champion an affective counter-pedagogy" (136). To export Highmore's point to the context of animal studies and environmental humanities, if scholars want to expand the aesthetic realm of our communities to include non-human beings, such as cows or trees or worms, then we might need an affective counter-pedagogy to reorient our sense of disgust or simple apathy.

Darwin's overt goal in writing the worm book, of course, was probably educative in the usual sense. He aimed to convey knowledge about worms, not to transform his readers' "affect horizons." But to read Darwin for an affective counter-pedagogy is in some ways a quintessentially Victorian project. The Victorians are known for their enthusiasm for self-improvement, from conduct manuals to Samuel Smiles's Self-Help to the novel itself. The master narrative of nineteenth-century literature—especially the Bildungsroman, that most Victorian of genres—is that it serves an educative, moralizing function: it shapes good subjects for Victorian society. Indeed, it helps such subjects shape themselves through what Elisha Cohn calls "the arduous framework of self-culture" (3). Cohn writes that Victorian writers are known for valuing [End Page 84] "a productive model of the aesthetic that not only portrays the education of the protagonist but also contributes to the reader's own self-making" (3). In other words, paying the right sort of attention to art, music, literature, and nature was, for the Victorians, an important part of self-fashioning. Of course, this master narrative oversimplifies things (indeed, Cohn's own work is concerned with forms of aesthetic experience that do not fit this Bildung model), but it is hard to deny that a number of Victorian writers and thinkers found careful attention and reflection to be keystones for proper self-cultivation. The kind of self produced by Darwinian forms of attention and reflection is not necessarily a normative Victorian subject. Nevertheless, to read Darwin's work, especially Worms, is to participate in an affective self-(re)making by finding new things to pay attention to, reflect upon, and appreciate in the world. It is, I would propose, to be a better Anthropocene subject.

Long before Darwin's research on how earthworms carried leaves and stones to their burrows, worms carried mostly negative cultural meanings. The very word "vermin," as Cole points out, comes from vermis, Latin for worm, and for many people, worms are just as off-putting as vermin (2). Janelle A. Schwartz's Worm Work: Recasting Romanticism, the most thorough treatment to date of worms in scientific and literary culture, elaborates on worms' verminous qualities. Exploring worm representations in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, including in the poetry of Darwin's grandfather Erasmus, Schwartz explains that "there is always already something offensive, muddled, or dirty, as well as unknown or elided, when talking about worms" (xix). Their wriggling, slimy forms seem obscene; their resemblance to the maggots that feast on dead bodies makes them seem unclean.

But even for eighteenth-century writers and scientists, Schwartz argues, there was a flip side to this disgust, a "way of aestheticizing the vermicular that fruitfully combines the more classic repulsion with an inventive appeal to mutability, indeterminacy, and the irrepressibility of the organic" (xxiii). In the poetry of William Blake, for example, the worm "gives way to a positive aesthetic of decay" (xxiv). Worms, which can regenerate when cut apart, came to symbolize for Darwin's progenitors the creative flexibility of nature. Their association with death came to symbolize the cycle of organic life.

Darwin's own worm work also made earthworms emblems for "biological and cultural renewal" (Ulin 304). In this case, though, it was not the worms' regenerative abilities, nor their resemblance to maggots and parasitic worms, that made them apt signs of renewal. Rather, it was the magic of worm shit. Earthworms eat soil full of organic stuff: dead leaves, decaying vegetable matter, bugs, microorganisms, animal manures, even each other—as Darwin reports, "They are cannibals, for the two halves of a dead worm placed in two of the pots were dragged into the burrows and gnawed" (36). The "castings" they then excrete are a substance that Darwin found marvelous. Worm castings make an excellent fertilizer for plants; they coat the walls of worm burrows to keep the animals warm; they have [End Page 85] covered and preserved the floors and walls of ancient Roman buildings for archaeologists; they have contributed to the geological denudation of the land; in some places they rise up like tiny pillars (see fig. 1).

Darwin's careful, loving attention to worm excrement, as Jonathan Smith has shown, enacts a grotesque realism that mingles the disgusting and the joyful. Grotesque realism, as Mikhail Bakhtin describes it in Rabelais and His World, is a comic aesthetic characteristic of folk culture (18–22). At its centre is the grotesque body, which is unruly, leaky, and indecorous. As Smith (quoting Bakhtin) explains, "The essential parts of the grotesque body are thus those in which 'the confines between … the body and the world are overcome': the bowels, the phallus, the anus, and especially the mouth. In grotesque realism, 'the body swallows the world and is itself swallowed by the world'" (250). While Darwin does not engage in scatological jokes about his earthworms, he does write frankly about their ingestion, digestion, and egestion, including, as Donald Ulin highlights, their shitting "over the remains of Classical culture" (304). This observation leads Ulin to connect Darwin's worms to another Bakhtinian aesthetic—the carnivalesque, a mode that upends social hierarchies, "debasing the aristocracy and crowning the fool king" (304). Earthworms are both grotesque and carnivalesque. They are bodies open to and not clearly separable from their environment, indeed little more than a mouth, a digestive tract, and an anus. And yet, Darwin declares, "[a]rchaeologists ought to be grateful to" these lowly animals, which preserve objects from the most exalted of ancient cultures (308).

The key point here is that, while excrement is typically an object of disgust, for Darwin worm castings are something other than disgusting. Reading Darwin's Worms thus opens up an understanding of disgust as something mutable. To say so is to contradict some classic accounts of disgust. Julia Kristeva's Powers of Horror, for example, presents it as an overpowering feeling. The abject, or the object of pure disgust, is that which "cannot be assimilated," which must be violently ejected or rejected (1). Sianne Ngai, following Kristeva, suggests that "weak disgust is no longer really disgust" (338). Ngai argues that while disgust and contempt look like close cousins, they really are not; contempt is one extreme of the spectrum of tolerance, while disgust is utterly intolerant of its object.

Disgust, in my view, is more variegated and malleable than these strong accounts acknowledge. I side with Gay Hawkins, who argues, in The Ethics of Waste, that absolute disgust or abjection is not the most useful way of understanding the way we react to much of the waste we encounter, which "doesn't destabilize the self. It just hangs around largely ignored" (3). Hawkins's category of waste includes both bodily products—"shit or blood or pus"—that we experience as abject and the junk—plastic bags, empty bottles, other disposable objects—that we mostly overlook (3). For Hawkins, the human response to waste encompasses an affective range from total disgust to indifference: waste includes that which makes us retch, that which merely makes [End Page 86] us wrinkle our noses, and that which passes below our attention. I find this understanding of disgust as a spectrum more useful for understanding people's reactions to worms and worm castings. If you are a contestant on Fear Factor who has been asked to eat live earthworms, you will probably be disgusted in the strong sense; if you are just reading about worm castings in this article, you probably find them no more than mildly unpleasant.

While Darwin's most overt concern in Worms was to allay the doubts of skeptics who did not believe worms could do that much work, his treatise more subtly models for readers how to be the kind of observer who sees worm castings as amazing, not disgusting. Among the illustrations in Worms are three drawings, at full scale, of the "tower-like" castings of certain earthworm species found in India and France (figs. 1, 2, 3). The worm casting images are not picturesque, nor even really aestheticized.4 In their lumpiness, they are a bit repulsive, and Smith's argument about Darwin's grotesque aesthetics surely applies to them. And yet there is something impressive about them as well, emphasized by Darwin's repeated use of the word "tower" to describe them. They are architectural accomplishments. They can be three or more inches in height, with a passage for the worm to ascend and descend in the centre, and, as Darwin declares admiringly, "a considerable degree of skill is exhibited in their construction" (117).

Even non-tower-building earthworms do not defecate randomly; they are particular about where and how they do so. As Darwin reports, "I have watched worms during the act of ejection," and their excrement "is not

Fig 1. Worm casting from near Nice. Originally printed in Darwin's Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms.
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Fig 1.

Worm casting from near Nice. Originally printed in Darwin's Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms.

[End Page 87]

Fig 2. Worm casting from the Botanic Garden in Calcutta, India. Originally printed in Darwin's Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms.
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Fig 2.

Worm casting from the Botanic Garden in Calcutta, India. Originally printed in Darwin's Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms.

Fig 3. Worm casting from Nilgiri Mountains in India. Originally printed in Darwin's Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms.
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Fig 3.

Worm casting from Nilgiri Mountains in India. Originally printed in Darwin's Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms.

cast indifferently on any side, but with some care, first on one and then on another side; the tail being used almost like a trowel" (116). If any part of Worms is likely to excite disgust, it is Darwin's close observation of worms in the act of defecating, their castings "viscid" and "ejected in little spurts" (116). But even here, readers' potential disgust is allayed by the writer's [End Page 88] admiration for how apparently deliberate these little animals are. Their careful deposits of excrement seem of a piece with their methodical way of dragging leaves into their burrows by the tips, and both contribute to an image of them as miniature builders who like things just so.

A final reason that the worm book undermines disgust is one that is probably a happy accident, a fortuitous thing that Darwin himself could not have intended. The earthworm itself happens to make an excellent symbol for the opposite of disgust. The word "abject" means "degraded and disgusting"; etymologically, it means "to throw away." But the worm does not ab-ject; it in-gests, and digests, and egests, and lives within the egested matter. More simply, worms eat the same stuff they live in, including dead leaves, vegetable and animal bits, and soil that has already passed through the bodies of other worms. If disgust is a feeling that pushes the object away, earthworms take the object in, consuming it and immersing themselves in it. To revise Bakhtin's phrase about the grotesque body only a little, the worm body quite literally swallows the earth and is itself swallowed by the earth.

This is not to say that earthworms are totally indiscriminate. Darwin's experiments indicate that they have taste preferences when it comes to food and that they are choosy about how to line their burrows. But they are omnivorous, and they like the things that we find unpleasant—dirt, rotting vegetables, raw meat. For a nineteenth-century natural theologian such as William Paley, such preferences in worms and other animals were evidence of God's neat design in nature. If all beings ate the same things, he writes, the earth would not be able to provide subsistence for us all. Fortunately, "[w]hat one nature rejects, another delights in. … Carrion is a treat to dogs, ravens, vultures, fish. The exhalations of corrupted substances attract flies by crowds. Maggots revel in putrefaction" (48). And earthworms love decaying matter.

For Darwin, the fact that nature lets nothing go to waste could not be evidence for God's design, as it was for Paley. But, as Phillips puts it, the recycling and plowing work of earthworms is, for Darwin, "our accidental good fortune." The worms "provided things without meaning to: they were gratuitously virtuous, not determinedly so," and they create a world that is "contingently hospitable" for humans (57). The point, Phillips suggests, is that even a nature without divine design, a Darwinian nature of chance, can be abundant and good, and earthworms help make it so. Worm labour happens to benefit us, and thus it can evoke an appreciation for the interconnected workings of ecology, including the decomposers who, without knowing it, ensure that carbon is recycled and that the earth continues to be turned.

Care and Feeding

In place of contempt or disgust, I have suggested, Darwin's Worms fosters appreciation for these animals. But I now want to get more specific about one of the forms this appreciation takes: an ethic not just of caring about [End Page 89] earthworms but also of taking care of them. Darwin undertook this care when he put earthworms in pots in his home, and it is further enacted by vermicomposters today. In the practice of keeping worms, as the anthropologists Sebastian Abrahamsson and Filippo Bertoni argue, one gets to know these creatures, not just in the sense of creating scientific knowledge about them but also in the sense of becoming attuned to them, learning what makes them flourish. If, in the world, earthworms create a hospitable soil for humans to grow food, Darwin and the vermicomposters who have followed him aim to create a hospitable environment for earthworms in their homes. These acts of alternating, reciprocal hospitality offer us a provocation to live better with other species today—to be better guests and better hosts.

Darwin kept worms because he was curious about their ability to bury objects in humus, but keeping worms also inspired new kinds of curiosity. In 1837, Darwin had presented a paper to the Geological Society arguing that worms were responsible for digesting and turning all the topsoil in the country. The worm book, published nearly half a century later, was intended to be an extension of this research and a response to naysayers who doubted that earthworms were really capable of that much labour. However, it soon became something more. "As I was led to keep in my study during many months worms in pots filled with earth," Darwin reports,

I became interested in them and wished to learn how far they acted consciously, and how much mental power they displayed. I was the more desirous to learn something on this head, as few observations of this kind have been made, as far as I know, on animals so low in the scale of organization and so poorly provided with sense-organs, as are earth-worms.


The two chapters on earthworm habits and the many experiments Darwin performed to assess their abilities and preferences are the result. Darwin's scientific curiosity about the worms is intertwined with an affective and ethical attachment to them. His inquisitiveness about these beings he lives with, and his suspicion that there is more to them than anyone has recognized, are acts of hospitality.

Darwin's experiments with his vermicular housemates reveal many new insights about their way of life. A feeling of domesticity suffuses Darwin's descriptions of worm habits and habitats, as Crist observes:

In discussing how worms constructed and inhabited their burrows—the tunnels, openings, and chambers—he used the descriptive terms of architecture and home, thereby accenting the skill and life of worms. Darwin's language contributed two significant dimensions to the portrayal of their inner life: It presented structures constructed by worms as products of [End Page 90] work, rather than fortuitous outcomes of passive movement; and it presented worms as inhabitants of spaces that possessed features engineered for utility, comfort, and security.


Crist is right to observe that Darwin represents earthworms as enmeshed in particular lifeways, building and inhabiting the world rather than just blindly following mechanical instincts. They are makers, in Darwin's view, active agents in reshaping the earth.

The chapters on worm habits portray creaturely domesticity on multiple levels. First, Darwin brings the worms into his home, giving them soil and food and noticing which foods they like best (they "devour" onion and cabbage "with much relish," he reports [30]). He aims to be a good host to these creatures. Second, as the above quotation from Crist shows, he evokes an image of worms as happy homemakers. There is something very Victorian about this emphasis on their domestic habits. The worms adorn their burrows with dead leaves, little stones, and their own castings, using these materials for food, security, and "apparently to prevent their bodies from coming into close contact with the cold damp earth" (63). Like the women in Victorian domestic fiction, the worms seem to express their goodness through their ability to create a safe, cozy home. And third, these observations about worm habits set up the following chapters, in which Darwin argues that earthworms turn the soil in ways conducive to human agriculture. By showing hospitality to worms, in other words, Darwin discovers how worms make the earth a good home for us.

To pay attention to worms is also to study the soil in which they live and in the process to perceive dirt differently, much as gardeners see soil differently from the rest of us. Dirt begins to look less like a problem to be expelled and more like a crucial part of housekeeping. Darwin closely examined the textures, colours, and contents of soil, which communicate the presence and activity of worms. He paid attention to how their castings differed in sandy, clayey, chalky, and dark soils; he noticed when the dirt was wet or dry, fine or coarse, marked by worm tracks or not. In her article on "dirt theory," Heather Sullivan emphasizes that, while dirt often appears as the despised other to the clean, efficient aesthetics of modernity, nevertheless "[w]e are enmeshed within dirt in its many forms" (515). She calls for ecocriticism to develop new ways of thinking about dirt. In the practices of Darwin, gardeners, and composters, we can find such alternatives.

Today, those who compost with worms to produce fertilizer for their gardens engage in acts of attention and care similar to Darwin's. As Abrahamsson and Bertoni discovered firsthand when they began vermicomposting, keeping worms and maintaining the bin requires an alert, improvisational process of getting to know one's worms: "Knowing, in other words, emerges as a process, the outcome of which cannot be apprehended in advance, as it hinges on the provisional and makeshift adjustments you engage in" (133; [End Page 91] their emphasis). How to strike the right balance of food, temperature, moisture, and other environmental conditions to keep the worms alive, productive, and inside the bin is something that composters must learn through trial and error. This ongoing, sometimes messy, process of learning to live together and to feed each other is what Abrahamsson and Bertoni call "compost politics."

Hawkins describes a related experience with worms at a sustainable house in Sydney, Australia. This house, among its other innovations, "uses earthworms and microorganisms to break down and filter human effluent, gray water, and food scraps" (124). The worms live in a long, bench-shaped bin in the backyard. Hawkins interprets the house as a micropolitical experiment in getting on closer terms with one's waste; as she points out, "Bodily waste in its most immediate and hazardous form remained hidden, but once it was subject to transformation into compost it was present. … its reality could not be denied" (126). The worms and microbes disallow the possibility of imagining that waste can be shunted away, simply sent elsewhere and forgotten about. They thus become part of the affective pedagogy that accompanies the house's sustainable practices.

The earthworms' felicity at burrow-making, soil-tilling, and home economics, I have suggested, resembles in some ways the Victorian domestic ideal. But the shared human-worm homes described above also enact a different, more ecologically-minded sort of domesticity. Traditionally, and especially in Victorian ideology, the home is an enclosed space that excludes or expels the things that don't fit: dirt, waste, unwanted guests, politics, the stuff of the public sphere. And as Kreilkamp argues in Minor Creatures, Victorian domesticity has everything to do with the question of which animals belong in the house. A good deal of the most celebrated Victorian literature, he writes, is "interested in the various ways animals are brought into the home as pets or denied access to that domestic space in gestures of inclusion or exclusion that can express larger structures of belonging or nonbelonging" (32). Dogs and cats are easily named, loved, and integrated into the Victorian family, but to bring worms into the home is a different matter. It is to bring dirt, manure, and ecological politics into the home, according them a place of prominence. Living with worms blurs the boundaries between inside and outside, home and world, habits and politics. Darwin and the vermicomposters help produce a vision of home that is not about keeping out or throwing away, but about living with others and recycling waste.

This alternative domesticity is perhaps best captured in the act of eating next to one another. Living with earthworms, as described by Darwin, Abrahamsson and Bertoni, and Hawkins, also involves eating with them—not at the same table, not exactly together, but next to them. Humans, worms, and microbes become companion species in a very literal sense—as Donna Haraway points out, the word "companion" derives from cum panis, "with bread," suggesting that companions are those who break bread together [End Page 92] (When Species Meet 17). There is no clear host or guest in this relationship; there is no shared table, for the worms stay in their bin and the humans eat separately; there is not even a common meal, for the worms eat what we cannot or will not, and the plants we eat may have grown using the nutrients from their waste. Yet there is an ethics of hospitality happening when people live with earthworms. Each gives—food scraps, compost—and each receives, but asymmetrically, and not in a process of contractual economic exchange. An attunement occurs when we recognize ourselves eating, not precisely with, but beside, or before, or after, these others.

Lessons for the Anthropocene

The affective pedagogy and ethics of hospitality legible in Darwin's worm book, as I have described them above, resonate not just with Victorian values but also with recent scholarship in environmental humanities. The field has, over the past two decades, aimed to redress two problems with earlier forms of environmentalism. First-wave environmentalists often assumed there was a binary distinction between nature and human culture; the former consisted of unsullied green wilderness, and it was only when the latter began to pollute that wilderness that problems started. However, as theorists from Haraway to Bruno Latour to Timothy Morton have amply demonstrated, the nature/culture binary does not hold up to serious scrutiny. Humans are animals, evolutionary products, dependent on other animals, plants, microbes, and minerals. And in the Anthropocene, no "wilderness" entirely untouched by human activities exists. It's entanglements all the way down.

More recently, environmental humanists have responded to another problem with mainstream environmentalism: it's often preachy, depressing, and paralyzing. Hawkins points out that many common environmental narratives can actually dampen political action: "When we hear stories of dying rivers or see images of mountains made of garbage, nature is framed as dead or definitely on its last legs. … [The] impact is often overwhelming and immobilizing" (9). The Scylla to this Charybdis is the cheery, moralistic, consumerist imperative of individual action—just buy our green lifestyle product and you'll save the environment! Such campaigns, says Hawkins, "[presume] an autonomous subject in possession of free will and reason" (11). It is also important to note that virtuous consumerism, by placing responsibility on the individual, excludes more collective forms of political action and ignores the culpabilities of governments and corporations. Hawkins's way of navigating this impasse between overwhelming despair and (neo)liberal individual choices is to focus on habits and affects, which run below conscious, rational decision-making and which can change one's ethos. Nicole Seymour, meanwhile, charts a path between pessimism and feel-good consumerism through humour. She argues that irreverent, ironic, and absurdist forms of humour can help sustain environmentalists who see our ecological crises clearly. I see shades of Hawkins's interest in habits and [End Page 93] affects in Darwin's worm book, which narrates and cultivates habits of attention toward worms, dirt, and small things. And I see shades of Seymour's irreverent humour in the book's grotesque and carnivalesque aesthetics.

Darwin's worm work also accords with the insights of several recent works in "new materialism," a field overlapping with environmental humanities that critiques anthropocentrism and elucidates the agency of non-human objects and assemblages. For example, Jane Bennett, in her exploration of "thing-power," cites the worm book directly as an exemplar of "vibrant matter" (94–100). In her reading, the worms are flexible agents whose activities literally change the world. Bennett also argues that Darwin's unabashed anthropomorphism offers a model for new materialism by "catalyz[ing] a sensibility that finds a world filled not with ontologically distinct categories of beings (subjects and objects) but with variously composed materialities that form confederations" (99). The cultivation of new animistic sensibilities thus is an important part of Bennett's "political ecology of things."

Haraway's Staying with the Trouble does not directly cite Darwin's Worms as Bennett does, but it does offer up a number of aphorisms for environmental humanities that draw on the richness of worm work. "We are compost, not posthuman," she writes; "we inhabit the humusities, not the humanities" (97). For Haraway, the compost pile is literally and symbolically an exemplar of multispecies interdependence, transience—we "compose and decompose each other," she says (97)—and positive transformation. "I compost my soul in this hot pile," she declares (34). The idea of composting the self—of opening the self to an earth change, into something rich and strange—is perhaps a more poetic version of the affective education that I think Darwin's Worms affords.

The worm book affirms these contemporary environmental philosophies. But what it shows us particularly acutely is the potential of Victorian values—perhaps transmogrified through a process of interpretive "composting"—for Anthropocene environmental politics. The "arts of living"5—sensory, affective, habitual—that Darwin practised offer us an alternative form of self-cultivation that is more ecologically sustainable than that of the modern capitalist subject. Victorianists well know that the domestic sphere has always been political, but worm-keeping shows us how to begin to create homes, and forms of daily life, that enact the political values of recycling, composting, and ecological hospitality.

A final lesson that Darwin's Worms might teach us in the Anthropocene is not to discount small things. Climate change and ecological destruction are big, global problems demanding big, revolutionary solutions. But they also demand a host of microrevolutions in everyday life. Our habits and our habitats are not too minor to trouble ourselves about. Darwin saw, more clearly than anyone, the scales at which tiny things, like a mutation or an earthworm digesting soil, could have massive effects. Science, he insisted, does concern itself with trifles. Ecological politics should too. [End Page 94]

Caroline Hovanec

CAROLINE HOVANEC is an assistant professor of English and writing at the University of Tampa. Her book Animal Subjects: Literature, Zoology, and British Modernism (Cambridge University Press, 2018) examines how modernist writers and scientists collectively shaped a new understanding of animal subjectivity after Darwin. Currently, she is at work on a second book project about the aesthetics of vermin, pests, and parasites in nineteenth- through twenty-first-century literature.


1. See, for example, the works of Eileen Crist, Anna Henchman, and Gillian Beer (in the new chapter of Darwin's Plots, "Darwin and the Consciousness of Others").

2. "Anthropocene" is the name proposed by the scientists Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer for the current geological period, in which human activities have transformed the earth and atmosphere in geologically measurable ways. The term has been taken up by many in the environmental humanities, most influentially by the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty. Chakrabarty argues that climate change collapses the traditional distinction between human and natural history, crashing together the previously incommensurable scales of the history of the human species and the history of global capitalism. The Anthropocene offers a shorthand for the epoch in which these different historical scales are no longer distinct.

3. The canonical examples here are Beer's Darwin's Plots (1983, with a new edition in 2009) and George Levine's Darwin and the Novelists (1988). More recently, Levine's Darwin Loves You (2006) and Darwin the Writer (2011), Devin Griffiths's The Age of Analogy (2016), and Cannon Schmitt's Darwin and the Memory of the Human (2009) have continued the practice of reading Darwin as literature, including delving into lesser-known works such as Orchids. The recent collection After Darwin: Animals, Emotions, and the Mind (2015), edited by Angelique Richardson, deserves special attention here for recognizing Darwin's importance for animal studies and for emphasizing the roles of emotions and affect in his science.

4. Smith has made a related argument about the other illustrations in Worms, the stratigraphic drawings. He claims that these images challenge the Victorian picturesque aesthetic by reducing ruins such as Stonehenge and Silchester to geological sections (266).

5. I borrow this phrase from Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, edited by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Heather Anne Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubdant, which calls for an affective ecological pedagogy similar to the one I have been describing in this article. Gan, Tsing, Swanson, and Bubdant argue that "to survive, we need to relearn multiple forms of curiosity. Curiosity is an attunement to multispecies entanglements, complexity, and the shimmer all around us" (G11).

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