I keep worms in my basement. It’s a pretty silly exercise, really, as I have no yard and no garden. A few pots do OK outside of my kitchen (a concrete slab, 6′ × 13′) but the supply of worm castings far outstrips demand. My wife finds it remarkably creepy and won’t have much to do with the whole enterprise. Offers of true, free “black gold” to friends are generally met with enthusiasm but little follow-up to actually pick up a load. Thus my inventory is approaching wholesale quantities. They are busy little house-mates, these worms.
Our guts teem with life separate from us in interesting ways. These microbes live on housekeeping chores that, through clever co-evolution, make it possible for us to function as omnivores, among other things. I hope, in my sentimental fashion, to have a house that mimics this lovely dance. Of course, the metaphor has its limits and can quickly devolve to an unappetizing place.
But it does get me thinking about systems and mess. Like most, I instinctively think of the two as mutually exclusive. Maybe even mutually antagonistic. One introduces a system to clean up a mess. One inserts mess into a system as sabotage.
My worms inform me about ways both can live in some level of harmony. On the surface, the system is simple and neat. Food scrap enters the bin; worms eat it and leave castings that I, in turn, give away as Christmas presents. But the decomposing waste dumps a surprising amount of black water. The worms have preferences (mango pits are tough for them). Poor management of the newspaper bedding can lead to fruit fly explosions. Moisture levels must be managed to avoid dry, stiff worms, or the whole bin going anaerobic in slush. But what I’ve found is that, more than being a forgiving system, it seems happiest when precision is off the table entirely. The more I think of it as a system in the largest sense, with connections to other systems in my life, the more each element of mess seems to have its place.
The black water (diluted) is actually quite tasty for house plants. Tearing a week’s worth of NY Times into one inch strips has its pleasures. Metering food scraps into the bins in a way that gives the worms time to do their work but doesn’t clog the kitchen with debris is an useful way to think about what, when, and how we eat. Clearing out the bin every couple of months is an astonishingly clear lesson in how things decompose.
System is traditional defined as “a set or arrangement of things so related or connected as to form a unity or organic whole.” (Webster’s New World College Dictionary) What the worms teach me is the lovely mess of systems. When they intersect with other systems to the extent that boundaries blur.