Digging for Giants: To Protect Its Habitat, William Fender Must First Prove That Oregon's Largest Earthworm Still Exists

Article excerpt

WILLIAM FENDER IS AN UNASSUMING MAN--THIN, WITH a pallid complexion and wire-rimmed spectacles. When he steps into the Oregon woods wearing a pair of faded, hole-pocked jeans, there is a quiet rightness to the scene--an old hippie sort of tranquility. The only thing that seems odd is the pitch of the shovel. Fender, 52, carries it high over the ground and loose in his hands, like a priest holding the censer while dispensing incense in church. The shovel dangles and swings and, as Fender strides over the moss and ferns and rotting, downed limbs, he registers these sights as a sort of background music. What he is looking at, really, is the dirt.

On this warm May afternoon, in a little spit of suburban forest just south of Portland, he is looking for compact soil--for a deer trail, optimally--and he is thinking of the intricate universe wriggling beneath.

William Fender is the foremost authority on the Oregon giant earthworm, which lives in one of the nation's soggiest--and worm-richest--areas, the Pacific Northwest. It is he who wrote the definitive 1995 paper "Native Earthworms of the Pacific Northwest," which notes that the region's 100 indigenous species favor "fine textured" soils rich in clay. Judy Jacobs, an endangered-species biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says, "If I have a question about worms, I call Bill."

On the 40-minute drive down here from Portland, where we both live, Fender shared several little-known wonders of oligochaetology--that is, the study of worms. Worms, he explained, have been around for over 65 million years: "They survived the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary asteroid. A history of the planet is written in the cells of worms." Fender added that long-ago Oregonians pressed the oil that oozes from worms into "deep infected wounds," to capitalize on worms' antibiotic qualities, and that in some cultures people actually eat worms.

"Have you ever eaten worms?" I asked.

"Once," Fender said, but did not elaborate.

I'D FIRST MET FENDER A FEW WEEKS BEFORE, AT A COFFEE shop, where he was waiting for me in the corner. On his table, he'd propped up a little sign to identify himself. Rendered in ballpoint pen on a wrinkled paper bag, the sign said, "WORM."

On today's eco-battlefield, worms are marginal players. No worm--indeed, relatively few invertebrates--has ever been listed as threatened or endangered by the Fish and Wildlife Service. To Fender, who ekes by as a computer-support technician, this is a sad thing. To him, the worm is an emblem of all things good and forgotten--of those unsexy but indispensable parts of the ecosystem that must be shored up and saved. "Our whole approach to the earth has changed," he told me at the cafe. "The scientific community has moved away from an awe of nature--of worms, say--toward an engineering mindset. Taxonomy is out these days, and we're very enamored of biotechnology. They've come up with a rabbit that glows, but what good is that if we don't know anything about the planet we live on?"

Fender said things like this in a near monotone, with a flat, beleaguered look in his eyes. But now, in the woods, he shovels so ardently he is grunting. "Look for lemon-shaped worm castings," he instructs me, bending low in search of mini--bowel movements, his nose dripping with sweat. His words are rasping huffs between shovel thrusts. There's a practical side to all this rushed toil (worms quickly contract, making their bodies short and fat and less findable, when they first sense disturbance), but it's driven, too, by a certain ... fever. Fender and I are here to pursue the Holy Grail of American worms, Driloleirus macelfreshi, the Oregon giant earthworm, a creature that can grow to three feet in length. The giant is pencil-thick and white and its spit smells like lilies. It has not been sighted since April 29, 1981, when Fender himself found one on the very patch of maple and fir we're working now. …