***Anthologized in the Best American Science and Nature Writing 2021***
***Honorable mention for the Society of Environmental Journalists’ 2020 Outstanding Feature Story Award***
The “crazy worms” remaking forests aren’t your friendly neighborhood garden worms. Then again, those aren’t so great either.
On a sweltering July day, I follow Annise Dobson down an overgrown path into the heart of Seton Falls Park. It’s a splotch of unruly forest, surrounded by the clamoring streets and cramped rowhouses of the Bronx. Broken glass, food wrappers, and condoms litter the ground. But Dobson, bounding ahead in khaki hiking pants with her blond ponytail swinging, appears unfazed. As I quickly learn, neither trash nor oppressive humidity nor ecological catastrophe can dampen her ample enthusiasm.
At the bottom of the hill, Dobson veers off the trail and stops in a shady clearing. This seems like a promising spot. She kicks away the dead oak leaves and tosses a square frame made of PVC pipe onto the damp earth. Then she unscrews a milk jug. It holds a pale yellow slurry of mustard powder and water that’s completely benign—unless you’re a worm.
Seconds after Dobson empties the contents inside the frame, the soil wriggles to life.
“Holy smokes!” she says, as a dozen worms come squirming out of the soil—their brown, wet skin burning with irritation. “Disgusting.” I have to agree. There is something unnerving about their slithering, serpentine style; instead of inching along like garden worms, they snap their bodies like angry rattlesnakes. But the problem with these worms isn’t their mode of locomotion. It’s the fact that they’re here at all.