Nature- not me- Knows Best

My apartment smells like vinegar. That’s a sharp improvement upon four days ago. Four days ago, my apartment smelled like rotting, moldy food. Why? Because there was rotting, moldy food in my apartment. Why? Because I’m trying to raise worms in my apartment. Why? It’s not their fault, I swear!

Jeez. I sound like a co-dependent, rationalizing the worms’ bad behavior. But really, it’s in the literature. “Bad smells are the result of rotting food, not the worms, so always be sure to keep the food covered”. See? It’s not their fault. My bad. I’m supposed to keep the food covered. Wait a minute, why am I trying to raise worms, anyhow?

Two months ago, the idea of getting an indoor worm composting bin landed in my head, and like all unfortunate ideas that end up there, it swirled around for weeks and weeks not going anywhere, bothering me every time it spun around. I thought it was a good idea for two reasons 1) I could put scraps of food in the bin instead of the garbage thus diminishing my negative impact on the environment thus decreasing my guilt thus increasing the size of my ego. 2) I could harvest valuable humus from the bin and add it to my garden.

First, I grabbed the empty worm bin my sister wasn’t using. Then, I did some research, and by research I mean I went to google and typed worms + compost + chicago and picked the most user-friendly looking website that came up. I ordered one pound of worms, that is, a thousand worms, that is BLANK dollars worth of worms. I’m ashamed how much they cost. But you have to keep in mind reasons 1) and 2) – this was such a good idea! I was saving the world (inflating my ego) and contributing nutrient-rich soil to the Earth. OK. $34 bucks and some change.

Moving on… I went to the location listed on the website when my order was ready, which happened to be a multi-functional loft-space in Lincoln Park that does a number of things including but not limited to: yoga, holistic medicine, physical and emotional rehabilitation, gardening classes, worm sales… all top dollar, for the millionaire moms of Lincoln Park feeling sore after carrying too many bunches of organic kale out of Whole Foods. I shouldn’t be mocking them, because apparently it’s my crowd.

Anyway, the woman who sold me the worms was extremely skeptical of my competence, because I peppered her with questions throughout the transaction. Questions like, ‘can I put egg shells in the bin, what can’t they eat, do I need to water them, Oh- they need a paper bedding- what kind of paper bedding???’ Etc. Etc. Maybe she wasn’t skeptical, maybe I was projecting, but she asked me if I knew what I was doing and told me to call if I had any questions. ‘OK’, I said, jamming the worms in my bookbag. My book bag is slender, meant only for a lap top and bike lock. The one pound one thousand count of worms (which, by the way, was wrapped tightly in a purple fabric not unlike the faux-velvet cloth used to wrap Crown Royale) was a wee bit too big so to fit it I pushed down with both fists like I was trying to shut an over-stuffed suitcase for an extended trip to the Bahamas- she screamed, ‘Stop Stop!’ ‘Oh’, I said, ‘I forgot- they’re alive…’

I biked home on what turned out to be the hottest day of the year, thus far. The heat radiating from my back must have put the little package of Crown Royale upto over a hundred degrees when I got home (not good, they like it cool). I prepared the bin as instructed (laid down a layer of shredded paper, watered the worms to wake them up, placed them inside), put in some food (organic, frozen-thawed-pureed kale; god, I’m a Lincoln Park mom), and put on the lid. Nothing. I was struck by the nothingness I felt, after waiting a month for my worms, after getting my great idea.

That first week just happened to be the one heat wave Chicago has had this summer, and I was worried how the worms would fare. The literature said that they don’t do well in temperatures greater than 80˚F. My apartment faces the west, has no air conditioning, and is thus exposed to a brutal sun for the latter half of the day. It’s sweltering. Any word used to describe the weather that has the word ‘welt’ in it, you know it’s bad. So I grabbed a thermometer and tested the environment… 99˚F. I panicked. My worms aren’t going to survive. I need to DO something!

So I decided to install Air Conditioning. According to the A/C literature, “Do not use this appliance for special purposes such as cooling pets, foods, precision machinery, or objects of art”. Worms… I tried to rationalize my way out of it. They’re not pets, per se. But they are definitely a ‘special purpose’. I ignored the literature, installed the A/C, and turned it on full blast. As soon as I smelled the vague chemical smell of Freon I realized the irony of installing an air conditioner in order to preserve my worms… whatever good I’m doing for the environment by having worms is surely being negated by the damage the A/C does to the ozone. There goes reason 1), help the environment, and there goes my inflated ego. Pheeeeeep. (That’s the noise it makes.) Not only that, I develop a dry cough from the dehumidification effect of the A/C and worry daily that the balancing I act I relied on to install the A/C unit will end in tragedy when it plummets three stories below and kills a Mexican Alcoholic. No really, I mean it. There’s a Spanish speaking AA club right below my apartment. (unidad, servico, recuperacion).

I installed the A/C in my kitchen because that was the only place with a window that fit. After two days of having it on full-blast only one room in my apartment is cold, and it’s not the bedroom, not the bathroom, not the bathroom and- most importantly- not the large closet I’m storing the worms in… no, all of those areas are still 90 friggin degrees. But the kitchen. Is. Freezing. But I hesitate bring the worms there, because while it’s cold it’s also the brightest and noisiest room in the house and, according to the literature, those are two things the worms detest about as much as heat. I cut my losses and bring the worms into the one air conditioned room in my apartment, setting them beneath the kitchen table (for added shade), hoping neither they nor the recovering pedestrians beneath me perish.

Having them beneath the kitchen table means every time I sit down to eat and stretch out my legs I kick the bin knocking the poor wrigglers and then (I imagine) they curse, saying to themselves “where the hell are we, on the San Andreas fucking Fault?” because I stretch out my legs at least five times a meal unconsciously and I can’t break the habit despite the fear I have of disrupting my babies, the worms that will soon provide me with 2) choice soil for my garden.

Oh yeah, forgot to mention. The lady at the affluent hippy multiplex said that the worms wouldn’t be making the kind of volume of soil I could actually use for at least three months. That means October, when it’s about time to harvest… there goes reason #2 for why this raising worms is such a brilliant idea.

And I haven’t even got to the vinegar yet! The worst part! To make up for the excess of heat and light and car traffic and periodic kicks of my feet I feed the worms an abundant diet of carrot clippings, apricot pits- organic, of course- and (Metropolis) coffee grounds. The result? Happy worms? No, I over-feed them. The food sits there, time happens, and the then: moldy, stinky food. Which attracts… fruit flies. Hundreds of them.

Everywhere. The first time I noticed it was just a few, hovering around my kitchen. Then when I went to open the bin a swarm of them plumed out and settled on anything remotely edible anywhere in my apartment. I mean on my dishes on my utensils, in and around my garbage, on the counter next to the stove where grease has collected, in the edge of the cap of my olive oil bottle. Everywhere. The dishes thing freaked me out the most, because to the naked eye the dishes were spotless. But I guess even “clean” dishes harbor invisible atoms of food that the fruit flies find damn appealing. Oh, that wasn’t the worst, seeing the tines of a fork covered with fruit flies wasn’t the worst, not compared to waking up and opening up my medicine cabinet and reaching for my toothbrush and seeing with my half-open sleep eyes a dozen fruit flies hovering above the bristles of my tooth brush chewing (apparently) bits of food that used to be in my mouth. I threw it out, of course. But now somewhere in some landfill is a 6 inch piece of plastic that won’t decompose for five thousand years because some 24 year old idealist thought he would save the world by raising worms. Gone, gone, gone is reason #1: help the environment.

‘Pernicious’. Adjective. Latin for destruction + violent death. a) tending to cause serious injury or death: deadly. b) causing great harm: ruinous. c) {archaic} evil: wicked. d) fruit flies. Fruit flies. Are. Fucking. Pernicious. I couldn’t get rid of them. I tried hiding every source of food. I scrubbed my dishes in boiling water. I wrapped my (new) tooth brush in a plastic bag. I took the garbage out twice a day (adding even more plastic in the land fill, adding only even more irony to the situation). I even started putting all my food in the fridge. You think that would stop them, but every time I open the fridge, a lone fruit fly drifts out at half-steam. None of my strategies have worked. Fruit flies, everywhere.

I tried vinegar. You might know about this- vinegar traps. You take a cup or bowl and fill it part-way with vinegar, tightly wrap the top of it with saram wrap, then poke a few holes in the top. Fruit flies go in and can’t come out. To be extra-deadly, add a drop of dish soap to the vinegar to poison whatever flies get in. I did it all. There’s a dozen vinegar traps around my apartment, right now. As you can probably guess, my apartment smells like vinegar. It works, but not against a hundred fruit flies. I see them every morning. Yesterday morning I saw two of them fucking. Fruit flies fuck? Yeah they do. Doggy-style. When fruit flies aren’t spawning mysteriously out of an apple peel, they’re reproducing doggy-style. I killed those two with my fist. As an astute friend remarked, at least they died happy.

But I’m not. I’m desperate. I went back to the worm literature, looking for clues. “[to get rid of fruit flies] Open the lid of the worm bin a little bit and stick a vacuum hose in the top of the bin. The flies will be sucked out of the bin very quickly!” That’s what I’m down to? My attempt to give back to the earth ends with me shoving a tube into a micro-ecosystem and sucking other living beings out into a vacuum. Somehow, that’s my limit. Maybe it’s my unconscious fear of being removed from Earth by aliens or the Godhead and sent catapulting into the vacuum of space, but I’m not going to vacuum the fruit flies out of my worm bin (besides, I don’t have a vacuum, and purchasing one would be just another negation of reason 1) save the environment).

This week, things cooled down. Literally. I was able to turn off the A/C and put the worms back in the dark, quiet closet, away from my swinging feet and the noisy traffic. My plan is to just not feed them for a week. They’ll be okay. The fruit flies will eat whatever food’s left and then hopefully die. The worms will make it, eating all the paper (yes, they can eat paper) on the bottom layer of the bin. I’ll keep up the vinegar trap regiment. Besides, the smell of vinegar isn’t that bad, especially balsamic.

In the end- what am I saying?- this isn’t the end. I’m a month into this and so far the worms are a headache. But it will probably get better. I’ll learn how to put in the right amount of food and they’ll start to make compost. I am, however, still creeped out by feeding them, especially the stipulation that I have to bury the food, that is, I end up touching them. Perhaps the most jarring experience is the sound. A thousand worms make a sound. Maybe I’ll learn to think it’s cute, one day, like you might think it’s cute when your dog farts. But probably not. It’s the same sound that will be when I am in the ground, being eaten by worms, contributing (finally) to the environment in a way none of my actions can.

OK, don’t want to end on that dark note. Vinegar. Mmm vinegar. I’m never going to be able to eat it again.

The end.

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