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Sa ama ni Mario Fradejas, tungkol po sa lupa

AT P35 per one-kilogram bag, it was dirt-cheap and seemed out of place in the glass showcase at the foyer of a restaurant in a posh Tagaytay hotel overlooking Taal Lake.

The product was tabbed a fancy name—vermicompost. It’s the technical term for leavings or castings of earthworms that chew through filth and decay to turn up decent soil. Make that fully enriched soil fit to raise plant crops in. I’d like to think it is soil with soul in it.

An enterprising keeper of earthworms must be selling in bulk those worm castings in bags, probably eyeing the moneyed and well-heeled matrons who tend gardens in well-appointed homes.

“Earthworm castings have often been called 'nature's perfect plant food'. Odorless, coffee grounds-like particles are capable of long-term feeding of plants while adding moisture retention properties to garden soil as well as humus, enzymes, and beneficial bacteria, “ so rhapsodizes the leaflet tacked onto the product bag.

That reminds me: enterprising medical technologists engage in a similar venture—they raise maggots in labs. The maggots—a stage of development in the life cycle of the common house fly (plain langaw or Musca domestica) —are sold to hospitals for use in healing of nearly-impossible-to-heal wounds of diabetic patients. Not unlike earthworms, fly maggots nibble through rotting flesh and dead tissue. It is nature’s way of ridding decay efficiently—to cause healing.

True healing like that is not for the squeamish.

By the way, lab-raised maggots don’t come cheap.

Meek as they are, earthworms haven’t inherited earth yet. On whatever ground they are-- beneath our indifferent tramp and tread, or where we haven’t set clumsy foot onto—they just work, turning up the ground many times over and bringing healing amidst untold perils to their dirt-plain lives. Yes, underground and above-ground predators eat ‘em with relish. Peril-fraught lives can be all-too meaningful lives.

Earthworms are protein-rich—why, there was a time in the 1980s when many a burger-chomping Wimpy of Metro Manila were restrained from pigging out by rumors that burger beef patties were bulked up with finely ground earthworms. That can’t be true. Ground beef with its hoard of heart-choking, artery-clogging components may fetch, say, P50 a kilo in live weight. Earthworms can fetch as much as P150 up to P200 per kilogram—it’s 24-karat protein, easier to digest and is fat-free.

We have not too much sacred cows that can turn up dung patties to grow in so-called sacred mushrooms (the hallucination-inducing Erowid psilocybin). But then, most folks are turned off by anything that grows on cow dung— and they’d lose appetite even entertaining thoughts of eating mushrooms that drew its psychedelic essence from dung. There’s practically dung-flavored kappokan, pinapaitan or sinanglaw that we love to slurp and lap up clean as we would a maiden’s mons—but that’s another story.

In 24 hours, an earthworm passes off through its body its own weight in soil. A million earthworms weighs a ton. Soil scientist Dr. Thomas Barrett wrote in his 1947 work, 'Harnessing the Earthworm’: “By the slow process of nature, it takes 500 to 1,000 years to lay down an inch of topsoil. Under favorable conditions a task-force of earthworms can do the same job in five years.”

By the way, it takes the same 1,000 years according to conservative estimates to bring soil fertility back or generate a mere inch of topsoil to horribly denuded and barren parts of our Sierra Madre mountain range.

Dr. Barrett cited Oregon State and New York State College of Forestry field studies indicating that an earthworm population of from 250,000 to 1,500,000 per acre is enough to keep the earth as fertile and productive as man can want it—no need for costly petrochemical-derived fertilizers that can whack out soil fertility.

Say, a hectare is about 2.5 acres, so make that 625,000 to 3.75 million earthworms in a hectare. That translates to a worm population density of 62-375 writhers per square meter of earth— that’ll be so much writhing, incessant and thorough plowing of the soil, in terra cognita.

There are folks who can taint the land by their very presence upon it. Wee folks like earthworms don't do that.

My kid Kukudyu and I gather worm castings by the sackful off the tracts of raw lands in the Ciudad Real where we live. I tend to an herb cum vegetable and butterfly garden in a patch adjacent to our house. Ah, gardening remains one of the sublimely simple tasks that can be enjoyed rain or shine 365 days a year.

Aling pag-ibig pa ang hihigit kaya sa pagkadalisay at pagkadakila kundi ang pag-ibig sa tinubuang lupa?” so goes the first few lines of a poem attributed to Gat Andres Bonifacio, founder of the Katipunan.

Umm, the Chinese character for earthworm is “angel of the earth.” Earth-bound angels don’t have anything to do with such notions as love of one’s homeland, patriotism, and such fangled ideas.

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