Monday, August 31, 2009

Worms of the world, unite!

Earlier last spring, I put my six-year old and the kid next door to work on an unusual project. We studied together a "how to" YouTube video, then we set ourselves to build a worm compost bin for my balcony garden.

The girls turned out to be awesome students. They drilled the holes in the Rubbermaid container, they shredded the newspaper to create a comfy worm bed, they placed the decomposing vegetable scraps (which they renamed the yucky food) into the bin.

The worms themselves had arrived the night before by regular mail. When I popped open the little Canada Post box and showed the girls the red wrigglers roaming through the ziplock bag, they looked at me in disbelief. What a weird dad, they thought.

Putting worms to work for one's own benefit does require some cultural adjustment. In our western collective psyches, worms are more associated with decay and death than help and work. They take our imaginations to the cemetery rather than to a basket of juicy tomatoes. My wife has already put me on notice: play as you want on the balcony, but those worms are not coming inside. I haven't broken her the news yet that at one point in the winter they will have to, or they will freeze to death. One argument at a time.

For my part, I am very fond of my worms and find them to be among the mightiest creatures on the planet. They add considerable value to my balcony garden. Without them, the sterile soil of my pots would be exhausted in a single season and I would depend on the ready made fertilizer bags found at the plant store. My worms close the circle on this tiny ecosystem of mine. To say that I am grateful to them for their invaluable work would be quite a understatement, when what I am really saying is that mankind ought to dedicate a cult to that fantastic animal.

Of course, a biologist would interject that, technically, my worms don't work. They eat. They metabolize the vegetal residues that I place in the bin for them, and their metabolic activity creates fecal waste which happens to be extremely beneficial to my plants.

"Work" is another concept altogether, quite different from a worm's daily feast, or so I am told. It is an act of the will rather than that of the stomach. As such, it is a specific attribute of man, setting him aside from every other living species. As Marx famously wrote, "a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality." Human labor, Marx added, is the only force capable of creating more value than it initially has. Nature merely provides man with the material conditions for value creation, in the form of natural resources.

It depends, I guess, on the definition one gives to value. Value defined as an exchange-value bought and sold on a market is distinctively human. Value understood as use-value however, as previously discussed here, finds its origin in nature. The value I am adding to my balcony garden is marginal. The plants combine solar energy and soil nutrients to produce protein out of thin air. The worms feed dead plants back to the living as they feed themselves along the way. Clearly, they - not I - perform the bulk of the work.

Me? I am just the middle man, awkwardly standing in the way of that metabolic miracle, levying my food tax based on the dubious claim that I am the lord of the balcony. All I do there is orchestrate a process which I comprehend and control only in the shallowest of manners. My primary contribution to this arrangement is to keep everything potted, sealed, and in my custody. And oh yeah, I throw in some food scraps and water whenever I remember.

If my balcony were a factory, I would be employed as a rather incompetent manager. The real worker on that factory's floor is the worm. I am to my worms what the capitalist is to his workers, a parasitic exploiter of labor power. You agree with my wife and daughter that I am out to lunch? Well try this. Imagine if the worms of the world went on strike. Then you would know who indeed produces value, and who really is the lord of my balcony.


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