Tom Ross: Honk if you brake for earthworms |

Tom Ross: Honk if you brake for earthworms

— I can only hope my neighbors weren’t watching early this morning when I ventured out into the driveway with my compost bucket and rescued half a dozen earthworms.

I know this column will probably leave the indelible impression that I am the village crackpot, but I swear I was only trying to do my part to save the planet on the morning after Earth Day. At our home, we toss kitchen scraps – coffee grounds and broccoli stems – into a 5-gallon bucket in the garage. Later, I add them to a heap of lawn and garden clippings that ultimately should turn into soil-enriching compost (If I’m lucky).

While weeding a flowerbed on Earth Day, I knocked some of the soil from root balls into the compost bucket to introduce the helpful bacteria that can move the composting process along. In the same vein, I hate to see earthworms dying a slow death on the asphalt on my driveway after a soaking spring rain.

So, now my neighbors know what I was doing out there Monday morning. I was enlisting a brigade of worms to help me save the world.

I was in high school when Gaylord Nelson, a U.S. senator from my home state of Wisconsin, founded Earth Day. The original Earth Day took placed on April 22, 1970, but Nelson, who died at the age of 89 in July 2005, had been planning the event since 1962.

Nelson was returning to Washington, D.C. from the scene of an oil spill off Santa Barbara, Calif., when he read an article about an educational event that was being planned to raise opposition to the Vietnam War.

The connection he made in his mind between environmental causes and political activism changed forever the ways some Americans think about natural and urban landscapes. Nelson was an advocate of the Wilderness Act of 1964, worked to ban DDT and more than 35 years ago backed fuel efficiency standards in vehicles.

Had Nelson met with more success on that last initiative, we might not be in the environmental pickle we currently face in the form of climate change.

My first recollection of Earth Day dates to 1972, when, as a college sophomore, I read Paul Ehrlich’s book, “Limits to Growth.” He postulated that left unchecked, world population growth could lead humanity to exceed the planet’s carrying capacity. In an earlier book, 1968’s “The Population Bomb,” he predicted hundreds of millions of people would die of famine by the 1980s. It didn’t come true. He may have just been off by decades.

Today, we talk more about global warming than we do about population growth. But they really are one and the same.

Climate change threatens to hasten the day when the earth cannot sustain the human populations that exist.

Will rescuing earthworms from my driveway and adding them to my pathetic little compost pile save us all? I fear not. But this quirky behavior of mine does give me a chance to drop a 50-cent word on you: phenological.

Phenology is a branch of science that tracks the relationship between climate and the seasonal behaviors or events acted out by plants and animals.

On a bicycle ride on River Road last week, I observed a pair of sandhill cranes foraging in the hay stubble of a ranch. Since then, I’ve awakened in the morning to the “rusty gate” calls of a different pair of cranes while lying in bed in the gray light before dawn.

Had I kept track of the arrival of the cranes every spring for the past 30 years, and made note of the date, the weather conditions and the progress of the annual snowmelt, I could have built a phenological database that could actually make a modest contribution to research on climate change.

Similarly, the first rainfall of spring that drives earthworms out of their burrows could be construed to be a phenological event. I haven’t kept a record of the annual appearance of worms in my driveway, but I’m thinking that it is a little early this year.

And in honor of Sen. Gaylord Nelson’s legacy, I’m going to keep a modest record throughout the next 12 months of my efforts to cut down my carbon footprint. I’ll drive my car less frequently, ride my bike from the office into downtown Steamboat Springs and I’ll really ramp up my compost heap.

Don’t get the wrong impression – I’m not a doomsday prophet. And I’m not about to abandon electricity. I’m just trying to save the world one worm at a time.

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