Free From School
By Rahul Alvares
Public Domain Books
Chapter 8: Earthworms
On the 6th of November, I was put on the Chennai Express, which was to leave Dadar Railway station at 7 p.m., by my Uncle Alan who is very knowledgeable about trains since he has worked in the railways all his working life. My mum had requested him to check my departure from Mumbai since Dadar railway station is a crowded and busy place and I too was not confident of finding my way around. Earlier Grandpapa had brought me to the railway station by cab after making me double-check that I had my ticket, sufficient cash, little tidbits to eat and my water bottle filled for the long journey ahead.
I was to spend one night and the whole of the next day in the train for it was due to arrive in Chennai at about 8.30 p.m. on the 7th. Having travelled on a couple of journeys by train during the past few months I was quite relaxed on this one although I continued to be watchful and careful of my things throughout.
The train journey from Mumbai was entirely uneventful. I had a window seat and slept the night on the lower berth. Around me was a family of migrant workers who spoke neither Hindi nor English and who were quite busy doing their own things. I did not speak with them nor with anyone else on the journey but contented myself with watching the countryside we passed through and the hustle and bustle at each station, and when I was bored I just went to sleep. I had about Rs.500 with me in cash and some of this was carefully tucked away in different pockets of my jeans, the balance in various compartments of the haversack. When I slept the haversack was my pillow. I also carried a water bottle, some snacks and some fruit which was all I ate during the journey.
The train was delayed by 3 hours and it was well past 11.30 p.m. when it arrived at Chennai Central railway station. I was to be met at the station by my parents’ long-time friend K. Manoharan. Uncle Mano and Aunty Sagu had willingly agreed to look after me during my stay in Chennai, even though both of them were not keeping good health. Not knowing where exactly Uncle Mano would be waiting I walked towards the entrance keeping a careful lookout for him. Yet, I failed to recognise him when I saw him for his hair was whiter than when I had seen him last. He recognised me, however, from the bright yellow haversack that I carried. He took me home in a rickshaw. I had some food there and went straight off to sleep. Uncle Mano suggested that I relax the next day, which I did, watching T.V., looking at photo albums and generally chatting with them about my sabbatical so far and about my plans in Chennai.
Early the following morning Uncle Mano and I set off for New College where Dr Sultan Ismail’s Earthworm Institute is located and where I would spend the next fortnight studying earthworms and vermiculture. Actually I had a choice of studying at Dr Bhawalkar’s centre in Pune or Dr Ismail’s institute in Chennai. But I chose Chennai because I had heard Dr Ismail speak at the organic farmers’ convention in Kottayam and had liked his talk very much. Another reason of course was that I was dying to get to the Crocodile Bank in Mamallapuram and being in Chennai which was close to the Croc Bank was infinitely better than being far away in Pune where Dr Bhawalkar works.
Although Uncle Mano, being a heart patient, does not usually travel by bus, he deliberately took me by bus that morning so that I could get to know the route to New College. On the way he pointed out to me various landmarks which would help me know my way around, and gave me general bits of advice on how to travel in the city. I had to learn well and quickly, for language would be the main problem for me in this city where I spoke no Tamil.
At the College we met Dr Ismail who took us through the college campus down to the fields where the vermi-pits were and we saw the biogas plant, the garbage collection pits, the culture crates and the organic compost now ready for use. I was quite eager to begin and happy when “Sir” as everyone calls him, suggested I start work from the next day itself.
Every day, except Sundays, for the next 15 days I followed the same routine which was: wake up at 6 a.m or so, eat a hot breakfast of idlis, sambar, dosas, vadas or whatever was cooked for breakfast, carry a hot packed lunch which Aunty Sagu prepared for me and catch a bus by 7 a.m. from Ashok Pillar to Panagal where I had to change buses and get on one going to New College. Usually I would land up at the College by 8.30 a.m. or so and would be at the College till about 3.30 or 4 p.m., after which the journey would be reversed. These timings helped me to avoid the office rush both ways. My dad had suggested to Prof Ismail that I be given practical experience and so my programme included a mixture of study from books, taking down notes, watching and helping the others and finally making my own vermi-pits.
During the first two days I read up as much as I could about earthworms and the world they inhabit from books which were recommended to me by Dr Ismail. Later I started to observe the different types of earthworms, their movements, colour and other characteristics. I also learnt a lot about different types of soils, their textures and nature, and was taught how to take soil samples using the tulgren funnel.
There were about 8 to 10 students doing different kinds of research under Dr Ismail and all of us worked in a large room which was formerly the main library. Each one had a separate desk to work and when I came I was also given my own desk and chair. The big hall also had a mini library on earthworm related books at one end and it was a simple matter therefore to find the books I needed to read.
The main vermi-beds, compost pits and so on were on the ground floor but some of the vermi-beds which were in crates were stacked in the narrow corridor outside the study hall, where we also gathered to eat our lunch in the afternoons. Usually any one of the students would briefly guide me in the work that I was assigned for the day after which I would manage on my own.
During my fortnight stay at the Institute I learnt a lot about earthworm environments, including determination of porosity of soil, moisture content and texture. I also observed the other organisms present in the soil and took photos of microarthropods with the help of a compound microscope. At the end of the course, I practically prepared a vermi-bed and also ate a few earthworms and cockroaches for experience!
My stay in Chennai was not without its share of adventure. I recall that on my second day, I had entered a bus and rushed for an empty seat. I was completely unaware of the procedure, that while in Goa the ticket collector comes to you and sells you the ticket in the bus, in Chennai one has to go to the conductor (who is seated at the end of the bus) and buy the ticket. So while I waited for the conductor to come on his rounds two inspectors came up to me and caught me for not buying the ticket. One of them started shouting at me in a forceful stream of Tamil. After much action and hand waving, I explained that I did not know Tamil, that I was from Goa and it was the first time I was travelling in a bus in Chennai. He fined me Rs.25! Fortunately, I had enough money on me and paid the fine but when I got down from the bus, I found that my empty purse had also been pick-pocketed!
Another time I was on the last step of a bus which I thought would be quite okay for I had seen many people travelling while hanging at the doors of crowded buses. However, as this bus started gathering speed I found it very difficult to hold on because the weight of so many people began to press against me and it felt like I was literally holding everyone in with my outstretched arms as I hung practically out of the door. I resolved never to travel on the footboard, if I could help it, again.
I also got lost several times. But I would never phone for help with directions but would struggle away, walking this side or that, asking passers-by till I reached familiar landmarks which would get me home. Often I found that I had alighted from the bus a few stops before or after my destination. On one such occasion the next stop was so far away that I jumped out of the bus while it slowed down at a traffic light and then spent nearly 30 minutes walking back!
Although Uncle Mano and Aunty Sagu had welcomed me very warmly. Looking back, I think I must have given them quite a headache during my stay at their house because of my rather careless and casual ways and the laid-back lifestyle I had acquired and was thoroughly enjoying. Uncle Mano would constantly be shouting at me for not having a bath regularly or for staying in the bathroom forever when I decided to have a bath or for wearing soiled clothes again instead of washing them.
Aunty Sagu cooks well and I enjoyed her food but both she and Uncle Mano would notice that I ate much more when there was chicken or fish for dinner rather than vegetarian food and I would get a lecture again for my poor appetite for simple food. I was also quite a sloppy fellow and would slouch around on the sofas after coming back from the college, channel surfing as I watched TV, which must have been quite exasperating for both of them. Anyway, they took very good care of me, not only in terms of feeding me but also going out of their way to make arrangements for me to study at the Earthworm Institute, the spider centre and later at the Crocodile Bank and I am most grateful for that. I hope when they read this book they will forgive me for all the trouble I must have caused them.
Extracts from Diary:
10th November: Sir gave me a book on earthworms to read, then Jagan took me down to the field. There I was able to observe many organisms other than earthworms. We took a soil sample from one place and then went back to the lab where we put the soil sample into the tulgren funnel. I then went and brought three more samples from the vermi-tech pit. We then put these also into three other tulgren funnels. By then it was lunch time and we all ate together. After lunch I weighed the soil samples and got to see the organisms that were in the beaker under the tulgren funnel. At 3.30 p.m I left for home.
11th November: In the morning, I was given two types of earthworms i.e. Lampito mauritii and Perionyx excavatus and told to observe them. I spent the whole morning doing this. After lunch, I wrote down the observations that I had made. In the evening we went out to the College playground and also to the area near the College Boarding to make some observations. We dug two pits of 25 cm x 25 cm x 25 cm each at the playground and one, of the same size, at the Boarding. We made many observations which included the number and species of earthworms we found and whether they were clitellates or not. We also made observations regarding soil, atmospheric temperature and relative humidity and took soil samples to measure the moisture content.
12th November: Left for New College as usual. I was told that Sir did not come today as he had a high viral fever. Yesterday a research scholar had expired and so there was a condolence meeting today. After that everybody left as it was declared a holiday. I arrived home at about 10.30 a.m. I had a bath and then some food. I then watched a bit of TV and wrote my diary. In the night Uncle Mano and Aunty Sagu had invited some guests and had cooked chicken curry which I enjoyed very much.
14th November: Sir did not arrive today either. With the help of Jagan I used the Infrared Moisture Balance to find out the moisture content of the soil samples which we had taken on Saturday. After we finished one sample, the voltage started fluctuating so we used the tulgren funnel instead. Then Jagan sent me to get soil samples from the field and from the area near the Boarding. We put the soil samples in the tulgren funnel and observed the arthropods that fell into the beaker under a compound microscope. We also observed some preserved specimens of microarthropods.
15th November: Pounded 100 gms of soil sample and then sieved each soil sample through 5 sieves. Then weighed the soil in each sieve and noted this down.
16th November: Did sieving of soil in the morning. In the evening, used Keenscups to find out the waterholding capacity/porosity.
18th November: Sir arrived this morning. Read some books in the library for sometime. Then did a bit of soil sieving and then did burning of soil in a bunsen burner. In the afternoon, I watched a very comic film called “Junior Shylock”.
19th November: Started preparing my report in rough. In the evening I went with Babu to buy a film roll for taking photographs for my report.
20th November: Did burning of a second sample of soil. After that Jagan, Sir and I photographed microarthropods with the help of the compound microscope that has a camera attached to it. After lunch, I attended a seminar conducted by one of the students.
21st November: Ate a Perionyx excavatus earthworm in the morning. Then weighed some soil samples to find out the waterholding capacity of different soils, weighed burnt soil, also learnt how to calculate and find out soil texture of different samples of soil. Continued writing my report.
22nd November: Sat and wrote the final parts of my report. Then I gave it to Chitra who corrected it. After she finished, she gave it to Sir who also made some corrections.
23rd November: Wrote my report in fair in the new notebook I had bought. Then Jagan and I stuck the photographs we had clicked earlier in the various spaces in the notebook. Then Sir said that I would have to prepare a vermi-bed on my own. He gave me a bucket and I made a vermi-bed in it. Sir checked that I had done it correctly.
24th November: Drew some diagrams that remained to be done in my notebook. Then gave it to Sir for final approval. He made me write a few lines about each photograph. He said I should come and collect it after a week or so. After that I said bye to everyone and left at 4.30 for home.
10 days later...
5th December: Today was a holiday, so I went to collect my report book from New College where I had given it to Sir for his signing. Met all my friends there. All of them wrote their remarks in my report book and then it was stamped. Sir gave me a certificate for the earthworm course I had finished at the Institute. Then Chitra dropped me in her Fiat car near the Panagal Park bus stop.
Field Notes on Vermiculture:
Turning Garbage into Gold
Vermicompost and vermiwash are the two earthworm products that have become very popular nowadays. Ordinary organic garbage which consists of litter, such as, kitchen waste and dead plant material is used and converted into manure with the help of earthworms.
There are three kinds of earthworms. One, the epigeal or surface earthworm (Perionyx excavatus) which eats only organic litter which is present on the top layer of the soil. Two, the anecic earthworms (Lampito mauritii) which are present in the upper layers of soil and feed on waste and leaf litter. The third kind are present deep inside the soil and are known as endogeic earthworms (Octochaetona thriretonis).
The most suitable earthworms recommended for vermiculture are the epigeic and anecic earthworms. Perionyx excavatus is purplish red and rough. Near the two ends the Perionyx excavatus is almost black in colour. It is smaller and thinner (approx. 10 cms long) and more active compared to the Lampito mauritii. They also breed faster than Lampito mauritii. Lampito mauritii are greyish white in colour and shiny, thicker and longer (length-16 cms) compared to Perionyx excavatus.
Earthworms prefer cool temperatures, moist soil, humidity, relatively less sunlight and neither too coarse nor too fine sand. These are the ideal conditions that must be kept in mind when using them for vermiculture. Since earthworms breathe through the skin, they perish if their skin becomes dry or the quantity of mucus diminishes. Hence to keep earthworms alive in the vermicompost containers, care should be taken to ensure that the vermibed remains moist. Earthworms however do not prefer waterlogged soils. In fact if earthworms are kept in water for too long, the concentration of ammonia that is discharged through their excreta makes the water too toxic for the earthworms to survive. Earthworms also cannot tolerate salt or salt water even briefly.
Earthworms are hermaphrodites. Depending on the species, their life span is between six months to one year. Fully matured earthworms upon mating shed their clitellum (a small band like an overgrowth of skin) and produce cocoons which take about 14 days to incubate and hatch into juveniles. Maximum three juveniles are hatched from each cocoon. From the juvenile to the clitellate stage i.e. the fully matured or reproductive stage it takes 15-18 days. Thus earthworms are able to multiply several times in their life span which makes them ideally suited to process even large quantities of garbage.
A pit, a small plastic or wooden crate or, even a bucket, can be used for vermicomposting organic matter. Although not necessary, two crates can be used simultaneously; while one is being used for fresh garbage, the garbage in the other can be allowed to decompose.
First, 6-8 holes should be made (one at each corner and four in the middle of the crate). A pot or a bucket needs about 3-5 holes. The crate or pit must first be filled with a one inch layer of pebbles or broken bricks. Then, a half to one inch layer of sand should be spread. Over that, a five to six inch layer of soil should be spread. Then Lampito mauritii and Perionyx excavatus earthworms should be introduced. The soil must then be moistened with water. A little bit of cowdung (nitrogen) and some hay (carbon) should be spread on it, and the contents of the pit left for 20-30 days. This is called a vermibed. The cowdung and hay will allow the worms to multiply. With this, the vermicompost crate or pit will be ready for processing organic waste.
All organic waste should be evenly spread out on the vermibed. As far as possible add garbage in small quantities regularly rather than dumping large quantities at one go. The earthworm begins processing the garbage immediately. Water the container occasionally so that the vermibed remains moist. Once the container is full with organic waste, it should be covered with a little soil and allowed to decompose undisturbed. Only watering the pit should continue. After it has decomposed fully (roughly 45 days) watering must be stopped for about 3 to 5 days. This will force the earthworms to migrate down to the bottom of the container which will have some moisture as compared with the top soil. Then the top layer of soil which is really the organic matter which has been converted into manure should be removed without disturbing the vermibed. This organic manure can be used for plants.
A drum, barrel or bucket can be used for making vermiwash. The drum or bucket should be placed on supports a little above the ground. A hole should be made at the bottom of the container. A pipe should be pushed through the hole and a tap attached to the outer end.
The bottom of the drum should be covered with a layer of gravel (about 6-8 inches). Over it, a layer of sand (6-8 inches), and then a layer of soil (6-8 inches) should be spread. The earthworms should then be introduced and the soil moistened a little. Then a little bit of cowdung and hay should be mixed together and scattered over it. This should be left for a few days.
Whenever vermiwash is needed, water should be sprinkled with a shower or, gradually poured on top of it (5 litres of water for a 150 litres drum). The water will pass through the earthworm burrows and the organically rich soil will become liquid manure and can be collected at the bottom of the container. As the hay and cowdung is eaten up by the earthworms, this should gradually be replaced.
In nature, litter is decomposed in a way similar to what happens in a vermicompost pit. Litter (consisting of leaf material, twigs, bark, dead wood, flowers, fruits and other plant and animal material) that falls on the ground is constantly moistened by dew or rain. Decomposition then sets in with the help of microbes, fungi and microarthropods.
Microarthropods are of two kinds-the detritivores that feed on the litter attacked by the microbes and fungi and the predators that feed on the detritivores. The litter that has not been decomposed, dead microbes and microarthropods, along with their excretions and secretions, mix and form humus. This humus is in a complex form and therefore not available to the plants for use. Here is where earthworms come into the picture. The earthworms present in the soil feed on the humus. The castings (wormicasts) excreted by these earthworms, as a result, contain nutrients in a form that is readily available to the plants for their growth. The plants in turn, when they die or shed leaves, contribute to the litter which becomes food for microbes and fungi. Thus nature’s cycle is made whole and complete.
Earthworms have proven that they are wonderful creatures for they can truly turn garbage into gold.