Worms and Coyote Joe

There are worms in my kitchen. They’re in a big box that’s filled with rotting apple cores, onion peels, egg shells, and the cilantro that always goes bad before we can finish it because the grocery store sells cilantro in bunches that are too big. Yesterday, my roommate Tillie went to visit the worm lady. She was supposed to go in the morning, but the worm lady blew her off. Tillie called and called, and heard and heard the same answering machine message that opened with the line, “Hello. This is Barb or Mom.” Tillie was mad that Barb the worm lady blew her off, but not mad enough to find a new worm lady because that afternoon, Tillie drove out to meet Barb again. Barb lives by the community college; she has long blonde hair, two different colored eyes, and she raises worms for a living. When Tillie returned with a big box of the desired crawlers, I asked her why she did not just go to a fishing store and buy worms there.

“Oh no. These are special worms,” Tillie explained. “They are red wigglers. They are going to turn our compost into black gold.”

I found out that we were getting worms when I dumped my coffee grinds into our composter a few weeks ago. As Tillie opened the lid and saw the black sludge, she paused for a moment before calmly announcing,

“Michaela. Just for future reference, the worms cannot digest citrus, meat scraps, pine needles, or coffee grind.”

“What worms?” I asked from the kitchen table.

“The worms we’re getting,” Tillie replied.

“Oh,” I said, “Those worms,” and left it at that.

The worms have become Tillie’s latest obsession. She gazes at them, talks about them, talks to them, and every day at exactly  4 p.m. moves the box into our kitchen to keep the worms out of the direct sunlight that hits our porch in the late afternoon. Lately, she has been giving me hourly updates on their well-being. I don’t have the heart to tell her that I really do not care so much about the worms in our kitchen. I’ve learned it’s better to just give her a big smile and say something like, “Really?” or “Oh, wow!” or “No, I don’t think you should be worried. That sounds like normal worm behavior to me.”

I’ve lived in this tiny apartment in Walla Walla, Washington with Tillie for 8 months now, and in that time I have learned that Tillie is prone to obsessions. Whether it’s the rain, the blinds on our front window, her spinning class, a new kitchen knife, her need for a good bread knife, the gas bill, the documentary film “The Business of Being Born,” unplugging the microwave, her new Americore friends, or the crunchiness of granola varieties – Tillie always has things that she just needs to talk about several times a day. Last week it was her cilantro plant. Next to our window is a little garden of potted plants that are one day going to be transplanted into Tillie’s spot in a community garden. She started planting things in our living room about a month before the recommended growing time. I think she just couldn’t wait.

The cilantro is growing fast. Everyday, Tillie remarks that she thinks she sees another leaf on it. The okra is another story. All of Tillie’s gardening handbooks say that okra is best to plant directly into the garden, but Tillie decided she wanted to try to grow it early anyway. Now, every morning after marveling at her thriving cilantro, Tillie laments the poor okra. “Does it look dead to you, Michaela? It looks worse than yesterday, doesn’t it?” It certainly does look a little dead. I asked Tillie’s boyfriend David about the decision to plant the okra early against all advice from the experts. “We were excited. We were selfish,” he told me. More than Tillie, David is a little disheartened at the okra’s demise. I think he was looking forward to it the most.

The garden in our living room took me by surprise. I woke up one Saturday morning, and in the hours between my falling asleep and my emerging from my bedroom the next morning, dozens of tiny soil plots were lovingly laid out on heating pads in front of the windows with a thermometer rigged to record the temperature of the soil. In retrospect, I think I should have seen the living room garden coming the moment the onion plant came into our lives. A few weeks prior, Tillie planted a green onion bulb in a small pot and put it in our window. The onion grew remarkably fast. Every hour, Tillie would come by and measure it. She’d call me into the room and say, “Look at it, Michaela. Just look at it! It’s so big!” One time, as I shuffled out of my room in my t-shirt and underwear, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes and bee-lining for my coffee maker, I jumped at the sight of Tillie sitting on the couch waiting for me, the onion plant in her lap. “Look at it!” she exclaimed, smiling widely and proudly. I tried to smile back with as much enthusiasm, but it was seven in the morning and I wasn’t wearing pants.

I suppose it’s good to have things to obsess about. It’s good to have hobbies to obsess about. They give everybody something to think about, something to think about that isn’t what they usually have to think about. Tillie’s obsessions often remind me of my father. Perhaps that is why I am able to so easily tolerate the constant cilantro chatter. I grew up in a household prone to obsessions. My father is what my mother and I call a hobbyist. Every couple of years, something new takes hold of him completely. The first obsession I remember was the truck. My father inherited his grandfather’s 1930s green Chevrolet. We called it the Green Goose. My dad remembers it as the Golden Goose, because when his grandfather Joe Echanis, a Basque immigrant, drove it through the Steens Mountains in Eastern Oregon where he worked as a sheep herder, it had been painted a vibrant gold. But The Goose was once again its original green hue as it sat in our driveway in Portland, Oregon. My dad would wash the truck every day, and spend hours trying to repair the old and heavily worn engine. For months, he dug up old pictures of the truck and put them all over the walls of his office, he painted tiny models of the truck, and gave the neighbors daily tours of his grandfather’s prized possession.

But eventually, my father found a new hobby. After the truck, my dad bought a rowing skull which he would take out in the mornings on the Willamette River. The hobby lasted for a little while, but the boat leaked and the Willamette River is fairly polluted. Then it was cycling. My dad bought all the gear: the bike, the sunglasses, the shoes, the spandex suit, and began to talk about how he didn’t need a car anymore because he could commute via bike across the Colombia River to his office in Vancouver, Washington. Later that year, when the biking dream had fizzled due to inclement weather and the fact that Vancouver, Washington was farther away than it looked, my father found The Chi of Running – a book containing a running philosophy that claimed to hold the secret to the art of long distance races. For a good month, my father talked about his new running abilities every night at dinner. “It’s all about the feeling of falling,” he’d tell us, “You have to allow your body to simply move forward, fall forward, and ride that inertia.” We didn’t quite understand what he was talking about, and quite quickly my sister who was at the time a Division One cross country runner at her university became annoyed. These days, my dad is a glass-maker. Our basement has been converted into a makeshift workshop, and there is a kiln in a closet in our laundry room. My father spends hours in our basement working on his projects, carefully recording the temperatures of his kiln, and updating us all on his soon-to-be completed masterpieces. My mom and I are hoping that this hobby sticks for a while. It seems to make him really happy.

And I think Tillie’s worms make her really happy, as do her plants and the thought of growing her own food in a garden this summer. If it didn’t make her happy, she wouldn’t talk about it so much. The worms, the cilantro, the onion plant, and the coffee-grind free compost are all small parts of Tillie’s larger obsession which is permaculture. Tillie wants nothing more than to develop a lifestyle for herself that is completely self-sustaining. While Tillie’s current hobby is gardening in our living room, her hobby is part of a larger dream of growing her own food, raising her own chickens, and reusing and recycling so that every resource, every bit of food, every plant, every budding onion is used to the utmost of its abilities.

Tillie dreams of one day living on a small farm with an herb and vegetable garden, a row of apple trees, a goat, and of course, the chickens. But sometimes when she talks about these dreams, about her quests for sustainability, about her desire for a backyard full of chickens and a diet of only local food, I can’t help but think back to my great-grandfather, Joe Echanis, who left the Basque country of Spain in 1917 to find work in the mountains of America. I think about him and I think about the house where he was born in Mutriku, a small village built into a cape on the North-Eastern coast of Spain, a village where my family still lives. I think about that white house, which I’ve seen, and how it still looks exactly as it did when my now deceased great-grandfather was a newborn baby. I think about my cousins Nekane, Jorge, Aihnoa, Augustine, Amaia, and Aitor, who still live on that hill in Mutriku, in the houses that have been passed down for generations and generations and generations, that have been remodeled and updated but still remain the houses that their parents lived in and their parents before them and before them and before them. The goal has always been to sustain the houses, to sustain their life on that hill in Spain. I think of these houses where they raise chickens and cows and buy only locally grown food, not because it is trendy, not because of the environment, not because it is fun or exciting, but because that is the only way it is done. That is what is done, and that is what has been done in that region for hundreds and hundreds of years, before the roads were paved, before the automobiles, before the wars, before the Spanish language was ever spoken. I wonder if that is why my Coyote Joe came to America – to get off that hill in the Basque country and fly a gas-guzzling golden Chevrolet over canyons in Eastern Oregon. Because in America, he could buy onions in the store rather than bending his back over them on the family hill in Spain. He could buy a dozen eggs for less than a dollar and not have to worry about feeding his chickens every morning. My great-grandfather was a strong, quiet man with thick black eye-brows and big opinions. Sometimes, I wonder what he might think about the worms in my kitchen.