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Gruntin' for worms in Sopchoppy

By ERIC SHACKLE, in Sydney, Australia
 

Everybody grunts for worms
Everybody grunts for worms at the Worm Gruntin' Festival.
Photo James L Pinson

Sopchoppy, Florida, US (population 253) holds an annual Worm Gruntin' Festival that closely resembles the recent Worm-Charming contest in the English village of Willaston, Cheshire (pop. about 4000), where Tom Shufflebotham made a record catch of 511 worms in 30 minutes. (Great words, Sopchoppy and Shufflebotham!)

WHAT'S IN A NAME?

The "-bottom" suffix on surnames, common in the north of England, gives rise to sniggers because the meaning of the name has long been forgotten, or is not familiar to most Americans. Take the name SHUFFLEBOTTOM. The "-bottom," suffix, originally spelled botham, refers to the broad bottom of a valley, and the Shuffle- part of this name is more correctly "Shipper-" and refers to a spring where sheep were washed. SHUFFLEBOTHAM or SHUFFLEBOTTOM are variants of SHIPPERBOTTOM.
- Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG.

Worm hunters in both places use similar techniques. While the charmers drive forks into the ground and vibrate the tynes, the grunters rub wooden stakes with steel bars. In both cases, worms rise to the surface, either to escape the vibrations or just to discover what's causing that unseemly racket.

"The worm-catching process sounds much like a rooting pig," Thomas C. Tobin wrote four years ago in the St. Petersburg Times, describing Sopchoppy's second festival:

About 20 young contestants and their adult helpers gathered in a vacant downtown field with stobs and stakes provided by festival organizers. Some brought their own tools.

After 30 minutes of work in the shadow of a weathered train depot, the prize -- $50 cash and a set of worm gruntin' tools -- was collected by 7-year-old Hannah Oxendine of Tallahassee. Her plastic cup of worms, about one-quarter full, weighed the most.

The festival ended last night with a country music and blue grass concert on the loading dock of the town hardware store, where dancers rested on bails of hay.

Tobin noted that Sopchoppy worms, Diplocardia mississippiensis, should not be confused with "the skinnier northern red worms whose ancestors came over with the settlers at Jamestown." Each worm, he wrote, has 12 pinhead-size hearts.

Have you ever watched birds such as Australian magpies, peewits, and English blackbirds and thrushes hunting for worms? They listen intently, peck brisk tattoos on the ground with their strong beaks, then promply capture those wriggling snacks that have come up from their burrows.

Charles DarwinCharles Darwin mentioned that phenomenon more than a century ago.

The last book the famous evolutionist wrote before his death in 1882 was a 316-page study of earthworms. He wrote: "The Peewit...seems to know instinctively that worms will emerge if the ground is made to tremble; for Bishop Stanley states...that a young peewit kept in confinement used to stand on one leg and beat the turf with the other leg until the worms crawled out of their burrows, when they were instantly devoured.

"Nevertheless, worms do not invariably leave their burrows when the ground is made to tremble, as I know by having beaten it with a spade, but perhaps it was beaten too violently."

Memo Chief Wormer Mike Forster, President, International Federation of Charming Worms and Allied Pastimes: Here's hoping you'll promote a World Earthworm Charmers v. Grunters Championship in Australia's tropical Northern Territory capital, that's named... Darwin!

FOOTNOTES:

  • Sopchoppy is a remote village in the Apalachicola National Forest, the largest of Florida's national forests. The Worm Gruntin' Festival takes place in the first week of April each year. A former resident explains how the name Sopchoppy originated: "It's a bastardization of the local indian term meaning 'mysterious waters'. The water referred to is the Sopchoppy River which is a beautiful little, dark-watered, mostly canopied river that meanders around and through the town."
  • Famous British naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1892) visited Sydney in 1836, while sailing around the world on H.M.S. Beagle. The ship sailed around the southern coast of Australia and then returned to England. Darwin never went anywhere near his namesake city, which is 3000km from Adelaide and 4000km from Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane. Darwin, now the capital of the Northern Territory, was first settled in the 1860s. Originally the settlement was called Palmerston, and its harbour Port Darwin, in honour of Charles Darwin. Gradually, more and more residents used that name when referring to the town, but it was not until 1911 that the name became official. Palmerston is now a town of 23,400 people 20 kilometres by road to the east of the Darwin central business district.
  • On February 19,1942, in World War II, Japanese planes bombed Darwin city, killing at least 243 people and wounding between 300 and 400. Twenty military aircraft were destroyed, eight ships at anchor in the harbour were sunk, and most civil and military facilities in Darwin were destroyed.
  • Early on Christmas morning 1974 the worst natural disaster ever to hit an Australian city destroyed most of Darwin. Today it's a vibrant modern city with a population of 108,200.
  • And if you wonder about the meaning of the initials CG after Myra Vanderpool Gormley's name, it's not Croix de Guerre; it's Certified Genealogist.
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POSTSCRIPT. After writing lengthy stories about the Cheshire Charmers and the Sopchoppy Grunters, I've composed what may well be the world's shortest ode. Ideally, it should be written by hand, in wriggly vermiform script:

Ode to a Worm
O worm
U squirm

Story first posted September 2006

Copyright 2006

Eric Shackle

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