Few folks find earthworms charming - except maybe 10-year-old boys who cut them in two and watch them writhe to see if both halves live (in fact both head and tail ends can regenerate, depending upon the species). But there are wizards who charm worms like Indian mystics charm snakes, and some of them practice their magic in the Apalachicola National Forest right up Highway 65.


If you search YouTube for “worm grunting” and “Tate’s Hell,” you’ll find video of one of these charmers - more commonly called worm “grunters,” “whisperers,” or “fiddlers” - an enterprising professional named Gary Revell. A fourth-generation grunter who’s been at it for 50 years, much of that time with wife Audrey at his side, Gary is viewed by many as the world champion.


The point of the grunting is to lure earthworms out of the soil and collect them for sale to fishermen as live bait. The specific earthworm Panhandle collectors are seeking (out of thousands of known species) is the Diplocardia mississippiensis, which, for its characteristic pinkish hue and the profits it brings, is lovingly called “pink gold.” Once a vibrant industry, before the proliferation of artificial lures, worm gathering is practiced today by a few veteran harvesters, who can collect thousands of the slithery critters in just a few hours—but it’s not easy. As Gary remarks in that YouTube interview, “there’s an art to it, you know. I’ve tried to teach people how to do it, and they just give up.”


The process involves pounding a two-inch wooden “stob” into the dirt and vigorously rubbing a flat slab of metal (a piece of an old car leafspring or some other “roopin’ iron”) back and forth over the exposed end, creating a grunting, snoring sound. The repeated tremors in the soil, according to Vanderbilt University researcher Dr. Kenneth C. Catania (testing a hypothesis first advanced by Charles Darwin), apparently mimic the vibrations and noise created by hungry moles digging for worms. Frightened by the imagined predators, the wrigglers rush from their burrows to the surface and across the ground, only to end up in the grunter’s bucket.


Gary and Audrey, whose worming exploits were featured in one of the Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs” segments, are long-time participants in the Sopchoppy Worm Gruntin’ Festival, held annually on the second Saturday in April (and background for a humorous episode in Tim Dorsey‘s 2017 novel Clownfish Blues). Celebrating its 20th anniversary on April 11, this year’s schedule begins with an 8 a.m. 5K road-race, and features a “Revell Family” demonstration with Gary as “Master Grunter,” a “Gruntin’ Contest” for kids under 12, horseshoe and hula hoop competitions, and live music throughout the day, culminating in the Worm Grunter’s Ball from 6:30 to 10 p.m. (for more info, visit wormgruntinfestival.com). Organized by the Sopchoppy Preservation and Improvement Association (SPIA), this is an event you should not try to wiggle out of.


Besides sacrificing themselves as bait for the fish we all love to eat, and as playthings for mean little boys, earthworms provide countless benefits for humankind, most notably their tilling and enrichment of our planet’s soil. In his last scientific book, published in 1881, Darwin wrote “The plough is one of the most ancient and most valuable of man’s inventions; but long before he existed the land was in fact regularly ploughed, and still continues to be thus ploughed by earth-worms. It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organised creatures.”


Worms are not always so beloved, however. In 1843 Edgar Allen Poe first published his grim “The Conqueror Worm,” exploring the creature’s long association with decomposition of the dead: “A blood-red thing that writhes from out / The scenic solitude! / It writhes!—it writhes!—with mortal pangs / The mimes become its food, / And the angels sob at vermin fangs / In human gore imbued.” Actor Vincent Price gloomily intoned lines from the poem in the 1968 British horror film “The Witchfinder’s General,” retitled “The Conqueror Worm” for U.S. audiences.


Poe’s conquering worm inspired lyrics for goth musicians like Voltaire, Portal, and Devil Doll. On YouTube you can hear the horror-folk band Harley Poe groaning these lines from the anonymous World War I “Hearse Song”: “The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out. / The worms play pinochle on your snout. / They eat your eyes, they eat your nose. / They eat the jelly between your toes.”


Worms that eat us can be mighty scary. Of course the colossal sandworms in the 1984 cult classic “Dune” (a remake is due out this December), the carnivorous graboids in the 1990 sci-fi/comedy flick “Tremors,” and the legendary olgoi-khorkhoi (“large intestine worms”) depicted in the 2010 Syfy channel movie “Mongolian Death Worm” are hardly more terrifying than the real-life giant Mekong River earthworms that grow up to 10 feet long. In one childhood ditty dating back at least to the early 1900s, the unloved among us wreak a kind of reverse revenge: “Nobody likes me, everybody hates me / I think I'll go eat worms! / Big fat juicy ones / Eensie weensy squeensy ones / See how they wiggle and squirm!” Modern nutritionists assure us, in case you’re hesitant to try this yourself, that earthworms are a high protein superfood.


The Romans called worms, maggots, and other such squirmers vermes (singular vermis). In classical Latin the letter V was pronounced like our “W,” so vermis not only looks but even sounds like its Germanic sibling-word “worm.” A small worm was a vermiculus. Taking its species name from that Latin diminutive, the scale insect, Kermes VERMILio, with its tiny red VERMiform (worm-shaped) larvae, was from Greek and Roman times through the Middle Ages a chief source of the bright red-orange dye similar to modern VERMILion and the color VERMeil. The mineral VERMICULite was so named for the way it expands into elongated wormy strands when heated.


The Latin term has evolved also into such unsavory English derivatives as VERMin and VARMint. When worms slither inside us or our pets, you can always buy some VERMiFUGe (from Latin fugere, “take flight,” as in FUGitive), the term for several medications that send those VERMinous worms “fleeing” (I recently found “Dr. Recommends Vermi-Fuge 1 oz. by Mediral” for sale on Amazon). More drastic would be a VERMiCIDe (title of a grisly Mars Volta tune, from caedere/cidere, like homiCIDe and suiCIDe), just killing them outright. Or, if you suffer from VERMiphobia, you might simply try calming your nerves by pouring yourself a drink and reading LoreLei Shannon’s short-story collection, Vermifuge: And Other Toxic Cocktails (spotted on Walmart’s website).


Now that dinnertime approaches, the mention of cocktails and eating worms brings a favorite dish to mind. Many of the pastas we enjoy have drawn their names, through Italian, from the language of ancient Rome. TORTellini are “little twists,” from torquere/tortum, “to wind or twist tightly” (and also “to TORTure”); ROTini spiral like a “wheel,” Latin rota (as in ROTate/ROTation); and strands of LINGuine, a LINGuist’s favorite, are long and flat like linguae, which means literally “tongues” and figuratively “LANGuages.”


But for tonight’s pasta choice, maybe topped with shrimp, fresh garlic, and VERMILion tomatoes all sautéed in olive oil, I’m contemplating VERMICELli. When you’ve tossed those long, slender noodles into your pot of boiling water and see them start squirming around, you’ll know why some culinary genius chose to call them… “little worms!”


Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure came to have the largest Latin enrollment of all of the nation’s colleges and universities; his latest book is Ubi Fera Sunt, a lively, lovingly wrought translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s classic, Where the Wild Things Are. His Facebook group, “Doctor Illa Flora’s Latin in the Real World,” numbers over 3,500 members. Rick and his wife Alice live part of the year in Apalachicola, under the careful watch of their French bulldog Ipsa.