Terra Sigillata

i-f2e4bab027f901c1d3fc99013c50a89e-Darwin_worm_gruntin.jpgPZ Myers also noted this story that came via Brandon Haught of Florida Citizens for Science: a Florida Department of Education official used her professional affiliations (albeit via a personal e-mail account) to lobby against evolution being taught as the state updates its science educational standards:

My name is Charlie Carraway and I’m a member of Sopchoppy Southern Baptist Church, Sopchoppy , Florida , but I also work for the Florida Department of Education as the Director of the Office of Instructional Materials. That means I oversee the adoption process in the state, and I work in close proximity to the folks in the Office of Mathematics and Science, who have been in charge of the revision of the science standards. [emphasis mine]. I say all of this, obviously, to give this e-mail credibility, so that you’ll continue to read and pass on the information I’m sharing with you.

A lot of people don’t understand “why all the fuss about the new science standards,” so I thought I would try to give more background information. The science standards that are in place now do not include the word Evolution anywhere. In fact, they are ambiguous enough that the districts and schools in Florida have been able to teach evolution as a theory along With other theories. In addition to that, if these new standards are adopted, the new instructional materials adopted and placed in our schools will be aligned to these standards, which means that our new materials will explicitly teach evolution – and not as a theory!!!

I’ll leave it to Jeffrey Solocheck at the St. Petersburg Times to document how Selena “Charlie” Carraway has been rebuked by the state for using her state position to promote her personal views.

But as a product of the Florida higher education system and a general booster of Florida’s natural history, my greater concern is what Ms. Carraway’s position might have done to tarnish the Sopchoppy Worm Gruntin’ Festival:

[Seidler Productions really does a great job in the YouTube video above showing the process of worm grunting.]

Sopchoppy is a hamlet of 426 folks one would encounter while driving from the Florida peninsula to the glorious beaches of the panhandle. (Secret: you don’t necessarily have to go to Panama City or Destin to experience the beauty of the white sand beaches and the clear blue-green gulf waters). The YouTube video notes that Sopchoppy is “35 miles and 100 years southwest of Talahassee.” Sopchoppy is also noted for its unusual folk celebration, the annual Sopchoppy Worm Gruntin’ Festival.

Truly, Sopchoppy is located in a idyllic area of Florida that is rich in biological resources, on the Upper Sopchoppy River surrounded by the Apalachicola National Forest and the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge. The geographical isolation of this region of Florida contributed to the unique evolution of an earthworm species valued for its economic value:

Here where the water is red, silty and dark, like unstirred cranberry tea, the natives do not worship just any earthworm. The region is blessed by a worm with a Latin name, Diplocardia mississippiensis. It is not to be confused with the skinnier northern red worms whose ancestors came over with the settlers at Jamestown. The land now known as the Apalachicola National Forest was never settled because of its sandy soil; thus its native worm was never weakened by the European gene pool.

Indeed, Sopchoppy may be the Galapagos of the southeastern US. In this superb article by Thomas Tobin of The St. Petersburg Times (yes, I’m a fan of the St. Pete Times), one can learn of the art of rubbing a metal bar against a wooden stub in the ground, creating vibrations that coax earthworms out of the soil to their deaths on the hooks of bait shop customers. In fact, Mark Liberman’s Language Log has a post dedicated to Darwin’s observations on how ground vibrations force worms up from their burrows.

That’s right: No Darwin, no worm gruntin’.

For those unacquainted with the finer points of earthworm bait:

The Diplocardia mississippiensis has 12 hearts, each the size of pinhead. Those who use it for fishing admire the thick, long body and the robust constitution that will withstand the trauma of being hooked. This worm does not go limp in the water or easily wilt in the sun.

On the second Saturday of April, a festival is held to celebrate the cultural practice of harvesting this natural resource, known as worm grunting. The city website promotes the fact that Charles Kuralt popularized this quiet folk tradition but others curse the spirit of the late journalist by saying that he singlehandedly nailed a wooden stub, as it were, into the coffin of the worm gruntin’ way of life.

He and other longtime grunters agreed that the end of worm grunting’s heyday came when CBS broadcaster Charles Kuralt, known for his serene portraits of nature, discovered Sopchoppy. In 1972, he broadcast a report about a local bait dealer.

The dealer claimed he made hundreds of thousands of dollars grunting worms, which attracted the attention of the IRS and the U.S. Forest Service. Almost overnight, the worm grunting industry was regulated.

Today, grunters must pay $15 per month to ply their trade in the forest. About 500 permits were issued last year.

“Charles Kuralt came down here and destroyed it,” said Johnson, the longtime grunter from Sopchoppy. “He got good publicity, but he made it bad for the people that lived here. It ain’t like it used to be.”

Indeed, worm grunting has fostered many a generation of Florida panhandle families:

“When the price (for a can) gets up to $35 or $40, people start to take leave from their jobs,” said Andy Colaninno, district ranger for the Apalachicola National Forest. “School bus drivers, sales clerks, insurance salesmen — everybody’s out.”

Many was the month that the rent or the grocery bill was paid with worm grunting money, said Robert Sanders, a 28-year-old Sopchoppy native who was one of 10 children. His grandfather paid off a house and raised 10 children, largely from worm money.

The kids at school would make fun of worm grunters, but the money was good, said Sanders, an electrician. “Before I got a regular job, I was just young and I would make $200 or $300 a morning and be broke by the next day and be back out there. Easy come, easy go.”

Wait, wait – Mr Sanders: how the heck do you spent $200-300 a day in Sopchoppy, Florida? Certainly not by contributing it to the Florida Citizens for Science.

And this brings me back to my original concern. Ms. Charlie Carraway is of the mind that evolution not be taught in the Florida public school curriculum:

“Once these become adopted standards and benchmarks, FCAT assessment will be based on them,” she wrote. “Districts will not have a choice in teaching evolution as a theory, but will be expected to teach it as stated in these standards, big ideas, and benchmarks. … Whose agenda is this and will the Christians in Florida care enough to do something about it?”

The “agenda,” ma’am, is that of the vast majority of Florida citizens who recognize that the state’s natural beauty and its outstanding medical system would not be possible if not for the products of evolution. Moreover, there is a tremendous well of Christians, Christian clergy in fact, who recognize that scientific fact is separate from religious fables and that the fossil record (among other facts) supports evolution.

But if Diplocardia mississippiensis did not evolve independently from the skinny European earthworms that came over with European settlers, there would be no Sopchoppy Worm Gruntin’ Festival.

Ms. Carraway, if you don’t care about science education and the development of critical thinking skills among the next generation of Floridians, at least consider the gravity of your pleas in the context of Sopchoppy’s claim to fame. If you don’t teach about Darwin and his observations of the natural world, students will miss out on learning the scientific basis for worm grunting.

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.

My hope is that Miss Hannah gets to learn about the timeless beauty and grandeur of evolution.

Credit: Darwin illustration from The Atlantic Monthly, March 1999.