I was handing round photos of various colourful marine worms – polychaetes with euphonious names, Lanice, Sabellaria, Pectinaria and Arenicola: like the names of operatic heroes and heroines, to be sung aloud.
It was still early – the best low tides on the Solway Firth are always early – and we had been paddling, peering and pointing, amongst the sculpted neighbourhoods and high-rise apartments of the honeycomb worm reefs at the bottom of the shore. We had used a hand-lens to admire the delicate precision with which these Sabellaria had constructed their tubes of sand-grains; compared them with the single, scruffier tubes of mason worms, Lanice; and had talked about the surface coils of sand above the mid-shore burrows of the lugworms, and how all these different species had developed and fed.
We had seen the external evidence of these creatures’ homes, but of course we had not pulled out the occupants.
So I handed round the photos, of the worms’ multi-segmented cylinders; the haemoglobin-rich, fat-bodied Arenicola; the crown of sensitive tentacles with which Sabellaria had reached out to seek and pick up sandgrains.
“But what’s the point of them?” a young woman asked. “Of the worms. What are they there for?” She appeared genuinely puzzled.
I was stunned: I looked out across the Firth to Scotland for inspiration, but the rounded bulk of Criffel provided no clear answer, though I tried.
“They’re not there for a purpose, they don’t just exist to be eaten by other animals … they’re each beautifully adapted to live a particular type of life, in a particular place. To be themselves…”
I could have given all kinds of reasons why polychaetes are special; I could have told her that there were species that attached to rocks, or burrowed in the sand, or – fierce predators – scurried across the surface; or shone with bioluminescence in the dark; or swarmed and mated at a particular phase of the moon. I could have told her that ‘worms’ had been on this planet millions of years longer than we had; that they were so special that July 1st has been designated International Polychaete Day. I could even have burst into song, like a confused Orpheus without his lyre: “Harmothöe! Aphrodite!”
But that was not why she’d asked the question.
On that still, blue morning in the carpark, when everyone’s attention was turning to thinking about breakfast, I could only reply with more questions:
“What’s the point of mussels – or oarweed? What’s the point of us?”
She shrugged, and smiled.
But that shore-walker’s question, “What’s the point of them?” remains with me, and keeps me awake at night, indicating as it does the perceived gulf between ‘them’ – the more-than-human, as Mark Cocker calls the creatures with which we share this place – and ‘us’.
It’s a surprising question, that will, I hope, help me find new purpose, and new ways of showing and discovering, on my guided shore-walks and saltmarsh writing days.
Some ‘fun facts’ about polychaetes (marine bristle worms).