Know the saying about the early bird and what it catches? It's Gary Revell's credo. He likes to be in the Apalachicola National Forest in northwest Florida at daybreak, armed with a wooden stake he calls a stob, a heavy steel file he calls a rooping iron, and a mess of one-gallon cans in which he places the bounty he scares out of the ground. Earthworms. By the thousands. In our state there is no more unusual way of making a living than — take your pick — worm rooping, worm charming, worm grunting or worm fiddling. This is a place where science meets folk life, where the 21st century intersects with the old Florida of horseback and Model A Fords.
Kneeling in the dirt at dawn, Revell buries the stob 15 inches deep in the topsoil. Grasping the heavy iron roop with both hands, he leans his weight against the stob and commences a passionate rubbing.
The roop-on-stob collaboration produces the Sopchoppy Symphony, which has been performed in a remote section of Florida for more than a century.
The Sopchoppy Symphony, as Revell plays it, starts with groan and proceeds to a kind of mighty grunt, the kind a distressed 100-pound bullfrog might produce, an awesome, hair-raising, teeth-rattling sustained kind of grunt. First the earth begins to tingle. Then it quakes for dozens of feet in all directions.
Then things get really get weird.
Within seconds the ground explodes with earthworms. They writhe in what seems to be ecstasy, but is more likely terror — as if the demons from hell are pursuing them from the netherworld.
As Gary Revell plays the stob like a Stradivarius, his wife, Audrey, trots among the worms, plucking here, plucking there, filling bucket after bucket with fish bait.
• • •
The Itzhak Perlman of worm fiddling is a gray bearded man with strong arms and shoulders. He has been rooping worms for more than half a century. His great-granddaddy taught his granddaddy the process, his granddaddy taught his daddy and his daddy taught him. At one time there were hundreds of mostly men in the 565,000-acre forest harvesting worms. Now only a handful try to make a living at it.
"It's real hard work, you got to get up before the sun and there's not a lot of money in it,'' says Revell, who makes $30,000 in a good year, selling worms to bait shops all over the South. "But I love it. I love being in the woods and I love being my own boss.''
Revell, 58, also enjoys the respect.
He is known as the King of the Earthworms.
The earthworm in question is known by scientists as Diplocardia mississippiensis. It is common in the long-leaf pine forests east of the Apalachicola River. The worms are pale in color, rather corpulent and sometimes measure a dozen inches or more. For generations, country southerners have used them to lure catfish, bass and bream into frying pans.
Revell lives 6 miles from the big city, Sopchoppy, population 400. His nearest neighbor, who raises hogs, lives a mile away. Revell's acre includes pear, peach and persimmon trees and two large gardens in which he grows tomatoes, corn, squash, okra, collards and snap peas. He raises chickens for the eggs and horses for the manure that fertilizes his gardens, already enriched by hundreds of pounds of worm-fortified soil.
Revell and Audrey, who married after high school, shoot deer and turkey every fall, catch mullet in cast nets in the Gulf of Mexico 10 miles away and gather oysters commercially during the cold months when the demand for worms wanes.
Five generations of his family have made a living from worms; his son, Donald — known as "Snap'' from boyhood — builds cabinets during the afternoon and helps his daddy catch worms at dawn. Snap was as small as a snap-pea when he was young, but now he has his dad's large upper body, the result of years of rooping.
"My daddy would carry me out to the woods on his shoulders when I was little,'' says Snap, 33. "I'd catch me frogs, but soon I was rooping next to him.''
When Snap's daddy started rooping, his ambition was to harvest enough worms to catch a stringer of bullheads. Soon Gary Revell was in the company of older members of his family, grim-faced men to whom worms were a commodity.
They thanked the Lord for Henry Ford.
"About a hundred years ago,'' Revell says, "one of my kinfolk noticed that worms would come out of the ground under an idling Model A."
Then somebody thought to move the Ford around in the worm-infested woods.
"That was a lot of work. Eventually, folks tried rubbing wood sticks on wood stobs in the ground. From there, they tried rubbing ax heads on the stakes and that was better.''
Then bed springs and truck springs, better still.
"I make my own rooping irons now. I got me some that weigh 10 pounds, I got me some that weigh 20 pounds. Some I use when the topsoil is shallow. Some I use where the topsoil is deep. I could go on and on if you had all day. They's a lot to it.''
• • •
It is often said that if the ground is beaten or otherwise made to tremble, worms will believe that they are being pursued by a mole and leave their burrows. — Charles Darwin, 1881.
About a year ago, a scientist at Vanderbilt, a whiz kid who once won a MacArthur Foundation genius grant, was enjoying a little light reading, namely Darwin's The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms with Observations on Their Habits.
Ken Catania, the Vanderbilt biologist, is a mole expert. Over the years he has read various reports about the vanishing art of worm fiddling in the Apalachicola National Forest. He wondered if he might test Darwin's theory and answer the eternal question: "Why the heck do worms bolt out of the ground when the Sopchoppy Symphony is performed?''
Soon he was part of King of the Earthworm's posse.
"First time I saw Gary roop up worms I could hardly believe what I was seeing,'' he says. Catania also began watching for evidence of moles, namely the notorious scourge of yummy worms everywhere, Scalopus aquaticus. They were plentiful in the places where Revell labored.
Moles make a ruckus while burrowing through the soil. A scientist with a good ear and sensitive feet can hear and feel them a dozen feet away. Catania began recording the sound of burrowing moles and the Sopchoppy Symphony. Worm grunting, he discovered, produces vibrations in the 80 kilohertz range; mole activity peaks at 200 kHz. However, there is a point where worm fiddler and mole music overlap.
One night, in Revell's living room, observed by the spooky deer heads and the stuffed largemouth bass hanging from the walls, the scientist conducted another experiment.
He dropped a mole into a box where worms had been living comfortably under the soil. As soon as the mole began digging, the worms popped up.
Was that terror on their slimy little faces?
• • •
Gary Revell goes to bed when his chickens roost. He wakes before the roosters crow, about 4 a.m., and ambles out into his yard with his coffee cup.
He almost always catches earthworms, but some days are better than others. He prefers a warm morning with dew on the ground and no wind.
Worms dry out quickly; if they emerge on a windy day they lose their lubrication and can't slip back into the soil efficiently.
A little humidity and rain are good. Slightly damp soil enhances the vibrations. When the ground is soaked, vibrations are diluted.
Worms don't like cold. They hate a north wind. "They's animals,'' Revell says of his prey. "You have to pay attention or you're not going to get none.'' When he sees a flock of robins on the ground, or armadillos rooting, he has a good feeling about the morning. Sometimes, after he starts rooping, his wife has to race the robins to the worms.
There aren't many worm roopers left. The ones who remain — whippersnappers! — often follow Revell.
He watches them approach in his rear-view mirror. They may extinguish their lights but he knows they are behind him. Sometimes he leads them on a wild worm chase; sometimes he feels charitable.
"They can follow me, but they can't get worms like me. It's been my life here in Wakulla County,'' he says. The Liberty County boys, as he calls them, park their truck 100 feet from his pickup truck. "It's a mighty big forest,'' Revell whispers. "And they can't find their own place to roop for worms?''
Revell and his family go one way, the Liberty County boys the other. Revell's party troops a mile through the woods, through the brush and through the water. Finally Revell stops in an area the forest service burned recently to renourish the soil.
Time for the Sopchoppy Symphony.
He and his boy start rooping. As he works, Gary grunts like a power lifter bench pressing a heavy barbell. His rooping iron caresses the sweet-gum stob he favors and brings to life the song of a giant bullfrog. Snap's rooping iron, rubbed promiscuously against a cherry stob, suggests a higher-voiced amphibian or perhaps a drooling mole.
The worms emerge, writhing in what looks like agony. After two hours, they have had enough. So have the Revells, who have filled six one-gallon cans with worms. Three thousand worms, plus the cans, weigh approximately 60 pounds, according to the King.
At home, he pours them into a big sink. Later, he will ladle them into plastic cups for tackle store delivery.
"These are real pretty worms,'' he says. "We got some real pretty fish bait today.''
On Saturday, catfish anglers all over the South will rejoice.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8727.