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Outdoors: St. Patrick

st. patrick
Katherine Du/NPR
Cleland Rimmer - Getty Images

During the coming week, folks will be singing Irish ballads, dancing jigs and wearing shamrocks.

But curiously, religious scholars can find no connection between shamrocks and St. Patrick, a British missionary who supposedly lived between A.D. 389 and 461.

But it seems that long before St. Patrick came to the Emerald Isle, shamrocks were a pagan symbol for rebirth and eternal life. 

Like the shamrock legend, many of the stories about St. Patrick may well be fanciful. 

Scientists are quite certain that the legend that he drove the snakes out of Ireland is untrue.

Ice Age glaciers drove the snakes out of Ireland, and after the glaciers melted, the Emerald Isle was, and remains, surrounded by water, making the repopulation of snakes impossible.

The Ice Age glaciers undoubtedly drove out the snakes out of the Great Lakes Region also, but our snakes have more than 10,000 years to slither over land and repopulate the Great Lakes Region.

The glaciers certainly wiped out native earthworms, if worms were ever there.

Not only would the soft-bodied creatures been squashed, but the glacier scraped down to bedrock, removing the soil and the organic material on which earthworms depend.

Starting in the 18 century, “our” worms were introduced from Europe, probably on horticultural materials.

Or perhaps, because in those days ocean-going ships sometimes used rock and soil for ballast, some worms may have been lurking in the soil when sailors, readjusting their loads, dumped the dirt on the shore.

Worms became established and were rapidly spread into the Midwest by European settlers.

According to Dr. Lee E. Frelich, the director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Forest Ecology,  “Earthworms transform the response of forests to climate change by fostering warming and drying soils in summer, changing conditions for seed germination, disrupting symbiotic soil biota, and even increasing carbon dioxide levels because they eat leaf litter."

If only St. Patrick were still around to banish invasive species.

"Outdoors with Coggin Heeringa" can be heard every Wednesday on Classical IPR.