Before All the Leaf Blowers Descend…

Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.

— Albert Camus

Well, it’s the day after the election and I feel like thinking about something else. I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say about American politics and related perturbations in the days to come, but I’d rather focus on something a little closer to home today: It’s beautiful outside! But also noisy.

This post began as a simple ode to the “glorious pageant of color” going on outside my window, but then descended into an evidence-based case against loathsome leaf blowers and various other leaf removal activities, and has finally degenerated into a screed against ludicrous American lawns themselves. So that’s what follows below—in reverse order. All of these matters, of course, are inextricably intertwined, which is why I couldn’t help talking about them all. Still, I’ve included a bunch of pretty leaf pics I’ve taken over the past few days at the end, just so as to finish off as I had initially planned to begin: on a grateful high note.

I.) Our Idiotic Green Moats

During the warmer months, I like to have a picnic or kick a soccer ball around on some nice green grass just as much as the next guy—one of many reasons I love a good public park. But dear God, I hate America’s big front lawns with a fiery passion. It’s one of many half-witted things about my country that make me grit my teeth.

Why? Well, for starters, if we’re honest, most front lawns are barely used. They’re like modern-day moats, expensive vanity projects that merely separate us from our neighbors and (ostensibly) project wealth. They’re biodiversity deserts—the most costly and cultivated crop in the nation, and one that no one can eat. They’re about as useful as parking-lots at abandoned shopping malls. If you want all that land, plant some damn trees or a garden for crying out loud!

Some of you might say: “But we use our lawns! What about those barbecues and lazy afternoons in the hammock? What about all that nice space for kids and dogs to play?”

Bullshit. I’ve seen the suburbs. We’re talking about those massive front lawns here, not small fenced-in backyards. 90% of front lawns in the ‘burbs and small towns are never used. They’re merely mowed, watered, seeded, fertilized, and fawned over incessantly, for no good reason.

Today, there’s a huge industry devoted to lawncare. Americans are so obsessed with their plush green lawns, you’d think they were some kind of hallowed tradition passed down through the generations. Of course, they’re not. In fact, as Krystal D’Costa explains,

[B]efore the Civil War front lawns were uncommon. Where they did exist, they were somewhat an experiment by the wealthy in a new style of landscaping…

Following the Civil War… the Northern states entered into a period of growth… Railroad tycoons and factory owners saw their investments and businesses grow, and as such, they looked to accumulate material symbols to signify their prosperity. The front lawn became an exhibitive space. The rise of printed gardening advice enforced this position. … The awareness of lawns and their significance was made into an everyday occurrence.

It was still an exercise in wealth, however. Lawn grass was not easy to grow. (It’s not easy today, either.) Pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers were virtually unknown until recently.

In fact, big-ass front lawns didn’t become common among middle-class Americans until the decades after World War II—the boom years for the suburbs. In other words, lawns are relatively recent cultural icons, and have always been more about social status and aesthetics than function.

Let’s talk about the aesthetics of front lawns for a second. To state the obvious: lawns about the blandest living things in nature. I’ve seen more interesting sand formations. Is that the best we can do? Why would anyone put all that time and money into crafting something so boring? Why not just pave it over and paint it green?  If we want to blow our money on some aesthetic yard project, the least we could do is plant some Japanese maples or maybe a rhododendron.  

More importantly: lawns are unspeakably wasteful. Even putting the regular seeding, mowing, and various toxic chemical treatments aside, lawns require insane amounts of water. As D’Costa continues: “The sheer volume of resources required to keep lawns alive is staggering. And seems particularly wasteful in consideration of drought plagued places, like California. … Lawns require the equivalent of 200 gallons of drinking water per person per day.”

200 gallons a day! That level of water waste is obviously unsustainable in pretty much the entire western half of the U.S., which is overwhelmingly water scarce.

Perhaps worst of all, our insane lawn culture has been exported to other arid parts of the world. When I lived with my family in Saudi Arabia back in the early 2000s, I still remember how the sprinklers would kick on every hour or two to drench our front lawns—and those of 300 other houses on our western-style compound. That was Saudi Arabia. We were smack-dab in the middle of one of the world’s largest, hottest deserts, hundreds of miles from a coastline or ground-level freshwater source. That was fossil water pumped from deep underground. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.

II.) Heinous Leaf Blowers and Such

But one of the things I hate most about American lawn culture—one of the things that really gets my goat this time of year—is the widespread use of those abominable fucking leaf blowers.

Pardon my German, but fuck leaf blowers. First of all, to put it selfishly, how’s a brother like me with ADHD supposed to mentally concentrate on anything with that awful noise blasting in the background? Aren’t there laws against that kind of public disturbance?

More to the point: leaf blowers—and pretty much all the leaf removal activities that go on this time of year—are overwhelmingly bad for the environment, bad for society, and even bad for your friggin’ precious pet lawns. It’s high time we banned or at least heavily regulated leaf blowers, and did more to disincentivize mass leaf disposal more broadly.

Here, without further ado, are five evidence-based reasons we should just leave the leaves where they are:

Reason #1: Leaf Blowers Are Insanely Polluting

James Fallows wrote an excellent piece in The Atlantic last year that went into detail on some of the pollution issues around leaf blowers. Here’s the gist:

[B]ecause the technology [of leaf blowers] is so crude and old, the level of pollution is off the charts.

When people encounter engines these days, they’re generally seeing the outcome of decades of intense work toward higher efficiency. The latest models of jet-turbine engines are up to 80 percent more fuel-efficient than their 1950s counterparts. … Today, the average car on America’s streets is almost 200 percent more efficient than in 1950, and smog-causing emissions from cars are about 99 percent lower.

The great outlier here is a piece of obsolete machinery Americans encounter mainly in lawn-care equipment: the humble “two-stroke engine.” It’s simpler, cheaper, and lighter than the four-stroke engines of most modern cars… But it is vastly dirtier and less fuel-efficient, because by design it sloshes together a mixture of gasoline and oil in the combustion chamber and then spews out as much as one-third of that fuel as an unburned aerosol.

Regulators around the world are pushing older two-stroke engines toward extinction. Yet they remain the propulsive force behind the 200-mph winds coming out of many backpack leaf blowers. As a product category, this is a narrow one. But the impact of these little machines is significant. In 2017, the California Air Resources Board issued a warning that may seem incredible but has not been seriously challenged: By 2020, gas-powered leaf blowers, lawn mowers, and similar equipment in the state could produce more ozone pollution than all the millions of cars in California combined. Two-stroke engines are that dirty.

Reason #2: Leaf Blowers Will Wreck Your Hearing

Landscaping can be back-breaking work to begin with. But you have to pity the poor sods who get paid poverty-level wages to walk around blowing leaves and end up also wrecking their hearing. In fact, leaf blowers are bad for everyone’s hearing. Here’s more from Fallows:

The biggest worry of today’s public-health community is not, of course, leaf blowers—it’s the opioid disaster, plus addictions of other forms. The next-biggest worry is obesity, plus diabetes and the other ills that flow from it. But coming up fast on the list is hearing loss. According to a 2017 report from the [CDC], one-quarter of Americans ages 20 to 69 who reported good to excellent hearing actually had diminished hearing. This is largely caused by rising levels of ambient urban noise—sirens, traffic, construction, leaf blowers—which can lead to a range of disorders, from high blood pressure to depression to heart disease.

Leaf blowers are especially insidious. … A [recent] study … showed that gas-powered blowers produce far more “sound energy” in the low-frequency range. This may seem benign… but it has a surprising consequence. High-frequency sound—a mosquito’s buzz, a dental drill—gets your attention, but it does not travel. It falls off rapidly with distance and struggles to penetrate barriers. If you’re in the next room, you may not hear it at all. By contrast, low-frequency noise has great penetrating power: It goes through walls, cement barriers, and many kinds of hearing-protection devices. …

Hearing damage is cumulative. When the tiny, sound-sensing hairlike cells, called stereocilia, in the inner ear are damaged—usually by extended exposure to sounds of 85 decibels or above—they are generally gone for good. For the landscapers (and homeowners) who use gas-powered blowers—a foot away from their ears—the most powerful can produce sounds of 100 decibels or more. Meyers told me, “Each time I see these crews, I think to myself: 10 years from now, they’ll be on the path to premature deafness.

Reason #3: Bagged Leaves Fill Up Landfills and Raise Methane Emissions

Many Americans assume that when their yards get covered with leaves, the only responsible thing to do is rake them up and send them to landfills. Most people probably think they’re doing a public service by taking such good care of those plush green moats that they’ve come to view as the symbol of suburban respectability. In reality, as Ryan Miller wrote last year in USA Today,

Environmental experts say raking leaves and removing them from your property is bad not only for your lawn but for the planet as a whole. …

According to EPA data, yard trimmings, which include leaves, created about 34.7 million tons of waste in 2015, which is about 13% of all waste generation. The majority of that – 21.3 million tons – was composted or mulched in state programs, the EPA says, yet still, 10.8 million tons went to landfills, accounting for just under 8% of all waste in landfills.

“The worst thing you can do is put (leaves) in bags and send them to landfills,” said David Mizejewski… Leaves take up space and they also can break down with other organic waste to create methane, a potent greenhouse gas which contributes to climate change, he added.

Reason #4: Local Ecosystems Depend on Leaves

This may sound patronizingly obvious, but leaves are an important part of natural systems. For example, it turns out a lot of small creatures depend on them in the fall. Here’s Miller again:

“Over winter months, a lot of butterflies and moths as pupa or caterpillar are in the leaf litter, and when you rake it up you are removing the whole population of butterflies you would otherwise see in your yard,” [Mizejewski] said.

Without the insects in the leaf litter, you also risk driving away birds that might have come to your yard looking for food to feed their offspring in the spring. That’s especially concerning in 2019, Mizejewski said, citing a September study published in the peer-reviewed journal Science, which found that North America has lost nearly 3 billion birds since 1970.

“Keeping some leaf litter can really benefit these kinds of declining wildlife,” Mizejewski said. “This is wildlife conservation on the scale of your lawn.”

Reason #5: Leaving Your Leaves Can Actually Help Your Lawn

Finally, relaxing your neo-fascist leaf control standards is actually in your own lawn-obsessed self-interest. It turns out that nature is often smarter than we often think: That fall detritus you resent so much can help fertilize your precious front lawns and thus save you money: 

“Leaves cover up root systems, preserve soil moisture, suppress weeds and other plants. They also slowly break down and … return (essential) nutrients to plants,” Mizejewski said. “It’s a perfect system. Nothing is wasted in nature.”

“It’s free fertilizer,” said Sandor.

Some leaves like maples do a great job of reducing weed seed germination while other species like honey locust add a lot of nitrogen to lawns, Sandor said. 

Of course, lawn fanatics often worry that all those leaves will “smother” their lawns. In areas of extremely heavy leaf cover, this fear is not entirely unfounded. But for most people’s yards, it’s not an issue. Your first and best tactic for dealing with yard leaves—and making the most of their fertilizing capacity—is to just leave them where they are and grind them up, either by simply walking on them or mowing over them. If you want to get really fancy, you can even rent or buy a leaf mulcher. In cases where leaf cover is particularly heavy, Miller recommends “mowing over the leaves with a mulching blade about once a week.”

“If you do remove your leaves, the best thing to do is cut them up and drop them in a plant or flower bed or another part of your lawn that doesn’t get leaf cover,” Miller adds. “That will provide a natural fertilizer and mulch for those parts of your yard. … If you don’t have a plant or flower bed or have too many leaves, start a compost bin.”

It’s really not that complicated, folks. In fact, it’s probably much simpler this way. The barrier is merely our insane, half-witted lawn culture.

III.) On the Glory of Fall Leaves

Did I mention that there’s also a sixth and seventh reason we should just leave the leaves where they are? Indeed. Not only are there all the practical reasons I listed above, but (a) the fall leaves are simply beautiful and (b) my 14-week-old puppy loves them and would be very sad if you took them away. Seriously, I’m pro-leaf, but not as much as this adorable little hellraiser:

With all that in mind, I want to end as I intended to begin: with a quaint ode to fall. Much ink has been spilled by poets down the ages waxing eloquent over the beauties of the season, but I thought I’d share a wonderful little passage from L. M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle that my wife read aloud to me a few days ago. I don’t think it’s a well-known passage but I thought it beautifully chronicled some of the peculiar delights of the season, in that old-fashioned narrative style that luxuriates in description. For context, the story takes place in rural Ontario and revolves around the relationship of Valancy and Barney. Here’s Montgomery:

Autumn came. Late September with cool nights. They had to forsake the veranda; but they kindled a fire in the big fireplace and sat before it with jest and laughter. … The stars smoldered in the horizon mists… The haunting, persistent croon of the pine-trees filled the air. … They needed no light but the firelight… When the night wind rose higher Barney would shut the door and light a lamp and read to her—poetry and essays and… dim chronicles of ancient wars. …

October—with a gorgeous pageant of color… into which Valancy plunged her soul. Never had she imagined anything so splendid. A great, tinted peace. Blue, wind-winnowed skies. Sunlight sleeping in the glades… Long dreamy purple days paddling idly in their canoe along shores and up the rivers of crimson and gold. … Enchanted tempests that stripped the leaves from the trees and heaped them along the shores. Flying shadows of clouds. …

November—with uncanny witchery in its changed trees. With murky red sunsets flaming in smoky crimson behind the westering hills. With dear days when the austere woods were beautiful and gracious in a dignified serenity of folded hands and closed eyes—days full of a fine, pale sunshine… Days with a high-sprung sky of flawless turquoise. Days when an exquisite melancholy seemed to hang over the landscape…

“Warm fire—books—comfort—safety from storm—our cats on the rug. Moonlight,” said Barney, “would you be any happier now if you had a million dollars?”

Now, wasn’t that lovely? I especially love the bit about November’s “uncanny witchery in its changed trees.” It is a bit like nature’s witchcraft, these astonishing transformations. And isn’t it just classic human hubris to feel the need to subdue the colorful chaos of leaves that takes hold of our yards during this season? It bugs the heck out of me. What did leaves ever do to you?

Anyway, before all the leaf blowers descended on my neighborhood, I had to take a few pictures to preserve a little of the fall magic. Here are some of my favorites:

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