Blowing Away the Magic

Just say no to leaf blowers.

By Kevin Van Tighem

Why is it that we choose so often to replace the sublime with the ridiculous?

Take, for example, the miracle of photosynthesis. It arose, scientists believe, almost 3.5 billion years ago. Life was little more than a precarious experiment until organisms first began to harvest the sun’s light to create organic compounds. It was 475 million years ago before the first land plants appeared, lifting leaves into the sunlight to pull life out of the air. Soon the planet was covered with a vast array of diverse green ecosystems, and they were full of creatures that drew their existence, ultimately, from the photosynthetic alchemy in living leaves.

At our latitude, plants start each year from almost nothing—seeds, dormant root crowns, tiny buds—and rebuild whole ecosystems using only water, air and sunshine. Chlorophyll is the secret ingredient—a green pigment found in the chloroplasts of each leaf cell. Like tiny solar panels, chloroplasts use the sun’s energy to separate carbon from oxygen, building organic compounds and turning most of the oxygen loose again. The organic compounds enable each plant to grow. Those plants, assembled with others, create living networks that feed and shelter wildlife and fill the world with beauty. And we breathe the oxygen. If that’s not magic, what is?

Stand in a forest or lie on the prairie and listen as hard as you might, you will not hear that magic. There is a sort of breathless hush to a living green place—a calming stillness that soothes the soul. Wind might rustle the aspens, gulls might cry overhead, a coyote might yelp somewhere nearby—but there is not even the faintest of hum from the billions and billions of chloroplasts hard at work around you. It’s a humble kind of magic.

Each fall, their work done, the leaves must die. As nights grow longer, each leaf stem begins to build a layer of cork around its base and slowly chokes off the leaf’s supply of water and nutrients. The chlorophyll deteriorates, revealing other pigments whose colours had been swamped by green while the leaf was doing its magic. Brown, yellow, red, purple, orange, the leaves fall, at last, to the ground.

A leaf blower’s two-stroke engine spews more emissions in half an hour than a pickup truck driving from Edmonton to Miami.

But the magic continues. Dead leaves become fuel for creating new soil, feeding springtails, fungi, earthworms, protozoa and countless other little critters who don’t think of their role as building soil and renewing the ecosystem but who are doing just that.

Let’s flip now to the ridiculous. The ridiculous is not silent. It is noisy. Maddeningly noisy. I’m talking about leaf blowers.

Ever since the human being was first enslaved by Poa pratensis (Kentucky bluegrass) we have laboured in the service of green, monocultural, flawless lawns. We work all day at often boring jobs so that we can afford to spend our free hours watering, edging, mowing, weeding and fertilizing the lawns we think of as ours. In truth, we are theirs. Listen to your neighbourhood on a quiet summer evening—the chuff-chuff of sprinklers bestowing expensive water on pampered lawns, the drone of electric lawnmowers, neighbours discussing fertilizers and herbicides and those darn kill spots the dogs keep making; these are the sounds of a kingdom of slaves.

Then, in fall, when shade trees release their leaves, the lawns begin to vanish. And the sound of the neighbourhood rises to a frenzy as homeowners crank up their leaf blowers to free their lawns from leaves.

Nothing good can be said about leaf blowers. Nothing. They blow the blessed stillness of the living world into maddening chaos. The average gas-powered leaf blower is literally deafening—at up to 100 decibels it can cause permanent hearing loss to the operator and homicidal rage in the neighbours. According to The Atlantic’s James Fallows, a leaf blower’s two-stroke engine spews more emissions in half an hour than a pickup truck driving from Edmonton to Miami. It blows out not just emissions but also spores, pesticide residues and fine particulates that pollute the air we breathe. And the leaves usually end up in plastic bags, dumped in landfills, lost to the ecosystem.

There was a time when we lawn-slaves used simple rakes and then composted the leaves in a corner of the garden. We could hear hints of nature’s magic in the swish-swish of the rake and the crunching of brittle leaves. In turning those leaves to compost and using it to renew the fertility of our gardens we almost became part of the magic. Some people still do that.

The rest own leaf blowers—a “labour-saving” device designed to waste carbon fuels, pollute air, deafen workers, kill the stillness and bury the year’s magic in landfills. As a Washington Post editorialist said recently: “The tragedy of the leaf blower is that it makes assholes of us all, users and neighbors alike.”

Ban the darn things.

Kevin Van Tighem’s latest book, Our Place: Changing the Nature of Alberta, was released in spring 2017 by RMB.


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