Leaves are one of nature’s most miraculous creations. They tie it all together. They rise from the ground, reach to the sky, and bring life to the Earth. Leaves do many good things—manufacture food for trees and other plants, use the sun’s energy to transform carbon dioxide into carbohydrates, and decompose water (H2O) into oxygen and hydrogen. The resulting complex compound, glucose, is the universal and basic energy source for all living organisms. Leaves also provide beauty and delight, thus meriting our praise for their abundant gifts. Children and animals love frolicing in fresh piles of leaves.
Yet by the late 20th century human ingenuity, irritated by fallen leaves, created a fossil fuel-driven industrial machine—the highly-polluting, gas-operated leaf blower—that disrupts leaves natural cycle and night-workers sleeping cycle. Left to their own, leaves leave their perch and fall to the ground and remain there. Even when brown, dead, and on the Earth, their transformative work continues—first as mulch, then as compost, and eventually integrating into the soil that nourishes plants and so much of life. Interrupting that cycle will have all kinds of negative unintended consequences.
Leaves deserve more respect. Some people do indeed praise then, especially poets and those in New England during fall foliage when their changing colors reveal their transformative powers. But, alas, others see them as nuisances, dirty, and unclean—better out of sight. So they blow them away with explosive tornadoes over 100 miles per hour, taking with them the lives of many bees, insects, and other tiny creatures and launching multiple tons of toxins into the air, which we then breath into our lungs. It’s better to just leave the leaves on the ground, where they belong and will eventually decompose themselves. Perhaps rake or room them to the side or into a pile. Get a rake. Broom don’t blow.
Where do the blown leaves go? Into streets, storm gutters, neighbors’ yards, and sometimes into sterile, lifeless plastic body bags. Then the leaves beloved and fun-loving dance partner—the wind—sometimes returns to blow them back to their intended local resting place. Leaf blowers then return with their industrial toys and weapons and with vengeance; the combat resumes.
It’s a sad sight to see big men armed with dangerous weapons taking on such tiny leaves, a source of our existence, and spewing toxins into the air and invading homes with loud noises into the ears of people and other animals. Within the space of my own home I do not appreciate sound trespass. I would rather have some quiet and serenity to sleep, eat, heal, make love, listen to music, study, work, play with children, or engage in some other uninterrupted activity. Bees, insects, and other creatures also fall to the deadly leaf blower. Dirt and other debris is kicked up into the Particulate Matter that contaminates our air and kills humans.
The multiple victims of leaf blowers could benefit from more human allies who understand the bigger picture of all the gifts leaves offer to nature and the costs of disturbing them.
An estimated three million leaf bowers currently pollute the U.S. Their numbers rise rapidly. Most newer and all older gas-operated leaf blowers have two-stroke engines. They are far worse than automobiles in terms of fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, which create chaotic climate changes that now threaten continued human habitation on the Earth. Unique to the 2-stroke engine is the fact that 25 to 30% of raw, unburned fuel is spewed out its exhaust, approximately 1.5 gallons per hour of operation. Further documentation of the damage of leaf blowers is available from Zero Air Pollution at www.zapla.or and www.nonoise.org.
Fortunately, some 400 U.S. municipalities have banned and limited leaf blower use. Residents of other communities—such as the small town of Sebastopol, where I live—are organizing against blowers and for the leaves and all the creatures that they hurt.
Lacking leaves natural feeding of the soil and plants once they have been forced off their natural resting place, some humans substitute chemical fertilizers in their gardens. This compounds the damage of an interrupted natural cycle by trying to replace it with a toxic human-made cycle, which profits the industrial manufacturers of these imitations. Humans do not do a good job of managing our wastes; we soil our beds—worse than the chickens on my small farm.
In its online article “Mulch—A Gardener’s Best Friend” Sonoma County Master Gardeners write the following: “Fallen leaves are great! If you rake them on to your beds in the fall, they will soften the heavy rains’ effects on your soil, and they will protect your plants during freezing temperatures. If they are dry even crumbling them with your hands as you spread them around is effective…they are porous and decompose quickly, enriching the soil.”
Leaf blowers versus leaves is a classic machine versus nature conflict. Sierra Club founder John Muir wrote poetry about leaves and the following: “The gross heathenism of civilization has generally destroyed nature, and poetry, and all that is spiritual.”
(Shepherd Bliss has run the organic Kokopelli Farm for nearly two decades. He bought a place to move to the downtown of small town Sebastopol, but then heard the rampant leaf blowers. So he has joined other town-dwellers to seek a leaf blower ban. Shepherd teaches part-time at Sonoma State University and has contributed to over two dozen books, most recently a chapter on agrotherapy—farms as healing places—to the Sierra Club Book’s “Ecotherapy: Healing with the Earth in Mind.” He can be reached at [email protected] and shares the Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace website with the Veterans Writing Group, www.vowvop.org.)