Falling Awake: The (loud) monsters among us

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Yesterday was a gray, drizzly day, a chilly reminder of the months ahead. The last few leaves clinging to the maples fell off one by one.

But today is one of those clear fall days after the rain, when the air is filled with a charged anything-is-possible atmosphere. For as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by this season. The biologist Merlin Sheldrake said that if we pay close attention to all of the life hidden under the surface of the leaves, it may reveal something about what is going on under the surface of us. I don’t know whether this is true, but I like to think so anyway.

Because the truth is too many things are overwhelming me: men who would rather make war than talk; AI hiring more and more people to figure out how employers can hire fewer and fewer of us (and why I will continue to use human cashiers); too many guns. You name it.

I take a long deep breath. Whenever I feel this way, it’s time for a walk.

Once outside, any illusion that I can control much of anything is dispelled. Nature is the orb, and we are inside of it. Though you probably have your own take on what calmness is, to me the natural world provides the best of it. I always end a walk feeling better than when I started it. When I think of some of the toughest decisions I’ve had to make in life, what comes to mind are the walks that helped me see my way. The merge of rustling leaves and squirrels scurrying is one of the most peaceful sounds.

Until the monsters arrive.

They come in a deafening roar, unabashed and unlike any other sound: thick and powerful enough to blast from sidewalk to lawn; filling the air with the stench of gasoline, reminding us that perfect peace is like a perfect world. It doesn’t exist. I can’t help but compare leaf blowers to gasoline-powered grasshoppers, decimating the ground in minutes.

Only this comparison is unfair to grasshoppers.

Grasshoppers are as much a part of planthood as leaves and roots. Leaf blowers are not. They are the most infuriating of all the infuriating ecosystem-disrupting tools of the lawn-care industry, as well as the best yardstick of my emotional state. Whatever anger lies suppressed is sure to surface as soon as one of them is fired up within hearing range.

What is so bad about leaves anyway? They are necessary for healthy insect life, which is necessary for birds and other animals. The best thing you can do is to run over them with your lawn mower and let them be. Why are we so troubled by nature’s perfect mulch made of chlorophyll and light?

Sadly, nearly everything about how we “care” for our lawns is harmful. Pesticides poison the insects that feed the birds, and they poison us, too. Store bought mulch, piled too deep, smothers ground-nesting insects. But gasoline-powered leaf blowers make up an environmental hell all their own, spewing carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides, hydrocarbons—not to mention pollen, mold, animal feces, and chemicals from herbicides and pesticides. With all of the environmental concerns we say we care about in this city, why do we stand for it?

But what if we didn’t?

Because we can’t complain about something we don’t try to change ourselves. The desire to quickly “clean up” a walkway is understandable; stubbornness to not replace a gasoline model for a quieter, battery powered one, less so.

The newer battery blowers are less powerful, sure, but when you think about the fact that the gas-powered model was originally invented by a German engineer in 1900 as a flamethrower that was used by the German Army in 1911 and subsequently by other armies, including our own, well, isn’t this sort of what it sounds like today? That we are at war with our yards, assaulting rather than nurturing the land?

Maybe, like soft soaps and dryer sheets, we just don’t know how toxic everyday items have become. But once we do know, what then?

The other day on my bike ride, I watched a man blow a single leaf across a driveway. I knew he wasn’t doing this to aggravate me knowingly or consciously. I slowed my pace and thought, why not just bend over and pick up the leaf?

Despite the noise, the squirrels kept at it. A lesson in silent acceptance I know I need. But to be honest, I am really bad at it. I have no patience at all for gasoline-powered leaf blowers. None. “Please stop,” I yelled, but not as loud as I could have. Actually, it was probably the first time I’d responded so calmly to so challenging a noise. He gave me a look and then revved his machine, the leaf-blower equivalent of giving me the finger. One block away, another guy raked his yard as if the effort was one of life’s primal pleasures. I blew him a kiss.

Eager to include another opinion here, the least I could do is ask someone else how they feel about gasoline-fueled leaf blowers. I thought long and hard about who I should ask, not wanting to sound like someone who thought they were entitled to live where leaf-blowers don’t exist simply because she doesn’t want them to. I wound up asking a man in the paint and stain aisle at Ace Hardware, probably in his mid-fifties. He was a little bemused at first. Then he said, “They’re like letting crazy guys run for president. Not enough of us spoke up before the worst of them happened. Not enough of us got off our butts to say, ‘This is really crazy, and we should stop.’”

Apparently, concerns about  2024 are starting to bubble under the surface of a lot of us.

I left the store with a smile on my face, and I’m thinking he went home and said, “Some woman asked me about leaf-blowers today ... ”

Mary Lou Sanelli is the author of Every Little Thing, a collection of essays that was nominated for a Washington State Book Award. She also works as a speaker and a master dance teacher. For more information about her and her work, visit www.marylousanelli.com.