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David Bouchier: After the fall

rake and leaves
David Bouchier

Our gutters have been cleaned, at last. It’s the kind of job I would be delighted to do myself but am unfortunately disqualified by vertigo and a bad back. Also, our ladder is too short. Watching the men doing the work gives me vertigo anyway. One year we had a contractor whose ladder was also too short. He scrambled from the top rung of the ladder on to the sloping roof like a mountaineer and cleaned the gutters precariously from there, lying on his stomach, with no safety harness. He may have had insurance, but I don’t think insurance companies cover things like that, and it didn’t seem the right time to remind him.

While I was watching the circus act on the roof, other professional leaf operatives were noisily blowing leaves from east to west while the wind blew them from west to east. As always, I was reminded of the Greek myth of Sisyphus who was condemned by the gods to roll a large rock up a hill and then watch it roll down again, forever. Raking leaves is much the same kind of doomed activity. If you simply leave them alone the wind will blow most of your leaves into somebody else’s yard, and theirs into yours. Eventually they will all quietly compost down and nourish the soil as nature intended.

It's hard to single out any one thing as the curse of the modern age — there are so many — but leaf blowers must be in the top 10. For weeks on end they howl and shriek like lost souls through the suburbs in a fiendish conspiracy of noise pollution and air pollution, mobilized to defeat the imaginary threat of leaf pollution. Some towns have tried to ban them, but it’s like trying to ban testosterone. They don’t even stop when the leaves are gone. Once you own a leaf blower you must use it and, long after the last leaf has vanished, the proud owners keep going, blowing dust and sticks and small stones like a regiment of demented housewives trying to clean up the planet. I was walking in our local nature preserve the other day, a place that is normally quiet and peaceful, when I came upon a man wielding a leaf blower. The preserve covers 200 acres and is totally buried in leaves. What was he trying to accomplish? I would have asked, but of course he couldn’t hear me.

I can only imagine that this strange behavior has deep roots back in the Puritan colonies of Massachusetts as a kind of penance. Reprobates and dissenters were set to clean up the leaves by hand with a rake. It was a punishment designed to remind its victims of purgatory, which is a place of laborious, meaningless and endless tasks.

The mechanical leaf blower has ruined this healthy autumnal discipline, undermined the moral and physical fitness of the nation and damaged our hearing at the same time. Blowing leaves with some devilish machine is worse than cheating — it is a form of defiance that would have landed you in the stocks in 1640. But it’s too late for repentance now. Only a handful of fugitive leaves are left, hiding behind trees or under cars. Eventually even the most avid leaf hunters will put their machines away and quiet will slowly return to the suburbs — until they bring out their snow blowers.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.