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After the fall

David Bouchier

The leaves have been falling in our backyard. This silent, rather melancholy spectacle is only to be expected at this time of year and I am content to let nature run her course until the trees are bare and the lawn is covered with a crunchy, multicolored carpet of yesterday’s leaves. No chance of that. Dead leaves are pollution that must be removed as soon as possible, before the wind has a chance to blow them away.

Europeans find our obsession with fallen leaves puzzling. In most temperate countries, autumn is a non‑event. The leaves turn brown and descend to the ground, get soaked by the rain, and eventually vanish into the soil as compost, just as our school biology teacher taught us. There’s no drama, no tourism, and very little noise. By contrast, in the Northeastern states of America, the drama of fall unfolds in two loud and expensive stages.

The first act is the opening of "Leaf Hot Lines" by the northernmost states, and the appearance of "Leaf Reports" on television and radio. Tens of thousands of families trek up I‑87 and I‑91. Sleepy New England towns are turned upside down, motels and inns are packed, and hundreds of accidents are caused by people watching the leaves instead of the road.

This is nature’s great art show. For people who don't have leaves at home, the effort is probably worth it. We do have leaves at home, billions of them. When fall arrives here we must soon give up peeping and start sweeping.

The raking of leaves has long been a traditional form of seasonal exercise, perhaps left over from the Puritan era when labor, however pointless, was considered virtuous. But something essential has been lost. The rakes have been put away, and the virtuous effort they represented has been abolished.

Leaves may fall silently, but they are no longer raked silently. What went wrong was the invention of the diabolical cyclonic 300-decibel leaf blower, which allows leaves to be moved about with almost no physical effort but with a hurricane of pollution and noise. In fact, the leaves are not cleared away, but simply blown about, the way the wind would naturally blow them about. It’s irresistibly reminiscent 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. Blowing leaves is much the same type of futile activity, although there’s nothing Greek about it.

Many men seem addicted to their leaf blowers and can be seen chasing fugitive leaves well into December. They may be unaware of the noise pollution they create, because they have already been deafened by it. But it is a masculine thing to do. The leaf blower is the male counterpart of the vacuum cleaner. The vacuum removes dirt while the blowers spread it around. Anyone can tell you which men enjoy most. A leaf blower is also much louder than a vacuum cleaner, a clear win for the boys’ team. So don’t expect much peace and quiet in the next few weeks.

But the age of the gentle rake is not quite dead. A few traditional gardeners will continue to rake their leaves the old-fashioned way, quietly, swish, swish, swish. You just won’t be able to hear them.

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.