It is early in the morning and the all-too-familiar high-pitched sound of small gas-powered engines enters through my open windows. It almost sounds like a gaggle of small motorcycles has decided to parade up and down the street for fun —sometimes revving up and at other times going back to idle— but it is not. It is the sound of commercial leaf blowers making their way through the neighborhood on the backs of hard-working gardeners. As they move, so do the leaves in front of them. The noise, of course, follows.
Before you pass judgment on me as one of those grumpy old men who shake their fists at kids playing in the streets or anything else a bit too loud in the neighborhood, let me tell you this: I am not that old. Or grumpy, for that matter. And those loud kids playing in the street are probably mine. So I am not complaining about the sound of leaf blowers. I am fascinated by them.
Leaf blowers are an incredibly puzzling concept for me. Millennia of human civilization and progress have led us to a point where we can build incredible machines, and yet, we have taken some of our precious time and mindshare and dedicated ourselves to building these loud machines that mimic the wind. And to what end? To push stray leaves away from our lives. Cleanliness and tidiness, right? At first sight, a noble endeavor.
But here is where it gets really interesting: whenever I see a leaf blower in action, I see it blowing leaves away from a specific place. I don’t often come in contact with people blowing leaves toward a specific location so they can collect them later. It could be my urban bias, of course, as I am told not everyone does this, but in my experience, leaf blowers are the ultimate selfish garden tool: their purpose is to make your leaves someone else’s problem. Just blow them away from your sidewalk and onto the street, and the work is done.
In their self-centeredness, leaf-blowers are a perfect fit for our times. They are powerful, loud machines that are mainly used to get rid of short-term problems. The analogy would work even better if they only blew hot air around, like so much of our world seems to do these days. A step further, the leaf-blowing process is an involved one, giving us the illusion of achievement: we walk around, we hear the noise, we see leaves move, and our patios and gardens end up cleaner than before. It’s like we are really doing something good.
But if we are not collecting the leaves we are moving around, are we really making things better?
That’s a question that can go far beyond our gardens and patios. In fact, the leaf-blowing concept is one that we ought to bring to the forefront of our emotional and spiritual lives. With everything else that we do, are we just blowing unpleasant leaves away from our immediate sphere of influence, or are really trying to tidy up the global village?
And that’s the big difference.
There is a lot of unconscious “leaf-blowing” out there. It can happen more often than we think and on scales big and small. We do it every time we say we don’t want affordable housing built near us because it may lower our neighborhood’s real-estate prices; when we preach the homeless should be taken off our street and moved “somewhere else”; when we take advantage of a loophole to pay fewer taxes; and even when our kids get in a fight in school and we just “let the teachers handle it.” And if you ever pretended to be asleep so your significant other or family member has to deal with your crying child late at night or early in the morning, you are a fellow leaf blower too. The examples are countless. We have all done it, one way or another. In fact, at times we have become so good at it that we actually hire someone else to blow our leaves for us.
To be fair, we cannot expect that we will always be international and aware. We won’t always get it right — and that’s ok. But we should be making an effort and, hopefully, getting it right more often than not. Maybe that first step is being intentional about becoming aware. In other words, making it a habit of asking ourselves if we gathering the stray leaves around us or scattering them onto somebody else’s patch. And that’s ultimately because of a simple reason: the leaves you gather today won’t land in my garden tomorrow — and vice-versa. But if we keep blowing our leaves around the place, you and I will continuously have to deal with each other’s leaves day in and day out as I send them to you and you send them back to me. In short, doing the right work for the long run pays off.
If you are gathering the leaves you are blowing, then kudos to you. You are making the world a better place — and not just for yourself. We need more of you in it. But if you are just leaf-blowing things around, have no illusions: you are making things harder not just for your neighbors but also for yourself as those leaves are going to find their way back to your garden sooner or later — in this lifetime or the next. The choice is always ours.
So, in the interest of a better community and happier lives, let’s put down those leaf-blowers (figuratively or not) and pick up some rakes instead. There are plenty of leaves out there that need tending — and our ears could use a break from the noise too. We will all be better for it.