Leave the Leaves


photo of a man standing among trees

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, using the sun’s energy to transform carbon dioxide into carbohydrates and to decompose water into oxygen and hydrogen. The resulting complex compound, glucose, is the universal and basic energy source for all living organisms.

Yet by the late twentieth century, humans, irritated by fallen leaves, created a fossil fuel-driven industrial machine – the highly polluting, two-stroke engine leaf blower – to disrupt leaves’ natural cycle. Seeing leaves as a nuisance, something dirty and unclean, some homeowners and landscapers have taken to blowing them away with mini tornadoes. Photo Laurent AlfieriTargeted winds of up to 200 mph destroy the habitats and lives of many bees, insects, and other tiny creatures. The blowers launch toxins into the air, which we then breath into our lungs.

The machines are also loud. Their annoying whine disturbs the peace and quiet of autumn and invades homes with needless ruckus. I find it sad to see men armed with wind weapons attacking something as small and fragile as a leaf. The scene reminds me of an old John Muir quote: “The gross heathenism of civilization has generally destroyed nature, and poetry, and all that is spiritual.”

I’m glad, then, that a blowback is brewing against the leaf blowers. In the small Northern California town of Sebastopol, City Council member Guy Wilson, now the town’s vice mayor, brought a proposal to a November, 2009 public meeting that the city consider a ban on leaf blowers. Residents have been studying the matter and commenting on the possible ban, mainly in favor, and the issue is scheduled to be on the council’s agenda this fall or winter.

In nearby Orinda, CA, a community group called Quiet Orinda, formed in 2009, is proposing a similar ban and working to organize other local communities against leaf blowers. They have the backing of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. In a February 2010 letter, the district’s executive officer wrote: “The Air District recommends that leaf blowers not be used in local communities to avoid causing difficulty for people with breathing difficulties.”

In its online brochure “Particulate Matter Air Pollution,” the California Air Resources Board recommends the following: “Avoid using leaf blowers and other dust-producing equipment to cut down particulate matter.” Airborne particulate matter accumulates and contributes to serious respiratory illness. Some California cities are listening. In Marin County, Mill Valley, Belvedere, and Tiburon restrict leaf blowers. In Los Angeles, a group called Zero Air Pollution successfully lobbied the Los Angeles City Council to pass a partial leaf blower ban in l998.

Unfortunately, the bans aren’t making much of a dent yet. An estimated three million leaf bowers currently pollute the United States. Their numbers are rising rapidly. Most newer and all older gas-operated leaf blowers have two-stroke engines. They are worse than automobiles in terms of fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Twenty-five to 30 percent of raw, unburned fuel is spewed out of the two-stroke engine’s exhaust, approximately 1.5 gallons per hour of operation.

But perhaps most troublesome is the fact that they turn a beneficial natural product into a problem. Leaves deserve more respect. When leaves fall to the ground and remain there, they literally dig in. Even when brown and dead, their transformative work continues – first as mulch, then as compost, eventually integrating into the soil the nourishment that sustains plants and so much of life.

So lets leave the leaves on the ground where they fall. Let’s allow them to do their humble labor of transforming sunlight into soil. We should do nothing more than sweep them into piles. Broom not blow, I say!

Dr. Shepherd Bliss teaches at Sonoma State University in Northern California and has run an organic farm for almost 20 years. He has contributed to more than two dozen books, most recently to the Sierra Club’s Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind. He can be reached at sb3 at pon.net.

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