22 Apr Leaf Blower Rant

Yesterday, a yard worker wielding a leaf blower chased me along the sidewalk, a leaf-cluttered blast of hot wind gusting at my back.

You’ve seen this guy: he wears shades and a baseball cap, a plaid shirt and jeans, he’s got a gas-motor strapped to his back and a fat hose gripped in one hand, with which he’s blasting leaves and dust from the corners of buildings and across walkways and parking lots. He carries his rig like a high-tech weapon (think of Ripley in “Alien”). It alternately whines and roars. At full throttle its noise travels a good half mile.

The blower-man spends his days aiming it at ephemera — leaves and twigs and litter and handfuls of dust. If you’ve watched him in action, you may have wondered at the amount of energy expended to move these tidbits from one place to the other. It takes a long time. You may wonder: Wouldn’t a broom do the job in half the time and at a fraction of the cost? Figure in gas consumption, CO-2 emissions, and noise pollution. Oh, and don’t forget ear damage because it appears that most of these guys aren’t wearing hearing protection. By the day’s end the blower-man must hear nothing but the hiss and ring of tinnitus.

Mind you, the blower wasn’t his idea. He works with whatever you hand him. He’s got no say in the matter. Somebody higher up — supervisors and managers — thought the leaf blower was a good idea. The damned thing was invented by Gustaf Doragrip in 1980. He called it a “shoulder-supported pneumatic sweeping apparatus.” Stockholm-based Electrolux first marketed it. Gustaf was doing what inventors do, I suppose, finding a niche for a perceived need. But, my god, if you’ve every raked leaves or swept a drive, you know that it’s really not hard work and, in fact, can be quite relaxing — because it’s a simple, easily contained task that allows you time to settle into the day and loll in your thoughts.

The leaf-blower destroys this gentle chore and, in its stead, creates a portable trauma that the yardman carries hither and yon, startling children from naps, inciting dogs to howl, drowning out phone conversations, and everywhere cracking the calm of the day with a hurricane’s roar. There is nothing at all necessary about this machine. It’s not like a jackhammer or a lawn mower, whose work accepts no substitute. The leaf-blower is so over-muscled for its intended task, it is nothing more than a practical joke of technology. It’s the equivalent of using a flamethrower to light your backyard barbecue. Fifty years from now, our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will look back at our leaf blowers and laugh, much the way we now laugh at video games like Pong or 1960’s computers that were as big as a bus and good for little more than sorting recipes.