On Natural, and Less Natural, Approaches to the Autumn Season

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

This is part of the ongoing chronicle of a minor-seeming but conceptually significant effort in local community action. The conceptual significance, as set out mainly in this note, is that the lawn-machinery industry is an outlier in the past generation’s trend toward in tighter environmental standards and more awareness of worker-safety issues.

You can read all about that in the rest of this thread. Today, sharply diverging views on the right way to handle the seasonal bounty of leaves from the trees.


From the National Wildlife Federation: Leave ‘em be!  [Hardee har!] The full argument is here. This screenshot will give you the idea:

USA Today weighed in to the same effect last year.


From a reader in Minnesota: Yeah, just leave ‘em there! The reader writes:

Leaf blowers are an admirable opponent. But I would appreciate it even more if you could point out to folks the glories of leaves laying around fertilizing the lawn (naturally) and encouraging all kinds of wonderful life.

I know it seems like too much to ask—to get people stop polluting the air with noise and dust—and then pressing them into loving a yard covered with beautiful leaves. And it is probably a step too far.

Maybe they could think about gathering up the leaves and composting them?  Imagine that sweet black earth next spring.


Hell no! Blow ‘em away! From a reader who lives in the countryside outside Washington DC, who begs to differ:

I wish you well: bravo!  My advisor used to get worked up into a fury over how much oil two-stoke jet-skis drop.  But I think your claim about the relative (functional—not environmental) merits of electric leaf blowers is way off, too.

I have an acre of land.  Half of it is forested—I will shoot you some AMAZING red and gray fox photos which have been my obsession for years—and the other, grassy half we live on, but it has a score of old, mature trees on it; I typically take a week off work in November to rake.  It doesn’t help that the land slopes drastically and has a lot of erosion problems—water has worn deep furrows in a few places and every year I landscape just a bit more to try to control it.

When we moved in, though, I resolved to use nothing but hand powered tools.  Mostly that's ended up being a pride thing—it's nice to look at your full, green grass and know the force of your arm cut every single blade—but it was motivated by the idea that if I were going to live in the trees, I would like to be able to hear birds while I'm outside.

I was also curious about how folks used to do this stuff.  I like hand tools.  I like the mechanism that couples the wheel of a reel mower to the blades.  And I hate this time of year when all the leafblowers are going all the time outside, and I can't hear birds—for that matter peoples' lawnmowers wreck my precious weekend afternoons too.

But after a couple years I made one concession, and bought a plug-in Toro leaf blower/vac.  As far as I can tell it was—and might still be—the most powerful thing you can get that's corded, and it's way, way more powerful than the 40V battery set-ups.  I rarely use it on the lawn—the leaves are so plentiful and the geography so bizarre that it doesn't save you that much time—but the gulleys—man, those suck.  You have to do them by hand, and it takes hours and hours and hours as you squat or lie on your stomach, and if you say “the hell with it” and don't do it then when the next big rain comes it etches a lot out of your yard.

The blower makes those possible, at least within the cord range (and, 100 feet of 12-gauge cord is expensive) so I use it. And I don't merit anybody's sympathy: I mean, I chose to live in the trees, I knew it'd be work.  I think if you have the opportunity to hear a wood thrush or to surprise a big ol' prehistoric-looking pileated woodpecker while you work and you give that up to fire up a lawnmower, then maybe you should give up your house to somebody who appreciates the thrush, and move to a nice condo in the city.

But, man, my retired neighbor has this gas-powered backpack blower.  It is un-fricking-believable.  I mean, you need hearing protection if he's using it nearby but he clears out his whole yard in like a half an hour.

Then he asks if he can do mine.  I usually say no—I need the exercise —but once or twice it's felt rude, and I've let him do it, and—man, oh, man.  He's like some kind of wizened old autumnal god.  I'm half his age and twice his size and he can do in an hour what would take me two or three days.

So I feel pretty sure that while people should be willing, if they want to live in trees, to use more environmentally friendly tools—let’s not put out the fiction that those tools are comparable.  They aren't.  Gas tools are, as the kids say, the shiznit.  People just gotta accept that you get all this nature but it costs you something in effort and time.  Ain’t nothing free.

It’s a big complicated country. With intriguing differences between wizened old autumnal gods working their own country fields and the professional lawncare establishment. Thanks to all, more to come.