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Breaking the Silence on Leaf Blowers

Liz Lerner

It was a perfect Sunday morning — barely 8 a.m. — and I was walking in conservation land, enjoying the sun and the calm of birdsong. And then came a sound that has become more ubiquitous on Cape Cod than fried clams: a leaf blower.

Did I mention it was 8 a.m. on a Sunday?

Holy nails on a blackboard! There are certainly worse sounds in the world — brakes squeaking; spouses snoring; that person at work who smacks her lips when she eats. But is there anything else that seems to be so intrusive, so everywhere, as a leaf blower?  

Amid all the visual beauty that surrounds us, it’s easy to lose track of how important sound is to our sense of place. I’ve never been one to take my soundtrack with me — if for no other reason than I want to hear that car coming behind me. But with headphones there is so much I would miss: the call of spring peepers; the scuttle of an animal in the bush; a fish jumping in the mill pond; the screech of an osprey; the sound of my own sneakers hitting the pavement.

Even on the Cape, a place that still has wildness, it’s rare to find a spot where man-made noises fade, where we can’t hear the hum of Route 6 or the clang of construction. But we should treasure the moments of natural soundscape that we do have; not distort it with the endless drone of leaf-blowers and other yard equipment.

But before I continue this rant, let me defend landscapers. They work hard. They depend on efficient tools to clear as many lawns as quickly as possible and to make a reasonable living. Raking a lawn – to say nothing of big public spaces like cemeteries and school fields – requires a lot of labor. And, assuming landscapers are wearing ear protection, a leaf blower can be easier on their bodies than hours of raking.

But listen up: The issue with leaf blowers isn’t just sound – which at 80 to 115 decibels is well above the 85 decibels that the National Institutes of Health says can be damaging. Gas-powered leaf blowers emit pollutants, including carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides and hydrocarbons. The California Air Resources board estimates that one hour of leaf blowing is the equivalent to driving a Toyota Camry 1,100 miles. Yes, 1,100 miles.

They also kick up topsoil, fertilizer, mold, pollen, and animal waste – not so great for you or the perennial border. And then there’s the gasoline that gets tipped into the groundwater as we try to fill their little gas tanks.

So what can we do to help sustain not only our soundscape but our greater world?

Lower your expectations. If you require a pristine yard, rake or at least use an electric blower, which is less noisy and polluting. If you hire a landscaper, talk about ways to cut down on leaf-blower use. Use a mulching mower and leave the leaves to feed your lawn. If you want more tips, go online to Westchester County’s initiative on leaves called Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em.

One afternoon I walked past a man who had raked up a 2-foot deep pile of leaves on his front lawn. By my reaction you would have thought I had stumbled into the 18th century. Omigosh, I said, you’re not using a blower.

“Nope, raking keeps me in shape and, if I stay ahead of it, you’d be surprised what you can do in an hour,” he said.

Yes, I thought, you can help save the world. I like the sound of that.