New leaves

Blow on?

Blow on?

(Come friend Aunt Ruthie on Facebook and let’s hang out.)

Ah, autumn in Sacramento! Let people with time on their hands fly to New England for the pretty fall leaves while they’re still on the trees. Here in Sacramento, passions run strongest once the leaves are off the trees and blown this way and that by leaf blowers. Or, perhaps, blown this way and that by people debating leaf blowers.

Whether the debate roils in your own front yard, or on the pages of this newspaper (see “Dirt blasters!” by Muriel Strand, SN&R Essay, October 28), more than 20 California cities (not Sacramento) have banned gas or gas-and-electric blowers. The New Yorker did a recent piece on the blower wars in Orinda, Calif. With typical wit (“Noise is very powerful. We’ve used Britney Spears songs on Guantánamo Bay prisoners”) and Los Angeles history (“Blowers were hailed as an environmental boon: when Los Angeles was suffering from a water shortage … the city instructed municipal workers to use [blowers], rather than the traditional thumb stream from a hose, to clean sidewalks”), the blower debate—noise, pollution, race, labor—has it all. A microcosm of society as we know it, revved up to speed by a four-stroke engine.

Aunt Ruthie hates raking leaves. Just hates it. It’s slow, exacting, and the damn leaves never stay where they’re told. Work best left to professionals, so goes Ruthie’s rationale. While an L.A. study claimed a grandmother using a rake and broom took only 20 percent longer to clean a test plot than a gardener with a blower, Ruthie doubts it. Or, rather, that kind of grandmother only comes along once in a while, and Ruth won’t be her in her golden years.

It always struck Ruthie more as a labor issue—those who make a living in California gardens aren’t generally white-skinned and aren’t as welcome in America as they might be—and they are, coincidentally, harangued for wielding a labor-saving device in public. The New Yorker reports that when Los Angeles proposed a ban in 1998, 10 Latino gardeners responded with a hunger strike in front of City Hall.

And yet, in reading all the debate, it’s clearly more than a labor thing. It is a noise issue, and a pollution issue. Fair-minded people hate that sound and probably voted against John McCain on the immigration issue alone. But—really—aren’t leaf blowers here to stay? And isn’t that the place to start, as we search for more eco-friendly solutions?