The great leaf war

Note: I’m snowed so until the end of the year I’m running some stories from long ago. This column ran 10 years ago, Nov. 3, 2000, in The Register-Guard.

NOVEMBER ARRIVES and I find myself musing over Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” particularly the lines:

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,

Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead

Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing … .

I’m not sure, but I surmise the English Romantic poet was saying something profound about overzealous individuals and their gas-powered leaf blowers.

I confess, this is a hard time of year for me: Just as the Willamette Valley comes ablaze in a collage of color, The Leaf Brigade hits the yards and streets to vanquish that “breath of Autumn’s being.”

The brigade comes in two forms: the armed-to-the-teeth citizens who attack with a sort of guerilla-warfare approach, a blitzkrieg with blowers, and the city of Eugene’s 1st Infantry Division, which launched its annual all-out assault Monday after dividing the battleground into five sectors.

My dilemma in all this is the collision between practicality and aesthetics. I understand that, left unattended, leaves can kill grass, makes bicyclists and pedestrians slip, add pollutants to our stream system and – who knows? – perhaps cause teen-agers to turn to lives of crime.

But what bothers me is that this attack comes in what’s an otherwise enjoyable lull in the year. It is a quiet season, save for one presidential candidate who wants to turn the country into Texas and another so intent on chest-strutting that I expect sometime before Tuesday he’ll announce he invented The Wave and was The Fifth Beatle.

It is a season to clean up from summer and batten down for winter. A season for quiet and contemplation. A season for – if it absolutely, positively has to be done – rakes.

THEN, WITH NO warning, they strike: The leaf blowers, under whose command “leaves dead are driven” from lawn to street. Not once. Not twice. But over and over, as if every fallen leaf were an enemy paratrooper that must be snuffed upon landing.

(Years ago, in downtown Eugene, I actually saw a guy aim his blower on leaves still attached to trees, knocking them down so he could blow them away. Doesn’t this sort of defeat the purpose of a tree? It’s like a man shaving his head because he figures he’ll go bald someday anyway.)

I am pro-choice when it comes to power tools; I use some myself. But what bothers me about leaf blowers is the sheer duration of the drone; they’re like leaving your electric sander on during dinner.

Some people’s obsession with leaf-sanitized lawns, I theorize, is rooted in Oregon’s relatively wimpy winters. Because the state faces so little in the way of harsh winter weather, some Oregonians have adopted leaf-blowing as a surrogate struggle, a stand-in for snow-blowing.

What we see from afar is someone in goggles and ear protectors – an engine mounted on his back – blowing leaves while new ones fall where he just blew. What the blower sees is a Suburban Rocketeer, individual and machine melded as one to gallantly protect Yard and Family from the beastly onslaught of, say, a pink flowering dogwood.

Once these footsoldiers have softened up the enemy, the city troops swoop in to mop up with their trucks and loaders, not to mention their giant, leaf-sucking vacuum cleaner that could probably gobble up David Oreck and his entire vacuum-cleaner empire.

These are seasoned troops, soldiers who have seen the horrors of war – the sidewalk stain of oak leaves that overstayed their welcome, the pile of big leaf maples hiding a missing VW, the European birches clogging a storm drain.

Last year, these troops – call them the Brown Berets – picked up nearly 4,000 tons of leaves in Eugene, virtually all them recycled back into the community in the form of mulch, fertilizer or garden covers.

“We do our darnedest,” says Sgt. Richard Zucker, more commonly known as the city’s maintenance crew supervisor. “We have our battle maps and go into each of the five sections and get as much as possible.”

One by one, millions of leaves – like “ghosts from an enchanter fleeing” – will be captured and redeployed in the next 10 weeks, and I understand the whys behind this offensive.

Still, there’s much to be said for a quiet Sunday afternoon, a good book – Shelley perhaps – and a lawn of untouched leaves.

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