Friday, November 6, 2015

Thank goodness Rachel Carson didn't own a leafblower

Leafblower-toting middle-aged men infest my suburban Waterloo neighbourhood. This sub-species is most active at this time of year. As the leaves start to drop – first from the borer-infected ash trees, then the native maples, then the Norway maples – you see these individuals stalking their immaculately trimmed and edged yards, air blasting from the throbbing plastic tube grasped pelvis-high. They start with a first pass, sending drifts of dry crackly leaves to the gutter, where they pile and clog the sewer grates and cause rainwater to pond on the road. Although the city posts signs asking them to wait for a specified collection date, leafblowing season waits for no man and no bylaw. After the initial pass, leafblower man goes back over the battlefield and carefully hunts down the smaller, wetter leaves that dared to resist his initial onslaught. Once these have been thoroughly dispatched, the proud groundskeeper scans for any last survivors that be clinging obstinately to the grass, enjoying the throbbing pulse of his trusty machine against his sacrum for a few final seconds before gently disengaging and returning it to its hook in the garage. This ritual he must repeat the next day, for there is nothing capricious Mother Nature likes better than despoiling a clean, green slate of a lawn with a fresh smattering of leaves during the night.

If it sounds like I am contemptuous of leafblower-clutching suburbanites, it’s because I am. There are few things more irritating than having to hear the drone of some fool’s leafblower on a warm autumn day. Whenever I see one of these guys I think to myself: I hope he believes in reincarnation. Why? Because I don’t. I believe that I will only get one go-round on this planet. With a little luck and good health, I can expect to get the average Canadian male’s 80 years on the Earth, the first several of which I spent dependent on others, soiling my diapers, losing teeth, and generally unaware of my surroundings (my last few years could be spent similarly for all I know). Given my present age, I’ve already burned through more than half of my best days on the planet. I’m darn sure I’m not going to squander a single moment of the dwindling number of fine autumn days that remain to me by mindlessly toting a leafblower around my yard. So I hope for leafblower man’s sake he’s thinking he has more lives ahead of him; otherwise, his behaviour is simply irrational, and a bit sad. 

I was riding my bike to work the other morning, on my way to teach my 2nd-year students about Rachel Carson, when the sight of a newly leafblown lawn made me think: thank goodness Rachel Carson didn’t own a leafblower. I don’t know if it’s just middle aged men that are so easily distracted by leafblowers, perhaps middle-aged women are, too. If they are, I would hate to think what might have become of North America and North Americans had Carson spent her autumn days idly chasing leaves around her garden. She probably would not have had enough time to compose Silent Spring, one of the single-most important pieces of writing in the 20th century. Without Silent Spring, President Kennedy would not have called an inquiry into the environmental impacts of indiscriminate use of chemical pesticides. Without Silent Spring, the US Environmental Protection Agency – the model for government environment regulatory bodies the world over, and still the best of them all – might not have been created for many more years, perhaps never. Even with all the pressure created by Silent Spring, the toxin DDT* was not banned in North America until the 1970s. Would it have ever been banned had Silent Spring not been written? Probably, but it would have been many more years in coming.

Rachel Carson wasn’t given 80 years on the planet; she only had 56, the last several of which were spent battling breast cancer. We should all be very thankful she chose to use her unfairly short ration of good days writing the book that would catalyze the modern environmental movement, the era of environmental regulation, and a still-growing public awareness of the importance of nature. Had she chosen to clutch a leafblower instead of a pen, our environment might be in a lot rougher shape than it is.


If you haven’t ever read Silent Spring, or if it’s been a while since you last did, pick up a copy. It’s still timely, readable, and thought provoking, even after 50+ years. If you don’t have the time to read it, at least watch this short CBS news video about her life and legacy. She really was a remarkable person, someone we might all aspire to be like.

* Just how persistently toxic is DDT? To this day, birds are still dying from feeding on the grounds of a DDT factory in Michigan that was abandoned in the 1960s.

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