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Blowing leaves

At this season of the year, when the leaves fall from the trees, it is possible to observe in leafy suburban areas one of the more curious customs of this society -- leaf blowing.

In ones or small groups, men wander the streets with specially manufactured leaf-blowing machines strapped to their backs. (There seems to be some taboo against women engaging in this custom.) When switched on, these machines blow gusts of air through an attached tube. The operator guides the tube to blow leaves, as well as dust and other debris, off the ground in certain areas (the so-called "clear areas") until they settle in certain other areas (the "target areas").

People who are unfamiliar with the leaf-blowing custom often wonder how the location and boundaries of these clear and target areas are determined. My investigation has revealed that "clear areas" consist of yards, drives, and stretches of sidewalk adjacent to buildings whose owners, residents or users have agreed to pay the leaf blowers or their employers to clear away leaves. Conversely, "target areas" are adjacent to buildings whose owners, residents or users have refused to pay for said service, despite repeated opportunities to do so.

Why, however, is leaf clearing regarded as a valuable service? Why is reluctance to clear leaves regarded as a sin to be punished? After all, leaves are often beautiful. Dry they make a pleasant crunchy sound when trodden underfoot. They protect and enrich the soil as compost. One might therefore have expected people to pay to have leaves moved onto rather than away from their property. So far I have failed to clarify this mystery.

Leaf moving has very unpleasant effects for the passerby. The dust blown into the air gets in your face and makes you cough and sputter, while the mechanical noise intrudes for a considerable distance, drowning out birdsong and other more pleasurable sounds. It must be incomparably worse for the leaf blowers themselves, whose exposure to the dust and noise is almost continuous and who wear no protective devices. The total waste of labor and energy in this flagrantly irrational activity must be quite significant.

So why do they do it? However harmful and irrational it may be in terms of the social interest, it is a way of making some money for men who would otherwise be unemployed and without means of livelihood. This makes it a rational activity in their eyes. If they can get someone to pay them for doing it, that is sufficient justification and they do not feel the need to inquire further. On the contrary, when I tried to explain to a leaf blower the harm that he was doing, he made motions with his finger that I interpreted as meaning that I was insane.

Stephen Shenfield Blog

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