Leaf Blowers, Lawn Mowers and the Pursuit of Happiness

In the early days of spring in Colorado I sat in the cool morning air listening to the birds who found the newly stocked bird feeder, to the wind blowing through the leaves of the neighbor’s cottonwood trees and to the distant screaming of pumped up soccer parents at the fields several blocks away. Ah, the sounds of annual renewal! And then – as thoughts drifted to the gloriousness of patios and coffee – came the anti-pastoral sounds of a 2-cycle gas engine, ostensibly grooming the yard nearby to precise specifications that would be out of tolerance before the machine was again quieted, followed by the shrill whine of a leaf blower sending the last blades of grass aloft to the street. Sounds of spring, indeed. Anyone who has endured my take on lawn machinery will be tired of hearing this, but I view leaf blowers with a disdain normally reserved for ineffective politicians (yes, I know “ineffective politicians” sounds redundant, but there are actually a few still around who do their job). Come to think of it, they are quite similar; they make a lot of noise blowing things around that just end up settling in another place. But I digress.

The leaf blower found its way into the hearts and ears of Americans in a big way in the early 1970s, after it was discovered that the same device that was used to spread fertilizer (ah, another political reference!) and pesticides in agriculture could be modified to save time in the pursuit of lawn maintenance. There is little doubt that leaf blowers in whatever iteration are quicker than using a broom or a rake. In a half-hearted attempt to seek balance, I concede that there are times when these devices just make practical sense. Cleaning up after 40,000 of your friends at sporting arenas or mass public marches to save the planet comes to mind. Removing leaves from rocky landscapes, natural or artificial, is another of the more reasonable uses. Putting this genie back in the bottle is a futile pursuit, but in the interest of neighbor relations, a lower-tech alternative for most applications – like that broom or rake – would be a welcome alternative. A conversation with passing neighbors is more likely when they aren’t being enveloped in dust or engine exhaust (the 2-cycle engine emits as much air pollution in an hour as seventeen cars driving slowly), or being pelted with lawn waste. Of course, one could always turn off the machine and engage in conversation before resuming the task. I haven’t seen that, but it’s possible. One could speculate that operating within the din of machinery is a deliberate act of avoiding human interaction, but that would be a cynical supposition, so I’ll assume people are just preoccupied with lawn maintenance.

Of the benefits of exercise between the rake and the leaf blower I’m less certain. The rake will trim somewhere around 150-plus calories off a 185-pound individual (my dream weight) in a half hour. Keep in mind, that activity is done at around 20db, with minimum disturbance of ground-source dust, unless you live in, say, Lubbock, where dust is part of the landscape. The pollutants – both noise and air quality – are being addressed with time, but no amount of efficiency will bring these devices in line with the non-machine alternative. And even leaf-blower advocates encourage courteous operation, like avoiding operation during the blissfully quiet hours of a beautiful spring morning. For example.

The lawn, that element of suburban living that both delights and enslaves us – and for which leaf blowers and other mechanical devices were invented – was predated by areas of closely-cropped fields surrounding medieval castles to give guards a clear view of various predators, human and otherwise. One might logically assume that this became less of an issue as civilization transitioned to the relatively less-hostile suburbs. Lawns for purposes other than a clear view came sometime around the thirteenth century in the form of bowling greens, or “bowls greens,” expanses of close-cropped grass on which early gatherings of sports enthusiasts played the game of bowls. This activity involves round stones or metal balls (or, more recently, wooden balls) that are rolled to the proximity of a smaller ball, called a “jack” or “kitty.” The oldest known bowling green still in operation is located at Southampton, England, which first hosted the game in the year 1299. It is speculated by bowls historians (an exclusive club, I would presume) that the Egyptians played a game that was a precursor to bowls – skittles – dating back as far as 3,000-5,000 B.C. Actually, the game of skittles, using pins, is more closely associated with modern bowling alleys. The home of the modern version of bowls is Scotland, but the game is played in more than 40 countries around the world, including the United States, although “bowls” in the context of U.S. sports is more likely to be referring to end-of-season football.

The evolution of residential lawns began somewhere around the early seventeenth century. These areas were confined to the wealthiest of households, in large part because the maintenance of the landscape transitioned from grazing sheep to significant human labor. It is suggested by Bill Bryson in his wonderful book At Home that George Washington is actually the father of the American lawn, although this may have been attributed to the bowling green at Mt. Vernon, which was summarily converted to an orchard when, vilifying all things British, the American Revolution broke out. Much later, Frederick Olmstead, of New York Central Park fame, brought the concept of turf areas to the public eye, but the launch of suburban lawns really got a jump start with the often-maligned birth of suburbia in Levittown, Long Island, in the early 1950s.

A study by NASA indicated that lawns cover more surface area than any irrigated crop in America. The consequences of this in environmental terms are somewhat staggering. “’Even conservatively,’ [researcher Cristina] Milesi says, ‘I estimate there are three times more acres of lawns in the U.S. than irrigated corn.’ This means lawns—including residential and commercial lawns, golf courses, etc.—could be considered the single largest irrigated crop in America in terms of surface area, covering about 128,000 square kilometers [49,421 square miles] in all.” This seems a great setup for discussing using suburban lawns for food production. Later.

There are, of course, the environmental impacts of turf to be considered. Citing the same NASA study, if all U.S. lawns were regularly watered for reasonable yard health, it would take around 200 gallons per person per day of what is, more likely than not, fresh, drinkable water. Even with “normal” weather patterns, Mother Nature forgets to send moisture with the regularity required for a lush lawn. Set aside, for the moment, the folly of re-creating boreal landscapes in, say, Phoenix, or Denver, for that matter. We are now seeing the consequences of that pesky global climate change thing, so all bets are off on “normal” weather patterns. As predicted by virtually all climate scientists, the cycles of precipitation and drought, and temperature highs and lows, are breaking out of the normal ranges, to our peril. So, all of the rain and/or snow for an entire year is more likely to fall in fewer events than spread out over the year, with longer periods of no precipitation whatsoever. Turf grasses tend to need more predictability, which brings us back to irrigation for the sake of green grass. Around forty percent of the water use in the summer is used for outdoor use, including watering lawns. One deterrent for this activity, as far as I can tell, is high water bills. A solution is landscaping to fit the climate within which one resides.

Xeriscape® (from the Latin “xeri-,”meaning dry) was first coined in the City of Denver in 1981, recognizing the serious challenges of a high desert climate and a growing population. The idea of creating attractive landscapes that more accurately capture the beauty of the local environment seems obvious, until one mixes in the human factor. In our mobile culture, where free movement about the country will place us in substantially diverse climate zones, the tendency is to re-create the same micro-environment that we left behind, presumably because it’s comfortable and familiar. When my family moved from Marion, Ohio to Lubbock, Texas, we found that the gardening and fruit tree activities were severely curtailed, no matter how much water we pumped into the red dirt posing as soil. The average rainfall in Marion is about 39 inches per year, and 41 inches of precipitation if you include snowfall. In Lubbock, it’s about 19 and 20, respectively. In Denver, we get about 15 and 20. Yet, regardless of the climate zone (I just highlighted three), we attempt to duplicate the suburban estate look. As a consequence, aquifers and water tables are dropping precipitously. Lawns aren’t the only culprits, of course. The vast Ogallala Aquifer that supplies much of the water for the Great Plains and a $20 billion dollar agriculture industry is in a state of continuous decline from irrigation. Given that scientists estimate it would take 6,000 years to replenish it when it goes dry, farmers in the area are getting a lot more excited about alternative methods (and crops) that slow the drain.

There is, happily, some climate benefit to lawns, although I would be loath to consider it enough of an offset to justify leaf blowers; but still, there is actually a carbon sink aspect to lawns, as long as the clippings are either left on the ground or composted. Apparently, the act of composting, which actually releases another greenhouse gas – methane – is offset by the increased health of the lawn that absorbs CO2. Science is a remarkable thing.

Lawns as personal space afford some great benefits, of course. Those benefits are mostly emotional, but one must not ignore the physical perks, like working the back muscles while fending off the inevitable onslaught of weeds and expanding the garden in a noble attempt to minimize the actual turf area, while simultaneously making sure the turf is healthy enough to mow once or twice a week. What normal human being doesn’t want to spend several hours a week during the spring and summer maintaining turf for the pure joy of it? Even as I write this, the irony of maintaining a lawn gives me pause.

The lawn mower, first patented in 1830, gave rise to consistency in the height of the turf, and, humans not missing an opportunity to regulate something, focused attention on specifications and codes for said turf height. Homeowners associations have a tendency toward regulation excess, it seems. To wit, grass height restrictions, meant to homogenize the appearance of the neighborhood, are blind to the water needs of the community at large.

Apparently, lawn mowing for the sake of a manicured lawn didn’t cut it for some, so to speak. While not exactly “street legal,” individuals with way too much time on their hands have taken to racing – or, at least embellishing the speed of – riding lawn mowers. Bob Cleveland, from Locust Grove, Alabama, held the land speed record for lawn mowers in 2006, exceeding 80 miles an hour on a souped-up riding lawn mower.  He broke that record in 2010, mowing down the competition with a 96 MPH run at Bonneville Salt Flats. More recently, according to Guinness, the current record is 133.57 mph, held by Per-Kristian Lundefaret of Norway (does Norway even have lawns?). Per-Kristian made his run at Torp Sandefjord Airfield, Vestfold, Norway, on November 5, 2015 (Guinness, n.d.). All of this begs the question, “why?” But, as one geek magazine put it, if you have to ask, you wouldn’t understand.

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