Here is something I wrote in 2016 and may be relevant today, given current events, and leaves. And leaf blowers.

There are some who say it’s best to leave alone the menacing piles of orange leaves that fall into our yards from the massive old maple trees that dot our lovely neighborhoods, because, as we know, seasons change. Plus, to have too much involvement with the leaves disrupts the natural course of things. This, perhaps, is a disagreement for another day.

Let’s start with the assumption that it is a good idea to get rid of the insurmountable orange pile so that the plants and grass will not be smothered over the coming months. That, in order for the plants and grass to do well in the spring and for years to come, it’s best if they don’t have a heavy pile of jagged-edged orange leaves atop their little potential sprouts.

Let’s go next to my existing strategies for the leaf menace. First strategy: I have a huge rake. Like as wide as a big maple tree trunk which sometimes makes it hard to use in tight corners with delicate plants underfoot, and which sometimes makes my hip hurt after about twenty minutes. Second, I have an electric leaf blower that does a decent job in the corners but is attached to an extension cord that constantly gets stuck on fence posts and shrubs. Technically, this one is really just the vacuum in my shop-vac with the switch turned from “suck” to “blow” [bonus points for Spaceballs reference here]. Third, I am pleased with my recent purchase of a battery-powered leaf blower that not only has a special mulching feature, but that also does a great job anywhere but only for about ten minutes and then the battery runs out. Plus, I have to hold it crooked, which makes my hip hurt. Finally, I also have a neighbor with a kick-ass gas powered leaf blower and he totally wins in terms of speed and quantity of leaves that can be blasted into the street and he sometimes blows the leaves off of our yard because he’s a great neighbor and good friend. AND, its power source is in the form of a backpack so if someone uses it, they’re hip won’t hurt. But it’s gas. Alas, the gas. Using the fossil fuels to rid the lawn of dead organic matter.

As you can see, the leaf menace is managed via multiple approaches, each with their own benefits. Each with their own costs. That seems like a good approach.

Between my rake, my two blowers that are fine but deficient for different reasons, and his powerhouse blower that stinks just a little bit, we get the leaves from his yard and mine into the street. And while we’re doing this, we talk about the weather, our dogs, any current health issues in his family or mine, and what we think about the other neighbors’ dogs. So many great dogs. All of whom hide when the leaf blowers come out, and only one of whom chases a rake when it scrapes across the sidewalk.

Recently I got to see a delightful social media exchange about the menace of leaf blowers in our community, which was followed by a fun in-person interaction where I admitted that I owned a leaf blower. It went something like this:

Person 1 on social media: Here’s an article about how leaf blowers are horrible.

Person 2 on social media: Yes they are horrible. People who have them are horrible.

Me, in person to Person 1: I have a leaf blower. It is battery-powered.

Me, in my head: I wonder if this person thinks I’m a horrible person.

Person 1, to me in person, as if reading my mind: Oh, you’re not a horrible person. I bet, also, that it’s quieter than gas ones.

Me, in person to Person 1: Well, it’s not that quiet. But I figure I make up for it by driving a Prius which is so quiet that I’ve almost run over eleven people who could not hear when I approach an intersection.

Me, in my head: His response makes me even more sure that I should not think of myself as a horrible person, because now my actions match what I perceive to be his assessment of me as a not-horrible person. But, I still wonder, am I doing this leaf menace management thing wrong?

This led to more in-my-head thoughts, some about what I thought about myself, and others about what I thought others may think of me and my leaf menace management (for you sociology nerds, this sure sounds like Cooley’s looking glass self – we see ourselves as we think others see us). Ultimately it led me to concoct what I now think of as the Layered Scorecard of Leaf Identity Politics. Scores, after all, can be determined in part by people thinking that others are doing it wrong. And then we believe what our score is if we believe that we, in fact, are doing it wrong. Here’s how that played out in my head:

Rake? How adorable that you’re trying to get rid of the orange menace. But raking is too slow and out of date, and therefore makes the orange leaf pile win. And plus it makes your hip hurt. You’re doing it wrong.

Gas blower? Bad for the environment and loud; plus I’m kind of jealous of the privilege you afford by virtue of your not having to worry about hip pain. You’re doing it wrong.

Electric blower? Seems reasonable, still loud, but that cord that keeps getting caught. It makes your work look so tiresome and futile. Plus, you’re disguising this leaf blower – it’s really a vacuum. You’re doing it wrong.

Battery-powered blower? Ooh, good for the environment, but since the charge doesn’t last, I’m annoyed by the noise that comes in intermittent parts of my day when I’m trying to watch the news. It’s not doing enough in the timeframe that works for me. You’re doing it wrong.

Neighborhood dog: I’m hearing you all saying “you’re doing it wrong” to any group who’s trying to rid the lawn of leaves in a way that’s different from your way. I’m hearing some of you say “you’re doing it wrong” to those whom you perceive to be incorrect because there are definitely bad and good ways to do it. I’m hearing some of you say “you’re doing it wrong” to those who say we should NOT be telling each other we’re doing it wrong because after all we’re all just trying to get rid of those horrible orange leaves. 

All of this makes my head spin in the midst of a leaf tornado. Which is particularly hard to rake, blow, or manage.

Each semester I have the opportunity to teach in my introductory sociology course about a concept called defensive othering. This is when we’re part of a group that has a negative label, but, at the same time we acknowledge we’re part of the group, we distance ourselves from the bad bits that people think of when they think of that group. As in, “don’t worry, I know I have a leaf blower, but at least it’s not gas-powered.” As in, “don’t worry, I know my leaf blower is gas-powered, but at least it’s so powerful that the noise doesn’t last long.”

As in, “don’t worry, I’m conservative, but I didn’t vote to keep the orange menace on our lawn.”

As in, “don’t worry, I’m liberal, but I’m not letting the leaves sit on my lawn [in the way that I think you’ll think is the way I should be managing them].”

As I told my students, the “don’t worry” part of these statements is precisely the moment when the looking-glass self takes shape. If we see ourselves as we think others see us, there may be others in our lives (in certain places, in certain times, in certain groups) whose opinion of us matters BECAUSE it makes us see ourselves differently.

When we ask ourselves whether we’re doing enough, or whether we’re doing it right, we’re often imagining the rightness to be assessed by others who want the same thing. But who may spend a lot of time telling us that the thing should be gotten another way.

This appears to be (yet another) autumn of discontent for the political left. So many places where people who want the leaves to be gone are telling other people who want the leaves to be gone that they’re ridding the lawn of leaves the wrong way.

I’m not so naive as to think any solution or progress can be reached by just getting along. But I have learned that focusing on the wrestling is valuable and transferable to lots of parts of life. Like the parts of life where we talk to our neighbors about that weird dog that chases rakes and, evidently, can hear what we’re saying to each other.

I’m not leaving my neighborhood. And I really appreciate the possibility of multiple approaches to managing the orange menace.

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