The weaponisation of suburban gardening turns autumn into a season of red mist for Edwin Heathcote
There is something a little mournful about autumn: the shortening of the days, the cooling of the weather, the gathering clouds and the symphony of gold, red and brown, followed by the slow striptease of the trees.
But it also has an elegiac quality, a reflective beauty when observed from the warm quiet of indoors, the breeze wafting in through a slightly open window. Which is all torn apart by the arrival of one of the absolute worst inventions of the modern era: the leaf blower.
These contraptions, often worn flame-thrower style on the back with a gun-type nozzle, are the Dyson dryers of the outdoors: noisy, noisome, disruptive doses of portable pain. They leech pollution from their crappy two-stroke engines (which is what Trabants used to stink up the streets of Eastern Bloc Europe) and they make a noise that is utterly impossible to ignore. All for the sake of moving leaves a few yards from one pile to another.
Their toxic roots lie in that great polluting age of endless American consumer product innovation, the 1950s. Early leaf blowers were adaptations of portable crop-dusters designed to deliver lethal doses of poisonous pesticides to agricultural smallholdings. They were quickly exploited as new, wholly unnecessary tools to sell to the aspirational suburban middle classes; a new weapon against the sins of silence and inactivity.
They exude a kind of weaponised machismo that is clearly aimed at something elemental in the suburban male. They are often used by low-income workers and homeowners intent on spoiling the silence of that one beautiful Indian summer morning in an autumn garden.
Now, instead of toxic spray, the poisons these devices push form a hideous mix of exhaust fumes and particulates – everything from dust to dog shit via pollen and other allergens – that they whip up from parks and pavements. In an eye-watering statistic, a 2011 study found that half an hour on a two-stroke blower kicks out the same level of pollution as driving a pickup truck from Texas to Alaska.
There is an irony in that the use of leaf blowers was originally encouraged in California in the 1980s as a way of coaxing lawn-owners to move away from hosing down their yards and exacerbating the water shortages.
Very little is written about the invention, design and development of leaf blowers. They are marketed as a tool and not a high-design product. But I’d suggest that alongside the stink and the noise, the antipathy they cause arises from that weird aesthetic amalgam of flame-thrower, hairdryer, Ghostbusters Proton Pack and chainsaw.
The Japanese, I am told, get a Zen satisfaction from raking leaves and contemplating the change of the seasons. Perhaps those who derive pleasure from blowing leaves need to find their Zen too.