A Short Reflection on the Leaf-Blower (Folius expiriosus)

“Gentlemen, why in heaven’s name the haste? You have time enough. Ages and ages lie before you. Why sacrifice the present to the future, fancying that you will be happier when your fields teem with wealth and your cities with people? In Europe we have cities wealthier and more populous than yours, and we are not happy.

A pile of american bison skulls in the mid-1870s. Photo: Wikipedia

You dream of your posterity; but your posterity will look back to yours as the golden age, and envy those who first burst into the silent, splendid nature, who first lifted up their axes upon these tall trees, and lined these waters with busy wharves. Why, then, seek to complete in a few decades what other nations of the world took thousands of years over in older continents?

Why, in your hurry, to subdue and utilize nature, squander her splendid gifts? Why hasten the advent of that threatening day when the vacant spaces of the continent shall all have been filled, and the poverty or discontent of the older states shall find no outlet?

You have opportunities such as mankind never had before; and may never have again.”

Lord James Bryce

The first appearance of air-pressure powered leaf removal devices were the bellows used by gardeners in 19th century Japan. Like many Old World ideas that spread to the New World, however, the idea was taken to unimaginable extremes. Thoroughly Americanized. The Luddites were on to something. Five years after we (we? or they?) dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, a United States company (Echo Inc.) introduced a pesticide crop-sprayer that was both engine-powered and conveniently worn as a backpack. People soon began dismantling their new portable crop-spray dispensers so as to just make use of the powerful blowing capabilities. It didn’t take long for industry to catch onto this, and soon enough engine-powered, backpack style leaf-blowers were a multi-million dollar industry. In 1990, over 800,000 leaf blowers were sold in the U.S. The same year that Chellis Glendinning wrote in her Neo-Luddite manifesto that the “technologies created and disseminated by modern Western societies are out of control and desecrating the fragile fabric of life on Earth.”1 Coincidence?

I drive up North 1st Street, through what used to be salt ponds, marshes, mudflats, vernal pools. Although I’ve only been here a handful of times, and only in the last few years, I can still somehow sense the absence, palpable almost, of Great Blue Heron, Clapper Rail, Northern Pintail, Canada Goose. I wonder if harbor seals ever made it down this far. There are no grizzly bears (Ursus horibilis) here anymore — probably not for at least a hundred years. What is unmistakably and overwhelmingly noticeable are the frantic mufflers, the screaming brakes on 18-wheeled trucks. Asphalt, Targets, drought-resistant lawns (only so because we continue to supply them with stolen water); structures uncomely and lacking any value. All this seems so wildly offensive to me, so out of place, alien, invasive. I’m wondering if I am in touch with a deeper, more primordial part of human prehistory. Or maybe I’m just being a crank.

I wake up every Monday morning to the sound of leaf-blowers. Two or three of them, tracing ungodly patterns and apocalyptic premonitions through my waking consciousness. We live in an insane world. Abbey put it well once:

“All this fantastic effort–giant machines, road networks, strip mines, conveyor belts, pipelines, slurry lines, loading towers, railway and electric train, hundred-million-dollar coal-burning power plants; ten thousand miles of high tension towers and high voltage power lines; the devastation of the landscape, the destruction of Indian Shrines and Indian burial grounds; the poisoning of the last big clean air reservoir in the forty-eight contiguous United States, the exhaustion of precious water supplies–all that ball breaking labor and all that backbreaking expense and all that heartbreaking insult to land and sky and human heart, for what? All that for what? Why, to light the lamps of Phoenix suburbs not yet built, to run the air conditioners of San Diego and Los Angeles, to illuminate shopping-center parking lots at two in the morning, to power aluminum plants, magnesium plants, vinyl chloride factories and copper smelters, to charge the neon tubing that makes the meaning (all the meaning there is) of Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Tucson, Salt Lake City, the amalgamated metropoli of Southern California, to keep alive that phosphorescent putrefying glory (all the glory there is left) called Down Town, Night Time, Wonderville, U.S.A.”2

Habitat, homeland, heritage: destroyed. Living, breathing, loving, playing, dozing, dreaming creatures crushed, starved, drown in tailing-ponds. For the heartrending sounds of a 2-stroke engine creating whirlwinds of dead leaves (Pistasia chinensis), pine needles (Pinus ponderosa), cigarette butts (Americanus spiriti) and probably billions of ants. This because humanity has collectively decided that rakes are no longer profitable, compost no longer agreeable, stillness no longer understandable.

I recently watched a film about the Chauvet Caves in Southern France. When one sees the images (32–30,000 years ago) painted by our direct ancestors on cave walls, it is hard not to image that we would be unable to communicate with them. We speak a different language now. Dream different dreams. Images no longer dance in torchlight. They wither under mercury-vapor gas-discharge, deteriorate under tungsten, potassium, silicon, and aluminum oxides. Edison gave us ubiquitous light, but in doing so took from us the stars. The end of night brought us to the age of endless light. Endless sound. Endless stimulation. None of it ever satisfying. Blood surging with MDMA, cocaine, methamphetamine, gin, whisky, wine. Still not enough. Garage replete with car(s). Backyard with swimming pool and grill. Bedroom with television. Bathroom with electric toothbrush. Still something missing…but what? Perhaps just the recollection that our sweat has the same salinity as the Pacific Ocean. That we used to be hunted (haunted) by saber-tooth cats (Smilodon). That there is a direct line between you and an unrecognizable creature with fins and gills. Or maybe not totally unrecognizable. Maybe if you were to stare deep into this creature’s eyes you’d see the resemblance. If you spent some time together maybe you’d even begin to understand yourself a bit better. “Oh man, that’s totally where I got my introverted bookishness from. It all started with my great (x185 million) grandfather!”

I continue through the office parks of Silicon Valley tech companies. Paypal, Broadcom, Altera. Lockheed Martin. Lockheed Martin. I meander along the gentle curves of the long-ago domesticated Guadalupe River. No sign of the golden-crowned sparrow, yellow-rumped warbler. Where are the salt-marsh song sparrows? This land used to look very different. (“How many machines are within ten feet of you and how many wild animals are within a hundred yards?”3) My route follows the Valley Transportation Authority’s rail track. I pass the Orchard station. I don’t see any orchards. River Oaks station. No River Oaks in view. Native to Australia, I believe. C. cunninghamiana. Not a true oak. No California oaks in view either. Only Crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia). And lots of them. Native to the Indian subcontinent and planted alongside the rail tracks as ornamentals. About twelve miles south-southeast down the track lands you at the Ohlone-Chynoweth station. Close to where I grew up. Across the street from Oakridge shopping mall. No longer viable oak habitat (“The falling trunk and limbs, the crash, the muffled shriek, the groan…”4). I recently accompanied some relatives from out of town (out of country, actually) here to run some errands and pick up some pants (W34, L30, Mossimo™). 170 stores. 220,000 square feet. Over five acres. Our culture is insane.

Not many Ohlone around here either. The indigenous Californian population experienced the worst slaughter of Indians in U.S. history. The Indian population of California went from 150,000 before 1849 to fewer than 30,000 in 1870. (That’s a loss 80% of the population–120,000 Indians–in 21 years). Men, women, and children were often hacked to death by hatchets. Marysville and Honey Lake paid bounties for Indian scalps, Shasta County gave $5 for an Indian head. There were laws that were passed that declared any Indian that was unemployed to be a vagrant and that allowed his services to be auctioned off for up to four months. Laws permitted whites to force Indian children to work for them until they were eighteen years old. These children were kidnapped and sold as apprentices to other whites. Indians were not allowed to complain in court, because a California statute forbade Indians to give evidence in favor of or against any white person. No, not many Ohlone around here anymore.

“[T]he graphs showing the decline of native tribes and the one depicting the disappearing grizzly are nearly identical… The way we handled the bison, Indian, wolf, and grizzly was the way we wrote our history, the convergent, blood-flecked roads that carried us here. Despite a bit of latter-day remorse about the we we treated the Indian, there are not many apologies.”5

Lately this is all I can think about. My eyes are focused on what is not there. I feel the heaviness, the weight of what Derrick Jensen calls our death culture all around me. Probably time to get out of the city/suburb/wasteland soon. Where leaves are blown only by the wind, emitting only whispers, rustles, and indecipherable secrets.

“It was a most tremendous looking animal, and extremely hard to kill notwithstanding he had five balls through his lungs and five other in various parts he swam more than half of the distance across the river to a sandbar, & it was at least twenty minutes before he died, he did not attempt to attack, but fled and made the most tremendous roaring from the moments he was shot.”5

From The Journals of Lewis and Clark Expedition

Notes

1Glendinning, Chellis. “Notes Toward a Neo-Luddite Manifesto.”

2Abbey, Edward. The Monkey Wrench Gang. New York: HarperPerrennial, 1975.

3Jensen, Derrick quoted in Hedges, Chris. The World as it is. New York: Nation Books, 2001.

4Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. New York: Airmont Publishing, Inc., 1965.

5Peacock, Doug. Grizzly Years. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 1990.