- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 5, 2005

Listen, there in the distance. That ominous growling, snarling, groaning and grinding. Friend or foe? Republican or Democrat? B-52 or F-15?

E-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e …

Hearken now to a great noise like chain saws, door buzzers, harpies, hornets and maybe a flustered spokesman in the halls of Congress.

E-E-E-E-E-E-E-E-E-E …

The leaf blowers are here, advancing street by street, sidewalk by sidewalk, in an annual autumnal rite that pits man against nature, and nature always wins. If only poet Percy Bysshe Shelley could have had a fling at it sometime around 1817:

“And oh, the roar of the Toro above yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red, pestilence-stricken multitudes …”

Yes, of course. Everyone knows that’s from “Ode to the Waste Wind.”

America has a love/hate relationship with leaves.

We long for that perfect fall moment when orange trees are perfectly framed against a cerulean blue sky, and we’re wearing an attractive sweater that doesn’t itch, and a savory, civilized dinner hour looms in the immediate future.

Most of us also treasure the common raking fantasy in which the family produces a perfect pile of leaves, and the leaves are aromatic and the children mannerly — all this under a dove-gray sky tinged delicately on the horizon with peach and rose.

We love leaves so much that we’ll pay homage to them on a fall foliage tour. Imagine: two nights in a cedar-shingled inn on the shore of beautiful Lake Hungadunga, N.H. — one candlelit supper, one brunch and one commemorative hand-thrown mug of local unfiltered organic cider (with complimentary natural cinnamon stick) included. That’s about $1,000 or so, airfare not included.

On the way, we will meet several thousand other leaf lovers with the same idea, and a fall foliage melee may ensue on the back roads of the Granite State.

Then there’s the hate side of things.

Leaf hate begins to develop as soon as the leaves stop being charming yellow and hectic red and start being pestilence-stricken multitudes that must be transported quickly to the gutter so that some SUV can run over them.

What suburbanite has not done the fall foliage panic dance after forgetting the county has scheduled the final pickup for all those leaves the SUV didn’t get to? The dance, a pas de deux done with rakes, usually is punctuated by a single scream when the lady of the house discovers her partners are heaping the leaves upon one of the good sheets for their journey to the curb.

The dance is done to the accompaniment of the biggest noise of all. Behold the county leaf truck in full plumage — industrial vacuums going, giant nozzle in a spirited arc, men shouting, and condemned leaves disappearing in clouds of brown confetti.

Fall foliage tour, indeed.

Leaf blowers, of course, have certain cultural implications. By virtue of decibels and fumes, they are a symbol of discord between those who value serene streets and compost piles versus those who want a pristine yard and approve of fossil fuels.

One can, for example, report “a blower in progress” to the Los Angeles Police Department, according to Zero Air Pollution (ZAP), an anti-blower activist group founded eight years ago by statuesque actress Julie Newmar (Catwoman on “Batman”) along with Joan Graves, wife of Peter Graves, the “Mission: Impossible” guy.

Heavens, but this is serious; a $100 fine is attached. But who knows? Perhaps Mercedes-Benz will take up the challenge and offer a leaf blower with built-in cappuccino maker.

Certainly, the Californians are on top of things. The Sacramento Bee reports that Michael Hecker, “a Los Altos psychoacoustician,” believes blower noise is annoying by virtue of its pitch, amplitude and “lack of control by the hearer.”

Though no psychoacousticians were consulted for this column, one local homemaker did call our crack complaint desk to announce that her neighbor begins leaf-blowing — year around — at precisely 8:12 a.m. every Sunday.

“Deck, driveway, lawn. The weed whacker, shredder and dog get in on it. My day of rest begins with whacking and whooshing and barking,” she said.

Some communities — including Aspen, Los Angeles and our own Montgomery County — have banned leaf blowers of 70 decibels and above when measured from 50 feet. Manufacturers have responded by offering more polite blowers. Stihl, for example, has just trotted out the BR-500 — 23 pounds, 65 decibels, 181-mph wind force and, uh, a price tag of $460.

Well, maybe somebody will offer the BR-500 Percy Bysshe Shelley model soon, complete with speeds for both hectic red and pestilence-stricken multitudes.

Meanwhile, Diane Wolfberg, a California grandma, conducted an experiment with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Leafblower Task Force all the way back in 1997, and to our knowledge here at Mulch Central, her record still stands.

Wielding rake and broom, Mrs. Wolfberg managed to beat a gardener with a gas-powered leaf blower in three cleaning competitions. Even the task force was impressed, as was the local press, which duly noted that the granny was better able to “clean the area of small nuts.”

Jennifer Harper covers media, politics and fall foliage melees for The Washington Times’ national desk. Contact her at [email protected]washingtontimes.com or 202/636-3085.

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