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Earth Matters

Earth Matters: “Leaf Me Alone” While Working From Home

Earth Matters focuses on conservation, sustainability, recycling and healthy living.

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by Judy Ryan

In Nyack, South Nyack, and Upper Nyack, there is growing sentiment that leaf blowers should be regulated. Schools and workplaces have closed, sending students and parents home to study and work online. Many more of us are disrupted daily by the incessant noise of machines whose purpose is to manicure our lawns. Municipalities in Westchester, including Larchmont and Croton-on-Hudson, have issued temporary bans on gasoline blowers during the COVID19 crisis. According to Larchmont Mayor Lorraine Walsh, “Everyone is very stressed out and they didn’t need to have another thorn poking at them.” 

More people are looking for the solace of being outdoors, enjoying the sounds and sights of their yards and the natural world beyond. In two months of sheltering in place, we have cherished our opportunities to walk or run at a safe distance, to ride bikes, to play with our kids in our yards–or better yet, to enjoy them playing together with the abandon we remember from our own childhoods. I like to think that our children, freed from the structures of playdates and organized sports, are stretching their imaginations, too.

Life slows during our extended homestays, and time expands. Our ears attune to the sounds of our neighborhoods and parks, including the range and variation of birdsong. There are indications that birds are singing more loudly, even changing their pitch in response to a quieter world. I wish I could identify their songs. I love the sound of a gentle wind through the trees, a neighbor’s wind chimes, the “chit-chit-chit” of a chipmunk. I cherish moments of silent stillness.   

Science tells us there are many benefits to being outside in the natural world. A lovely short video from the University of North Carolina reminds us that being in the natural world soothes our brains, lessens our stress levels, and can even lower our blood pressure. 

Listening carefully to one sound–the movement of the river, the crunch of leaves underfoot, the rapid tapping of a woodpecker–requires us to shift from inner stresses to a meditative focus on something outside ourselves. We breathe more deeply and slowly. I find myself searching for such moments. I’ll feel an unexpected urge to leave my computer, to wander my garden, to listen and watch. It may take a week or more for a bud to open, but I follow its progress daily, sometimes checking it both morning and evening. I tiptoe past a spruce tree, listening for the sound of baby robins in the nest just above my height.  

But I am also more aware of the tools and machines–the banging and buzzing of hammers and saws from a repair project, the low whine of lawnmowers, and the high-pitched drone of gas blowers, the worst offenders. These machines (some of them weighing 25 pounds, with air speed of 200 MPH) have become ubiquitous for spring clean-ups and lawn care. They operate at greater decibels (typically 95 – 115) than other lawn machines. (Sound over 85 decibels is dangerous to our ears.) When more than one is used on a property, or on contiguous properties, the sound is not only a danger, but also an unwelcome interruption of people working and studying at home.  

An acquaintance of mine has a son who suffers from hyperacusis, a debilitating hearing disorder. The most expensive noise-silencing earphones cannot protect him from the physical pain caused by the sound of gas blowers. Sometimes he screams in response. I have heard from both a teacher and a student in my neighborhood that they have been unable to participate in classes online because of gas blowers. A musician friend tells me that he too suffers from physical pain caused by the “piercing and relentless” sound. He told me that for him and many other musicians–and there are many in the Nyacks–“it’s the frequency,” not just the volume. He cannot escape to a studio, nor can his wife, a college professor, retreat to her classroom. The randomness and unexpectedness of the noise defies planning around it. Even the dinner hour is not sacrosanct. 

Leaf blowers are not only high-powered sound machines, but they also kick up dust containing pollen, mold, fertilizer, and feces. Residents with allergies have always suffered from this dust, especially when the weather is dry.  

Blowers are often used to blow grass clippings from lawns, depriving them of an important source of nurture. It’s one thing to use blowers two or three times a year for yard clean-up. It’s another to use them weekly (or more frequently) to blow odd leaves, grass clippings, and harmful dust onto others’ property, into the street, or down storm drains. There’s no evidence I’m aware of that COVID- 19 can be spread by a leaf blower, but those of us with allergies worry that our lungs are being compromised by their pollution, making us more vulnerable should we become infected with the virus.

During the current pandemic, some residents of the Nyacks are hearing gas blowers–really hearing them–for the first time. They are not opposed to landscapers. They are opposed to the use–certainly the overuse–of gasoline blowers.They wonder about the need for lawns to be pristine, driveways to be leafless. When grass clippings and leaves are airborne, landing in a neighbor’s yard, onto the street, or down storm drains, they don’t evaporate. And of course their dust, with all its pollutants, doesn’t evaporate either. It poisons our air, as the sound threatens our ears. The ears and lungs of landscapers are threatened as well. Stress levels rise all around. In Westchester County, many towns and villages regulate gas leaf blowers, prohibiting them during late spring, summer, and early fall. They are often regulated by hours, so evenings outside (and inside) are not interrupted.

I’m encouraged by broader local awareness of the dangers of gasoline blowers.  And I’m encouraged by the number of people who are discovering the benefits and joys of being outdoors, of taking walks, jogging, riding bicycles, contemplating the river, going on hikes. I’m happy when I see families out walking, even the children longing for a break from screens. I like to think that an increasing number of us appreciate breathing clean air, stretching our legs, boosting our moods on long walks and hikes. Maybe our need for the earth, including its sounds and silences, is becoming essential to more of us. Maybe a broader appreciation of our need for the natural world and its benefits will outlast  this pandemic. And maybe–just maybe–many more of us will recognize the urgent need to come together to save as much of this earth as we can.

I’m reminded of a poem by Wendell Berry. I hope in silence and solitude you’ll listen to him read it. .

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my chidren’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief.  I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light.  For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Judy Ryan is Chair of the Village of Upper Nyack Green Committee and a village resident.

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Earth Matters  focuses on conservation, sustainability, recycling and healthy living. 

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