Those Blaring Blowers
During this period of corona-lockdown, the soundscape out here in the soon-to-be-leafy suburbs west of Boston has changed dramatically in the past month or so. We lost two high-level contributors of machine noise when the pandemic hit: commuters and airplanes.
I’ve been here more than four decades, and we’ve always had cars, but the scrum, the manic sprint in and out of the city has gone off the charts in the last 15 years or so. For sustained periods twice a day, thousands of cars race through our lane, seeking to avoid the jams on the main roads (and helped along by Google’s advice on how to do so).
Our town also happens to host the first beacon for westbound flights out of Logan Airport. So, we normally get continuous cones of aircraft sound across the sky so densely that one comes into range before the other fully fades. There is never silence. The closest we come is during large storms when natural sound eclipses human noise.
I’m very sensitive to sound. I always have been. From hearing symphonies in my head as I went off to sleep as a child to listening deeply to a cellist or violinist play a solo as an adolescent, I was immersed in a world of fine audio distinctions. This acuity comes with a downside. Discordant noises can be physically painful to me. You might say, everyone can experience sound as pain, but this is not just about the physical damage sound waves can inflict; it’s about destroying sensitivity with incessant aural onslaught.
There is nothing more beautiful to someone afflicted this way than silence. Silence is like a sheet of white paper, completely blank, ready for whatever the writer is ready to put down. The black of the words stands out against the silence of the white. Sound is crisper for its stark contrast with the background. The foreground figure sounds more important.
Thus, over the years, I’ve sought the ever-more-elusive silence that remains in our increasingly motorized world. I don’t have music playing during dinner, for example, because for me music is a foreground activity, and I find it distracting in the background.
When I took a music class in college, a guest lecturer gave us a kind of exercise. We were sitting on the lacquered hardwood floor of The Carriage Barn, a fantastic old wooden high-ceilinged building that had been refinished into a tidy performance space, and the whole structure resonated like an old guitar. She said, listen to the farthest sound you can hear. We all quieted down and strained our ears.
Even then, back in the 70s, the farthest sound was the thrum of a groundskeeper mowing the lawn, but we became aware of how, when a foreground sound stopped, you could hear something farther out. When the lawn mower ceased, we could hear a farmer across the valley tilling his field, and, when he took a break, the highway beyond. There was no absolute silence, but silence came in expanding pools at certain times and places.
In this latest suburban soundscape, when the noise of the commuters and the planes dropped out, what popped to the fore was the lawn crews. For weeks now, the lawn crews have been drilling a hole in my head. It’s akin to water torture. Their sound is constant, starting sometimes at 7:30 in the morning, when in their estimation, everyone should already be up. And it goes on all day long as the crews migrate from the estate of one lazy baron to the next. It’s like they get paid to burn petroleum, and so they do it in abundance.
And the tone of this incursion is diabolical. It’s not one note but many, the dissonance of multiple motors firing at the same time. These crews work together, often in groups. I’ve seen them walking, four abreast like advancing infantry, each wielding his gas-powered leaf blower like a weapon. (And this is just Spring; we’ll move on to mowers in Summer, blowers again in Fall, and finally snow blowers in Winter.) No social distancing or face masks for these guys. Most of them speak Spanish, and they huddle close together when they talk. They are deemed essential workers, which must be a great relief to their families, but no one is looking out for them.
Which begs the question, why are they essential? To whom are they essential? And there lies exposed the hypocrisy of our culture. It’s the rich guys. The guys who spend a quarter million on their lawns, shrubs, and trees and can’t have them whither away just because there’s a pandemic. These same aristocrats (or their cousins) are also the ones who decide who’s essential. How convenient.
The workers, they are hired by a party who hires a party who hires a party. They have no protection from infection while their hosts hide behind the walls of their estates, isolating in style, and with nice health plans, to boot.
So, this noise, which burns petroleum all day long, ruins our soundscape with its nonstop cacophony, and hurts my soul, also exploits its labor, which is essential because some rich guys don’t want the investment in their lawns to go to waste.
None of this can be helped, at least for now. But if I had any advice for my neighbors, it would be: do what I do.
For more than 40 years, I’ve tended my own yard. My adjacent neighbor has done the same thing, and we have joked that we had “pollinator gardens” long before they were fashionable. To start, because of increasingly acidic rain from human carbon emissions, moss does better than grass. But the two trade off. In dry years, the grasses accrete. In wet years, the moss thrives. They share the same space, adapting as necessary. I do have an old gas mower, but I use an actual Austrian scythe to “hay” the margin around the house once a year, mowing to neaten up the lines. Most of my tools are manual: rake, tarp, shovel.
My rule for the lawn is, within reason, to let anything that can bloom (while ripping out brambles and such). As a result, the season starts with volunteer crocuses and snowdrops that come up here and there, followed by a blanket of first white and then purple violets. Then yellow dandelions and these little purple spears I’ve never identified emerge. Finally, it’s vetch with its purple blooms in full summer. There’s a riot of color, which I don’t have to do anything to maintain. Hordes of birds, bees, and animals keep everything going. What makes this annual show possible is that I go with the flow rather than resisting it, which takes less labor and no chemicals.
It’s also good physical exercise to get out there and manually engage with the earth. The one time I hired a crew to do my yard, four guys came blasting through with their blowers, trampling everything and cutting whatever they thought shouldn’t be there, spending all of a half an hour, for which I received a $500 bill. I called the company and negotiated the bill down a bit, but declared that the last time.
As the petroleum phase of the anthropocene era heads into its final years, and the corona virus has given us a pause to contemplate, we should consider restoring some lost balance to our lives. Not only should we not commute mindlessly into the city or across the country, but we should also eschew the ridiculous amount of fuel spent on our landscapes, a ritual that exploits its labor, pollutes our atmosphere, and ruins the local soundscape. Balance would look like rich guys with smaller lawns doing their own raking and mowing. The dividend in unspoiled land, they could give back to nature.