There are leaf-rakers and leaf-blowers ...

... and I’d been ‘rake only’ for years. Then desperation set me on a new path.

Luke MacGregor/Reuters
A woman walks through a pile of autumn leaves at St James's Park in London in 2013.

For 16 autumns I had raked by hand the contributions of my own 12 oak trees plus an assortment of other deciduous beauties, and often, after a windy day, my neighbors’ leaves as well.

Although I can’t say I rejoiced to see the leaves begin to drift and tumble around my yard, I did enjoy the actual raking. Thumb armored with a heavy-duty bandage before I even took the rake down from its hook, blue tarp ready for loading, Welsh Corgi barking and bouncing enthusiastically around my knees, I would head out to engage the natural world in my annual ritual.

Raking leaves, like Christmas, has its own storehouse of welcome memories, unleashed each fall by the simple act of taking rake in hand. Memories of flinging oneself into giant leaf piles, of the smell of burning leaves, of my California-raised children discovering autumn in the leaves piled high in my Virginia sister’s driveway and knowing instinctively what to do.

Nothing changes over the years. The crinkly paper swish of the rake through the leaves, the dusty nose-tickling smell, the swirling colors of fall flying off the end of the rake, and the rhythmic background beat in my head of either – depending on enthusiasm and energy level – “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” or “This Old Man” all are there waiting to be enjoyed again.

Like those who see themselves as one of two kinds of people in the world (and always, of course, the better of the two), I had an undeniably superior attitude toward my leaf-blowing neighbors. I pitied them for missing out on all the delights of raking, scorned them for polluting the air with gas fumes, and hated the horrible high-pitched whine that pierced the walls of my house and found its way into my skull. In darker moments I wondered if they were purposefully trying to drive me mad.

Last fall I was visiting family and returned home to weeks of accumulated layers of scarlet and gold – 20 tarps’ worth to be loaded and dragged to the curb. So, reluctantly, to get the job done before winter, I borrowed a leaf blower. At least it was electric, but even with earplugs, it was too noisy for singing. The cord tangled around my ankles and grabbed every root and branch it could find. The plug pulled out of the blower handle at least once a minute, and – worst of all – there were no delight-filled memories. Leaf blowers were never part of my childhood. 

My resulting mood could only be described as grouchy.

But as I settled in, I found a sweeping movement that worked well. I learned how to corral the leaping leaves that a casual movement of the blower would unintentionally send racing in undesired directions. 

New images presented themselves: myself as a sheepdog or maybe Babe, the pig, at a sheep-herding trial; a cowboy rounding up a herd of skittish cattle; a scuba diver swimming slowly behind a school of bright-colored tropical fish.

Noticing a neighbor getting ready to use his blower, I went over to ask for tips on technique and enjoyed a 20-minute conversation with someone I’d lived across the street from for five years. We’d exchanged only hellos and waves before. Discovering we were both fans of classic movies, I left promising to exchange DVDs. 

At the end of the day, I had two enormous leaf piles on the curb, a totally cleared yard, sore arms (but a bandage-free thumb), and the realization that I had enjoyed myself.

There are two kinds of people in this world: leaf-rakers and leaf-blowers. I thought I was a confirmed leaf-raker, one of the “good guys,” ecologically and nostalgically. I saw leaf-blowers as lazy and thoughtless. But now, instead of being firmly in one camp looking down on members of the other, I have somehow become a member of both. So has my neighbor. Yesterday he came over to borrow a rake.

When political signs started going up around the neighborhood, I found myself automatically making rude assumptions about the people who were clearly in the wrong camp. And then I began to wonder what would happen if I walked across the street, rang the bell, and said, “Hi, neighbor.” Could we get acquainted, find some common ground? I think it’s worth a try.

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