The Washington Post Column

Leaf Well Enough Alone

“It’s very good mulch, you know. . . .”

Walking up my front steps, hearing the scrunch of the leaves that cover my front yard — and my flower beds, and my sidewalk, and my patio — I practice all the lines I could use if confronted by visitors who notice — well, the lack of raking.

“It’s so repetitive, so pointless, so much like Sisyphus rolling that rock eternally uphill. . . .”

I live in a suburban neighborhood that is, for all practical purposes, a forest. Some of our trees are hundreds of years old and tall enough to destroy a house. Occasionally, they do destroy a house. But when one of mine fell down a couple of years ago — missing my house, and fortunately only nicking the neighbor’s roof — my first, secret thought was: Wonderful! Fewer leaves to rake next fall!

It’s a peculiarly suburban problem, autumn leaves. True urbanites never think about leaves, and in fact I have friends in New York who howl with derision at the mere mention of a rake. True country-dwellers don’t bother about leaves either. As the philosophers would ask, if leaves fall in a forest and no one is there to see them, do they need to be raked? Certainly they don’t have the same kind of social significance that they have in the suburbs, where an abundance of leaves is a sign of sloppiness, of inadequate concern for the community, or simply of a bad attitude.

Or so I imagine.

By far the most common method of dealing with leaves nowadays is a leaf blower, a machine I didn’t know ordinary people owned until I moved back to Washington a few years ago. The advantages of leaf blowers are many: They are faster and more efficient than the humble rake, and they make a satisfying noise, which is apparently pleasurable to the user if not to those enjoying Sunday breakfast in the house next door. Once upon a time I used to make fun of the Germans, who have very strict and rigidly enforced laws about when you can use noisy garden machinery. Now that I live in a neighborhood with enormous trees but no such laws, there are times when I’ve wished that I, too, could bring down the full wrath of the state on the heads of the neighbors two blocks over, who do seem to use their leaf blowers (or their lawn mowers, or their electric hedge trimmers) at stunningly asocial hours.

More important, though, leaf blowers allow you to demarcate with extraordinary precision the boundaries of your lawn or anyway of that little strip of lawn that comes between the sidewalk and the street. As a result of these marvelous machines, I sometimes come home to find a clear, perpendicular line to the right of my strip of lawn and an equally clear perpendicular line to the left. Beyond these two lines all is clean, green grass. In between are my leaves.

I can (and do) console myself with the thought that within a few days, leaves will again cover all of the grass, making it once more impossible to distinguish between the responsible and the feckless. What I can’t seem to do is arrive at a final, principled decision to let the leaves accumulate once and for all. As I result, I’m liable to let them fall for weeks, then suddenly panic and pay someone ludicrous amounts of money to blow them away. Or I resolve to rake only my front walkway, and wind up spending the afternoon scraping the garage roof as well. On a nice day, this isn’t necessarily an unpleasurable activity. But to create a lasting impact, I’d really have to do it a couple of times a week, rain or shine, and I’m afraid that there are other claims on my time.

Eventually, I suppose I’ll give in and acquire a leaf blower like everyone else: America isn’t Germany, and here the social pressure, or perceived social pressure, is far more powerful than any garden machinery police force could be. But until then, I’m stuck thinking up excuses, or at least some explanation to give to the relatives visiting this Thanksgiving, all of whom are bound to notice the unraked leaves piling up in my flower beds, on my sidewalk, on my patio and everywhere else.

“They’re good for the soil, particularly if you leave them, untouched and unraked, all winter long. . . .”