Autumn leaves are falling. Perform a small act of civil disobedience

Of all the gizmos forced upon us by the modern world, is any more melancholy than the leaf-blower? The device is manifestly useless. It blows leaves from one place to another, and then the wind blows them back again.

On my walk in Lincoln Park the other morning, I could hear the angry buzz from across North Pond. Rounding the little hill, I saw two workers for the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum solemnly blowing leaves off the path. The museum is currently engaged in expanding its natural prairie landscape, and I suggest that acreage could be set aside where children can learn that, in nature, leaves fall to the ground and stay there.

Heading towards home, I found a woman raking her yard, and this cheered me considerably. The rake is an ancient tool that has a symbiotic relationship with the human body, and if you will learn its Zen (slide with the lower hand, turn with the upper) you will never get a blister and will soon fall into a comforting rhythm.

As a law-abiding citizen, she put her leaves into plastic bags to be picked up by the trucks. But grandparents can remember when leaves were burned in the street. Their aroma on a crisp autumn night made you feel happy and sad and lonely and in a hurry to get home to dinner.

We ordinary citizens are not allowed to burn leaves anymore, because they pollute the air. They pollute with moisture and organic vegetable matter, however, and that doesn’t seem as frightening as some of the stuff we breathe. Coal-fired power plants, waste incinerators and steel recycling furnaces pour tons of toxic mercury and other heavy metals into our air.

Why, just the other day President Bush was up in Michigan praising his $2 billion program to support the coal industry’s pollution, while affirming that carbon dioxide is not responsible for global warming, existing anti-pollution statutes need to be relaxed, and there’s no hurry to improve auto emission standards. Bush’s twinkly little eyes were shining as he hailed his new Clean Coal Program, which extends the use of dirty coal. Bush views the environment with the same interest the Romans took in the Sabine Women.

Meanwhile, leaf blowers assault us with noise and exhaust gases. There’s something so pathetic about a man using one—standing there twitching his nozzle back and forth like a midget elephant. The leaves, once gathered, disappear. Children can’t risk death by riding their bikes through them at high speed. They can’t do a bombing run with left-over Fourth of July firecrackers. Their parents don’t get to shout out the window that the fire is too close to the car.

I suggest a small act of civil disobedience. Gather a small pile of nice dry leaves. Ask the children to circle around. Light the leaves and allow them to savor the magic aroma. Put out the fire before the cops arrive. Tell them that when you were their age, that smell was always in the air in the haunted twilight around Halloween. Why should the fat cats get to dump tons of poison into the air while we humble home-dwellers can’t even burn a few leaves?

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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