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Thursday, August 13, 2015

The End Of A Quiet Era–Leaf Blowers, Trimmers And The New Age Of Noise

Flanders Upton grew up in the Fifties in New Brighton, a small city in Central Connecticut. It was a quiet place, especially in the exclusive West End of town near the golf course.  Few people except the milk man and members of the Country Club drove up Adams Street, one of the oldest residential streets in the town, and because deliveries and tee times could wait, the only noise anyone ever heard was the whirr or lawn mowers, children laughing on their way to school, and the occasional barking of the Linder’s old Airedale, too old to know what he was barking at or why. By 6 o’clock in the winter and 8pm in the summer, Adams Street, the golf course, and the entire West End was as quiet as St. Anselm’s graveyard.

Milk truck Fifties

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Flanders always assumed that it was because of his quiet and peaceful childhood that he minded the noise of the city.  He lived in the residential equivalent of Adams Street – an old-line traditional neighborhood not far from the Vice-President’s residence and protected by topography and access from Massachusetts Avenue, University traffic, and the major roundabout which circled east-west traffic south to the White House or back home at night to Bethesda or Virginia – and when he had moved in over thirty-five years ago, it reminded him of the West End.  Both neighborhoods were wealthy, conservative, and above all quiet.  He and his wife sat on the verandah of their house on summer evenings, shaded by the live oaks, mulberries, and sycamores, and overlooking the lawn which sloped down from the house to a narrow street that went from the old spring up to the private park built by neighborhood residents.  He felt he was back in New Brighton.

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The lawns of Creek Valley had to be trimmed; the mechanical mowers of his childhood were things of the distant past; and so beginning every May, the absolute peace and quiet of the neighborhood was interrupted. The properties in the community, however, were large, and most houses were set on the high hillocks and promontories which characterized the area; so the noise of the mowers was muffled and dissipated since most of the lawn extended far away and down towards the street.  In Flanders’ garden on the back side of the house which overlooked the creek and the protective copse of woods around it, the sound of mowing was distant and almost indistinct.

Image result for images 50s raking lawns

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Although power mowers were used on all the lawns in his neighborhood when he first arrived, raking, trimming, and edging were all done by hand.  The landscape crew was there for most of the afternoon, but by the end of the day the privet hedges, skip laurels, and azalea bushes were as tonsured and regular as the greenery of the formal gardens of Versailles.

Slowly but surely, however, the entire landscaping process became mechanized. Hand tools were replaced by machines.  Cut grass was finely mulched by modular rotor blades attached to the lawn mower and disappeared.  Fallen leaves were blown by two-cycle engine power-blowers into the street and then vacuumed into the storage bin on the back of the truck. Electric hedge trimmers made short work of the magnolias and holly bushes, and super-fast cutting blades edged the walk.  Although the crew was in and out in a fraction of the time taken by the former, more traditional one, the actual cost of the enterprise in terms of psychic ruin and emotional displacement was incalculable.

Image result for images man blowing leaves on large property

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Flanders found that there was no way for him to avoid the assault. In the peak summer months it seemed like the landscapers were always there, if not on his lawn then on the Vibberts’, the Booths’, and the Carpenters’. Because the grass grew so quickly in the Washington summer; because the lawns were so spacious; and because there were so many houses to attend to despite the largest lot size of any Washington neighborhood, the nightmare continued morning, afternoon, evenings, and weekends.

The cutting and blowing didn’t end on Labor Day but continued well into October – even November in some years when the oak trees didn’t give up their leaves until just before Thanksgiving.  The grass needed less attention, but unless the lawn service came every week, the Fall garden, front and back walkways, porch and patios, and the lawns would be covered with large wet leaves which could kill the grass beneath in a matter of days.

Winter provided no respite, for more and more families contracted the same landscape services to plow their driveways and blow their walks.  Washington gets only one or two significant snowstorms per year; but snow-removal contracts were seldom specified down to the centimeter.  When it snowed, the landscapers were back in Adams Creek.

Image result for images blowers blowing snow off driveway

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There was now not just one trash pickup per week, but two – for garbage and recycling; and a Green move was on to separate DC trash in at least one more way, necessitating a new, specially-designed fleet of trucks. Soon enough, thought Flanders,  there would be a pickup every day of the week.

If this all was not bad enough, Washington was in the midst of an economic boom – good for property values, but totally disruptive, adding even more noise and commotion to an already noise-polluted city. Whenever Flanders left the quiet confines of Adams Creek, he had to negotiate jackhammers, cement mixers, construction cranes, dump trucks, chain saws, power drills, and cement cutters. In what Adams Creek residents had always thought would be a secure buffer against the rest of Washington – Department of the Interior watershed protected land – was a deal the Federal Government could not resist. By closing the water treatment plant and moving it and its many jobs to Maryland, it could subdivide the extensive property, fill the sparse federal coffers with the profits, and make a killing. Without the 100 year-old sycamores, deep underbrush, and thickets of lowland semi-tropical gorse, the noise from Washington’s major arteries and even the Beltway could be heard.

Flanders felt there was nowhere to hide. The perimeter of his walled city had been breached, the world outside could no longer be kept at bay; and as much as he deferred all business outside of Adams Creek, he had to make sorties to the grocery store.  His wife, ordinarily a very patient and tolerant woman but one who was becoming irritated by her husband’s eccentricities, complained loudly about the bare larder.  Flanders, once a creative and very inventive cook had reverted to the meat-and-potatoes meals of his childhood. Chunks of frozen meat and a bin of root vegetables passed for what used to be one of the most envied kitchens in Adams Valley.  Gone was the fresh produce from the farmers’ market, the tropical fish from Sea Salt Seafood, and the small-batch Islay single-malts from MacArthur Liquor.

Image result for pictures of old frozen meat in freezer

“You’ve got to get a hold of yourself”, his wife told him. “Your neuroses are getting out of hand.”

Flanders never thought of his ‘condition’ as a neurotic one. Just the opposite in fact.  His was a logical and very reasonable reaction to the impositions of an increasingly uncivilized society. If he didn’t make a fuss about leaf-blowers, trimmers, road construction, Trump Towers, and relentless urban sprawl to the Shenandoahs, who would?

“You’re far too old to become political”, said his wife. “And besides, what good would it do. The train has already left the station. “

Ah yes, Flanders thought. Kick a man when he’s down. Suffering a black dog depression because of the insidious and unstoppable forces of a futurism that were shaking his very stable New England foundations, his wife says it is his fault, not that of a greedy, predatory society.

When the first blower powered on in early May, coughed out all the carbon and residue built up over the winter, and kicked a thick, powerful, cold stream of air on the Fall leaves that had been missed in November, Flanders grabbed his throat, struggled for breath, and yelled, “I’ve got to get out of here.”

Choking and turning blue, he rushed to the Bose, shoved in Jessye Norman, and waited for the pre-cued Signor Ascolta, a lilting, pleadingly beautiful aria from Puccini’s Turandot. As soon as he heard the first lines and Norman’s plaintive voice, he felt better.  He laid down on the couch, shut his eyes, and listened to the aria again and again until the panic had passed.  She had once again saved him.

One day a number of years ago Flanders had gone to Dewey Beach with his lover for an unexpected and unusual getaway. After two days enjoying the solitude and intimacy of winter in a beach resort, they decided to drive to Bethany Beach just to see what it was like. As soon as they turned off the road to Dewey onto the main state road, Flanders was hit by the full force of the commercial strip which served the entire Delaware Shore. It was ugly, garish, and unremitting.  Only Jessye Norman saved him.  He put Signor Ascolta on loop, righted himself, and made it back to Dewey.

Jessye Norman

                  www.unc.edu

“We must go.  Right now”, he said. “Make plans. Pack up. We’re going.”

He was never more serious, and within a year he and his wife had bought a house on Carter’s Creek, a small inlet off of the Rappahannock River not far from where it joins the Chesapeake Bay.  The house was at the end of the creek, had a small pier and landing, and had been built in a grove of cypress and pines high up over the water and with a view out to the River.  It was quiet.  The only sound which Flanders could hear was the distant sound of motor boats launching from The Tides Inn headed to the Bay; but these were not irritants, but pleasant memories of his childhood, Long Island Sound and fishing for blues in his uncle’s dinghy, and the sound of lawn mowers in the early Spring.

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