Ah, the arrival of autumn, and as I sit on the rustic porch of my 150-year-old-plus antique farmhouse in Southern Westchester anticipating the soon-to-begin festival of the leaves: brilliant colors, cooler temperatures. There's also a respite of sorts. It's of an audio nature, and with grass growing at a slower pace, the daily screeching and coughing of two- and four-cycle engines -- those wielded by landscapers -- seems to be thinning as well.
I know it will be short-lived, and as the leaves drop, en masse, a new assault on the eardrums will begin with alacrity.
It's a cacophony of noises that conspires to upset any sort of equilibrium, and the "instruments" in this landscaping symphony are many, varied and noisy: mowers of all sorts, from the kinds you push to the kinds you drive, backpack blowers and hedge trimmers, sounds layered one on the other, some close others distant, all driving up ambient noise levels into the decibel stratosphere. During the summer, this chorus of activity begins shortly after daybreak and continues, undisturbed, into the early evening, with some restrictions on Sunday mornings.
Hartsdale, where I live, is blessed to have trees in abundance, and they bring with them an additional audio liability: the need for endless pruning, trimming, and felling by companies that roll in with cherry picker trucks, towing powerful wood chippers, and when you hear all this up and running, it's truly an unsettling experience, sort of like camping at the foot of a runway at JFK during peak take off and landing hours.
For connoisseurs of suburban background noise, there's an audio pecking order of sorts. Leaf blowers of the weaker variety can be a bit timid and mouse-like; commercial riding mowers are muscular, shouting and screaming their way across manicured lawns; and chain saws are unmistakable in their audio signatures, like a pack of angry lions ready to pounce. Worse still -- perhaps at the top of the decibel heap -- are the commercial wood chippers, dragons whose maws are fed with the limbs and twigs of trimmed trees. They're the mechanical hounds from hell with decibel levels approaching a spooled-up jet engine.
Autumn heralds in a different gas-powered cast of characters, and whether they're called "Cyclone," "Hurricane," or "Little Wonder," the very thought sends shivers up my spine and starts the ringing in my ears. They are part of a legion of so-called walk-behind leaf blowers, essentially large gas powered fans on wheels that dispense high-speed tornadic force winds over a large area. They work with ear-splitting effectiveness. Think a leaf version of a Sahara sand storm.
Now, I live in a house that once served briefly as a home for the fabled American composer Charles Ives, who I'm sure tickled the ivories in 1912 to nothing more than a backdrop of song birds and cicadas. Lawn care back then was simply the soft scrapings of rakes and the nearly silent displacement of air by swinging scythes (both of which I found in my old barn).
There have been efforts to tame the decibel-generating beasts, and in places like nearby Scarsdale, where quality of life issues are taken extremely seriously and where they have the political clout to make politicians listen, bans on leaf blowers during the summer months have been around for some time. Other Westchester communities have laid down a hodge podge of restrictions catching the ire and chagrin of landscaping contractors who've fought back, citing lawn care costs through the roof if workers are forced to return to hands-on lawn care with old fashioned rakes and non-combusted lawn mowers.
Noise, as most psychologists will confirm, can make you crazy, and the use of noise bombardment as torture seemed a useful, albeit questionable, tactic in the CIA's bag of rendition tricks when trying to extract confessions from terrorist subjects. And, yes, Westchester residents have been, in fact, driven beyond the pale crazy. Take the case of Yonkers pharmacist Clunie Bernard, sentenced to 20 years to life in 2000 for killing her 74-year-old neighbor. Ms. Bernard, having had past squabbles with the neighbor over leaf blowing, among other things, snapped, grabbed a pick ax and drove it through the offending piece of machinery. After she took out the leaf blower she proceeded to take out the neighbor, running him over with her car.
So, can't we all just get along? Landscape contractors and homeowners? Perhaps convene a conference of the best engineering minds around and develop some sort of "silencer" technology that might be used to retrofit existing lawn care apparatus? If we can silence the noise on an M-16, how difficult would it be to do the same for the landscaper's tools of the trade?
If there's a will there's a way, and a lot of ears out there (mine included) will be very grateful for the effort.
Joel Sucher, is a filmmaker/blogger with Pacific Street Films in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY.