While out for a run the other morning I observed an annoyingly familiar, seasonal phenomenon: a guy chasing a handful of leaves around his lawn with a leaf blower that belched exhaust fumes and roared loudly enough to be heard more than a mile away. When I loped back nearly an hour later he was still at it.
Knowing how most people react to unsolicited advice, no matter how politely offered, I resisted stopping to suggest a quieter, more environmentally friendly and healthier alternative to his use of a gas-powered engine – but still, it rankled.
Loyal readers will recall my longtime aversion to leaf blowers in favor of a simple rake, which I have always maintained accomplishes most clearing tasks more efficiently and expeditiously. Often when I've made this claim leaf-blowing loyalists have sneered, "Prove it."
So finally, I decided to do just that – stage a man vs. machine contest. The rules would be straightforward: Mark off two equal sections of lawn and pit me with a rake against a man with a leaf blower; first one to push all the leaves from one end to the other wins.
Spoiler alert: If you want to know the results before reading the rest of this missive, check out Peter Huoppi's video:
To avoid accusations of stacking the deck in my favor I chose as my adversary one of the fittest people I know, Spyros "Spy" Barres of Mystic, who spends half his waking hours in a gym and the other half logging phenomenal miles on roads and trails.
Earlier this month Spy placed first overall in a field of more than 700 at the Tarzan Brown 5.5-mile road race in Mystic; he has bicycled across the country, run a 100-mile race in the Himalayas and one year ran from Mystic to Boston to compete in the Boston Marathon.
Spy and I have run, hiked and kayaked together for years – once we paddled together to Block Island and then ran the 9.3-mile road race; we've climbed Mount Washington during a January blizzard and Mount Katahdin in snow and ice; he was part of a "Summit New England" expedition I once organized in which a bunch of crazy people spent 40 straight hours being driven to and climbing to the highest points of all six New England states; last year we swam with a group from Fishers Island to Noank – repeating a feat we accomplished a few years earlier in the opposite direction.
Although we're good friends and Spy seems pretty laid back when we're on a casual outing, once the gun goes off he turns into a ruthless competitor.
The Great Lawn Competition took place in Ledyard on the front lawn of Betsy and Bob Graham, also longtime runners and friends, with Bob officiating. The day before Bob and I measured adjoining 45x50-foot sections of lawn perfectly suited such a contest, with two giant oak trees in the middle and one on each side. Since mature trees, I've read, produce about 250,000 leaves, each of us would be dealing with about half a million.
The day before the contest it snowed for the first time this season, but luckily it all melted by the next morning. Still, it was just above freezing and windy when Bob blew the whistle. I stripped down to a light fleece jacket while Spy donned a winter parka.
Almost immediately a mechanical malfunction delayed Spy's progress and we had to call the leaf blower owner, Rick Ely – a champion triathlete and co-owner of the Mystic Cycle Centre, who uses the machine to clear trails for a bike race at Bluff Point in Groton.
Rick made a few adjustments and gave Spy some pointers before firing up the machine. The race was back on.
My strategy was as simple as the wood and plastic tool I wielded: Rake forward for a few feet, move sideways, repeat. When I came to the end of the row I pushed the pile ahead and proceeded down the line.
Spy, I noticed over my shoulder, adopted a similar approach, but as his pile grew he began getting bogged down. Critics may remark that I had cleverly outfitted him with a lower-powered, hand-held model instead of a backpack blower than can generate a blast of air up to 270 mph – but that was my point.
Most people I've seen use the smaller blowers for lawn jobs, and even giant machines with 747-style engines have their drawbacks, sending great clouds of leaves spewing in all directions. You think you can do better, stage your own contest.
Anyway, I gradually built up a comfortable lead – so comfortable, in fact, that I decided to take time out for a short massage administered by Rick's wife, Laura, a health coach and Reiki master. I also had to sit out a short penalty called by referee Bob for inadvertently – oh, all right, deliberately – raking a tiny amount onto Spy's section.
Even with these delays I'm happy to report that man smoked machine. In about 45 minutes I pushed the last pile to the edge of the driveway and Bob blew his whistle one final time. It was my greatest triumph since a third-grade spelling bee.
A few other comments before signing off so I can savor my hard-fought victory.
Contrary to some perceptions, I'm not a Luddite, survivalist or Trappist monk.
I drive a car, live in a house with electricity and indoor plumbing, use a computer and own assorted power equipment.
I'm continually bothered, though, that contemporary culture increasingly relies on machines and technology to perform simple tasks once accomplished with hand tools, more efficiently and economically, with greater environmental sensitivity and less noise. As a bonus, in the case of raking leaves, you get a good upper-body workout.
Speaking of noise, manufacturers have reduced the sonic output on newer models to about 65 decibels – from a distance of 50 feet about as loud as an air conditioner turned to the highest speed. Electric models also are quieter and don't produce exhaust.
That hasn't stopped more than 100 municipalities across the country – mostly, suburban communities – from restricting or outright banning the use of leaf blowers. I'd like to see similar ordinances in cities, where the racket reverberating off buildings seems more deafening than an ambulance siren. A broom on a sidewalk works just as well as a rake on a lawn.
One other drawback to leaf blowers: In addition to leaves they blow dust, leaf mold, animal feces and other debris you'd rather not inhale.
I do concede that blowers – originally developed in the 1950s to spray chemicals and later adapted to its present application – can be handy for clearing leaves from bushes, rain gutters, stone walls and other hard-to-reach locations.
But for a typical lawn you're much better off with a rake.