A Different Kind of Seasonal Storm

Add to our year of bad weather yet another seasonal problem that can obliterate the quieter sounds of fall.

In the scheme of things, some of our problems are more dire than others. Allow me to raise one that may not be on everyone’s radar, but has real negative effects.  Leaf blowers are getting to be a nuisance and a threat to the health of those who are even yards away from them.

A lot of inventions have the unfortunate side effect of producing massive waves of air pressure that assault fragile ears. Think of helicopters, which mercilessly beat the air to fight against the forces of gravity. Planes fly with their fixed wings, providing lift by powering forward. But a helicopter’s utility of being able to hover in one place comes at the considerable cost of greater continuous noise.  It’s not unusual to hear the pumping sound of one that is still miles away.

Fortunately, it is usually only the wealthy in the most exclusive of neighborhoods that have to hear private helicopters on a daily basis. But the rest of us must deal a smaller version of the same effect of thrashing air that attacks the cochlea in the inner ear. Suburbia and campuses of all sorts are awash with the sounds of ubiquitous leaf blowers that move nearly weightless leaves and particles of dust, all for the sake of monocolor lawns or unbroken expanses of asphalt. In spite of the advice of horticulturists and public health officials to leave well enough alone, leaves and dust are seen as elements that must be blown to adjacent properties.  What ever happened to rakes?

In one sense, gas powered leaf blowers are air guns that fire continuously, producing airport levels of noise at pitches where the ear is especially sensitive: usually between 250 to 3000 Hz.  Even worse, the carbon monoxide that is also thrown into the air is as bad for the lungs as the sounds of blowers are for the ears. No wonder more communities especially on the west and east coasts are beginning to ban them.  The list includes Burlington Vermont; New Rochelle, Oyster Bay, Sleepy Hollow, and Tarrytown in New York, Montclair and Maplewood in New Jersey; Evanston, Glencoe and Highland Park in Illinois; Colorado’s Aspen, Carbondale, and the Denver suburb of Westminster; and a large number of cities in California, including Los Angeles, Malibu, Manhattan Beach, Menlo Park, Mill Valley, Newport Beach, Ojai, Palo Alto, Piedmont and Santa Barbara.

The noise a neighbor creates in pursuit of a minor landscaping objective is a form of environmental disruption: in some ways the equivalent of lighting the exterior of a house with the kinds of bright sodium lamps found in parking lots, or spreading lawn chemicals with odors and toxins that migrate across property lines. We don’t think of excessive sound as pollution.  But it is.  As I noted in my study, The Sonic Imperative: Sound in the Age of Screens, it makes sense to think of noise as aural refuse. It’s another kind of tangible junk that degrades a space.

Granted, blowers can tidy up a property in short order.  Full disclosure: I have one as well that gets limited use for just a few minutes at a time. A “short duration” rule doesn’t completely take me off the hook, but one practical issue with these devices is the long lengths of time that these noisy two cycle engines are allowed to run. At work I’ve had students try to hear above four “backpack” leaf blowers outside the windows of my classroom.  It’s always a lost cause; their presentations lose out to the machines used to comb acres of groomed lawn. In several instances the fracas resulted in some heated exchanges with members of the landscape crew in what should have been a tranquil environment. Those guys were just following orders. But like the rest of us, they probably didn’t think much about how a manufactured racket can deprive others of their right to be left undisturbed.



The Visibility of Violated Norms

It’s now easier to notice a population on edge, disappointed, and even enraged by the behavior of others.

A friend returning from a trip to South America recently commented on her impression of returning to what seemed like a very angry country. Being away in a culture with a more courtly pace reset her expectations. Coming home sharpened her impression that people here seemed on edge and unusually short-tempered. Indeed, many Americans also recognize the same dynamic of a nation disappointed and even enraged by the behavior of other Americans. You can pick your issue: people refusing or faking COVID vaccinations, narratives of magical thinking about government intentions, a coup attempt by a former President who fanaticizes that he is still in power, or more tentative medical recommendations than our binary thinking usually tolerates. This national stance of annoyance is sometimes directed to self-promoting “professionals” who have used social media to offer fantasy solutions to problems already on their way to being managed.  Think of self-styled health experts on the margins of mainstream medicine getting more media attention than their views warrant. Established standards of competence and credibility no long seem to apply to the noisiest and most opportunistic.

Writing in roller-coaster 1960s, the sharp-eyed Joan Didion noted that our national convulsions over Vietnam and racial violence meant that “the center will not hold.” The years of the Trump interregnum have similarly soured the nation on many within it. Too many seem to have strayed far from the norms of institutions they represent. Consider the former Secretary of Education’s outrageous preference for private over public schools, or the lies the Attorney General now admits he told to placate the President, or the President’s own dissembling regarding the pandemic or the 2020 election. And then there are the everyday norm violations that traditionally fill our news sites: instances of sexual predation from religious, business and school officials, violence against innocents by deranged and armed people beyond the reach of limited social services, or police who pose a threat to those they are supposed to protect.  All feed the threatening rhetoric of armchair revolutionaries broadcasting their weirdness on social media sites. Even seditionists are sometimes normed, like the 18-members of the Texas congressional delegation who have paid no price for trying to nullify the votes of citizens in four other states.

Some of these forms of violated social norms have gained more traction not because they are new, though some are, but because we now more aware of them. And the costs seem greater for kids forced to attend school without long established and nominal protections against an endemic virus; for voters who once had a high degree of trust in reliable systems of election security; or for African American communities again facing state legislators determined to discourage widespread electoral participation. We can add parents or nativist school boards intent on undermining various best practices that have evolved as part of the American curriculum, Supreme Court decisions that have trashed carefully enacted voter protections, and the wealthy who have escaped the requirement to to pay their fair share of taxes. The effects are real for a country that physically self-segregates, even while it finds common ground in sharing media reports about our apparent dystopia.

Social Norm Deviates Undermine Confidence

All of these factors and more undermine faith in the fairness of the “system” and the idea that everyone needs adhere to the glue of the social contract that holds a society together. The contract is real:  for example, when we agree not to run red lights, or promptly pay others what we owe. Most of us also act on the contract when we share our wealth with others who cannot manage on their own. These routines are still strong, but almost never news. Because of more varied routes for taking the national pulse, we see more social norm deviates.  Their visibility makes us angrier and less confident about the nation’s foundational principles.