Disturbing Tranquility

Three weeks ago I woke up to a loud sound, like a car engine revving. No, not that. What then, was that persistent loud noise? OMG… is it… could it be? Really? Yes. It was 6:25 am and someone was using a leaf blower.

I sat up in bed and peered through the blinds but saw nothing. I waited. It didn’t stop. I went to the front door. Nope, not a neighbor. I grabbed my keys and, in only a t-shirt and boy shorts that I had slept in and with no shoes on my feet, I jumped in my car. Down the block and around the corner is a restaurant. Sure enough, there was a landscaping truck. No grass mind you, nothing to mow, but a man standing in the street blowing dirt and leaves away from the curb. At 6:30 in the morning.

I stood in front of him and waved my arms frantically until he finally looked up. Even then, it took a few seconds longer for him to turn off the machine and take a plug out of his left ear. “It’s 6:30 in the morning!” I said. “Are you crazy? This is a residential neighborhood. I live a block over and you woke me up. It’s 6:30 IN THE MORNING! Stop!! You CANNOT do this at 6:30 in the morning!”

He said nothing. Just took a small notebook out of his pocket and wrote something. “Do you need my name?” I asked. “My phone number? I’m happy to talk to your boss if you like.” He just stared at me. I stared back. Then I got in my car and went home.

Two weeks later, last Monday, it happened again, at 7:15 am.

Living in a city can mean frequent, even continuous, bombardment by noise … cars, trains, buses, pedestrians, and even ambulance sirens all tend to blend into the background. But leaf blowers are always jarring. As jarring as jackhammers.

A friend was visiting from Idaho when we heard the blower at 7:15am. Two days later, we were strolling around the gorgeous gardens of the Philbrook Museum’s 25 acres of land, enjoying the flowers, outdoor sculptures, and generally basking in peacefulness when suddenly a loud engine jolted our serenity. There it was again. Neighbors on the other side of the museum gardens were using a leaf blower. Disappointed, we walked back to the museum.

Maybe you’ve heard of forest bathing. A concept coined by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries in the early 1980s, which has become increasingly popular as more and more of us live in urban spaces. The idea is simple: take a break and walk among trees. Bathe in silence. When you spend time in nature, you increase your well-being. Scientific studies have actually proven this.

Cities have parks for exactly this reason. Even hundreds of years ago when towns were being built, people knew that if you lived in a city, you needed parks for leisure: a place to stroll, to relax, to get away from the bustle and noise of urban life.

This is why in the 1880s, Minneapolis planned its city to have a park every six blocks. A whopping 98% of residents live within half a mile of a park. Horace Cleveland, the landscape architect of Minneapolis’ park system told the newly-formed park board:

“Look forward for a century, to the time when the city has a population of a million, and think what will be their wants. They will have wealth enough to purchase all that money can buy, but all their wealth cannot purchase a lost opportunity, or restore natural features of grandeur and beauty, which would then possess priceless value.”

Enjoying tranquility in nature is priceless. Wealth has brought us leaf blowers. A machine to do what a simple broom can do and without all the noise.

I’ve lived in cities with great parks. Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, Balboa Park in San Diego, and Lincoln Park in Chicago along with the lakefront and plenty of forest preserves on the city’s west side. Amazingly, Golden Gate Park has been closed to cars on Sundays for over fifty years. I love that. And I really loved that when I lived there.

Here in Tulsa, my two favorite parks are Woodward Park with its various gardens, and the new, award-winning Gathering Place. Typically, my little dog Mazie and I visit Woodward on Sunday mornings before the crowds arrive and the Gathering Place on Wednesdays, the only day that dogs are allowed.

So it happened that one Wednesday last spring, we were strolling through the kid’s playground area and, as we passed the zipline, I smelled gas. And, along with the delighted squeals of children playing, I heard music. Not live music but jazz, coming from where I couldn’t be sure.

This new, amazing park, was using a gasoline-powered generator to pipe music into the children’s play area. In addition to the health hazards and environmental damage, my mind screamed with the following thoughts:

  1. WHY?? First and foremost, WHY?? What is the purpose, the goal, the outcome expectation of having music in the children’s area? While I give them credit for playing jazz (certainly one of my favorite genres), again, WHY any music AT ALL??
  2. This is a park, for heaven’s sake. This isn’t a coffee house. Parks are designed to be tranquil and soothing for adults, while interesting and fun for kids. Music piped in through speakers is conducive to a theme park such as Disneyland maybe, but not a city park. And I suspect the designers of the Gathering Place believed this as well, which is why there are no electrical outlets for musical equipment in that area.
  3. A gasoline-powered generator? Really? In the children’s area? Who decided this was okay??

So I wrote an email to the powers that be and… the generator was moved. Though, I was told anonymously, there is always the possibility it will be used elsewhere. And sure enough, two weeks ago I found it along a walking path and above a children’s playground.

Every home with a lawn is a miniature park. Green trees and grass are the standard measure of tranquility for our homes. Our own plot of land, which requires far too much in precious water resources and constant care. Wealth moved us away from push mowers to gasoline-powered lawnmowers that are loud. But for many of us, the sound of lawnmowers seems synonymous with Saturdays.

And now we have even louder machines to blow around grass clippings. Blow them where? Into the street.

Tab Addams recently wrote a very thorough article on the My Pro Yard website in which they state, “most commonly-bought leaf blowing machines … can result in ear injury within 2 to 5 minutes of operating the unit. Moreover, the sound can travel for [approximately half a mile] with a metric of at least 55 decibels.” (bold emphasis is my own)

Yet there are actually people who find the sound of leaf blowers relaxing. Over 1,000 people have liked a YouTube video, 3 hours of Leaf Blower Sounds, which was produced from a subscriber’s request.

I associate home with quiet, which is common for many white Anglo-Saxon protestants of my age. No loud noises or raised voices. Music playing softly on the radio. (Unless, of course, you’re dancing or getting pumped up to clean!)

Then I married an Italian. Family gatherings were always loud and chaotic. My mother-in-law once responded to my distress by saying, “You know what your problem is? Your house was too quiet when you were young. Me, I would vacuum when my babies were sleeping!” A roar of affirmations rose from her kids and the memory still makes me chuckle.

For some, home doesn’t feel like home if there isn’t a cacophony of sounds. Adults talking over children squealing. Multiple conversations happening simultaneously. The news or a sports game on the TV in the background, often not even watched. Others keep on talk radio. If you grew up in the city, the sound of traffic, of cars honking, trucks passing, delivery vans beeping, and buses steaming as they stop and start are all ambient noise that is familiar and even comforting.

My house in Picabo, Idaho was far away from all of that. A niece from Chicago came to stay with me once and couldn’t sleep – it was too quiet. She’d lie awake all night and then sleep during the day.

Too much silence, if you’re not accustomed to it, can be unsettling.

Still, we need a certain amount of tranquility. Spending time in nature has been proven to reduce stress and benefit both our mental and physical health. Nature helps us relax.

One autumn many years ago, I went camping with a small circle of friends. It was a quick trip so Peggy suggested a place about an hour away from the city. All afternoon we marveled at how lovely the spot was and how convenient, saying we’d certainly have to come back again.

That evening, settled around the campfire, Peggy said, “Isn’t it amazing that we are so close to the highway and we can’t hear a thing?” For a moment we were quiet. We listened. And then, we heard the traffic. We could really hear the highway! We all burst out laughing. Well, of course! We were in a suburb of Chicago, not actually in the country.

But at least, thank goodness, nothing but the wind was blowing around leaves.

Thoughts to muse on:

Where do YOU find tranquility in nature? Is it your backyard, a favorite park, along the beach, or in a forest preserve? While fishing? Hiking? Walking your dog?

Can you feel the difference in yourself after spending time in the tranquil outdoors?

What sounds do you find most jarring – what noises destroy your serenity?

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