Dear Mr. Paulson, Re Your Recent NY Times Op-Ed about Mass Extinction

10/4/21  Dear Mr. Paulson,  You arguably are one of the most powerful, famous, and networked men in the world, with many important accomplishments. I am the completely ordinary, middle class, volunteer steward of 53 acres of publicly owned, remnant floodplain woodland situated on the banks of the Des Plaines River. Based on your eponymously named Institute’s website, you apparently spend much of your time as a “thought leader” working to somehow combine free-market growth with the urgent necessity to mitigate carbon emissions and save biodiversity, while I spend many days studying, thinking about, and working, hands-on, to protect and increase the biodiversity of this small patch of actual land. For example, this very morning, before breakfast, before I was aware of your op-ed in the New York Times discussing solutions to the epochal, mass extinction event humanity is causing, I read a report about the likely effects of climate change in Illinois, including the poor adaptation prospec

Power Down!

Lately, because of my desire to reduce my personal use of fossil fuels, I've been reading about powering down and using appropriate technology. Part of the concept involves matching the amount of power used to the requirements of the job. In other words, using the least amount of power necessary.

Being a gardener, I began thinking about all the gas and electric tools that get used in our yards—the lawnmowers,  hedge trimmers, weed whackers, leaf blowers, edgers, and rototillers, with the associated cacophony of sounds so eloquently complained about at Deep Middle: true pandemonium on a Saturday morning—and I use that word with a nod to Milton, who coined the word to name the hellish assembly hall of the devils in Paradise Lost.

Even worse than the noise is the in many cases unnecessary, always polluting, use of fossil fuel-supplied power. So I asked myself, what does appropriate technology look like in the garden? Where do we really need to use motorized tools? My conclusion is that, in your average city lot or suburban ¼ acre, mostly we don’t.

Now already I can imagine objections, from landscapers, for whom time is money, from persons who might be unable to physically complete gardening chores without assistance, and from persons who feel all physical work should involve power tools. Duly noted. I’d like to point out that good modern hand tools demonstrate a wise use of advanced technology: making well-designed tools that lessen our need for power tools. Teenagers need something to do besides use their smart phones. Gardening by hand can be therapeutic. Further, gardening can be good, healthy exercise. In summer, between bike riding, walking and gardening, I find I don’t have to go to the gym.

Herewith, I proceed with a list of tools, situations when they might be useful, human-powered alternatives, and ways to minimize the need for them though gardening practice.

Lawnmowers: If you have so much turf that you or your “landscaper” needs a ride-on, I hope you are maintaining a golf course or the playing fields of a large Midwestern land-grant university. If not, you should be keeping sheep or goats. Seriously. At home, scale down both lawn and mower: keep only as much lawn as you use and need, and start a prairie, savanna or permaculture garden with the rest. Many smaller lots don’t even need a power mower. Lots of folks in my neighborhood use push mowers, which work just fine. They make lightweight ones now that are very sharp and don’t take as much effort as you might imagine. They also sound...nice.

Power hedge trimmers: Why? On a great estate with formal gardens? Possibly. At home for six shrubs? Not so much. Bushes should be chosen so when mature, they’ll fit the space without hedge trimming. It’s bad for bushes, anyway. Most only need some occasional hand shaping, and periodic renewal by removing no more than a third of thick, old stems down to the ground at the appropriate time. I have deep sympathy for the poor bushes that receive military haircuts a couple of times a year and lack the opportunity to express their true shrubby natures. Few sights are sadder than an overly-disciplined forsythia that can barely bloom in spring. I myself have some ancient yews. When they need restraining, I use hand pruners to trim some branches down, increasing light to the interior, and then I smooth things over with the hand trimmers I inherited from my mother-in-law, who bought good tools.

Weed whackers: Useful in certain, large situations. We’ve used them in Thatcher Woods on young buckthorn colonies. This first year of the Prairie Garden at my college, which we’ve seeded into sod, we’re using one to keep everything at about six or seven inches, since we can’t burn until next year. In a small lot? If you have that many weeds, you have an opportunity to make a new garden bed by mowing, putting down newspaper and mulch and planting your chosen plants later. I might add that many birds and beneficial insects thrive in "weed patches."

Leaf blowers: An abomination used by “landscapers” and homeowners who then bag this precious natural resource and send it to the landfill. They make really good rakes these days, exactly suited to use by humans, especially those of the teenage persuasion. The principles of good soil health say most leaves should be allowed to lie where they fall under trees and bushes. Rake up the ones on your (small) lawn and put in the compost heap.

Edgers. Having never used one, I’m not sure I understand the concept. I have a favorite half-moon tool inherited from a grandparent that I use to keep the grass out of certain mulched areas.

Rototillers. A great way to stir up the seed bank and encourage more weeds, which especially like disturbed ground. In general, less tilling is better. Mulch is the gardener's friend. Some of my friends make raised beds. Not being a true vegetable gardener (see my previous post here), I can’t address appropriate methods with expertise. The permaculture folks have a lot to say about this. You could check Food Not Lawns, by H. C. Flores.

It all comes down to these questions: How much extra power do you really need to do the job? Is there a gentler, less violent, less polluting way to accomplish your goals? Should some goals and practices be altered so as to use fewer power tools?

 Note: The image  is from the delightful blog Early American Gardens, which is full of all kinds of interesting historical information. The latest post mentions my favorite early botanists, John and William Bartram.


Diana Studer said…
I have realised, as I read this, that the only 'power' we use for our garden is the pump for the grey water (tank down to tank up, then we WALK) and the pump for the waterfall (aeration, plants in waterfall, and for our simple pleasure hearing falling water ;-)
Thomas said…
Nice post.

I'm not sure I could live without a rototiller. In urban areas, the compaction is pretty bad. But other than that, I'm a power down convert.
Anonymous said…
I'm happy to report that more neighbors than ever are using push mowers. Not only are they less noisy and less polluting, they are also good for aerobic exercise. Those neighbors who use them are those who seem to be in the best shape!

Reporting from mid Oak Park. -- Judy E.
Anonymous said…
Great post, Adrian. I'm old enough to remember the time before power mowers when the sound of Saturday morning was the soft swish of many reel mowers being pushed simultaneously. The big problem I've had with my reel lawn mowers is that I can't find anyone to sharpen them (and I haven't had very good luck trying to use those diy sharpening kits). Maybe if enough people start using human-powered reel mowers again, sharpening services will follow. -Jean
Town Mouse said…
Yes, don't get me started on leafblowers. I have no idea why this happened, 30 years ago, the world turned even though we had no leafblowers. I don't even like the electric ones.
margaret gurney said…
Good post. What a lot of things have been marketed to us. I don't know if it's the worst in power consumption, but I can say unequivocally that leaf blowers win the most-hated prize in this household!
Snail said…
You've struck a nerve with leafblowers! I hate 'em. Completely unnecessary.

A neighbour has one, which he uses almost constantly. We live in a troical rainforest. He's trying to tidy up ... a rainforest.

I've also seen someone trying to use a leafblower to blow a fallen mango into the gutter ...
Yay Elephant's Eye! And you are processing grey water. Extra good. We can't do that in my town, but lots of people have rain barrels to save on water use.

Thomas, yes, sometimes extreme compaction requires extreme methods to begin a "cure."
Hi Judy, yes, I've noticed that also, about numbers and being in shape.

Hi Jean, yes sharpening is an issue. I found a hardware store that has an off-site sharpening service. It's one of those old-time skills one hopes will become more common again.

Town Mouse, I agree completely.

Margaret, maybe we should start a movement!

Snail, thanks for visiting. I'm trying to imagine what one would use a leafblower for in the rainforest.