So the city of West Bend spends between $60,000-80,000 a year picking up leaves -- that don't need to be picked up. My new math tells me that we could afford another kindergarten teacher, plus decent benefits, for that -- oh, and improve the quality of every lawn in town.
Are lawns more important than common sense here in Pleasant Valley Sunday land?
Leaving nature – and leaves – to its own devices
Why rake when you can mulch and save the city some green?
A few years ago, during an early autumn when the trees in my yard and my neighbor’s 5,000-foot-tall silver maple dropped all their leaves at once, I had one of those moments Arsenio Hall used to call “things that make you go hmm?”
It might have been the mountain of leaves I’d raked onto a gigantic blue tarp that made me stop and reconsider the wisdom of what I was doing, but I suddenly wondered why we rake leaves in the first place and why we expect the city to pick them up.
I mean, trees take nutrition out of the soil and put it into the leaves. Leaves fall, decompose and return their nutrients to the soil. It’s a simple idea and practical. Ah, but humans always have a better idea: We create complex systems and specialized energy hungry industrial technologies to interrupt this perfectly natural cycle and throw those nutrients away as pesky or inconvenient or, more tellingly, “waste.”
This may summarize what’s wrong with human beings.
We used to burn leaves. Anyone my age can remember the wonderful smell of burning leaves in the autumn. Every once in a while, maybe out in the country, you’ll drive through a plume of smoke from a pile of burning leaves and the perfume of it transports you back to an earlier time. Piles of leaves carry a lot of childhood nostalgia. Of course, burning the leaves doesn’t make any more sense than raking them to the curb and hauling them away. In both cases you’re throwing away nutrients your lawn would love.
On the other hand, even though it’s clear that millions of Americans burning leaves every fall is not good for air quality, I’ve come around to the belief that if we must risk global warming, then sacrificing human civilization for the smell of burning leaves would be worth it. Diesel oil, no. Burning leaves, yes.
It’s become such an annual ritual that we no longer question whether it’s a good idea, but remember grass clippings? The city doesn’t pick those up anymore because in 1993, it became illegal to dump grass clippings and leaves into landfills. The city stopped picking up grass clippings. Why does it still pick up the leaves? Hmm?
I don’t know either, but I followed the trail of last year’s leaf collection and turned up some interesting factoids:
In 2009 the city of West Bend collected about 3,041,000 pounds of leaves using 1,687 manhours and West Bend’s two giant vacuum cleaner trucks. (They’re called Vac/Alls. When I called up Public Works to check these numbers, I asked whether I could borrow one to clean out my basement but they politely said no.)
West Bend also uses two crews of six people and a couple of those smaller leafbroom pusher-trucks.
Picking up the leaves cost the city $61,000 last year.
Brush collection, which the city of Fond du Lac eliminated this year, cost the city of West Bend $70,338 in 2009.
One more: The DNR has data indicating that the costs of handling yard waste increased “nearly 50 percent from 2000 to 2005.”
I was happy to discover that the leaves aren’t wasted. The city has a list of local farmers who use the leaves as mulch on their fields and as bedding for their livestock – at no cost to the farmers.
But why should the farmers have all the fun? Most of us who live in the city are farmers, too – lawn farmers. And we share the need for a healthier crop.
The year I had my “Hmm?” moment, as I stood wondering before the mighty mountain of leaves, I looked next door and caught my neighbor mowing right over his leaves, mulching them into his lawn. He waved and smiled and said, “You know, mowing is easier.”
He’s smart. It turns out that mulching your leaves into your lawn is the city of West Bend’s preferred approach to dealing with autumn. It leaves the nutrients in your lawn and it saves tax dollars.
But there’s a secret lesson in civics hidden under this pile of leaves, and it’s a reminder about how good neighbors happen. Even when the leaves aren’t from your own trees, you still take responsibility for them. You can do the math from there.