On the open burning of tree leaves
December 6, 1990
In my contemplative moments, when I reflect that perhaps I have been too hard on ol' Illinois, I recall that one of the reasons the estimable Richard B. Ogilvie did not win the re-election in 1972 he so richly deserved was his EPA had dared propose to ban the open burning of tree leaves. I railed against this barbarous practice for years in pieces much like this one.
I often get misty when I pay a call on my sister's family on Springfield's southwest side this time of year. I wipe away the occasional tear, suppress a sniffle or two, maybe feel an ache in my throat. It is not emotion that tugs at my mucous membranes but the sting of leaf smoke from lingering fires in nearby Leland Grove.
Loyal readers will recall that I railed for years against the open burning of leaves in Springfield. No pile of damp leaves smoldered as warmly—or, it seemed, as uselessly—as I did. Happily, the city council banned the practice two years ago as a threat to public health. There was grumbling of course. People grumbled in the 1800s when the city made them stop dumping dead horses in the Town Branch of Spring Creek; progress is always inconvenient to someone, usually someone who deserves it. A chorus of calls to rescind the leaf burning ban has been heard in recent months—dismaying noises to my ears, like the talk of Richard Nixon making a comeback.
There is no action so wise that aroused ignorance can't force a politician to renounce it. The State Journal-Register for one has been editorializing for burning. Not on its editorial page (leaf burners do not seem to read, no doubt because their eyes are watering) but on its front pages. There each fall the editors publish gorgeous color photos like the one that ran on November 9 showing a woman raking leaves toward a burning pile not ten steps from a highway. "As dusk settles over Modesto," began the caption. The scene looked dusky enough, although it was impossible to tell from the photo whether the cars whizzing past had their headlights on to penetrate the deepening gloom or the smoke that the woman was dumping into the right-of-way. The caption ended on a wistful note: "The aroma of burning leaves continues to fill the air in many of the smaller rural communities surrounding Springfield, which banned the practice last year."
Yes, life used to be so simple. (It was during the Reagan years, wasn't it?) The SJR often runs such bucolic hokum on its front page. Such evocations of a simpler life, when all one had to do to be a good neighbor was to be white, may appeal to the yokels but in this case they make for bad reporting. It isn't the aroma of leaves that bothers the opponents of burning but the carbon monoxide, the benzene and other toxic chemicals, and the particulates that fill the air—and thus the lungs—of passersby. Burning one's leaves does not get rid of them, but merely converts them into a more portable form. Their remains—toxic in high concentrations, irritating even at low ones—are indeed carried off by winds but not very far. (Except on the gustiest days, when burning is banned everywhere as a fire hazard.) They usually settle nearby, on anything and anyone. It is not nice thing to do to your neighbors, and nice people do not do it.
Fortunately the Springfield city council has so far stood fast in protection of its citizens against the unnice among us. Unfortunately, Springfield is not town around. The suburban hamlets of Leland Grove, Grandview, Southern View, and Jerome continue to endorse leaf arson, with noisome effects upon their downwind neighbors. Their argument in favor of burning—or to be more accurate, their argument against burning bans—is the usual political cowardice couched in terms of hardship. The mayor of Leland Grove, for example, has explained that his village recently rescinded its burning ban of 18 months ago because disposal options were so limited.
I can see where leaf disposal might be a problem in a place like Grandview; there is no way you can set up a compost bin in most trailer courts without the manager insisting that you put a skirt on it. But Leland Grovers are rather better fixed to face the terrors of leaf disposal. They have big yards and lots of cars to hide compost bins behind and garages crammed with power yard equipment with which they could mulch not only leaves but dining sets if they wanted to; the options for disposing of their money seem to be hardly limited at all.
I admit to feeling ungenerous about Leland Grove's plight. The village is one of those places whose residents use money—much of it honestly earned, I admit—to insulate themselves from the annoyances of life in a crowded metropolis. There is no convenience store parking lots blighting the vistas in Leland Grove, no public housing, no library taxes. Grovers have been less concerned about annoying everyone else, alas. They've been polluting Springfield air for decades, every time they venture forth from their exclusively residential enclave onto the streets of the capital to buy their groceries or fill up the car or drive to the office.
Theoretically, suburbs could burn as many leaves as they want, so long as they keep the resulting smoke within their own borders. It is hard to see how they might accomplish this feat, however, since their powers of social control do not extend to the vagrant winds. The Illinois constitution's explicit guarantee of a clean environment for all its citizens takes precedence over privilege. The good burghers of Leland Grove, Grandview, et al have no more right to pollute the air of Springfield than do the owners of a paint factory. (Some Grovers might demur, coming as they do from long lines of factory owners.)
Some Springfield aldermen have asked why their constituents should suffer because some Grover is as narrow-minded about leaves as he is about progressive taxation or S-2 zoning. There is talk in the council of making adoption of burn bans by its suburban neighbors a condition of the city's renewal of their fire protection contracts. I like the concept; if they like to eat smoke, let 'em eat some real smoke once in a while.
Failing that, there is a different remedy, pursued by big-city neighborhood and church groups to good effect against the proprietors of drug houses: civil suits brought under the nuisance laws. Don't get mad about leaf burning; get evidence! All you need is a couple of videocams and some Polaroids. And an angry lawyer with asthma. ■