MADELEINE BRAND, host:
Old-school wrestlers depend on strength, persistence and a lot of know-how, but much of what we do these days requires something else. North Carolina writer Scott Huler sent us his reflections on Americans' dependence on gasoline and how it's changed the way we work and play.
I lie in bed in the mornings now and enjoy the sounds of autumn. With the later-rising sun, I hear the birds hollering their chaotic vespers. Gentle fall rains rattle the shingles, presaging harder rains to come. In quiet moments, you can even hear the dry leaves shaking in the breezes, then lightly scratching the ground when they land--followed, of course, by the high nasal whine of a two-stroke engine as some neighbor straps on a leaf blower and shatters the morning silence.
I've never understood leaf blowers. Lightly scientific observation leads me to conclude that they save no time. An hour of leaf-blowing, that is, removes the same amount of leaves as an hour of raking, only instead of a rake's delightful scraping sound and a little exercise, you get gas fumes and irritated neighbors.
But not long ago, I figured out what a leaf blower offers that a nice human-powered rake doesn't: petro-tainment. Petro-tainment is what people get from any gas-powered thing that is just like the manual thing it replaced, only noisier and smellier.
I discovered this last summer in a weekend at a friend's sumptuous lake house. We passed some of the happy hours on the dock by idly plotting the destruction of the Jet Skis that buzzed by like persistent horseflies, ripping the silence into annoying static. Of course we never took action against the Jet Skis, but we dreamed. We lobbied our host to pull out the sailboat, to enjoy the lake using only the energy that comes with the moving air delivered free each morning with the dawn. No way, we were told; this lake was no place for a sailboat. Whether beset by swarms of Jet Skis, overturned by cigarette boat wakes or simply plowed under by drunk or inattentive pontoon boat captains, our sail excursion was doomed by something gasoline-powered.
Somewhere along the line, Americans lost the ability to entertain ourselves without help from Exxon. Apparently, having fun without burning gas implies that you're, I don't know, lazy or poor or boring, petro-thetic.
It's tempting to let the issue go. Those Jet Skis are now in storage, and the leaf blowers will be soon. But the issue just changes venue. In only weeks, people living further north will begin making the same complaints about snowmobiles that we made about Jet Skis. Researchers from future generations--call them petro-logists--will see in these gizmos the key to our downfall. They'll ignore the SUVs and Hummers, seeing instead that we sealed our fate when even our tiniest actions began relying on petroleum, even as petroleum ran out. And thinking about petro-tainment, I finally recognized how those future generations will explain our stony inaction in the face of obvious coming crisis: We've been petrified.
BRAND: Scott Huler is a writer in North Carolina.
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