EVANSTON, ILLINOIS: 2019 climate action badge? Leave the Leaves

Posted November 2, 2019


I’ve lived in Evanston, a Chicago suburb, for 43 years. I can confirm that for 43 years, most of the organic growth from Evanston’s soil—grass clippings, leaves, shrub prunings, tree branches—left the city limits. Almost none was returned to the soil. Yes, there was always the occasional composter or real gardener who kept that precious material on their property, supporting earth’s ability to renew life within our 7.8 square miles.

Today, in 2019, I would guess that the annual percentage of plant growth that remains within the city of Evanston is still in the single digits. Yes, we probably have a few more serious composters and Evanston is now certified as a wildlife habitat city.  Yes, I believe the City is offering wood chips again. But it’s my educated guess as a retired professional gardener, that 90% of Evanston’s annual production of grass, leaves, shrubs, and trees—i.e., next year’s soil–still gets trucked outside the city limits.

At the very least this means that for 43 years we have interrupted nature’s cycle of replenishing the soils of Evanston.  Add worsening soil erosion (hard rains, flooding, and humans’ increasing aversion to “dirt”), increased use of poisons (pesticides, herbicides), and decrease in biodiversity (including micro-organisms). That means we have soil that is less fertile, less capable of absorbing water, and possibly poisonous.

This means that one of the easiest and most impactful climate mitigation action–active carbon sequestration in our suburban Tree City–is reduced. And, speaking of climate action, did I mention the increased use of leaf blowers as an increasing contributor of greenhouse gas emissions within Evanston?

In 2004, as I neared the end of my gardening career (retired in 2007), the Evanston Roundtable published my letter about “leaving the leaves” (grass clippings, etc.) following a drought year. My letter seems surprisingly outdated in terms of its sense of climate mitigation urgency. Mostly I was concentrating on conservation of fossil fuels, not complete elimination. But the dichotomy expressed is still valid: We have numerous reasons to keep our leaves vs. one reason to throw them away every year. And now we understand—through scientific knowledge and direct experience—that there is urgency to do anything we can to (a) eliminate fossil fuel use, and (b) facilitate carbon sequestration on every piece of land.

On Oct. 31, 2019, the Chicago area had an extreme weather convergence: In Evanston we had 2-3” of heavy wet snow sticking to every surface imaginable, including every leaf and twig, followed by a hard frost (24 degrees), our first frost of the season. When the sun came up on Nov. 1, the frozen, wet leaves started dropping wholesale, leaving large pools of distinctive colors & textures on the ground—yellowed hackberry, butterscotch elm, blackened catalpa, giant compound Tree of Heaven leaves, crumpled brownish mulberry, golden-peach sweet gum, etc. This is a vision of the productive wealth of soil.  Can we now see that it is riches worth keeping? riches that are free?

As we are asking in the political sphere these days, Which side are you on?* If Evanston wants a climate action badge, we need to keep our leaves.

*Which Side Are You On? is a song written in the 1930s during a coal miners’ strike by Florence Reece, wife of a coal union organizer (Harlan County, KY).  Above all, it asks us to think clearly and to make a decision.

Here’s my reasons for leaving the leaves, this year and every year, now and in the spring.


Letter to Evanston Roundtable:  Leave the Leaves
published March 31, 2004

Dear Editor:

A year ago, plants all over the Chicago area were dying. By mid-April, there were thousands of brown evergreens (dead), groundcovers killed to the roots (if not completely), and miscellaneous trees, shrubs, and perennials badly damaged or totally dead.

The direct cause was drought — a dry summer, fall, and winter of 2002 followed by late spring rains — too late for the survival of many plants.  But if one looked closely, one might have noticed that gardens protected by autumn leaves had much less loss, if any.

As a professional gardener (for more than 20 years), I can say unequivocally that keeping our leaves is the single most important factor in maintaining a healthy, growing garden. And the least costly. But for some reason, as a society, we’ve decided to clean up the out-of-doors and to pay for it on a weekly basis. What gets forgotten is that we pay for it directly at least fourfold:  we pay for an all-out fall clean-up, we pay for a spring clean-up, we pay for mulch to be brought in (to replace what we just paid to throw out), and then we pay increased water bills during dry periods  because our unprotected soils and plants dry out so quickly. (And we in Evanston pay again with the sewer surcharge.)  Sometimes, as in the spring of 2003, we pay to replace dead plants.

But there are other costs that we don’t pay any attention to because we don’t write checks. We pay with excessive noise pollution (from leaf blowers), we pay with air pollution (blowing dust and fumes from blowers, as well as unnecessary trucking of materials back and forth), and we pay with related health problems. All this trucking/blowing/mowing uses fossil fuels that are not replaceable.

Following is a list of reasons for leaving leaves, every one of which makes life more pleasant, is less labor intensive, and/or saves money. Leave the leaves in the fall, leave them in the spring, under shrubs, trees, and on perennial and groundcover beds. Yes, we need to get leaves off the lawns and off the walks; these can be spread underneath evergreens, behind shrubs, or piled up in an out-of-the-way area. But nature usually drops and blows just the right amount of leaves in perennial and groundcover beds, especially if over winter we leave the seedheads, ornamental grasses, etc., many of which provide food and cover for birds.

Leaving your leaves will….

1.  Create new soil, adding structure and nutrients, improving growing conditions — for free. This is especially important in east Evanston, where soils are light and sandy. The heavier soils of west Evanston will also benefit by loosening up the soils, encouraging worm and micro-organism action.  Soils need “fiber”; plants can’t live just on “vitamins” (fertilizers).

2.  Protect existing soil from wind erosion. Our soils took 10,000 years to accumulate; should we squander them so lightly?

3.  Hold moisture in the soil; plants will need less water, less frequently.

4.  Protect plants against extreme weather (cold or heat, both of which can be drying).  Some plants need protection against cold temperatures.

5.  Give you and your neighbors peace and quiet by decreased use of leaf blowers.

6.  Keep our air cleaner — less fumes, less stirred-up dust.

7.  Conserve fossil fuel by less frequent use of leafblowers and trucking of materials back and forth.

8.  Eliminate much of the time/cost of bagging up leaves.

9.  Protect the habitat of the small creatures — worms, insects, micro-organisms — that create ideal soil conditions for healthy plants.  Healthy plants are more disease- and pest-resistant.

10.   Show us the beauty of natural processes.  How awe-inspiring to see little green tips breaking through the brown leaves this time of year.  How fine this cycle of life.

What are the reasons to throw leaves away?

1.  Neatness.

I would ask,
what’s “neat” about air pollution?
what’s “neat” about unhealthy plants?
what’s “neat” about trees dropping leaves in the middle of summer for lack of moisture?
what’s “neat” about noise pollution (not to mention the health of the workers who use these noisy machines, almost universally without ear protection)?

What’s “neat” about squandering our resources — our soil, fossil fuels, water, and air?

Debbie Hillman
Evanston, IL 60202

NOTE: A longer version of this letter was published in 2005 as an article in HortIdeas, an on-line horticulture & farming newsletter.  In the Sept/Oct 2005 issue of American Gardener (magazine of the American Horticultural Society), my HortIdeas article was summarized in a sidebar.

PART 3 of PUBLIC TRUST IN EVANSTON, IL: National Cracks being Exposed in Chicago Suburb

Posted October 15, 2019
This is an update of an on-going issue in Evanston, IL, a citizen complaint against a sitting alderman. Original details are in my August 25, 2019 post, Part 2 of this series.

This update was sent to approximately 30 Evanstonians in my personal networks–media, political & justice groups, and individuals who I think are interested in the larger issue of public trust and this specific example.

CITY OF EVANSTON: Board of Ethics meeting
Tonight, Oct. 15, 2019, the Board of Ethics of the City of Evanston will be hearing the complaint against Ald. Peter Braithwaite (2nd ward) by two Evanston citizens (Trisha Connolly and Albert Gibbs).

In the meeting packet, you can read:
— the agenda
— minutes of the last meeting (Sept. 17)
— the complaint
—a Motion to Dismiss the complaint by Ald. Braithwaite’s lawyer, Shawn Jones

The hearing begins at 7:00 PM and there is a period for citizen comment before the complaint is heard. There is no mention of executive session on the agenda, so presumably this hearing will take place in public.

Unfortunately, it looks like this hearing is going to get very messy before it gets resolved. Here’s my take on the Motion to Dismiss.

Although Mr. Jones cites the “facts” of the case as indisputable, he makes a material error in his motion that the Board will have to deal with before the hearing can meaningfully proceed. The error should be embarrassing to Mr. Jones and Ald. Braithwaite and even more embarrassing to two experts whose statements Mr. Jones solicited and that are included in the motion.  These statements are from Prof. Jose Medina (Northwestern University Dept. of Philosophy) and Assoc. Prof. Robin DiAngelo (University of Washington; I believe Prof DiAngelo’s field is sociology).

The error is that the complaint is ascribed by Mr. Jones as an example of “white fragility”, a phenomenon popularized by Prof. DiAngelo in her book. In fact:
— One of the two complainants is Black
— At least one other supporter of the complaint is Black. Darlene Cannon provided citizen comment in support of the complaint on Aug. 20, 2019.
— At least one other supporter of the complaint is Jewish. On Sept. 17, I sent an official statement of support to the Board of Ethics. For the record, many American Jews including myself identify as both people of color and as white, as reflects our personal experiences.
— My statement consisted of my blog that was posted on August 25, 2019. In this post, having watched the entire July 15 Citizen Comment period livestream and a videotape of the August 20 Board of Ethics meeting (linked in my post), I identified the coalition of supporters as being “interracial”.

At least one member of the supporting coalition has contacted Prof. Medina and Prof. DiAngelo to provide them with these additional facts. I do not know if either professor has responded.

Mr. Jones appears not to have watched the citizen comments carefully, during which both white and Black people accused the City (or perhaps the general population of Evanston, the city) as being systemically racist or treating Clerk Devon Reid in a systemically racist manner.

Unfortunately, in his Motion to Dismiss Mr. Jones has sought to bring experts on “white fragility” into the conversation by devoting 4 pages (plus exhibits) to quotes and analysis about white fragility.. This was evidently done without notifying these experts about the multi-racial make-up of the complainants or of the supportive coalition or of the larger context of civic distrust in Evanston (as reflective of our national context of distrust).  More unfortunately, both of these experts acted unprofessionally, in my opinion, by not doing their due diligence and learning more about the complainants, the context of Ald. Braithwaite’s remarks (the motion to censure Clerk Reid), etc., before weighing in on the matter through email.

At the end of the Motion to Dismiss, Mr. Jones tries to shame the complainants for wasting City time, etc.  In my opinion, the false accusation of “white fragility” is the actual waste of City and citizen resources.

(not cited in the BoE complaint)
As you know from my August 27, 2019 email, I have other problems with Ald. Braithwaite’s Call of the Ward comments, problems that are not included in the original complaint. For your convenience, here again is the link to my my Aug. 25 blogpost, which I sent to the Board of Ethics on Sept. 17, 2019 as my official statement.: Part 2 of Public Trust in Evanston, IL: National Cracks being Exposed in Chicago Suburb

To summarize again, these additional problems are:
1.  Possible confusion between systemic racism and accusations of personal racism.
2.  Incorrectly describing the divisiveness about the decision to censure Clerk Reid “racial”.
The divisiveness rather falls along power lines, not racial lines.
3.  Seeming inattention on the part of an Evanston official
—to citizen comments during citizen comment period
—to national and local conversations about the rise of authoritarianism, value of racial and intersectional allyship in combating authoritarianism, mature citizenship inclusive of the mandate to criticize officials

I do not know if Ald. Braithwaite has in fact violated any City of Evanston ordinance or State of Illinois law. I do believe that he has acted unethically in a variety of ways and I stand with the complainants and other supporters on this matter.  If the Board of Ethics dismisses the complaint or otherwise has no problem with Ald. Braithwaite’s comments, we citizens might want to think about (a) rewriting the rules to make such behavior a violation, (b) reconsider our local election processes whereby we sometimes elect officials who are more supportive of elite power structures than real democracy that benefits all.

NOTE: Unfortunately, Evanston has no mechanism for including written citizen comments in the official record (an issue to be addressed at another time).  Anyone should feel free to share this with Mr. Jones and/or Ald. Braithwaite (and any other Evanston resident). As I do not know them personally, I am not including them in this email.