The Hidden Wisdom of the Clothesline

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Photo by Adobe Stock/Natavilman.

Clip the wooden clothespin onto the left shoulder of the blue shirt, onto the clothesline. I know this shoulder, this shirt. I’ve leaned my head against it and heard the heart of the man who wears this shirt beat its sturdy beat. I pull the shirt taut and clip the right shoulder to the line. Hanging out the wash—it’s a good thing for me to do. We do so little for ourselves now. And each year we do less as our devices and machines do more. I wonder, do we cherish less when we do less with our hands and more with machines?

Our devices promise today what machines have always promised—to deliver us from toil and effort. But what are toil and effort? Do we know anymore? Do we know they are bad things? Today our machines also want to think for us, to plan and dream for us. An acquaintance at a party says her new smart phone is her friend. Whatever we call our devices—they are machines. Can a machine be a friend, with no shoulder, no heartbeat?

I’m reading about the life of a man born in 1856 on an island off the west coast of Ireland. When Tomás O’Crohan was eight years old and ready for long pants his father made him a pair of grey breeches. If asked to name his trade, the father would likely have said fisherman, as his son would later do, not tailor. Yet, the boy’s father knew how to sew a pair of breeches. The material would likely have been wool the boy’s mother had carded and spun from the sheep they kept. In this remote enclave of subsistence culture the people still made most of what they needed by hand: their houses, their music, their food. The island had a king and a school, but it had no shop, no division of labor, no paying jobs. Yet everyone worked—men and women, king and children—and everyone was involved in the daily drama of survival. Their entertainment was their lives. What Tomás O’Crohan chronicled may have been the last chapter of a human epic that could trace itself, through proverbs, skills, and values, back to the Neolithic.

Our modern presumption is that these people would have been stupefied by their backbreaking labor that permitted no time for “cultural” activities and abstract thought. Like so many of our modern beliefs about the past, the opposite was true. These people were renowned for the subtlety and power of their music and language, and for the range of their knowledge. Scholars from Norway, Britain, and Dublin journeyed to the Great Blasket Island to learn their rich ancient tongue. One of these, the esteemed Greek scholar George Thomson, recalled that “the conversation of those ragged peasants … electrified me. It was as though Homer had come alive. Its vitality was inexhaustible.”

The books the islanders wrote about their lives, at the prompting of the scholars, are still in print today. These people, who cooked their food over an open fire—food they wrested with their hands and wits from land and sea—could not have known that the era of the ready meal and tumble dryer was bearing down on them. That their stories and seasons, hardships and scarcities would soon be swept away by the cataclysm we now know as the Global Market Economy. Just as it bears down on us today with its tidings of singularity and the reign of robots.

Meanwhile, I take time to hang the washing on the line. Already, the morning sun has wicked the last drop of dew from the grass. Above me—the fizzy company of a colony of bees that has settled on the roof. I fall into the rhythm of bending and lifting, bending and reaching. My mother, my grandmothers speak to me over the clothesline. I pin the laundry as they did, joining each piece to its neighbor with one pin where they meet, shoulder to shoulder. In this way, I can fit more on the line, and it will save time later when I take the laundry down. These fewer clothes pegs are especially important if the weather changes and I have to race against the rain. Like my mother and grandmothers, I never bend the edge of the fabric over the line. This would leave odd creases and the laundry would not dance as freely.  I take care to hang the laundry in a pleasing manner: toes of socks point in the same direction, pillow slips hang hems down, same-size things together. During the day it’s a pleasure to catch site of the laundry through the kitchen window, undulating on tides of breezes.

If I say that hanging laundry on the line takes time, it’s the same as saying that my time is being taken from me. But to turn this around and say I take time to hang my laundry on the line gives me sovereignty over my own time, over my life. Our scarcity of time these days is a curious thing. People seem to be running out of time or losing it, or keeping it for themselves and not sharing it. People say we have less time today because we have more to do, but surely we don’t have more to do than the Blasket islanders. And haven’t our friends the machines been saving time after all?

At the beginning of the 20th century, D.H. Lawrence worried that the coming of electric lights into the cottages was the beginning of centralized control and the end of the free soul. He saw that electricity, and what it would bring into human life, would require and enforce conformity. Certainly it helped bring an end to folk culture—that is, culture created from the bottom up with no mercenary motive. Culture that riseth from the toil and effort of a people’s struggle for survival.

Poets are our modern soothsayers, and Lawrence, it turns out, was clairvoyant. He gives us Mellors, after his first intimacy with Connie, vowing to protect her tenderness—their tenderness—before the “insentient iron world and the Mammon of mechanized greed did them both in. …” Reading this we can feel and smell the sulfurous fulminations of the factories creeping toward us from just beyond the edge of the primordial forest in which Lady Chatterley and Mellors had lain in the gamekeeper’s hut.

Surely the tumble dryer belongs to the “insentient iron world and the Mammon of mechanized greed.” The tumble dryer, which did not become a baseline appliance for middle-class households in the U.S. until the 1960s, fulminates massive amounts of carbon dioxide—on average, 2,400 pounds per dryer per year. Many, if not most, dryers are now made in Asia and must be floated across the sea in monster container ships requiring that harbors worldwide be devastatingly enlarged to birth them in monster container ports. In this way the Global Market Economy gains efficiencies and profits, and our world loses vital estuaries and coral reefs, and thus life.

These ships, of course, depend for their fuel on oil rigs, oil refineries, oil pipelines. The dryer itself—once it’s hauled from ship to home—depends on the burning of fossils fuels or nuclear fission to dry each shirt and sock. When the dryer breaks down or is discarded it’s shipped back across the sea to an appliance dump in Africa or Asia where it is picked over like carrion.

Twenty or so years ago I was looking to rent an apartment on the top floor of a spindly Victorian house with a rambling side yard. “Are there clotheslines?” I asked the landlord. I knew immediately that I may as well have asked where the hitching post was. “This,” he pronounced, “is the era of the clothes dryer.” I knew this man, he’d been vice president of our student assembly at my state’s university and had helped organize the first Earth Day on campus in 1970. That Earth Day had shocked our campus and our consciousness. The lifestyle we’d grown up thinking was normal and good—the best in the world—was now suspect, possibly even sinister. Earth Day, with its teach-ins and lectures by visiting thinkers such as Buckminster Fuller, Paul Erlich, and Dr. Benjamin Spock, gave us, among other things, a new and alarming vocabulary: CO?, greenhouse effect, climate warming.

Despite the energetic and widely supported environmental movement that followed the first Earth Day, the March of Progress continued at an ever increasing velocity. From 1958 to 1979 the number of clothes dryers in the U.S. increased 628 percent. Today 85 percent of U.S. households possess a clothes dryer and the consciousness of most Americans reflects this. Most people I talk to simply cannot imagine their lives without what they regard as a benign labor-saving appliance. Their tumble dryer is their friend.

Most of the time I live in a city apartment and don’t have the luxury of a clothesline in the garden with grass underfoot and bees overhead. But I’ve found it’s always possible to rig up a clothesline, even indoors, and to use drying racks. It’s not true what they’ve told us, that a tumble dryer is a necessity. It is true, however, that it’s a convenience, that it takes less time than a clothesline. That the dryer allows us to be more productive, to be more like machines ourselves.

Recently I was in my neighborhood shop buying a package of clothespins. The woman behind the counter said excitedly, “Do you have a clothesline? Oh, I wish I could have one, but we’re not allowed. There’s nothing like sheets dried in the sun!”

In many places a line of wash hung in the backyard is considered an eyesore. And clotheslines are forbidden outright on the grounds of many housing estates and apartment complexes. One can expect that the lawns and shrubbery in these enclaves are tidy and uniform, whereas a line of wash is motley and unique. I wonder, is it the aesthetic of hand work that gives offense? Is a line of wash an unpleasant reminder of that blinkered time in our past when we had to do things by hand? Does a line of laundry strung on a country clothesline or across an urban alley remind us, after all, that most of us descend from people who were poor? Perhaps clotheslines are a subliminal reminder that there are many people in the world who are still poor, who live in places without tumble dryers and the power grids to support them? A subtle reminder that there are still many places where even soap is a luxury, as it would have been for most of our own ancestors, who would have rubbed out grease stains in their breeches with wood ash and rinsed them in the river? 

What if the clothes dryer is not the benign domestic labor-saving device we think it is—if we think about it at all? What if it’s a thief of our human agency? Or, to put this another way, a thief of some small portion of our humanity?—that part of us that feels at home in the simple rhythms and chores of daily life, untethered to the electrical socket? That part of us that finds pleasure and satisfaction in doing a thing by hand? What if this appliance is yet another way we separate ourselves from the seasons and the rest of the natural world? And from our traditions and the language of our traditions? As the Mammon of mechanized greed continues to transform our world into a vast machine, how do we not fall into the machinery ourselves?

When a fine day holds, I sometimes forget to take the laundry down. Tonight when I remembered, it was past dark, or nearly so—only a thin brush of red marked the western sky when I opened the backdoor. As I’d feared, the dew had already climbed the grass and it soaked my shoes as I walked to the clothesline at the back of the garden. I worried that the damp would have already found the laundry and undone its long day of basking in the sun. But no matter. Working left to right, I unpinned the socks, the tea towels, the pillowslips in the reverse order I’d hung them. I did this mostly by feel, as our rented cottage has no outdoor lights. As my mother would’ve done, I slid the clothespin bag along as I went until I reached the last item at the far end of the clothesline—the blue shirt. I’ll hang it above the hearth to dry completely overnight. It’s cool enough in the evenings here, on the westernmost edge of Ireland, that we make a fire after dinner and then sit as close to the heat of it as we can. I will join him now, the man who wears the blue shirt, and we’ll read our books until midnight or so. The day’s chores are done. We are content. The laundry is in the basket ready to be folded and put away. In the morning, after breakfast, I’ll put my hand to it. 

Jeri Reilly is a writer. Reprinted from Dark Mountain (August 2015), a print and online journal that features essays, conversations, stories, poems and artwork of all kinds, made by those who have lost faith in the stories our societies like to tell about the world and our place within it. 

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