The Clothesline Question

How hanging out the laundry sparked a political firestorm

| November-December 2003

Five or so years ago my clothes dryer stopped working. It had been in place, already aging, when I bought the house a dozen years before, and it wasn’t worth repairing.

The death of what we call a “major appliance” is increasingly a traumatic experience for most of us. Life is complicated, and the consumer cult of infinite choice has made it more so. I wasn’t looking forward to venturing into unfamiliar territory where I would have to puzzle over dryer lingo and consider appliance functions I didn’t understand or need.

Then the thought occurred to me that I wasn’t required to replace the dryer. There was a perfectly good backyard behind my house, two apple trees that could support a clothesline, and a fresh sea breeze. I could simply hang the clothes on the line, save the cost of the dryer, avoid the energy use, and get a bit of exercise in the bargain. So that’s what I did.

It’s probably a given that anything you do is going to annoy somebody. A friend found this new practice of mine particularly revolting. “You hang out your clothes?” she asked in horror. It wasn’t something she’d do, and she’d made a fellow who bought land from her to build a house promise never to do it either, she told me. I dismissed her bourgeois pretensions and tried to make drying clothes on the line into an art form, arranging colors, pairing socks, going for a tidy, professional look.

This humble task had the curious effect of reconnecting me to my backyard. I listened to the birds, checked on the plants, watched the crows watching me. As summer progressed, I found I observed things around me in a new way: the sky, the wind, the slant of the sun. I developed practical approaches, hanging the trousers and shirts open to face the wind so that the air flow could make wind socks of the legs and billow out the shirts, saving me a bit of ironing. Slow-drying garments needed the full sun; sheer ones could be where the shade hit early in the afternoon.

I realized that humans have been considering such things for the entire span of our existence on the planet, and it’s only been in the recent past, as we’ve separated ourselves from the world around us, that we’ve stopped thinking about them. I was beginning to really enjoy hanging out the clothes.

Donna Nanson
5/18/2012 3:09:04 PM

When bought a tiny, old, derelict house because it had a clothesline in the backyard. The clothesline spelled the romance of simple life. it took us years to restore the house but we will never be done with the restoration of the garden where our laundry dances to birdsong.

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