I was glad when Berkshire Magazine bought my essay about the physical and emotional salutariness of hanging laundry. However, I was disappointed that their word limit for that department dictated that we cut the piece in half. (A common enough, though never welcome, price of publishing in magazines.) Click here for the published version, or read the full essay below.
First, tighten the line. Knotted to a hole in the corner of the house’s vinyl siding, it wraps once around a cherry tree on the edge of the woods before tacking back to where I wrapped it around the corner of the garage siding. The two lengths, though only twenty and twelve feet, sag from the weight of each hanging and need to be pulled taut again before the next. I pull the longer section tight, hold it with one fist while I squeegee the line around the cherry tree trunk to lose the slack, then pull tight in the other direction. At the garage end, I do the same thing where the line loops around the siding—push the looseness round and round, then pull the line taut like a halyard.
It’s nine-thirty on a November Monday morning. The Berkshire forecast is for sunshine and a high of sixty. Global warming is in general a positive-feedback phenomenon—that is, the effects of warming contribute even further to the climate change. As the polar ice caps melt, for example, there is less ice left to reflect the sun’s rays, and the earth warms even more, melting more ice. But there is at least one self-mitigating effect of global warming: warmer temperatures allow people to hang laundry on days when it would normally be too cold. Thus less fuel is burned to dry clothes, and less carbon dioxide makes its way into the atmosphere to add to the greenhouse effect. I’d prefer an old-fashioned environment forcing me to use my dryer in November, and of course the effort of a few thousand—or even a few million—hardy souls hanging their laundry is not going to have a noticeable effect on global warming. It is too late in the evolution of our society to convince a significant portion of the population to forego their powerful machines anyway. But it’s nice to imagine the entire world’s population taking advantage of the late warmth to sun-dry their clothes and forestall catastrophe. And even knowing this is fantasy, it still feels good to use a warm November day to save some propane.
I jumped out of bed this morning with an uncommon alacrity—suspiciously noted by my wife—in order to get the laundry in the washer. (“Ah,” she noted, “the hangman cometh.”) At this time of year, there is barely enough direct sunshine on the laundry line, peeking between tree limbs from nine-thirty to four, to dry a load. While the washing machine thrummed, I dragged my boys from their beds, dressed them, prodded them into nibbling some of the breakfast my wife had prepared, guided their arms through the loops of the backpacks she had stuffed, and ran them out to the road just as the school bus groaned to a halt.
A quick breakfast, my wife left for work, and down in the basement the washing machine came to rest with an inviting silence. Normally at this time I am faced with the mocking emptiness of the computer screen. Today, however, I sprung upstairs with the wet clothes and out into the nascent sunshine. Although hanging the laundry meant a late start to my own workday, I didn’t view it as an inconvenient chore. On the contrary: rarely do I feel the sense of peace and accomplishment down at my desk as I do hanging clothes out in the yard.
Why such satisfaction in clipping clothes to the line and letting the air and sun do their thing? As noted earlier, the amount of CO2 I’m keeping out of the atmosphere is negligible. The savings on my propane bill are not significant. But our addiction to powered machines has gotten the world into such a mess that it’s gratifying to let nature do some work and to some degree, however miniscule, heal itself.
It’s also in part an atavistic pleasure. Once the earth was truly our environment. We spend so much time inside now: most of us work indoors, we eat indoors, our computers soak up more and more of our leisure time; for exercise people go to the gym or buy a treadmill; at this time of the year I’m already playing tennis indoors. I’ve always envied those who work outside; driving by carpenters erecting a house or farmers in the field, I feel a pang of envy. A few years ago I spent two weeks re-roofing my house, and although I can’t say that at the end I was contemplating a career change, I loved rising each morning knowing that I was going to spend the day up on my roof in the autumn sunshine, with a hammer and nails, completing a useful and achievable task. (Writing usually feels like the opposite.) In the same way it’s a pleasure to be working outdoors on the laundry line. Feeling the sun on my skin, putting that energy to work on our clothes.
I grab a shirt’s shoulder seam with my left index and middle fingers, and use my thumb as a tent post under the seam a couple of inches down to hold it up near the clothesline while the right hand works the pin. Other shoulder, done. Next shirt. The temperature is still in the forties, and the wet clothes chill my fingers. But the sunshine now coming over the mountain, making its first forays between the branches to my hands, hints at the good weather in store. I feel the dignified satisfaction of the rancher tending to his cattle, the farmer hoeing his field in the oblique light of early morning. Or Cormac McCarthy’s teenaged cowboys on the road, in The Crossing:
They washed their clothes out with soapweed and hung them in an acacia tree where they could not blow away for the thorns. Clothes much consumed by the country through which they’d ridden and which they had little way to repair.
Our Levi’s haven’t seen much hard country. But still there is a feeling as I hang them of closeness to the land and the sky, a harmony that comes back to me later when I take a shirt out of the drawer and, unfolding it, feel a faint stiffness from the sun and wind.
I work my way from the house towards the cherry tree. In the middle section of line I hang the socks and underwear so they will be hidden behind the garage, a sympathetic concession to decorum.
My wife is a good citizen, concerned with conserving fossil fuels and slowing global warming. And although she is apparently too busy to do much hanging herself, having a job and all, she did buy me a clothesline and clothespins for my birthday. But she thinks I’m nuts to hang socks. Even her mother, up in the Wisconsin north woods, who grew all the family’s vegetables and canned them for the winter and had a permanent freestanding clothesline which she used as much as the northern climate would allow, didn’t hang socks.
But I don’t mind. Left thumb and index finger hold open each wooly rictus while the right hand works the pincers and captures the damp prey. There is no choice but to work deliberately, and so it costs little extra time to hang every other sock next to its matched partner. This allows me to take them down in pairs, saving that bit of time later in the folding.
In his recent novel, To the End of the Land, Israeli novelist David Grossman has his character remember
when the kids were little…how [she and her husband] liked to hang the laundry out to dry at night, together, one last domestic chore at the end of a long, exhausting day. Together they would carry the large tub out to the garden facing the dark fields and the valley, and the Arab village of Hussan. The great fig tree and the grevillea rustled softly with their own mysterious, rich lives, and the laundry lines filled up with dozens of tiny articles of clothing…. Was there someone from Hussan who had gone out in the last light of day and was watching them now? Aiming a gun at them? Ora wondered sometimes, and a chill would flutter down her spine. Or was there a general, human immunity for people hanging laundry—especially this kind of laundry?
What a beautiful thought—not just of laundry as a locus of common understanding between embattled peoples, but also the thought of living in a land so dry that you can hang out your clothes to dry overnight. In New England, I have to be careful to bring them in before the temperature drops to the dew point. And in November, on a rare gifted day when hanging is possible, that occurs well before supper.
The lights are already on inside, the kids are playing in the living room, and my wife is cooking in the kitchen. “It’s just about ready,” she says. “Do you mind setting the table?”
“Yeah, I just have to go get the laundry before the dew hits.”
Her look seems to say, “Hobbies don’t count as chores.”
I’m pretty sure she’s joking.
I slip on my boots, go out the back door. It’s later than I’d intended, and the air has already lost the day’s mirage of warmth. The shoulder of the first tee-shirt I touch is slightly damp. I’ll just strategically lay out the few that need it—a shirt over a door, a couple socks over each chair—and they’ll be fine in an hour. I squeeze the clothespins one by one and catch the released items in my basket. A half-moon has risen above the mountain, just as the sun had as I was hanging this morning. Bare elm and cherry branches form a black lattice against the darkening indigo.
The hangman comes inside from the chilly gloaming, sees his children playing cards on the floor. The kitchen is warm from dinner cooking. The oven’s heat has the sheltering feel of a hearth and will perform the final drying touch upon the clothes he spreads, like holy relics of the sun, about the house.