The Politics of the Clothesline


Yesterday I ambled towards my cottage, returning from putting the cattle out to pasture for the evening. The sun was sinking low in the Texas sky, turning the clouds to faint orange and brilliant pink. As I neared my humble abode, I saw my laundry hanging on the clothesline, tugged gently by the breeze. I took a hamper and began collecting it. I moved deliberately but leisurely, un-clipping shirts and pants, folding them, and dropping them into my battered hamper. Each piece of clothing was freshly dried, the blue jeans stiff and crisp, the shirts warm to the touch. Every time I liberated a piece of clothing my line—which is really little more than a long string tied between two trees—bounded upwards. By the time I finished, I had a neat pile of folded laundry and the line was hanging, nearly taut, with its wooden clips dangling from it like the bulbs on a string of Christmas lights. I sighed contentedly and carried my laundry into the house.

At first blush my time spent on the clothesline seems like nothing more than a chore, at best a sort of rustic diversion. However, on a deeper level using a clothesline is a political act. It may not involve ballots or parties, protests or revolutions, but it is an act that exists within the machinery of power, and an act that grinds against many of its gears. Drying clothes on a line is independent, sustainable, and localist. This makes it an act of protest to the extent that the oikoumene is encroaching, rapacious, and globalist.

As a piece of technology, the clothesline insists that its user adopt a certain stance towards the wider world. This stance is inherent to the technology. It may seem odd to think of the clothesline, or any other tool, having an innate political function. However, we have all seen the political implications of other technologies. Take, for instance, contraceptive pills and atomic weapons. By un-tethering human fertility from the boundaries established by nature and un-tethering martial destruction from the boundaries of Newtonian physics, these technologies made clear impacts on personal lives and public policies, earning their imposing titles The Pill and The Bomb. No one has yet thought to speak of The Clothesline, however. This is perhaps because the politics of the clothesline are so diametrically opposed to the modern project that they have totally escaped the taste-makers capable of elevating a pill or a bomb to proper noun status.

To grasp the full implications of drying clothes on a line, we must first consider the alternative. The alternative to the clothesline is not wet clothes; rather, it is the dryer. An electrical dryer is a machine built in a factory, and almost certainly built in a factory far from your home by people you have never met. This factory produces thousands of identical machines that are shipped across the country and placed in houses, dormitories, and laundromats. Each machine must be plugged into a socket that connects it to the electrical grid, a system that extends to dams, reactors, and many, many coal-fired power plants. These coal-fired plants spew emissions into the air that degrade the ecosystem and slowly warm the planet. The plants themselves rely on coal companies that are currently decapitating mountains and poisoning streams in Appalachia. While the processes that produce and sustain our dryers begin in fixed places (factories and power-plants), they can end anywhere. A Maytag dryer in North Dakota runs the same as a Maytag dryer in Florida, with both drawing their power from the same spider web of electrical lines and generating stations.

The clothesline offers an alternative. The clothesline enables each of us to sever a connection between ourselves and the sprawling industrial system, a system that, by the by, may not remain intact forever. Instead of relying on the electrical grid like a dryer, a clothesline relies on the free gifts of God: sunlight and wind. This is a form of solar power that flows directly to the consumer, and not through a web of avaricious power companies and tax-payer subsidized tech firms.

The labor of strangers and machines is replaced by the labor of the citizen. As I already described, the process of drying clothes on the line requires a bit of elbow grease. I spend about half an hour hanging up and taking down a load of laundry that could have been dumped in a dryer in less than a minute. This is, of course, a bit of an inconvenience. I live on a ranch, and there is always something else I could be doing. Yesterday, bringing in my laundry as the sun sank low meant postponing picking basil for another day. However, in simple labor I can find time to think and to pray. This is more than I can say of the time I “saved” in college by using a dryer, freeing up half an hour to mindlessly surf the web. The time I spend drying clothes on a line is also time to develop the skill of doing the same.

Drying clothes on a line may not appear to require much more knowledge than drying them in a machine, but it does. Rather than being able to simply turn the knob on a dryer, using a clothesline has taught me to read the weather, understand the different fabrics I wear every day, and think about the way my immediate surroundings are configured. This is the sort of local and particular knowledge that the dryer and its industrial system seek to eliminate by rendering superfluous. This is a knowledge of limits and ways to operate comfortably within those limits.

I’ve learned to predict the day’s humidity, and therefore how long the clothes will need to stay out, by judging how quickly the air warms as I help milk the cows in the early morning. I’ve experimented with various configurations of line involving different trees around my cottage as well as the sides of my front porch. I’ve also asked my mother for advice on drying times for clothes, and she has happily supplied it. Learning to care about these problems, and seeing how my immediate physical surroundings tangibly effect my work, have rooted me into the place of the ranch in the same way that drinking milk and eating meat from our herd have tied me to the soil beneath my feet.

The clothesline is environmentally sustainable because it demands a liberation from the industrial system and achieves that liberation through rootedness in the practicalities of place. Sustainability has become a bit of a buzzword lately and has lost much of its meaning through repetition. It is important to remember that sustainable technologies are those that can be sustained from generation to generation, those that do not take what cannot be re-grown or damage what cannot be repaired. The clothesline fits this bill perfectly. It requires no electricity, and therefore produces no worrying carbon emissions. It fits into the landscape easily: rather than cutting down trees to erect a clothesline, a citizen can use the trees themselves to secure the line.

This confluence of independence, localism, and sustainability, makes the politics of the clothesline somewhat conservative and even agrarian. While the clothesline itself is not at all limited to the family farm, it still embodies the spirit of agrarianism. In his brilliant essay, “The Agrarian Standard,” Wendell Berry writes: “I believe that this contest between industrialism and agrarianism now defines the most fundamental human difference, for it divides not just two nearly opposite concepts of agriculture and land use, but also two nearly opposite ways of understanding ourselves, our fellow creatures, and our world.” He outlines the roots of these two ways of understanding by writing: “Industrialism begins with technological invention. But agrarianism begins with givens: land, plants, animals, weather, hunger, and the birthright knowledge of agriculture. Industrialists are always ready to ignore, sell, or destroy the past in order to gain the entirely unprecedented wealth, comfort, and happiness supposedly to be found in the future. Agrarian farmers know that their very identity depends on their willingness to receive gratefully, use responsibly, and hand down intact an inheritance, both natural and cultural, from the past.” The dryer begins with the logic of industrialism, of the machine, of power grids and factories, a place-less logic that offers cheap solutions. The clothesline begins with “givens.” It begins with sun and wind and harnesses them for a moment without detracting from them. The clothesline looks to the past, in large part so that it can pass on an inheritance to the future.

Beginning with the logic of the machine, the dryer must progress in that vein, plunging into a future of its own devising. Before I moved to the ranch where I currently hang my hat—and clothesline—I attended a university on the East Coast. Each use of the dryer cost $1.50, payable in quarters or with the swipe of a card. Those who swiped their student ID had the option of signing up for eSuds, a program that would send them a text message the moment their dryer cycle had run its course. I balked at the program as needless and just a little creepy. I was fully capable of noting the time I started the dryer and coming back down to the laundry room an hour later. However, the eSuds program should not be a surprise to anyone; it is the logical outgrowth of a system that seeks to replace human involvement in the necessities of life with complex, place-less systems. It embodies the industrial willingness to destroy the past for the sake of comfort and convenience. It necessitates more technology, more power, more complexity, and more resources.

If eSuds is the path suggested by the dryer, what is the path suggested by the clothesline? It is a path towards greater sustainability and independence. My clothesline is imperfect on these grounds. The line itself is synthetic cord, manufactured in a factory and reliant on petrochemicals. The clothespins are likewise products of an industrial world order. More important, my clothesline implies by its very existence a washing machine, and the washing machine I use is every bit as industrial as the dryers I complain about. I’ve made my peace with this. Of all the sins I need to correct in my life, the chemical structures in my clothesline are not really at the top of the list.

However, the internal logic of the clothesline points a way forward. I could, if I so chose, use sisal or hemp for cordage. Our ancestors certainly did. Older styles of clothespins also don’t require any metal parts. However, searching the past for sustainable technologies reaches a point of diminishing returns, and picking the weeds in the collard beds is really a higher priority for me. The technologies of the past are not all physical, however. The existence of a clothesline and clothes pins imply a place to buy them. The logic of industrialism points to a Walmart; the logic of agrarianism points to a local store, or even a cooperative. Talk of cooperatives and natural fiber rope are sure to raise a sneer from devotees of techne and bemused expressions from my more sensible peers. However, as G.K. Chesterton wrote in What’s Wrong with the World: “I merely claim my choice of all the tools in the universe, and I shall not admit that any of them are blunted merely because they have been used.”

These may be idle and romantic thoughts, but they are the kind of idle and romantic thoughts that come to a man as he takes down clothes from his line on a warm Texas evening. Drying laundry outside naturally stirs up notions of a better world because the clothesline disconnects us from the exploitative world of industry and reconnects us to the abundant world of our localities. Even if a clothesline had the same carbon footprint and economic costs as a dryer, its ability to stir up these thoughts might alone recommend its use to all of us.

  • Share: