When was the last time I used a clothesline to dry my clothes? Aside from hanging the odd bathing suit and towel out on a line attached to a summer rental home, I cannot remember exactly. My childhood most likely. We had a pull line in the back yard and my grandmother had one of those hexagonal shaped contraptions that looked like odd trees from a 1950’s sci-fi movie.
I had just completed my first load of laundry in my home for the month in Tilting, Fogo Island, Newfoundland. While the 100-year-old cottage had electricity and a small washing machine, it did not have a dryer. The dryer was an appliance that only a few people seemed to have in Newfoundland. If they did have them, they didn’t use them in the summer.
Everywhere you looked, clothes were hung proudly out to dry on lines held up precariously with long, skinny, rustic poles honed from fallen tree limbs. It was a simple idea and one that worked tremendously well.
On these northern islands, the winds are strong. Newfoundland is located in the northern equivalent of the Roaring Forties, the latitudes where winds whip up strong and gusty along the tips of South America, South Africa, and Australia. While not quite as strong, but mighty and consistent.
Here people do their wash in the mornings and on a good day, hang the articles on the line for a quick dry. Even in foul weather, sheets are hung outside, while smaller items might be hung in the kitchen near the wood, propane, or coal-burning stove, imparting a nice, smoky scent to your clothes.
Today, however, was a beauty. Clear blue skies and a sun that beat down raising the temperature from a comfortable overnight of 60 to a sweltering 85 by the afternoon. This summer was unusually hot and the evidence of a warming planet was on display with a spectacular parade of hundreds of icebergs floating past the island on their way south from Greenland.
I gathered up the damp clothes into a plastic basket and grabbed the bag of pins. Out to the line, where it took me a few minutes to figure out how to lower the high line – you simply lift up and pull down the middle pole. Now, I could reach the line and hang the clothes. I wondered if I should hang the more intimate items and with a slight air of embarrassment, compromised by hanging them close to the house where the building would at least block the view on two sides. I prayed no one would come calling – which happens frequently here on the island. A tradition I hope never disappears, despite my desire to keep my granny panties from being viewed.
Once up, I marveled at the beauty of the wind-whipped garments and sheets. It was a magical thing. A memory from my past; a harkening to simpler times, mesmerizing me with the sway and flow of multi-colored fabric.
Everywhere I traveled that summer in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, I observed this lyrical tradition and wished we still did this in the city. I recalled old photographs of clotheslines strung between brick buildings in the North End of Boston where Italian and Jewish immigrants came in waves fleeing persecution and poverty in Europe and Russia.
I also reflected on other lands where this practice is still a part of the landscape: Ireland in particular. A few summers ago while staying on Inishmore, I carefully photographed the clothesline at the B&B where I stayed. Watching the sun set on hillside while the white sheets turned various colors of orange and red, reflecting the changing sky. It was just as transporting and magical.
After my artist residency on Fogo Island I returned to my home in the city and promised I would hang a clothesline across the driveway. Alas, I never did. Almost as quickly as I had made that promise to myself, I broke it. Coming home to the convenience of a clothes dryer that fluffed and dried my clothes in less than 40 minutes was a luxury I embraced all too easily. I justified my neglect by convincing myself the clothes would get too gritty in the city air. But perhaps it was my misplaced modesty that kept me from hanging the line?
The dream of the clothesline belongs in a landscape of rocky ledges and soft hillsides for me. The reality of hanging my clothes for all my neighbors to gawk at gave me pause and so, I use the dryer. Guilty of over-consumption and a larger-than-needed footprint, my false modesty I realize is costly. Perhaps if everyone hung out their laundry, like they do in Newfoundland, then I would feel less hesitation.
So, neighbors? What say you? If we all embrace the clothesline will this lead to more openness? More community? More tolerance? World peace? Ah, now we are getting somewhere! Change, one clothesline at a time.