Saturday, August 29, 2015

Doing the Wash

A truism* among nature enthusiasts is that our ancestors** were on average far more intimately familiar with the natural world than we are.  This has become even more true since the electronic revolution made us unable to see farther than our hands.  

I was reminded of that truism this afternoon as I hung out the wash.  

A  month or so ago the clothes dryer stopped getting hot, only endlessly tumbling damp clothes.  Having a certain confidence in my own abilites--not to mention much more time than money--I researched its inner workings with a very helpful appliance repair guru, got my tools out, and quickly found that I needed a new heating coil.  Meanwhile, I lassoed a bathroom vent pipe with a spare anchor line and tied the other end to the garage for a serviceable clothesline.  

We are not new to line drying, having done it for most of a year when we bought the house and hadn't money left over for a dryer.  It came to an end late in spring when a winter moth epidemic sent a rain of frass out of the overhanging tree onto our freshly-washed clothes.  The caterpillars came back in force for several years (spelling doom to two of my favorite oak trees) and confirming us in the machine drying habit.
Though it was only 4pm when I hung the wash, I had nearly lost the sun already, the shadow of the house falling on the clothesline so much earlier than even a few weeks ago.  (Likewise, the vegetable garden, which, in July got a full six hours of sun per day, is now down to four; the squash are long dead and the tomatoes won't hang on much longer.  Alas! we only have another week or so of juicy tomato sandwiches.)  Fewer layers of technology necessitate greater attention to the real: time of day, cloud cover, a possible shower, changing seasons.  Clothes dry faster with a bit of breeze, with dryer air, and most of all with direct sunlight--especially if the clothes are not white, reflecting away the warming sunlight.  Towels dry rather slowly, but denim is about the worst.  Even so, with luck I can get a wash load dry in an hour or so--about as long as the next load needs in the washer.  (It helps that our "energy star" washer has a very high spin speed, so the clothes have little water left.)  On the other hand, poor planning, unexpected wet weather, or carelessness might be paid for in mildewed clothing. 

I know only one other household in the neighborhood where wash is hung outdoors.  The home is a few minutes walk away, and the family includes several young children, and a young mother of, I think, Asian extraction.  Hanging out the laundry is an almost daily event, year-round.  The dad is handy, painted the house himself, and did a professional job building a large shed.  The yard is the sort that hints of regular construction projects.  The children play on the porch, or help their parents in the vegetable garden.  The family works and plays together, often outdoors.  I wish I knew them.

When the new heater coil arrived ahead of schedule, I was a little disappointed.  Then I decided that I wanted to see the difference in the electric bill of not using the (electric) dryer.  (Unfortunately, the freezer chose that same time to begin leaking heat, driving the bill through the roof.)  Then I decided I simply liked being outdoors fussing with the wash.  Maybe a Zen thing.  An unexpected bonus was the reduced washing: some of the teenage contingent wash their clothes constantly--until it becomes a little more onerous. 

I dragged my feet on the repair for a good month, and finally got around to it during a rainy spell, as wash--some already wet--waited impatiently for attention.  When I got it all back together, the dryer heated up nicely--and then refused to shut off when it reached operating temperature.  I could stand there and nurse a wash through, judging the temperature and changing settings accordingly, but it was annoying.  I was not too put out, though: back to the clothesline!

I know the languid summer will soon end and time become tighter.  I also know how long it takes to dry wash as the weather cools.  And one good rainy spell will send me back to the basement to install the new thermostat--which I hope fixes it.  And a new spring might bring new caterpillars.  Even so, for now I will enjoy communing with the sun and breeze, basket and clothespins in hand.

*a truism has been defined as something "everybody knows," but which nevertheless is, in fact, generally true!

**Notwithstanding rumors that Thoreau, during the two years he lived in the cabin he built at Walden Pond, used to bring his wash home to his mother.

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