An Appreciation of Clotheslines

"One of the simplest and most effective ways to reduce energy use at home is to obtain a solar clothes dryer—otherwise known as a clothesline," writes University of Tennessee Professor John Nolt in Down to Earth: Toward a Philosophy of Nonviolent Living.

I like to see clotheslines in my neighborhood for the environmental stewardship on display—the conspicuous elimination of pollution caused by an electric dryer. Even a new Energy Star electric dryer will not save more energy than a strand of nylon rope and some pins. Rather than looking to more advanced technology to save energy, one should consider clotheslines as a small example of how the old-fashioned way is usually better for the air, water, and quality of life in a community.

I've often admired Betty Haynes' clothesline, and sometimes alter my route to pass by her small white cottage with the climbing red roses. One day it's all denim hanging on her line. Another day it's bright yellow sheets with striped pillowcases.

Maybe more compelling than the satisfaction of "saving" the environment, I like the way a clothesline looks strung across a yard. Clotheslines are alive and dynamic in a way dryers are not. I like the way it makes me feel to watch laundry moving and dancing in the breeze, and later hanging slack in the stillness. It's visually interesting as a windsock-art installation.

Dependence on the sun and wind to dry laundry compels me to pay attention to the weather, and plan laundry day accordingly. I am more aware of the rain and the cycles of the seasons because of it. When the sky darkens and the wind picks up, a little thrill of adrenaline shoots through my heart.

"The laundry!"

The rumble of thunder grows louder, the laundry billows and snaps in the rising wind that blows the line from my hands and the hair into my eyes, as I struggle to bring it all in before the first raindrops fall. I'll take my drama where I can, and laundry can be exciting.

Also, sun-dried laundry smells great.

Clotheslines give a yard an appealing informal quality. Fair or not, I associate clotheslines with plain and honest work, and practical people comfortable in their skin. These are qualities not often associated with rich people. Thus, clotheslines do carry associations with poverty. The city of Knoxville does not have laws prohibiting clotheslines, although neighborhood associations and developers can impose their own restrictions and some do, especially in West Knoxville.

"Clotheslines... shall not be permitted and it shall be strictly prohibited for articles or items of any description or kind to be displayed on the yard..." reads one "covenant" of a new "upscale living community" in Farragut.

The common-sense practice of hanging laundry up outside to dry is illegal even in Paris, where I was once chastised by a hostel keeper for hanging a towel out of a window to dry. I see in these rules a desperate desire to keep the chores of life hidden, to make a fresh and clean appearance seem effortless. A conviction that machines will always do something better. An insecurity with what it means to be modern.

Once, a man stopped his car in the street as I was hanging out laundry in Fourth and Gill.

"Wow, that's old-school," he yelled out of his car window, "That's a sight I haven't seen in a long time."

He watched a while, then drove away shaking his head.

Was it disgust or admiration that made him stop and comment? Maybe it was just surprise. Farragut neighborhood associations aside, I think many people understand and appreciate the benefits of clotheslines. Clotheslines are refreshing in the 21st century; they enrich the life of a neighborhood and a home. They are valuable as evidence of a person taking care of a household. I feel a sense of security to see how my neighbors' lives are made, to see the work that holds them up.

Nolt writes after installing his clothesline, "The [clothesline] posts changed the backyard's character. It looks shabbier now, but it has more magic."

And that's the best reason I can think of to string up a clothesline in the yard.