Throughout the summer, the farm hosts mission groups of various ages.  This is a great opportunity to not only teach about agriculture and farming but also about regional issues that fit into broader concerns.  One topic we explored last summer was coal history and how it connects to our present-day energy use.

     We took one visiting group of middle schoolers to Ohio University’s Eco House, an off-campus residence for students meant to educate the public about “green” living.  This field trip was devoted to exploring energy use, and although we attempt to live “sustainably” at the farm (like grow and preserve our own food) I was excited to see new, technological devices that could excite 13-year-olds.  

     Alana, the resident tour guide, showed us a really impressive solar hot water system.  Two solar collectors towered and tilted before us.  As Alana explained, these collectors contain coils filled with glycol that heat the water used in the house.  It was a great example of a fairly-affordable technology that decreases their dependence on the power grid.  What I was really struck by, though, was a deliberate stop Alana made in the back yard.  We paused in front of a single umbrella clothesline.  This device is far from technological.  In fact, it’s pretty darn simple. 

    I recalled a recent ecumenical dialogue led by Matthew and Nancy Sleeth about their inspiration to care for God’s creation.  During the discussion, Nancy talked about using her own clothesline: “Every time that you hang your laundry on the line instead of using a dryer, you save five pounds of coal from being taken down from the mountains of Kentucky and Tennessee and Appalachia or Wyoming. And you save five pounds of greenhouse gasses from going up into the sky. It’s also a time of almost monastic simplicity and just a time to pray and be with God and listen to the birds.”

    Alana stopped by the clothesline to show the children a simple way to save energy.  As I stood with the group, I thought about the clothesline next to our farmhouse.  It was broken:  one metal arm was bent beyond repair and the wire sagged.  It had been so easy for me to use the clothes dryer while we procrastinated buying a new line.  I would absently pitch towels into the mouth of the machine and continue with my hectic day on the farm.

    That night with the youth group, we watched the amazing documentary Coal Country.  On the screen, we saw aerial images of permanently disfigured mountains and valleys.  We saw the irreversible destruction of mountain-top removal.  We heard the desperate pleas and angry appeals of Appalachian folks whose homes and health were disrespected.  Folks highlighted in the film, like Kathy Selvage, Judy Bonds, and Chuck Nelson, are local heroes, though, and not just victims.  They speak out with courage and ask us to consider the real cost of coal.  Indeed, coal helps us “keep on the lights,” but I couldn’t help to think to myself that maybe we should consider turning them off.

   Inevitably, I thought again about my clothes dryer and my clothesline.  It’s a crucial decision each time I clean my clothes:  do I toss them in the dryer or hang them on the line?  A clothes dryer represents convenience; a clothes line represents care.  In my constant struggle to, as Thoreau puts it, “live intentionally” my goal is to make the most loving decisions daily.  Hanging clothes to dry is loving in many regards:  it respects the earth, acknowledging her power to meet my needs; it respects time, acknowledging the beauty of slowing down and living in the present; and, most importantly, it respects people, acknowledging those struggling in regions devastated by coal mining.  Thinking through all of this, I made a personal vow to never use a clothes dryer again. 

   But I knew that this wasn’t enough.

  One of our intentions of living a shared life is to be a sign to the world of what the Kingdom of God might be here and now.  Instead of living a staunchly personal and private life, we choose to live an open, welcoming life that acknowledges the beauty of dependency.  My hope is that we, as a body of people, make loving decisions daily.  And, so, at the following house meeting, with trepidation, I asked everyone to simply think about getting rid of the clothes dryer.  The response I got was surprising. 

   Everyone, without pause, agreed vigorously.  It seemed that no consideration was necessary.  In fact, we excitedly discussed creative ways to hang lines in the house for the winter.  I was awestruck!  A suggestion that I worried would be met with hesitation was actually welcomed with joy.  By the end of the week, the clothes dryer was moved to a dark corner of the basement.

     I’m reminded again and again that living simply is not always simple.  It is now winter and we have to strategize our time when we consider when to do laundry.  Sheets are the most difficult.  Once I tried to use the clothesline outside; instead of drying, they froze.  The dampness turned into crunch.  So, a visitor might walk in some evening and see bedding spread across the living room like a child’s fort:  fitted sheets hooked around the back of chairs stretched flat.  But at least the smell of fresh linen wafts through the air! 

   We are now responsible for and aware of each other in more ways than before.   Someone else might hang kitchen towels and washed up old rags one evening, and when finally dry (24 hours later), I might notice and fold them and put them away.  If a drying rack is full, I wait to wash until it’s free.  It is a practice in teamwork and patience. 

   We sacrifice convenience, but we do it together with a mind toward what it means to pin up my shirt to dry by the heat of the woodstove.  And what it means is that we share a common hope:  a hope that mountains will someday not be blasted away, a hope that all people can live justly and not be bitter, a hope that Christ’s love can be reflected in simple care.    

      Choosing an intentional life in a shared home is complex in ways that would make most people cringe, I imagine.  We hold each other accountable.  We must constantly be aware of our moods and our actions.  Nothing is taken for granted.  Very little goes unnoticed.  However, the common decision to banish the clothes dryer is just one example of how I’m inspired by this beautiful life.  It is a testament to the way living together urges us to listen closely, to be creative, and, above all, to love fully.

 Sarah Parker-Clever is a member of the Good Earth Farm and the Common Friars.  When she’s not growing flowers, she teaches reading, writing and thinking at Hocking Community College in Nelsonville, OH.

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2 Responses to “The Clothesline”

  1. Tom Fehr Says:

    It’s a balmy spring day on the farm. It’s Monday, a traditional day for laundry, I’m off and today I’m using those clotheslines for the first time! By the time I got the second load hung, the first load was nearly dry.

    One doesn’t normally think of doing laundry as a pleasant task; it’s just one of those things we have to do, but today it was a time of sweet memories of helping my mother hang laundry on the clotheslines outside in the backyard and of running out just before a storm to get it all down before the rain started. (Something I very well might have to do today!) I remember how Grandma Fehr use to run lines between the trees and how she would ask me to help her with the props, the long poles that would we would use to prop up the lines so the clothes wouldn’t drag the ground. Those were great times for being together and having conversation. Today I had conversations with those memories.

    My grandma I’m sure was smiling down on me today as I struggled with shirts and clothespins in the strong wind and my mother very well may have been hanging clothes out to dry herself today.

    Today hanging clothes I felt connected; part of the communion of saints!

  2. Rita Dean Says:

    I’m 56 and have been hanging clothes for a lifetime. Your writing has sparked many wonderful memories, sounds, smells, and I thank you. One of the finest gifts ever inherited came from my mother-in-law …. her bag of clothespins. They were strong and smooth – nothing like the pins found today. Their shape was slightly different. The color was rich – almost as if Dad had varnished them. Everytime I grasp them, I feel very close to Mom, almost like holding her aged hand. I would love to visit your farm some day.

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