I once read this injunction:
“Have nothing in your home that is neither beautiful nor useful.”
I like that saying, because it acknowledges that beauty has its own usefulness and utility has its own beauty. It pretty much gives the green light to anything except downright ugly things that you couldn’t pound a short nail with.
I’ll circle back around to that idea in a minute, but in light of my recent post about how people behave on buses around here, I gave neighborliness a try yesterday. An elderly couple got on the bus. She sat in an empty seat opposite me and he sat next to me, so they could be next to each other across the aisle. Cute, right? So I says to him I says, “Good morning.”
And that’s all it took. I won’t reproduce the entire conversation here. The first leg of it contained the phrases “may get some rain”, “okay by me”, and “watering my vegetables each morning for the last 29 days”, and that brought us to a discussion of our respective gardens.
“I always said I’ll have a vegetable garden even if I have to get out there on my hands and knees, ” he said. Then he laughed and pointed to the knees of his denim jeans. “It’s at that point now! I wore out my britches working out there.”
I told him that my lettuce and peas were doing well but complained that my broccoli had bolted. He sympathized, telling me he once grew radishes that tossed up great volumes of vegetation but that were the size of marbles when he harvested them. “When it’s a good year, it’s really good. You get fresh vegetables right out of the garden. When it’s a bad year, you say what am I doing this for?”
He then observed that no one else on his street maintains a vegetable garden, and he seemed a little perplexed by this.
I thought this was interesting. My impression is that there are a lot of people in North Seattle raising their own food in small gardens. On my own street, our friends next door have grown some vegetables for at least two years, and a few people have started building small boxes like mine or setting out pots with tomatoes. My little 3-foot by 6-foot “farm box” is out front, actually on city property, so everyone could see me growing clover as a “green manure” in it over the winter, and I may be fooling myself, but I like to think that my little zillionth of a cultivated acre may have inspired these recent enterprises. If so I’m relieved, because I sort of feel like the Jed Clampett of the neighborhood. I had a two-yard heap of topsoil lying in the driveway all winter, the hatchet job I did on a laurel hedge that was leaning over our back yard took me a month to clean up and dispose of, and I found that someone actually cut my lawn one day after I had been lax about keeping it mowed (this last turned out to be an honest mistake on the part of the neighbor’s lawn care guy, but I didn’t know that and was busy feeling sheepish and ashamed until my neighbor apologized, at which time I naturally modified my attitude to belated outrage).
I bring up the hillbilly thing because of something else my fellow rider said yesterday. After noting the unpopularity of vegetable gardening on his street, he observed that “no one hangs their laundry outside to dry anymore. We’re the only ones on our street who do that. Even if it’s sunny out, people put all their laundry in the dryer. They never even think of hanging it on a line.”
I was careful to note that there sure was nothing like the fresh smell and crisp hand of wind-dried laundry (I was in fact momentarily cast back to some of the great line-dried-laundry-sniffing moments in my life), then I hazarded my impression that a lot of people these days probably view clotheslines as sort of “seedy”. He didn’t hear me. He went on to say that he and his wife still put their clothes outside to dry “even in the winter. If they freeze, you just bring them inside and thaw them out.”
I’ve actually given some thought to disappearance of clotheslines previous to this conversation, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there really is quite a bit of hillbilly in me. I think middle-class culture, and even that of the rich, didn’t used to be so removed from what I might call “just living on the earth”. It makes sense to use the wind to dry your clothes. But in the last few decades the middle class has become hostile to function as a legitimate beauty in it’s own right. Everything gets sanitized to an increased level of marketability. A home in a neighborhood is really now a house in a location, and most of us don’t want to jeapardize the value of the house by making it more of a home. I’m not immune. Part of me would strongly object to having to look out of my windows and see someone else’s union suit flapping in a June breeze.
But the deeper, Jed Clampett part of me recognizes that this is a lot of craziness. We city dwellers seem to indulge in a collective shame about our agrarian past, and in many places we’ve zoned or covenanted agraria out of our neighborhoods. We’d be embarrassed by the smell of a truly useful compost heap, the needy clucking of hens. And like my companion said, we never even consider using the wind to dry our clothes anymore. Maybe that’s because clotheslines remind us of rural homesteads, where people live among all of earth’s unseemly processes and bad smells, or of tenements of the urban poor, where neighbors live with such a lack of privacy and dignity that they must simply ignore each other’s underwear going by on the pulley.
When exactly did laundry blowing dry in the wind stop being perceived as a beautiful thing in its own folksy, functional way? Whenever that happened, that was the moment when beauty and usefulness became estranged bedfellows.
Update 23 February 2010: I’ve just discovered that the quote I referred to at the beginning of this post is attributable to the author, artist and textile designer William Morris, and its full text is “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”