This piece comes from one of my favourite issues of Dark Mountain – Issue 8: Technê – the first single theme issue published in 2015. This was an issue dedicated to exploring the paradox of technological advancement; addressing the dissonance of living in a world in which we are seeking new technology to solve the problems caused by technological advance and the ‘high-speed frictionless’ globalised world.
In ‘By Hand’ Maeve Reilly is questioning the relationships we form with the machines that surround us and re-thinking the presumption that through automation we gain back our time. As a result of the pursuit of convenience, we might lose the connective experience of hanging washing outside with the feeling of damp grass underfoot, but more broadly we risk – much as the Great Blasket islanders – the loss of intricate skills and a ‘range of knowledge’ as part of a society ‘renowned for the subtlety and power’ of its artistry and self-expression.
Above all Reilly’s words are a reminder of how overreliance on machines might alienate us from acts of care wound up in daily work, while it is through these acts that we connect to the people around us, and those who have come before. (HP)
Our devices promise today what machines have always promised – to deliver us from toil and effort. But what are toil and effort? Do we know anymore? Do we know they are bad things? Today our machines also want to think for us, to plan and dream for us. An acquaintance at a party says her new smart phone is her friend. Whatever we call our devices – they are machines. Can a machine be a friend, with no shoulder, no heartbeat?
I am reading about the life of a man born in 1856 on an island off the west coast of Ireland.1 When Tomás O’Crohan was eight years old and ready for long pants, his father made him a pair of grey breeches. If asked to name his trade, the father would likely have said fisherman, as his son would later do, not tailor. Yet, the boy’s father knew how to sew a pair of breeches. The material would likely have been wool the boy’s mother had carded and spun from the sheep they kept. On this, the Great Blasket island, the people still made most of what they needed by hand: their houses, their music, their food. The island had a king and a school, but it had no shop, no division of labour, no paying jobs. Yet everyone worked – men and women, king and children – and everyone was involved in the daily drama of survival. Their entertainment was their lives. What Tomás O’Crohan chronicled may have been the last chapter of a human epic that could trace itself, through proverbs, skills and values, back to the Neolithic.
Our modern presumption is that these people would have been stupefied by their backbreaking labour that permitted no time for ‘cultural’ activities and abstract thought. Like so many of our beliefs about the past, the opposite was true. These people were renowned for the subtlety and power of their music and language, and for their range of knowledge. Scholars from Norway, Britain, and Dublin journeyed to the Great Blasket Island to learn their rich ancient tongue. One of these, the esteemed Greek scholar George Thomson, recalled that ‘the conversation of those ragged peasants …electrified me. It was as though Homer had come alive. Its vitality was inexhaustible.’2
The books the islanders wrote about their lives, at the prompting of the scholars, are still in print today. These people, who cooked their food over an open fire – food they wrested with their hands and wits from land and sea – could not have known that the era of the ready-made meal and tumble dryer was bearing down on them. That their stories and seasons, hardships and scarcities would soon be swept away by the cataclysm we now know as the Global Market Economy. Just as it bears down on us today with its tidings of singularity and the reign of robots.
Meanwhile, I take time to hang the washing on the line. Already, the morning sun has wicked the last drop of dew from the grass. Above me the fizzy company of a colony of bees that has settled on the roof. I fall into the rhythm of bending and lifting, bending and reaching. My mother, my grandmothers speak to me over the clothesline. I pin the laundry as they did, joining each piece to its neighbour with one pin where they meet, shoulder to shoulder. In this way, I can fit more on the line, and it will save time later when I take the laundry down. These fewer clothes pegs are especially important if the weather changes and I have to race against the rain. Like my mother and grandmothers, I never bend the edge of the fabric over the line. This would leave odd creases and the laundry would not dance as freely. I take care to hang the laundry in a pleasing manner: toes of socks point in the same direction, pillow slips hang hems down, same-sizes together. During the day it’s a pleasure to catch sight of the laundry through the kitchen window, undulating on its tides of breezes.
If I say that hanging laundry on the line takes time, it is the same as saying that my time is being taken from me. But to turn this around and say I take time to hang my laundry on the line gives me sovereignty over my own time, over my life. Our scarcity of time these days is a curious thing. People seem to be running out of time or losing it, or keeping it for themselves and not sharing it. People say we have less time today because we have more to do, but surely we don’t have more to do than the Blasket Islanders. And haven’t our friends the machines been saving time after all?
To say I take time to hang my laundry on the line gives me sovereignty over my own time, over my life.
At the beginning of the 20th century, D.H. Lawrence worried that the coming of electric lights into the cottages was the begin- ning of centralised control and the end of the free soul. He saw that electricity, and what it would bring into human life, would require and enforce conformity. Certainly it helped bring an end to folk culture – that is, culture created from the bottom up with no mercenary motive. Culture that riseth from the toil and effort of a people’s struggle for survival.
Poets are our modern soothsayers, and Lawrence, it turns out, was clairvoyant. He gives us Mellors, after his first intimacy with Connie, vowing to protect her tenderness – their tenderness – before the ‘insentient iron world and the Mammon of mechanised greed did them both in…’3 Reading this we can feel and smell the sulfurous fulminations of the factories creeping toward us from just beyond the edge of the primordial forest in which Lady Chatterley and Mellors had lain in the gamekeeper’s hut.
Surely the tumble dryer belongs to the ‘insentient iron world and the Mammon of mechanised greed’. The tumble dryer, which did not become a baseline appliance for middle class households in the US until the 1960s, fulminates massive amounts of carbon – on average, 2,400 pounds per dryer per year.4 Many, if not most, dryers are now made in Asia and must be floated across the sea in monster container ships requiring that harbours worldwide be devastatingly enlarged to birth them in monster container ports. In this way the Global Market Economy gains efficiencies and thus profits, and our world loses vital estuaries and coral reefs, and thus life.
These ships, of course, depend for their fuel on oil rigs, oil refineries, oil pipelines. The dryer itself – once it is hauled from ship to home – depends on the burning of fossils fuels or nuclear fission to dry each shirt and sock. That power, whatever its source, has been transmitted across the land via behemoth transmission towers that march across the landscape preempting life on the ground below. When the dryer breaks down or is discarded, it is shipped back across the sea to an appliance dump in Africa or Asia, where it is picked over like carrion.
Twenty or so years ago I was looking to rent an apartment on the top floor of a spindly Victorian house with a rambling side yard. ‘Are there clotheslines?’ I asked the landlord. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is the era of the clothes dryer.’ I could tell I may as well have asked where the hitching post was. I knew this man, he had been the vice president of our student assembly at university and had helped organise the first Earth Day on campus in 1970. That Earth Day had shocked our campus and our consciousness. The lifestyle we’d grown up thinking was normal and good – the best in the world – was now suspect, possibly even sinister. Earth Day, with its teach-ins and lectures by visiting thinkers such as Buckminster Fuller, Paul Ehrlich and Dr. Benjamin Spock gave us, among other things, a new and alarming vocabulary: CO2, ‘greenhouse effect’, ‘climate warming’.
Despite the energetic and widely supported ‘environmental’ movement that followed the first Earth Day, the March of Progress continued at an ever increasing velocity. From 1958 to 1979 the number of clothes dryers in the US increased 628%. Today 85% of US households possess a clothes dryer and the consciousness of most Americans reflects this. Most people I talk to simply cannot imagine their lives without what they regard as a benign labour- saving appliance. Their tumble dryer is their friend.
Most of the time I live in a city apartment and I do not have the luxury of a clothesline in the garden with grass underfoot and bees overhead. But I have found it’s always possible to rig up a clothes- line, even indoors, and to use drying racks. It’s not true what they’ve told us, that a tumble dryer is a necessity. It is true, however, that it’s a convenience, that it takes less time than a clothesline. That the dryer allows us to be more productive, to be more like machines ourselves.
Recently I was in my neighbourhood shop buying a package of clothespins. The woman behind the counter said excitedly, ‘Do you have a clothesline? Oh, I wish I could have one, but we’re not allowed. There’s nothing like sheets dried in the sun!’
In many places a line of wash hung in the backyard is considered an eyesore. And clotheslines are forbidden outright in many hous- ing estates and apartment buildings. One can expect that the lawns and shrubbery in these enclaves are tidy and uniform, whereas a line of wash is motley and unique. I wonder, is it the aesthetic of hand work that gives offence? Is a line of wash an unpleasant reminder of that blinkered time in our past when we had to do things by hand? Does a line of laundry strung on a country clothesline or across an urban alley remind us, after all, that most of us descend from people who were poor? Perhaps clotheslines are a subliminal reminder that there are many people in the world who are still poor, who live in places without tumble dryers and the power grids to support them. A subtle reminder that there are still many places where even soap is a luxury, as it would have been for most of our own ancestors, who would have rubbed out grease stains in their breeches with wood ash and rinsed them in the river.
As the Mammon of mechanised greed continues to transform our world into a vast machine, how do we not fall into the machinery ourselves?
What if the clothes dryer is not the benign domestic labour- saving device we think it is – if we think about it at all? What if it’s a thief of our human agency? Or, to put this another way, a thief of some small portion of our humanity – that part of us that feels at home in the simple rhythms and chores of daily life, untethered to the electrical socket? That part of us that finds pleasure and satis- faction in doing a thing by hand? What if this appliance is yet another way we separate ourselves from the seasons and the rest of the natural world? And from our traditions and the language of our traditions? As the Mammon of mechanised greed continues to transform our world into a vast machine, how do we not fall into the machinery ourselves?
When a fine day holds, I sometimes forget to take the laundry down. Tonight when I remembered, it was past dark, or nearly so – only a thin brush of red marked the western sky when I opened the back door. As I’d feared, the dew had already climbed the grass and it soaked my shoes as I walked to the clothesline at the back of the garden. I worried that the damp would have already found the laundry and undone its long day of basking in the sun. But no mat- ter. Working left to right, I unpinned the socks, the tea towels, the pillowslips, in the reverse order I’d hung them. I did this mostly by feel, as our rented cottage has no outdoor lights. As my mother would have done, I slid the clothespin bag along as I went until I reached the last item at the far end of the clothesline – the blue shirt. I will hang it above the hearth to dry completely overnight. It’s cool enough in the evenings here, on the westernmost edge of Ireland, that we make a fire after dinner and then sit as close to the heat of it as we can. I will join him now, the man who wears the blue shirt, and we will read our books until midnight or so. The day’s chores are done. We are content. The laundry is in the basket ready to be folded and put away. In the morning, after breakfast, I’ll put my hand to it.
1. Tomás O’Crohan, The Islandman, trans., Robin Flower, Oxford University Press, 2000.
2. George Thomson, quotation on the wall at The Blasket Center, Dún Chaoin, Co. Kerry, Ireland.
3. D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Modern Library, New York, 2001, p. 126.