The Weather Without, the Clutter Within


Havre de Grace. -- Down came the rain in Decembery torrents, vindicating the forecasters and rearranging the landscape. Gravel on the lane moved downhill to places where it wasn't supposed to be. A new river raced through the bottom field. Trees bent, ominously.

Animals withstood it as best they could. Small birds huddled in the cedar trees. Cows stood impassively with water running from their noses; while they weren't complaining, they didn't look pleased. The rabbits in the hutch were dry enough, but looked a little unnerved by the furious clatter on their flat tin roof.

Inside the house, under a better-pitched and less reverberant style of roof, the roar of the rain wasn't quite as loud. Eyes were rolled apprehensively overhead, but thanks to some recent patching no water seemed to be coming through the ceiling this time. That was comforting, as was the fact that the electricity stayed on.

The barn, older than the house, was also wetter. Wind-driven rain dripped steadily from the ventilator high in the hayloft. Mostly, however, the drips were in predictable places, and came down not onto hay but into various buckets and feed tubs cleverly positioned to catch them. And at ground level in the barn it was quite dry.

In some people's houses, when it rains like this the basements flood. We haven't had that problem. Instead of a rising water level our basement suffers in inclement weather from rising clutter. Muddy boots seem to multiply. Wet clothes dangle from doorknobs, nails, and anything else that will hold them.

Once a visitor who blundered into our basement just after a rain heard an odd noise. She turned to see, in the poor light, a ghostly apparition gliding threateningly toward her. She gasped in terror -- but it turned out to be a wet poncho and a dripping felt hat, hanging on an unlatched interior door that moved whenever it was nudged by a draft.

Clutter can be a sore subject in this house, and I suspect in others. Inclement weather makes it sorer still. It's bad enough in principle that one member of the household owns so many boots, but it's even worse when a lot of them are in use and spread around in the downstairs hall to dry. On some wet days, judging by the number of dirty boots, you'd think this was the residence not of a family but of a small commune.

On the other hand, one might respond -- if one didn't know better -- that owning boots and using them ought to be a lesser crime than owning but not using them. Imelda Marcos, the patron saint of footwear, was said to have 2,000 pairs of shoes, and probably never wore any of them out. That's conspicuous consumption of the very worst kind. In her defense, however, it ought to be noted that no one ever complained publicly about the clutter in her downstairs hall.

It's often suggested that compulsive clutterbugs, those who find it difficult to throw anything away, are more likely to be male than female. That seems to be the case in my family, but I'm not at all sure that it's true as a general rule. I do suspect, though, that women have a more orderly approach to what they squirrel away.

Male or female, those of us who save stuff do so because we're sure that we're going to need it -- and often we're right. On a farm, particularly, broken parts and odd bits of junk inevitably accumulate, and it's remarkable how often the junk pile produces exactly what's needed to repair something.

A corollary to this is that if you throw something out, you'll soon wish you hadn't. Not long ago, feeling guilty about clutter, I reluctantly heaved out several hundred pounds of old National Geographics. Less than a week passed before my daughter needed some reference material for a school project, and I remembered an article on that very subject. But of course I didn't have it any more.

Some people find social and moral themes in the subject of clutter. Two human pack rats, celebrated in song and story as examples of what can happen to those who persist in keeping what they don't use, were the eccentric Collier brothers of New York. They saved everything, and were ultimately crushed when a mountain of their stacked-up newspapers collapsed on them.

This sad event demonstrated both the power and the instability of the press, and showed what can happen when the papers come down hard on someone. It occurred before recycling became popular, but that's no guarantee it couldn't happen again. Journalists should take this possibility seriously, because in today's legal climate such an accident would certainly be considered actionable.

Claims would be likely not only against the newspapers as corporate defendants, but against the writers whose work filled them up. In a very real sense, these words have weight, especially when they're piled ceiling-high. I know that whenever someone writes to say they've saved something I've written, it makes me uneasy, and I wonder if I should tell them about the Colliers. If I were a prudent publisher I think I'd see that all my papers carried a warning that clutter can kill.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer. His column appears Sundays and Thursdays.

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