18 July 2021
Many people have been using their downtime from the pandemic to tackle long-delayed projects like sort through closets. After years of accumulating, the clothes have become packed to the point of being barely extractable. You have to fight to pull out that blouse and when you do manage to free it from the morass, it bears the imprint of the buttons from the neighboring jacket. Little by little, the clothing has gotten swallowed up in the quicksand of overabundance, sometimes disappearing for years.
The unusually humid weather of late has affected my wooden wardrobe. At least that’s my theory. The moist air has warped the walls, somehow causing the rod – and all the clothes it held up – to come crashing down.
I discover this at midnight, just before turning in to bed. It’s one of those surprise projects that presents itself at precisely the wrong moment, like when the baby fills her diaper while you’re fastening her car seat, or you spill grape juice on your pants while clearing off the dinner table in a rush to get out the door. In the case of the wardrobe, a quick survey of the mountain of crumpled blouses, T-shirts and jackets makes me suddenly realize how exhausted I am.
I do the sensible thing. I close the door to the wardrobe and go to bed. At least the mess isn’t visible now. I figure that apart from a few more wrinkles and button dents, the clothes will be no worse for the experience.
Just as shifting tectonic plates expose fossils from previous eras, this clothing collapse revealed apparel long lost from sight. The glowing dark green silk jacket I had tailor-made in India that I’ve never worn, the staid office suits which I happily no longer need – and aha! – those summer tank tops I was looking for the other day.
Living in Germany leaves its stamp on all of us, a fate I have not escaped. A sense of heightened Disziplin long ago inspired me to organize my wardrobe in a more sensible fashion. Wer Ordung hält, ist nur zu faul zum suchen – Whoever keeps things organized is just too lazy to look for things – so goes the saying. This wasn’t going to be me, I decided at one point. Thus inspired, I create a clothes classification.
In a tribute to my eighth-grade science teacher, the scary and strict Mr. Sika, I decide to hang my clothes in accordance with the colors of the rainbow. Roy G. Biv, the acronym for this ribbon of color in the sky, is pretty much the only thing I learned that year. At least I am putting that knowledge to good use, I figure. To be fair, I also learned to hide my burning cheeks with my long hair whenever I had to read my experiment results out loud – glowing red from embarrassment since my results were inevitably wrong. But it has been a few decades since this trauma, so I can laugh at it now.
The crash of clothing happens to coincide with my immersion in a biography of Alexander von Humboldt, The Invention of Nature. Humboldt, a scientific rock star of the 19th century, took a legendary five-year journey through parts of South America during which he slashed his way through jungles, defied the thin air to climb mountains and navigated dangerous rivers. Afterwards he produced carefully redacted scientific works describing the geography, botany, climate and the indigenous peoples there.
His work was so renowned that even Napoleon read his books in his tent before the Battle of Waterloo. Come to think of it, perhaps that wasn’t such a good idea considering how the battle turned out for him. Did Humboldt’s page-turner narrative on nature play a role in saving Europe from Napoleon in this final battle? Too bad this is probably not the case, but it is an intriguing thought. If it were true – if books could stop wars – I would immediately launch a campaign to rain down Harry Potter books in various places around the world. What a sight it would be: young men in camouflage sprawled out under trees, guns lying dormant in the grass while they are completely engrossed in Harry, Ron and Hermione’s escapades at Hogwarts.
Why the odd title, I wonder as I start the book. Certainly nobody “invented” nature. Not until I read how Humboldt was the first person to group plants and animals in accordance with their function, geographic location and relationship to each other do I understand what the author means.
Humboldt had prepared exhaustively for his trip to South America by doing things like climbing the Alps and Vesuvius, measuring in precise detail everything he observed and taking extensive notes. When he scaled Chimborazo in Ecuador, thought at the time to be the highest mountain in the world, he recognized that the vegetation changed in step with the elevation. This was a pattern that held true for mountains on different continents, and one that also applied to the types of animals he encountered in varying climes.
It was unimportant that plants had a particular height or a certain number of leaves. What mattered was their place in the entire system. Cool, I think.
Reading this, I glance over at my wardrobe, thinking of the heap of hangers just out of sight. I sigh, knowing I cannot push this project off forever. Maybe I should do it now.
Naaah! I’ll read some more. Learning about how Humboldt was the first to conceive of the world as an integrated whole is infinitely more interesting!
Humboldt conceived of a holistic view of nature, relating living things to their place in the ecosystem. Plants and animals had previously been classified strictly by their form, size, number of leaves or legs, etc. Here was a new integrated way of seeing the world. Humboldt was a trendsetter in the field of ecology. Scientists and writers alike took their inspiration from him. Young Darwin read and reread Humboldt’s works before embarking on his historic sea journey and took deep inspiration from his discoveries. Humboldt’s close friend Goethe had his characters quote his works.
Amazing! But for some reason Humboldt has been almost completely forgotten in the Anglo-Saxon world, seemingly at the expense of Anglo-Saxon scientists such as Darwin. Is it language-related, I wonder, looking up from my book?
I notice the wardrobe again, its contents spilled all over the floor just out of sight. I put my book aside. No use delaying the inevitable. Time to clean up. Now.
I scoop up the heap of clothes and dump them on the bed. In the process, fossils float to the surface. Did I really wear that staid pencil skirt? Yes, I did, and its tight fit reflects the confining nature of the job for which I wore it. A T-shirt from a rafting trip 30 years ago on the Youghiogheny River in Pennsylvania where I bashed my head on a boulder rises up to taunt me. The back of the shirt lists up the rapids we had to navigate; the box next to Dimple Rock is checked with indelible marker lest I forget the location where our raft went flying.
I pitch all of this. And more. And it’s starting to feel really good.
Newly freed of old clothing baggage, I maneuver the wardrobe rod back into its brackets – and at that moment, inspiration strikes.
This is what my friend Alexander was talking about. A whole new way of looking at things. Holistic. System. Functionality. I now know exactly what to do.
Roy G. Biv, you’re fired!
It’s the season that counts, the season! On a hot day I’m not looking for something red, orange, yellow or green, but something cool. In winter it’s not blue, indigo or violet that matters, but wool, long sleeves and turtlenecks. With my new Humboldtian system I rearrange everything on the rack with gusto, confident that no tank top will ever again escape my grasp.
Finished, I settle back down with my book to read about Humboldt’s next adventure. The East India company wouldn’t permit the poor guy to go to India for fear of the kind of outspoken criticism he lashed out with on the conditions he observed during his trips through the Spanish colonies. Several years of research and preparation were wasted. But I know he has a trip to Russia coming up. Who knows? Maybe another discovery awaits that will also help me organize my life better.
Photo: Adapted from the painting by Joseph Stieler, public domain