The hidden benefits of housework

One of the disadvantages of working from home is that it IS home. All the things that need doing around the house are right there in front of you. Someone has to do them, and if you’re at home, well, why not you?

I was thinking about this – no, bemoaning this to myself – the other day as I stopped working on the chapter of my book that I was editing  to hang out a load of washing. “I bet my husband never stops what he’s doing at work to hang out washing,” I grumbled to myself, ignoring the fact that it had been my choice to load the washing machine that morning. The washing could have waited until the weekend, when he was there to help.*

But as I was pegging socks on the line, I suddenly saw the solution to a difficulty I’d been having with the paragraph I was editing. Without the words in front of me on the screen, looking fixed and immutable, it was much easier to see how they could be re-arranged to say what I was really trying to say. And then I began to think about how often I have my best ideas while I’m away from the computer, washing dishes, sweeping floors or walking around the park. (I’m not obsessed with housework.) Doing something mundane that requires no thought seems to give my brain permission to go off on tangents and find some fresh ideas.

This isn’t a new discovery, of course. Archimedes is famous for having solved the problem he was working on while sitting in his bathtub. More recent scientific studies have come to the conclusion that allowing the mind to wander can foster creativity. Hanging out the washing has the added benefit of getting me out my chair and into the sunlight. Perhaps I need to re-label the housework as “creativity breaks”.

*Actually, this Saturday, October 6,  he won’t be around to help with the washing because he’s going on a 50 km walk (yes, 50 kilometres) in support of Oxfam. You still have time to sponsor him if you’d like to.


Economic Botany and a Poetic Botanist

We’ve just returned from a brief holiday visiting family in Alice Springs, which included a two day stopover in Adelaide on the way. While we were strolling through the Adelaide Botanic Gardens we came across the Santos Museum of Economic Botany and decided to have a look.

Apparently such museums, demonstrating the variety and usefulness of plant material from around the world, were once commonplace in botanic gardens throughout the English speaking world. Now the Adelaide museum, opened in 1881, and lovingly preserved and restored, is a unique example .

Entrance is free, but this probably isn’t a place you’d want to take a hyperactive six year old. We felt as if we were reliving our childhood experience of museums. There are one or two interactive exhibits, but the collection consists mainly of traditional wooden display cabinets topped with glass, containing collections of dried plants and seeds, oils and wood samples.  Many still have hand-written labels. The realistic looking examples of fruit and vegetables scattered among the displays are actually papier-mache models.

What the museum demonstrates is that, despite the wide variety of environments in which human societies have developed, each has found local plants suitable for food, medicine, building, furniture, fibres, clothing and shall we say ‘relaxation’. It’s a fascinating and informative collection.

Quite coincidentally, my holiday reading was “The Invention of Nature“, a biography of the Prussian scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, by Andrea Wulf. Humboldt was a frenetic traveller, collector of specimens and cataloguer of facts, who broke the mould of scientific writing by producing colourful, poetic accounts of his discoveries. In nineteenth century Europe he was a celebrity and his writing influenced Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and many others. He no doubt also helped make Museums of Economic Botany popular.

(Photo courtesy of Col Ford and Natasha de Vere via Wikimedia Commons)