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Dog Days

August 10, 2009

I was saddened to hear the story of a woman who left her cocker spaniel in her automobile in a hot parking lot. The woman spent more than hour in the air-conditioned beauty salon. Though the woman left the windows partially opened so her pet would have fresh air, when the well-coiffed lady returned her dog was dead.

It makes you wonder why we call these hot humid days the Dog Days of summer.

How hot is it?

The old clichés can be heard most anywhere folks can find a shady place to sit and complain.

“Hotter than a two-dollar pistol!”

“Hotter than a forty-dollar mule!”

“So hot that when I dug up potatoes in my garden, they were already baked.”

“So hot that we had to feed the hens crushed ice to keep them from laying hard-boiled eggs.”

My mother’s birthday was July 4 and mine is near the end of August. Since I was a boy I have known that the weeks between were the Dog Days of summer.

How hot is it?

A friend said, with beads of perspiration flowing down his face, “It’s hotter than half of Georgia.” He must have meant the half that includes Atlanta, which like Columbia, is always hotter than any place nearby.

Our daughter who lives in Nashville called to report that on a particularly sweltering day her beagle was missing. After a thorough search of the premises, she found her pup stretched out in the cool porcelain bathtub as if waiting for someone to turn on the water. Dogs suffer as much as people do when the temperatures approach three digits. They, too, are uncomfortable in oppressive heat. So why is this time of the year is referred to as Dog Days?

If you can find a place where the night sky is unobscured by artificial lights and pollution, the stars are clearly visible. People of ancient cultures gazed into the heavens imagining that they were seeing figures depicted in the stars. It was an ancient version of connect the dots. The configurations that they saw we now call constellations.

Amazingly, Native Americans, the ancient Chinese, and the people of Greece and Rome saw similar images in the stars. In these different cultures, separated by oceans, stargazers gave the constellations the same names. Big and Little Bear to Native Americans were Ursa Major and Ursa Minor to Europeans. Ursa means bear. We know these constellations best as the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper. Diverse cultures saw in the constellation Taurus, the likeness of a bull, though to Native Americans the bull was a bison.

Canis Major and Canis Minor mean Big Dog and Little Dog. The brightest star in Canis Major is Sirius, the Dog Star. Sirius was regarded as the companion of Orion, the hunter constellation. The Dog Star is so brilliant the Romans thought of it as a secondary sun, providing heat to the earth. In late summer, the Dog Star rises and sets with the sun. Ancient people believed that the conjunction of the sun and the Dog Star was the cause of an extended period of hot muggy weather; hence the name, Dog Days.

Dog Days arrive when the hot muggy weather of summer sets in. In the old days it was a time when the pace of life slowed way down, a time when families would go to the mountains. People from the Lowcountry came to the Upstate to the resorts like Glenn Springs to escape, not only the sultry days of summer, but also the danger of malaria carried by mosquitoes.

Dog Days are no longer a period of inactivity. Commercially, we have added a tax-free weekend, which has become one of the busiest times for retail shopping, second only to the days after Thanksgiving. Many schools begin their fall term in the Dog Days of summer. At a time when it is almost too hot to go fishing, we send our children back to school.

Maybe the best way to cope with Dog Days is the old-fashioned way. Back in the days before air conditioning was available, people knew that Dog Days was a time to take it easy. Sitting outside after the sun went down, spending the night on a sleeping porch, sipping iced tea in the shade, or soaking in a creek, all were all ways of coping with the heat. Some kept their perfume in the refrigerator. One man revealed that he put plastic bags of frozen vegetables between his sheets a few minutes before bedtime.

Returning from a trip to Tennessee, we stopped for gasoline at a convenience store. I stood at the counter to pay for a tank of gas. A rough-hewn mountain man was in line ahead of me. He purchased two cold beers and requested a plastic cup and a plastic bowl. When I left the store, I caught a glimpse of the man sitting on a rock in the shade of a large sycamore tree. Next to him was a big red dog. The man opened both bottles of beer, pouring one in the cup for himself, the other in the bowl for his dog. As I pumped gasoline into my car, I saw the man finish his beer and the dog lap the bowl dry. Then they both stretched out on the grass beneath the tree for a nap.

Dog Days indeed!

Kirk H. Neely
© August 2009

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