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THE DOG DAYS OF SUMMER

July 25, 2020

When our daughter lived in Nashville, she called to report that on a particularly sweltering day, her beagle dog was missing. After a thorough search of the premises, she found her pup stretched out in the empty cool porcelain bathtub as if waiting for someone to turn on the water.

Dogs suffer as much as people do when the temperatures rise into the 90s. They, too, are uncomfortable in the oppressive heat. Dog Days are the time of year to be dog tired or to be as sick as a dog. It is an annual occurrence when otherwise good folks might just go to the dogs or be reduced to leading a dog’s life.

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.”

I recently remembered a church bulletin from last year. A local congregation was celebrating Dog Days with a hot dog lunch after church on a Sunday in early August. According to The Old Farmer’s Almanac, the Dog Days of summer are traditionally from early July until early September, so the congregation timed their event perfectly.

Since I was a boy, I have known that the weeks between my mother’s birthday on  July 4 and my natal celebration, near the end of August, were the Dog Days of summer. Though the local weather reports indicated a few cooler days last week, I’ve been around long enough to know that the hottest days may still be ahead of us.

How hot has it been?

A friend, with beads of sweat dripping down his face, grumbled, “It’s hotter than half of Georgia.” He must have meant the half that includes Atlanta, which like Columbia, South Carolina, always seems hotter than any place nearby.

So why is this time of the year referred to as the Dog Days of summer?  

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 saw figures depicted in the stars.  It was an old version of connecting the dots.  The configurations they saw, we now call constellations.      

Amazingly, Native Americans, the ancient Chinese, and the people of Greece and Rome all saw similar patterns 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 the Greeks.  Ursa means bear.  We know these constellations best as the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper.  Diverse cultures saw the likeness of a bull in the constellation Taurus, though to Native Americans, the bull was a bison.  

The Greeks also identified Canis Major and Canis Minor mean Big Dog and Little Dog. The brightest star in Canis Major is Sirius, the Dog Star. Sirius was thought to be the shining nose of the dog 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.

To the Greeks and Romans, the Dog Days began in late July, when Sirius appeared to rise just before the sun. They continued into late August as long as the Dog Star rose and set with the sun.  They referred to these days as the hottest time of the year, a period that could bring fever or even catastrophe. Ancient people believed that the conjunction of the sun and the Dog Star caused an extended period of hot, muggy weather, hence the name, Dog Days.  

Dog Days arrive when the humid weather of summer sets in.  In the old days, this was a time when the pace of life slowed way down, a time when families went to the mountains for cooler temperatures.  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 usually begin their fall term in the Dog Days of summer at a time when it is almost too hot to go fishing.

In these COVID-19 times, the opening of businesses and the beginning of school is uncertain. Just staying indoors is perhaps the best way to survive this hot, humid season.

Maybe the best way to cope with Dog Days is the old-fashioned way. Back before air conditioning was available, people knew this 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 ways of coping with the heat. Some women kept their perfume bottles in the refrigerator. One man revealed that he placed plastic bags of frozen vegetables between his sheets a few minutes before bedtime.

Clare and I each have reusable ice packs that we keep in the freezer. They are intended to soothe the ordinary aches and pains that are a part of grandparenting.  During the Dog Days, ice packs provide blessed relief for both of us.

Returning from a trip to Tennessee several years ago, Clare and I drove along old United States Highway 64, the longest numbered road in North Carolina. It travels 604 miles from the Tennessee state line to the Outer Banks, quite literally from Murphy to Manteo. Dating back to the era of the Model T Ford, this winding two-lane road twists through the North Carolina mountains, into gorges, by rivers and waterfalls, and through quaint towns. A portion of the blue line highway is designated as the Mountain Waters Scenic Byway.

I stopped for gasoline at a convenience store near Franklin, North Carolina. As I stood at the counter to pay for a tank of gas, a rough-hewn mountain man ahead of me purchased two cold beers. He, then, requested a plastic cup and a plastic bowl. When I left the store, I caught a glimpse of the man sitting 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 and the other in the bowl for his pet. As I pumped gasoline into my car, I saw the man finish his beer and the dog lap the bowl dry. Having finished their beers, the man and his best friend, the dog, stretched out on the grass beneath the tree for a nap.

Dog Days indeed!

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor.He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

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