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The Dogs Days of Summer

 Bill Meredith

The drought last summer left our water supply in a precarious state, and despite a wet spell in late winter, things did not look good this spring when gardening time approached. The local water table was below normal, La Nina was peaking, the sunspot cycle was at its maximum, the U.S. Weather Bureau was making ominous pronouncements, and my rheumatism was acting upó everything pointed to another dry summer. I went ahead and planted my gardenó people raised on farms donít make it even as far as teen-age without being optimisticó but as Dog Days approached I found myself feeling uneasy. Imprinting as a toddler followed by 65 years of reinforcement is hard to shake off.

My earliest memories have a lot to do with weather. As a preschooler I was not aware of the Dust Bowl conditions in the central part of the country, but I did know we had droughts every summer in West Virginia. The only source of water in our house was a pump at the kitchen sink; it drew from a well in the back yard. There was a series of summers in the late 1930ís when the well went dry and we had to carry water for drinking, cooking and washing from my grandmotherís house about 200 yards away. The livestock were an additional problem; the spring that fed the watering trough always went dry even before our well, so every morning we had to carry buckets of water from the pump in Grandmaís yard to fill a washtub for the cows and pony. Grandma was always worried that her well would go dry too, and her anxiety was quickly communicated to me.

I must have been 4 or 5 years old when I heard my grandmother say Dog Days had started and she guessed we would be carrying water soon. I knew she planted her garden according to "the signs," which she got from the Farmerís Almanac, but she never successfully explained to me how they worked; In fact, I donít know how much she understood herself about the astronomical origin of the signs. So, following a childís logic, I concluded that the droughts were caused somehow by dogs.

Those were the days when the Rin Tin-Tin stories were popular, and Grandma had an enormous German shepherd named Major. He was older than I by several years, and while he wasnít mean or dangerous, he wasnít playful either; he treated me with disdain. I wasnít exactly afraid of him, but I didnít trust him. He seemed a likely candidate for the villainous responsibility of causing Dog Days, though I wasnít sure how he did it. Major died in the winter when I was 6 years old, and the following summer was wetter than usual. That convinced me that he was implicated somehow, though I never caught him doing anything more incriminating than drinking from the basin under the pump.

Eventually I learned that the only connection Major had with Dog Days was his name. The brightest star in the sky is Sirius, whose name originally meant "the scorcher" because the ancient Egyptians observed that the time when Sirius rose with the sun marked the beginning of the hottest time of the year. Later the Greeks placed Sirius in the constellation Canis Major, which was the larger of the two dogs that accompanied the hunter, Orion. Hence Sirius came to be called the Dog Star, and the period of 40 days or so when it rises and sets with the sun became Dog Days. I donít suppose my grandmother knew any of this, and even if she did it would have been the farthest thing from her mind when she selected the name for her dog.

Dog Days arrived on July 3 this year, and a stationary mound of high pressure has brought triple-digit temperatures to the south-central states for the past few weeks; there has been crop damage and people have died there. But here in Emmitsburg the predicted drought has not materialized, at least not yet. My garden is producing weeds with abandon, and a few tomatoes and cucumbers are starting to appear. Yesterday afternoon, as I emptied the rain gauge for the third time this week, I recalled earlier times and reflected that maybe weíre getting off easy this yearó maybe.

But until August 11 gets here and Dog Days are over, I wonít feel at ease. Grandma and Major taught me not to take things for granted.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith