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Dog Days and Night Sounds

Bill Meredith

Dog Days is an evil time when the sea boils,
the wine turns sour,
dogs go mad,
and all creatures become languid,
causing to Man burning fevers,
 hysterics, and phrensies.
Clavis Calendarium, J. Brady, 1813.

Summer began with moderate temperatures and a surplus of rainfall, about five inches above normal for the year, so I was looking forward to a productive garden. I should have known better. July arrived and Dog Days set in; the rains stopped, and temperatures shot up into the 106 degree range. The garden gave up all pretense of producing anything; pea and bean vines died, onions stopped growing, and everything else hunkered down into survival mode.

The idea of Dog Days goes back to Roman times, when planets, stars and constellations were believed to represent gods who controlled events on earth by their position in the heavens. The Dog Star, Sirius, appeared in the morning sky around the beginning of July, when the Mediterranean weather usually turned hot and dry. Since Sirius was one of the brightest stars, the god it represented was presumed to be unusually powerful. Dogs were sacrificed to appease him; sometimes that worked; but if he was in a bad mood that year, he would cause severe droughts and heat waves. With the coming of the Christian era, the Roman gods faded into oblivion, but the idea of Dog Days persisted; the work by Mr. Brady, quoted above, is representative of a whole genre of writings common in Victorian England. Even in my childhood my grandmother was concerned about the effect of Dog Days on her garden.

Although Mr. Brady’s description of Dog Days was written in 1813, it seems to fit 2010 pretty well. The sea is boiling indeed, at least around the BP oil spill. While looking for my wife’s canning jars in the basement last week, I came upon a bottle of wine, and it proved to be sour (admittedly, we made it in 1973, but still… ). The dogs down the street are in a vile temper, but I’m not sure that counts; they’re like that all year. My wife hasn’t exactly had burning fevers, but she certainly is languid, spending hours sprawled in her lazy-boy chair with the TV tuned to the ‘70s music channel. The other day a young robin blundered into the garage and became quite frenzied when it was unable to find its way out; it seemed to think that when alarmed, it should fly as close to the ceiling as possible, so it kept getting trapped above the folding garage door. And the same day, a large blacksnake wandered into the garage and provoked my wife to give an imitation of hysteria that would have done credit to a B movie actress.

Even the stock market felt the effect. Journalists, desperate for metaphors that might make the dismal science of economics more interesting, have long associated Dog Days with any drop in market prices that follows the second-quarter economic reports, and this year the drop was right on schedule. However, I have always been reluctant to believe any theory is capable of explaining the stock market... I remember my Statistics professor pointing out that there is a statistically significant correlation between the rise in market values in the 1960s and the corresponding rise in the hemlines of women’s skirts.

A few local inhabitants tried to ignore Dog Days and carry on business as usual. The Carolina wrens that had nested among the ferns by our garage fledged a brood of five noisy, overconfident chicks, gave them a few lessons on finding bugs and caterpillars, and kissed them goodbye. Raising kids apparently is as stressful for birds as it is for everyone else; one of them (the male, I suspect) has a place on his head where the feathers have gone white. The wren-wife must have decided the old nest wasn’t good enough for the next brood, so she started building a new nest in a hanging basket on our porch. This provoked the disapproval of my wife, who likes to sit there and contemplate the state of the world each morning. A noisy argument ensued, and I was called to mediate it. I remembered that the same thing happened a couple of years ago; that time, I had to clean a pint of leaves, sticks and moss out of the flowerpot every day for over a week before the wrens accepted the eviction notice. So this time I decided to use psychological warfare. I cut an 8-inch piece of cardboard into the form of a small owl, drew large, menacing eyes on it, and stuck it in the flowerpot. That was language the wrens understood. They left immediately and built their new nest in the window box by the kitchen window, and now spend their time quarreling with the hummingbirds who visit the feeder there.

Despite global warming, Dog Days doesn’t affect us as much as it once did. In the days before television and air conditioning, evenings were spent on porches; it was too hot to stay indoors, and there was nothing to do inside anyway. The barn, chicken lot and pigpen were not far off, so there were always hordes of flies; even if you were lucky enough to have a screened porch, the strings of flypaper that hung from every ceiling would be black with them. Aerosol repellants hadn’t been invented yet, so mosquito bites ware simply accepted as a fact of life. The grown-ups sat quietly on the porch swing or rocking chair with a fan in one hand, a fly-swatter in the other, and a glass of iced tea nearby, while the kids ran barefoot in the grass after lightning bugs as the dew settled. There was little air pollution and no insecticides, so the air was full of moths, mostly little gray-brown ones that we called "millers," but occasionally a luna or cecropia of spectacular size and color. They were pursued by bats, which we could hear squeaking and could see occasionally silhouetted against the moon. The air was full of the sounds of all sorts of insects… cicadas, katydids and crickets, as well as an occasional frog or toad and, if we were lucky, the whip-poor-will that lived in the woods on the next hill. These sounds were interrupted occasionally by a car coming up the road, shifting down into second gear as it came around the curve, then revving up to get enough speed to shift back to high. We could tell from the sound whose car it was before it came into sight, and would wave as it passed. There were smells too, depending on which way the wind was coming; the odors of the barn were mellowed by distance and not unpleasant, and some flowers released their perfume at night to attract the moths. You could even smell rain coming. When the kids began to slow down, uncles and grandfathers were waiting to tell stories or point out stars and constellations in the sky, and sometimes even a shooting star would pass by. Growing up that way, every child was a potential ecologist.

How different, now. In mid-July I went out to the college one evening to a jazz concert. As I started toward the parking lot to come home I heard the first katydid of the season, and it brought back memories of those nights when I was not yet in school but was already learning. All of the people around me were talking to cell phones or listening to music on earphones with the latest gadget; none of them heard the katydid. None of them looked toward the sky; even if they had, the stars would have been blocked from view by street lights. It’s a shame they miss so much. They won’t know what my grandmother told me, that the first katydid means Dog Days will pass, and frost will be here in six weeks, so seize the day and enjoy it. Carpe diem.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith