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Clavis calendaria, 199 years later

Bill Meredith

"From ghoulies, and ghosties, and long-leggity beasties,
and things that go bump in the night, Good Lord deliver us."
Öold Scottish prayer.

(Spet, 2012)


Bill Meredith

"Dog Days [were] an evil time; the Sea boiled, the Wine turned sour, Dogs grew mad, and all other creatures became languid; causing to man, among other diseases, burning fevers, hysterics, and phrensies." John Brady, 1813: Clavis calendaria; or, A compendious analysis of the calendar, illustrated with ecclesiastical, historical, and classical anecdotes.

John Barry, the author of Clavis calendaria, died in 1814, of unrecorded causes. Perhaps, in the absence of forensic evidence to the contrary, we may presume that the effort of producing a book with such a monumental title was simply too much for him. Whatever the reason, he seems to have been forgotten by those who wrote the history books; I never heard of him until I ran across his name on the Internet the other day, and I donít know anyone who did. And that is a shame, for judging by the quotation cited above, we who live in anno Domini 2012 should recognize him as one of the great prophets of his time.

The story begins long before 1813, back even to the ancient Egyptians. In those days, before Julius Caesar standardized the calendar, folks used to rely on stars to predict the seasons a lot more than they do now. Every year, around what we now call the first week of July, Sirius the Dog Star would appear in the sky at sunrise. Egyptian astrologers believed that when Sirius got too close to the sun it would cause the weather to become miserably hot and humid; they called that period "Dog Days," and it would last late into of August before Sirius finally realized all the trouble he was causing and wandered off to cooler parts of the sky. In those days they used to sacrifice a brown dog (I donít know why the color mattered) to Sirius, whom they considered to be one of their gods, as a plea for a mild summer. Sometimes it worked; but more often than not, Sirius did not find the sacrifice adequate. Egypt was always a hot place.

The practice of sacrificing dogs ended long before I was born, but Dog Days were on everyoneís mind then. It was the time of the Dust Bowl in the Midwest, and I remember the hot, sticky weather of the 1930s. Our well often went dry in those years, and we had to carry buckets of water from my grandmotherís house. My grandmother considered the Farmerís Almanac to be second only to The Bible as a guide for conducting oneís life, so she made sure I learned about Dog Days. She knew Dog Days were not mentioned in the Bible, but the old editions of the Book of Common Prayer contained lectionary readings for them, and that was good enough for her. I remember that at the age of four I was confused by it; Grandma had an old and rather humorless German shepherd dog, and he was always in a more surly mood than usual at that time of year. He never went mad, as Mr. Brady described, but I gave him a wide berth, even though Grandma assured me he was not responsible for the muggy heat.

Creatures do seem to be unusually languid this year. On the golf course with a friend last week, I was driving the cart down a shady path from one hole to the next, and when we emerged from the woods there on the next tee was a half-grown fawn. It was a beautiful sight, its red-brown coat covered with white spots, and it was nibbling grass with an air of wide-eyed innocence, wary but not frightened. It twitched its tail to signal to its mother, who I knew was around somewhere, and then resumed eating. We watched it for a few minutes, and then I drove the cart slowly toward it. It didnít panic, but trotted away far enough to maintain the distance between us. Languid was the word for it.

Nature is full of times when unexpected things happen, or the usual things fail to, and Dog Days are often blamed for such phenomena. This year several friends have asked me where the Monarch butterflies are. They usually appear in small numbers early in the summer, and I always leave a small patch of milkweeds in the corner of my garden for them to lay their eggs on; but this year I saw none until late July, and the milkweeds stand there healthy and uneaten. In the last few weeks I have begun to see a few each day when I go outside, but those are moving southward, on their way from Canada and the northeastern states toward Mexico. I suppose we could blame their scarcity on Dog Days, but there are lots of more likely explanations. Earlier spring and warmer weather may have enticed them to go farther north before they stopped in April and May; the droughts in Texas last year and the Midwest this year may have forced them to change their migration routes; and illegal lumbering in the mountains of Mexico where they spend the winter may have increased their mortality. Or, maybe theyíre just languid.

The definition of "Hysterics" has changed over the years. It comes from the same Greek root as "Hysterectomy," and originally it described the emotional state of women approaching childbirth. In those days of superstition, primitive medicine and hygiene, and no anesthetics, surgery was a thing to be dreaded as a last resort; women who survived the trauma and loss of blood often died days or weeks later from infection. The word still had much of that connotation in John Bradyís time, and mortality from childbirth was even higher when it happened in the Dog Days of summer. It was not until the second half of the 19th Century that sterile techniques and anesthesia came into use; after that, the definition of "hysterics" came to refer to the mood swings that occurred during and after pregnancy. Nowadays the term is applied loosely to emotional outbursts generally, and one is likely to observe them in both sexes in Dog Days, especially when there is a power outage and the air conditioning goes off.

Modern English usage has changed the quaint term, "phrensie," to "frenzy," but the definition hasnít changed much. In fact, "hysteria" and "frenzy" are used interchangeably by some people. Usually, though, most of us associate frenzy with anger, or with a manic loss of control. However we choose to define it, there seems to be more of it around in Dog Days.

When my own grandchildren were small, they learned to recite Lewis Carrollís poem, "The Walrus and the Carpenter." They always were delighted when we got to the part where "The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things: of ships and shoes and sealing wax, and cabbages and kings; and why the sea is boiling hot, and whether pigs have wings." The kids were intrigued by the prospect of pigs flying about overhead, but as an ecologist it was the concept of the sea boiling that stuck in my mind. I knew that shortly before the sun dies, astronomers predict it will expand, heat up catastrophically, and boil away all of the water on earth, but that isnít expected to happen for five billion years or so. The thing that I worried about was global warming, which ecologists had been predicting even before I entered the field in the 1950s. Nowadays I think of Carrollís walrus every time I read of droughts in Africa, Texas or Indiana, or hear on the news that another Rhode-Island sized chunk of ice has melted off of Greenland or Antarctica. I wonder if Lewis Carroll got the phrase about the sea boiling from John Bradyís book. It sounds to me like they saw it coming.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith