If you needed a poster child for the dog days of summer, Jake would do just fine. Jake lives on a boat tied up to a dock that I frequent, and it’s clear that he hates July. He doesn’t like the heat, he doesn’t like the humidity, and he especially doesn’t like the fact that he’s not allowed to spend his entire day inside the boat.
I know what he’s thinking. With access to air conditioning, he could take over the settee in the main salon, chew on his bone and nap away the afternoon in cool comfort. Instead, he’s forced to spend part of his day lying in the cockpit, on top of the cabin or on the dock, where he quietly sulks. He has a sunshade, water, and occasional breezes wafting about, but still – he isn’t happy.
He wasn’t particularly happy in June, either, and probably won’t cheer up in August or even September. He’s been through this before and knows he’s condemned to endure dog days and dog nights until October, when summer on the Gulf Coast of Texas will have run its course.
I enjoy the dog days of summer about as much as Jake. A varnisher’s office is the great outdoors, after all, and I spend my own share of hours there. In mid-June, I start thinking about retirement and I don’t stop thinking about it until cold fronts begin moving south with enough strength to drop the temperature and humidity.
I’m not the only one. By the end of August, a lot of workers “retire” from the docks in late morning and don’t reappear until evening. We get sluggish. We’re grumpy and we whimper just a bit to each other. In short, we resemble Jake and all of his slightly pathetic, passive, summer-weary friends.
During the dog days of summer, even boat owners stop coming down to the bay, choosing instead to fly away to the mountains. Kids stop skateboarding and head into the malls. Plants droop. Birds disappear. Only the cicadas seem active and vocal while the whole world hesitates, slows, and begins to trudge a little in the heat.
For years, I assumed summer’s “dog days” were named for the tendency of dogs like Jake to lay around moping and whining in the heat. The truth is quite different and more interesting, and it lies in the realm of astronomy.
In northern latitudes, we commonly think of Sirius as a winter star. It joins the red giant Betelgeuse and Procyon in Canis Minor to form a popular asterism known as the Winter Triangle. Clearer and more brilliant than a planet, Sirius dominates the sky near the constellation Orion. With a visual magnitude of -1.44, it is twice as bright as any other star in our sky.
As the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major (Big Dog), it makes sense that Sirius would come to be called the dog star. But more than its location contributed to its name.
Ancient Egyptians called Sirius the dog star because of its association with their god Osirus, whose head resembled that of a dog in pictograms. The word “Sirius” itself comes from the Greek seirius, which translates “searing” or “scorching”. Because Sirius moves in conjuction with the sun, disappearing from the sky during summer nights and traversing the sky by day, ancient Egyptians and Romans argued that the combined heat from the two heavenly bodies was responsible for the oppressive heat of summer.
Since the conjunction of the sun and the dog star was presumed to be responsible for summer’s heat, the period of time lying between twenty days before conjunction to twenty days after became known as the “dog days of summer”.
Traditionally, the dog days lasted from July 3 to August 11. It was then that the Romans saw Sirius disappear from the night sky as it joined the sun in the first flush of dawn. Today, the actual dates for the dog days have changed. Because the Earth slowly wobbles on its axis in a movement called precession, Sirius no longer begins rising with the sun on July 3. Instead, the conjunction begins more than a month later, on August 4, with the forty days from August 4 to September 12 the “new” dog days of Summer.
Just as an aside, it’s worth noting that the Earth isn’t the only “wobbly” body in the universe. In 1844, the German astronomer Friedrich Bessel observed Sirius itself wobbling along as if being tugged by a companion. Only eighteen years later, while testing a new telescope with an 18.5-inch lens (the largest refracting telescope in the world at the time), Alvan Clark solved the mystery by discovering that Sirius was not one star but two. The first compact stellar remnant had been discovered, a precursor to what later would be referred to as a whole class of white dwarf stars.
The companion, dubbed Sirius B, has the mass of the Sun in a package as small as the Earth, having collapsed after depleting its hydrogen. A single cubic inch of matter from this companion star would weigh 2.25 tons on Earth. At magnitude 8.5, it is 1/400thas luminous as the Sun. The brighter and larger companion has been designated Sirius A.
Learning about Sirius A and B, the dog star and its “pup”, can be wonderful fun. It’s good to know about the Winter Triangle, Egyptian myth and the precession of heavenly bodies. Unfotunately, none of that knowledge changes the fact that it’s still late July. The heat and humidity continue, and just like Jake we’re still forced to suffer through these doggoned summer days.
Watching Jake mope and sigh and roll his eyes, it’s impossible not to smile. He does take his summer distress seriously. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear the same star which gave us the dog days of summer also has given Jake his attitude about the season. Serious Sirius.
It’s a passing thought that refreshes my imagination. What if late summer heat weren’t associated solely with the dog star, Sirius? What if the star traveling in conjunction with Sirius A wasn’t known as Sirius B, but as Humoris? What if the Egyptians or Romans had known about Humoris, or mistakenly linked it with one of the three cat family constellations – Leo,Leo Minor and Lynx. Would we now have the cat days of summer to enjoy?
With Humoris, the Cat Star, overseeing summer, things might develop a bit differently. Instead of moping about on the dock, we could have a nice swim. Instead of assuming identical and utterly predictable days, we could look around for some surprises. Rather than lying about, passive and inert, waiting for the unpleasantness to end, we could become more actively involved in creating a bit of pleasure for ourselves.
Of course this is pure silliness, nothing more than a bit of heat-induced word play. On the other hand, it’s good to remind ourselves that play is acceptable, even for adults. The same human imagination which named the constellations and imbued the stars with personalities certainly can re-imagine the world in new and life-giving ways.
Clearly there are people as willing as Jake to whimper and moan over the circumstances besetting them. On the other hand, some people dare to take the plunge into a more refreshing way of life. Sirius or Humoris? More often than we sometimes believe, we have the possibility of choice.
Whether we’re dealing with the heat of summer or the heaviness of our lives, the truth is we’re not obligated to lie around and mope, grumpy and whimpering like helpless victims of circumstance. There’s a time in life to be serious about its realities, but there’s also a time for lightness, humor and play to balance out its burdens. If we choose to be guided by a different star, so be it.
As for summer? I rather enjoy the thought that Humoris, the Cat Star, might be holding sway over this uncomfortable season – even if I had to invent her myself!