Thursday, July 7, 2011

Dog Days

or The Livin' Is Easy

To be honest, I wouldn't recognize Sirius if it bit me—or, more likely, it being the Dog Star and all, if it smeared a happy, slobbery greeting all over my face.*  As more observant people have noted, however, Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky; its name derives from an Ancient Greek word meaning "glowing" or "scorcher."  But as the earth and stars move in their elaborate dance, toward the end of July in most northern latitudes, Sirius edges out of nighttime and turns into a day star.  It begins to rise and set with the sun, its brilliant glow dissolved into our own star's light, its scorching heat joined (in ancient thought) to the sun's heat.

The weeks on either side of that conjunction are known as the dog days of summer, lasting "officially" from July 3 to August 11.  (I used to think the dog days were when dogs decided that lying on a porch, panting, was even more fun than going for a w-a-l-k, but it turns out that's just a coincidence.)  These days are hot, uncomfortable, and unpleasant.

And they are my very favorite days of summer.

Western sandcherries, July

Why, I don't know.  Maybe it's because, despite the heat, they're feasts for the senses, when cicadas drone from every tree and crickets serenade you to sleep, when lemony pilafs and icy mint teas offer refreshment, when the slightest touch of a breeze makes you sigh with pleasure.  Maybe it's because they're slow, sleepy days (I have never been a speedy person, and I love it when the world slows down to my pace).  Maybe it's because the heat finally sinks so deeply into your bones that the last chilly fingers of winter are forced to let go of you for good (or until December, whichever comes first).

But I think it's really because these are the days of fruition.  The enthusiastic flush of late-spring flowers may be over, the summer-bloomers looking tired and drab, the leaves of all kinds burned brown around the edges and bug-eaten, but the sand cherries are ripening, the daisies setting seed, the goldfinches feeding as families and not just in pairs.  This is when the point of all those frothy, lovely spring flowers becomes clear.

Western sandcherries, March

Every afternoon this week, I've gone out to the garden to pick a bowlful of cherries from the sandcherry bushes.  My books all say that the fruit of the native Western sandcherry (Prunus besseyi) is tart, but I suspect the writers didn't wait for harvest until the fruit was ripe.  Unripe, it is admittedly pretty pucker-making, but ripe, it's...well, bland and almost flavorless (but not tart!).  These are definitely "wild" rather than "cultivated" cherries.

But when you wait until the sun has just passed over into afternoon shadow to pick them still warm from the branch, when the brick path comes close (but not too close) to burning the soles of your bare feet, when two feet away bees are wading happily through clouds of oregano blossom, when the wasps are playing the washtub bass in the jug (or possibly jazz ) band of summer (heavy on buzz, light on tone), when all those things line up—

Western sandcherries, lunch

Boy, do those cherries taste good.

* Note:  I don't actually think that either one is likely to happen.


  1. It's interesting; I've never been one to enjoy being hot, but even I found myself welcoming the arrival of warmer July weather. Of course, as you know from your years in Vermont, what passes for "heat" here would probably be winter weather for you! :-) -Jean

  2. Today I found it lovely to sit in the shade, the sun still had a kindly warmth.

  3. Well, thanks for the 'dog days' explanation! I always thought it was because it was too hot for even dogs to stay outside, too! :) I can tell, even though it's very hot, that the seasons are moving forward. A different 'feel' to the days. Do you feel it too?

  4. We are having such a cool summer here that when we hit 90 the other day, it was wonderful!

    The sun warms this cold body and loosens the stiff and soreness like nothing else can for me. I enjoy it. I also had the dog days wrong.... I thought too that it was when it was just tooooo hot.

    Thanks for sharing!


  5. Yum, those cherries look good. "Dog Days" was a word of the day last year. Until then, I also had misconceptions about its meaning.

  6. I'm surprised that the birds leave any for your lunch. They look so dark & delicious, it's difficult to believe they taste bland.

  7. Jean, after the relentless winter you all faced back east last year, I'm not surprised that July feels like a pleasant change of pace! I have (not very well-founded) theories about vitamin D deprivation back there--I might actually have committed violence if anyone had gotten in the way of my sunshine the first warm days in Vermont. Enjoy!

    Diana, warm days in winter are real gifts. They're probably the ones where you're really glad to be retired so that you can be outside savoring them...

    Holley, what did we ever do before Google? I only found out what the dog days were the day so I could write this post... Yes, the days do feel different--more that late summer pause than the early summer shock and awe.

  8. Elaine, cool summers are nice in some ways, but at some point you want to know that you've had a summer. I hope you get a few more of those toasty days soon--they do feel good on sore muscles and bones and joints.

    GirlSprout, my CSA (Beneficial Farms) has offered cherries the last few weeks, so I've gotten kind of spoiled by them. Otherwise, I'd say wholeheartedly that the sand cherries are perfectly good. They do suffer a bit in comparison, though.

    b-a-g, my new theory is that if you plant something on purpose for birds to enjoy they will ignore it completely. I actually planted these thinking that they would attract wildlife (that's what all the books say), but I seem to be the only one to enjoy them. That intense color really doesn't match the flavor, but apparently they were used a lot in pemmican--I could see them adding a lot to other foods rather than standing on their own.

  9. Interesting to know that about dog days. I had been misinformed! Your description about these dog days being the time when you can finally release every bit of cold that settled into your being during the winter is so true. Not many like our hot days around here; I don't mind them. I do wish for rain but the heat is okay with me...I'll take it any day over cold!