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Doggedly summer

In to the Wind

August 8, 2012
By Mike Gilchrist , Toledo Chronicle, Tama News-Herald

One of the nice things about being a long term columnist, is I can revive things I wrote a few years ago and put a new spin on them. Only my more astute and loyal readers will recognize I chose the subject before. It has been almost seven years since I started writing this column for The Chronicle; even more if you count the years I wrote it for the Iowa City paper. I have literally hundreds of them at my disposal now. I am not above borrowing bits and pieces from columns past. After all, self-plagiarism is the best kind.

After I wrote that last sentence, I was filled with self doubt. Because plagiarism is conceptualized as theft, the notion of self-plagiarism may be impossible. After all, one might ask, "Is it possible to steal from oneself?"

To be honest, only the basic idea has become a framework for my column this week. I have added certain touches to make it more germane to current conditions.

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The summers we enjoyed the last few were awesome. The summer of 2010 only saw a couple days over 90 degrees here in the heartland. Last summer, we didn't have very many of those very warm days either.

This year is one of those rare years which will go down in the record books. We have had an unprecedented string of ninety plus degree days. In fact, we've had an alarming string of one hundred plus degree days. The persistent drought is bringing on some calamitous events. The crops are failing. Ears of corn only partially filled and stunted are the norm. Only that corn planted very early even has a chance. We have gone way too many days without rain, and the rain we have received is inadequate.

The Iowa State Fair starts this week. The sound of tribal drums will soon waft up the valleys from Meskwaki; it is time for the 98th annual Powwow. The dogs laze about outside, too hot to run. I have been housebound more days this summer than I care to be. I haven't mowed much, or fished, or kayaked; I am housebound and tired of it.

OK, so the dog days of summer are upon us. I know, because the temperature has hovered near 100 degrees, the humidity is high, and it just feels like a sauna when you step outside and do any work.

How do I know it's called the dog days of summer? Because that's what my mother taught me when I was a kid, and things like that are passed down in a sort of oral tradition from parent to child. I'm almost certain my mom had conversations about the dog days of summer with her mom a number of years ago.

But, have you ever wondered where the term REALLY came from? How old is it, and what do dogs have to do with it?

As near as I can determine, the usage goes way back to early Roman times -- ancient Rome.

Way back then, men of science, who knew nothing of telescopes, eye protection, or incandescent lighting, were bored. They spent way too much time outside lying on their backs gazing at the stars. It was considered "good science" back then to connect the dots (the stars) and draw images, and make up stories about the images they saw.

Many of those images they saw are now referred to as the constellations. The night sky has many constellations including Orion, (the hunter), the bears, (Ursa Major and Ursa Minor), the twins (Gemini), Taurus the bull, and here is where the "science" begins to get interesting; the dogs (Canis Major and Canis Minor).

Canis Major, or the big dog, contains the brightest star in the night sky Sirius. Sirius is so bright; these "scientists" thought the earth received heat from it.

We now know the ancient Egyptians learned to make beer, and this just proves they also taught the ancient Romans. Why else would otherwise intelligent people make up stories about big dogs in the sky adding to the summer heat?

Anyway, once again I digress. They kept track of Sirius, and while readily visible during the winter months in the southern sky, noticed the progression of the star caused it to rise and set closer to the sun as summer approached.

During the summer months, Sirius does indeed rise and set with the sun. During late July, Sirius is in conjunction with the sun. A conjunction is when a celestial body appears together with another celestial body.

After all, a star which adds heat to the earth, in conjunction with the sun just has to add more heat; right? So, the 20 days before the conjunction, to 20 days after the conjunction, they called the "dog days."

Now the reason it is handed down in the oral tradition and it's up to your mom to teach you about the "dog days" is because those ancient Romans who first noticed the phenomenon went blind by trying to figure out exactly what day Sirius got lost in the sun.

Didn't your mother also tell you to NOT look at the sun? So there you have it, they went blind, so couldn't write it all down, so they just started an oral tradition concerning the "dog days of summer," replete with a warning to NOT look at the sun.

My deadline is dogging me. It is a dog day afternoon, but fortunately every dog has his day. I may be an old dog, but I'm not a stray dog. Generally I am as happy as a dog with two tails, and seldom bark like a dog. At the moment, I am dog tired and feel I need a nap. The dog days of summer tend to treat me that way.

Until next time--

You can read past columns by visiting and clicking on the "Local Columns" button at the bottom of the page.

In to the Wind and this column are copyright 2005 - 2012 Mike Gilchrist. Readers, feel free to contact me at via email, or write to me at P.O. Box 255, Toledo, IA 52342.



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