Irene Virag's Garden Party

I'm Irene Virag -- a writer, a gardener, a cancer survivor. I think ideas are like plants. They need nurturing to grow. And gardeners share both. So welcome to my blog. It’s all about what’s happening in my garden and beyond.

Friday, July 03, 2009


As if the almost 40 days and nights of rain we’ve been enduring haven’t been enough. I mean, the roses are mush, the lilies are drowning, the tomatoes are just sitting there wondering what happened to the sun. And now come the Dog Days of Summer. Which means 40 days of sultry cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof weather.

At least that’s what the ancients believed.

It’s all in the stars, you see. The Dog Star to be exact. That’s the moniker the ancients gave to Sirius, the alpha star in the constellation Canis Major that is actually the brightest star in the night sky. It really dominates the heavens in summer when it rises and sets with our own sun, two hydrogen-fusing hotties travelling together through the daytime sky. The blue-tinged white-hot Dog Star can even be seen with the naked eye in daylight – and if conditions are right, it literally twinkles with bursts of color.  

This alignment of the sun and Sirius is known as conjunction, and it is the span of 20 days before and 20 days after the star’s rising that the Romans – who always did have a way with words – called caniculares dies. Ergo, the dog days of summer were born.

Of course the precise dates vary depending on the latitude of the observer and this is complicated even further by an astronomical oddity known as “precession of the equinoxes” – or the drift of the constellations due to the changing tilt of the earth. Which means that sooner or later the dog days of summer – believe it or not –may actually occur in the dead of winter. But that doesn’t seem to frost anyone. The Old Farmer’s Almanac lists the dog days as July 3 to August 11, and besides, what’s the point of trying to teach an old dog new tricks? 

One thing’s for sure – there’s no escape. Unless of course, if you’re my friend Melissa Berman’s dog, Nemo, a mixed breed stray who came home from Tobago with her and spends his days romping in the surf at Montauk. Yes, it is a dog’s life.

(Photo by Melissa Berman)

But for most of us the dog days of summer are more of a bitch than a day at the beach. I guess it’s never easy dealing with climate change. The ancients dreaded the sultry months because they brought disease and discomfort, spoiled food and failed crops. Chaos reigned. “The seas boiled, wine turned sour, dogs grew mad and all creatures became languid, causing to man burning fevers, hysterics and phrensies,” according to Brady’s Clavis Calendarium, published in 1813. It was all due to the Dog Star – so they sacrificed a brown dog to appease the wrath of Sirius. But they better not mess with Nemo.    

Given the fact that Sirius is twice the size of our sun and 20 times as luminous, it’s no wonder that the ancients got it in their heads that the combined heat of the two fiery stars was responsible for the scorching temperatures of summer. Heck, the Greeks dubbed the star that we now know to be 8.6 light years away Sirius, after the word seirios, or “scorching” – and in Latin, the name means “the searing one.” 

You could say Sirius is the original hot dog. The star has multi-cultural connections to the canine world. The Egyptians named it Sothis after a mighty and feared goddess who heralded the flooding of the Nile and was symbolized by hunting dogs. The Greeks turned the diamond in the sky into a rock star when they sketched their mythology in the heavens with connect-the-dot characters called constellations, turning Sirius into the hunter Orion’s dog.

Orion has his own tale, of course. Suffice it to say that Sirius is up there with him chasing rabbits and bulls and other celestial creatures that I can never quite make out. The Romans recognized Sirius as top dog and crowned his constellation Canis Major or Big Dog. There’s also a Little Dog, and I have to wonder, is there a message in the stars – why aren’t there any cat constellations?

No matter what, Sirius definitely rules. Human luminaries – Homer, Dante, Milton, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Voltaire and Dickens, to name a few – have all paid literary tribute to Sirius. Even J.K. Rowling acknowledged the power of the name with a character named Sirius Black, who escaped from Azkaban by transforming himself into what else – a black dog.

So what’s a gardener to do during the dog days? Maybe take a cue from Nemo and hide in the hydrangeas.

(Photo by Melissa Berman)

When I dug up this old English proverb I knew we’d better run for cover:

Dog days bright and clear

Indicate a happy year;

But when accompanied by rain

For better times our hopes are vain

So just remember what Noel Coward said, only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun – and it’s even worse if it’s raining cats and dogs on a dog day afternoon.


Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home