The Dog Days of Summer

The Dog Days of Summer

We are clearly in the dog days of summer now. Sunny hot day follows sunny hot day, interrupted by only the occasional late evening thunderstorm. The dog days of summer get their name from the ancient Romans, and before them, the Greeks. No, they are not called the dog days because they ‘aren’t fit for a dog’. They are called the dog days because the hottest part of the summer coincides with the heliacal rising of the star Sirius, also known as the dog star.

That's Sirius on the bottom right - just above the horizon. Sirius is the brightest start in the sky. Photo by Luis Argerich via Flickr.
That’s Sirius on the bottom right – just above the horizon. Sirius is the brightest star in the sky. Photo by Luis Argerich via Flickr.

“Heliacal rising?” you ask. Heliacal rising means that a star (Sirius, in this case) rises just before the sunrise, early enough to be visible. Before the date of a star’s heliacal rising, it rises too late in the morning to be visible to the human eye, it’s light is blocked out by the much brighter light of our sun.

The ancients watched the stars closely. They paid attention to heliacal risings and other astronomical conjunctions. In his book, How We See the Sky, astronomer Thomas Hockey writes, “Imagine watching morning after morning for a favorite bright star. Then, one special morning, you can see it-but only for an instant because soon thereafter, as the sun gets higher in the sky, twilight gives way to daylight and the star (like all stars in daytime) disappears from view. You have witnessed the heliacal rising of a star.”

The ancients not only noticed sky events like heliacal risings, they attempted to draw connections between astronomical and Earthly happenings. As a Mediterranean agricultural people, the Romans saw the supposed effects of Sirius’s heliacal rise to be quite negative. Drought, extreme heat, wilted crops, plagues, and madness were attributed to Sirius’s evil influence.

Here in Minnesota, the dog days of summer are much more tolerable. Drought is rare. The temperature seldom breaks the 100 degree Fahrenheit mark (only about 20 percent of summers in Minnesota see a 100 degree plus day). Summer flowers are in bloom-finally breaking up the mostly green curtain of late spring and early summer.  Bees and butterflies abound in our pollinator garden.

Summer flowers in full bloom.
Summer flowers in full bloom.
Junior botanist
Junior botanist

Rather than straight up heat, we experience occasional high humidity here during the dog days, which can make even relatively mild temperatures quite uncomfortable. Meteorologists refer to the combined effects of heat and humidity as the heat index. Temps in the 90s combined with high humidity produce heat indexes of well over 100 degrees. In 2011, an excessively humid day in Minnesota led to a record setting heat index of 134 degrees in Moorhead, MN. Strange as it might sound, Moorhead was actually the hottest place in the U.S. that day.

Kicking back poolside.
Kicking back poolside.
Digging some sand.
Digging some sand.

But, for the most part, the dog days of summer in Minnesota are mild, sunny, and beautiful. People from all over the Midwest head to Minnesota to spend their vacations at our many lakes.

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At our house, we are enjoying the long, lazy, unscheduled dog days of summer. Daily morning walks, bike rides, eating fresh produce from our garden, splashing about in the kiddie pool, and digging in the sandbox. Summer is short in Minnesota and I try to forget the haste with which brisk autumn winds follow the dog days here. Instead, I focus on absorbing all the sunshine and simplicity that these warm days have to offer.

Feature image of the dog in the pool by Matt Deavenport via Flickr

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The Full Buck Moon

The Full Buck Moon

This year, July is ushered in by a full moon. July’s full moon has a number of different names attached to it by the indigenous tribes of North America. American Indian moon names are typically descriptive of seasonal happenings that occur around the time of the full moon. So, the July full moon was known by some tribes as the Buck Moon, because in July male deer (bucks) began to regrow their antlers. The family and I actually spotted a couple of deer today while out walking in the woods, though they scampered back into the brush before I had a chance to see whether they had any small, velvetty antlers emerging from their noggins.

Look at this cutie.  Photo by Larry Smith via Flickr.
Look at this cutie.
Photo by Larry Smith via Flickr.

Another name attached to the July full moon is the Thunder Moon, as frequent thunderstorms appear at this time of year. Here in southern Minnesota, we receive on average 40 or more thunderstorms each year, many of them in July. While most tornadoes occur earlier in the spring here, July can bring thunderstorms which carry the risks of flash flooding and damage from straight line winds. For example, on July 23, 1987 Minneapolis received a whopping 9.15 inches of rain in just six hours, setting a state record for one-day precipitation. This followed another storm just 72 hours earlier that dropped 4 to 9 inches over the same area. This deluge caused massive flash flooding throughout the region. In Minnesota Weather Almanac, meteorologist Mark Seeley writes, “Roads became rivers; storm sewers spouted like geysers. All Twin Cities watersheds flooded.” Thunder Moon seems apt.

Another name I saw commonly listed as a July moon name is “Hay Moon”. July is the month in which hay is ready for harvest – to be cut, dried, and stacked. I can’t think of this process without recalling Tolstoy’s Constantine Dmitrich Levin at work in the hayfields beside his serfs:

“He thought of nothing, wished for nothing, but not to be left behind the peasants, and to do his work as well as possible. He heard nothing but the swish of scythes, and saw before him Tit’s upright figure mowing away, the crescent-shaped curve of the cut grass, the grass and flower heads slowly and rhythmically falling before the blade of his scythe, and ahead of him the end of the row, where would come the rest.”

Harvesting Hay Camille Pissarro [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Harvesting Hay
Camille Pissarro [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
One element of the name “Hay Moon” gives me pause, however. While many American Indian tribes were productive agriculturists, hay is not a crop that I associate with them. Hay is grown is used as fodder for livestock, which American Indians didn’t keep. I’m thinking this moon name must have either arrived with European agricultural techniques or, perhaps, was a name never used by American Indians at all.

In Minnesota, we have very short summers. The old joke goes, “Sometimes summertime in Minnesota falls on July Fourth, and sometimes it comes on another day.” The beginning of June is often still chilly, and the last week of August may bring harbingers of fall. But, July! It’s really summertime! If you are an American schoolkid, last school year was a distant memory and the next isn’t even on your horizon yet. When recalling the Julys of my childhood, I think of fireworks, running through sprinklers, popsicles, cook-outs, swimming in lakes, and camping. Classic Midwestern American summer. I think I’d call July the ‘Water Moon’, because of all the lazy summer days spent in lakes and pools.

My kiddo enjoying the season of the Water Moon at the local creek.
My kiddo enjoying the season of the Water Moon at the local creek.

I’ll end with a surprise twist…July 2015 actually has two full moons. That’s right. One tonight on the first, and a second on the 31st. The second one goes by another name…a blue moon. I’ll write about that later this month!

So, how are you spending your July? Scything any hay? What name would you give to the July full moon based on your location and lifestyle?