July is off and running! Half the year is already over as summer’s first full month begins!
Tomorrow we’ll celebrate our nation’s independence with the bang and spangle of fireworks. By the time the month ends we’ll be celebrating the bountiful earth with scrumptious feasts of fresh-picked veggies straight from our gardens.
In between are the sweltering days and sultry nights of the Dog Days, a term coined by the ancient Greeks. The name — which denoted the period of the season’s hottest weather — came from the fact that during this time, Sirius, the Dog Star, arose in the predawn sky and seemed to follow the sun along its daylight pathway from east to west.
It was thought by both the Greeks and Romans that the heat added by this accompanying star was the reason for the increase in temperatures and at the root of various problems and health issues. Citizens came down with assorted sicknesses. Water stagnated. Dogs and wolves developed rabies. Lethargy prevailed. Madness increased.
“Orion’s Dog we mortals call its name,” wrote Homer in the Iliad. “Sign is it of much ill, though clear its light, and mighty fever brings to man’s poor frame.”
We moderns realize starshine from distant Sirius plays no role whatsoever in summer’s heat build-up. The real cause is the more direct angle at which the sun’s rays now strike the earth Too, it has simply taken time for the earth to warm sufficiently, building up a store of heat which it now begins radiating.
Not that knowing the science behind all this makes a blazing mid-afternoon in mid-July feel any less uncomfortable—nor our desire for relief any less acute.
Sometimes, in fact, our fervent wish for a break from the heat is granted, albeit temporarily. The occasional shower will rumble in from the west, often accompanied by thunder and lightening. Rains pound briefly, settling dust and muddying fields. And for just a few moments, the air feels cooler, decidedly refreshing.
Alas, it’s a break which lasts only a short while — a scant, almost teasing respite from the heat. Soon those rain-bearing clouds scurry onward to the east. The sun reappears. Puddles quickly shrink and vanish.
A faint mist may still hang over the meadow, lingering like some reluctant spirit. But as the day winds down, the air will thicken, turn heavy and be sticky with humidity. That night, even the moonbeams will seem cloying.
But it isn’t all heat and discomfort.
July is more lush than June, less profound than August. Fiery lilies bloom in roadside profusion—day lily, Canada lily, Michigan lily, tiger lily, possibly even a rare turk’s cap lily — their flowers large, showy, gorgeous.
Equally bright are black-eyed Susans, various sunflowers, yellow goatsbeard, salsify, orange hawkweed, royal catchfly, cardinal flowers, butterfly weed. Orange and red and yellow — variations on a theme, the nuances of heat and sun. The bold colors of summer itself.
Any time now we can count on hearing the distinctive whirrs of cicadas—those noisy jar-flies. So much a fixture of this time of year, I can’t even imagine a sunny July day lacking their unmistakable background ratcheting!
And for sheer, effortless pleasure, there’s simply no better time of the year than a soft July evening for sitting awhile on the porch. Make yourself comfortable. Savor the gloaming’s show.
Twilight lingers, in no hurry to move along. An equally hesitant moon slowly rolls up into the sky. Overhead, swallows swoop and chitter as nighthawks circle. Listen carefully and you’ll hear the old bullbats roar as they power-dive for a bug.
Gradually the light dims, purple fading into darkness. Bats appear, flittering and fluttering, zipping this way and that, carving high speed turns at impossible angles.
Inspired by the moonlight, a bullfrog begins harrumping down by the water. While in the back yard’s inky shadows, the yellow-green taillights of myriad fireflies twinkle like moving stars.
As you sit and wait and watch, Ohio’s summer night enfolds around you like a comforting blanket. Time is forgotten. Your imagination shifts into free spool while stars spin overhead and the lush warm earth whispers magically.
There’s a singular character to this seventh month — a distinct and special rhythm that’s uniquely July. As we head into summer’s Dog Days, we can look forward to delighting in many of the season’s finest gifts.
Yup … going to the dogs is a good thing!
Jim McGuire, a nature columnist, resides in Englewood, and can be reached at [email protected]