I Have a Cure for the Dog Days of Summer 1

NASHVILLE — August and February are the two months I like least. August because it’s hot and dry and the wildflowers are mostly spent. February because it’s cold and gray and by February I have lived too long without wildflowers. Thanks to climate change, February doesn’t get all that cold anymore, though it’s still gray. February will always be gray in Middle Tennessee.

And August will always be hot. Sweltering hot. Heat-rising-in-shimmering-waves-above-the-pavement hot. Drink-straight-from-the-hose hot. February-is-starting-to-look-pretty-good hot.

They’re called the dog days, but not for the reason everyone thinks. Yes, dogs do spend August lying around in the shady dirt, panting. Dogs can’t sweat where they have fur, and they can’t take off their fur coats, either. It would make sense for dog days to be a reference to the way dogs turn into limp puddles of lassitude during August.

Alas, no. Dog days refers to Sirius, the Dog Star, which in late July rises in the sky just before the sun does. The ancients believed the Dog Star ushered in a time of drought and madness, a time when people are apt to start wars or hurl insults on Twitter.

Here in the dog days of the pandemic summer, fear and fury are now deeply embedded in my psyche. I am furious at the “leaders” who have failed to contain this virus, and I am fearful for the safety of everyone I love.

Next week, my 61-year-old husband will return to teaching teenagers, a population not known for successful social distancing, and our youngest son will head back to college, where he will join a population that is neither good at social distancing nor supervised by anyone who is. Our middle son now holds a job as an essential worker, a job that requires him to travel, often by air, for at least part of every week. Our oldest son and daughter-in-law, plus their houseguest, are sick with Covid-19 at this very moment — a mild case, knock wood, but you know how a mother worries.

I try to remind myself that I am not alone in these creeping fears. Everyone I know is trembling, worried, anxious. Now in the pandemic’s sixth month, we’ve felt like this for so long it’s begun to seem like the way it has always been and the way it always will be. I know that’s not true with my conscious mind, but my 3 a.m. mind is louder than my conscious mind, and these days it’s 3 a.m. all the time.

My own cure for a darkness that never lightens is to head outdoors. Except for calls of nature, my little mutt dog prefers not to join me in this heat. She appears to believe that the dog days of summer are meant to be the dog days of air-conditioning. No matter. There is more to see without her.

August is spider season, a time when the tiny orb-weavers that spent all summer hiding from predators have grown large enough to spin a web. At dawn, the silken threads are beaded with drops of water, as showy as any diamond. In the pollinator patch, the milkweed pods are on the verge of bursting, sending white feathered seeds wafting on the wind like snow, and the pokeweed berries, too, are beginning to ripen, turning dark purple against magenta stems. All manner of songbirds flutter beneath each dangling cluster, harvesting berries on the wing. From a distance it looks as though the whole plant is on the verge of levitation.


Credit…Margaret Renkl

Credit…Margaret Renkl

My coneflowers have lost almost all their petals by now, and the goldfinches have picked the cones free of seeds, but the black-eyed Susans are still in full golden glory. The asters and goldenrod are just getting started, and the zinnias are almost as tall as I am, brightly colored and showy enough for a butterfly to see from high in the air. I’ve been worried about the butterflies this year. I planted a whole new bed of nectar and host plants to fill the sunny space left where we lost a maple tree last spring, but until last week the butterflies themselves were almost entirely absent.

Was it because of my neighbors’ pesticides? The 10-day warm spell last winter? The cool, wet spring? I don’t know why, but for weeks the only butterfly I saw all summer was a lone eastern tiger swallowtail. Where were the fritillaries and the sulfurs and the little hairstreaks? Where were the question marks and the cabbage whites and the common buckeyes? Where oh where were the monarchs?

Finally, a painted lady arrived, followed by a clouded sulfur. A gulf fritillary showed up the same day as a monarch — they got into a swirling orange tussle over ownership rights to the zinnias before moving to separate parts of the flower bed. I’m hoping the monarch will stay around long enough to lay eggs on the milkweed, and the gulf fritillary will lay her eggs on the passionflower. I planted those flowers just for them.

One day it was all skippers — several silver-spotted skippers and a gorgeous fiery skipper — and the next it was all swallowtails. I love the swallowtails almost as much as I love the monarchs. But I have imperfect vision and struggle to tell a dark-morph Eastern tiger swallowtail from a black swallowtail from a spicebush swallowtail, especially on the wing. Last weekend, as I was squatting to get a closer look, I was startled to see at least a dozen tiny yellow-and-black-striped caterpillars on the parsley plant I had let go to seed in case a black swallowtail needed it for a nursery. And, look, here were the baby swallowtails themselves!

At that is how, deep in the summer of our national terror, I learned to love August: Because the heat and humidity of the dog days dispelled the 3 a.m. darkness and brought the butterflies back to me at last.

Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of the book “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”

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