Dog Days and August Heat

Joel BellmanBy Joel Bellman

Share Story on:

Dog Days and August Heat
To mark my upcoming birthday in a few weeks—it’s not a milestone, just another step on the long march to inevitable fogeyhood—let’s take a break from politics and celebrate the month of August. Since ancient times, late July and early August have been known as the dog days of summer, and not because “only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun” (Noel Coward). It’s because that’s when Sirius, the brightest star in the sky—a binary star system known as the Dog Star, for its prominence at the dog’s breast in the constellation Canis Major—can begin to be seen on the eastern horizon rising in the early morning just ahead of the sun itself. The early Greeks figured that the morning star Sirius (which in Greek means “glowing” or “scorching”) appearing alongside the sun intensified its heat. Today we know that it’s a function of the earth’s plane of the ecliptic and its axial tilt, which causes the sunlight to strike the earth’s surface in the Northern Hemisphere at a more direct angle. But what we gain in astronomy, we lose a little in poetry and mystery. It’s an interval that gets hot and miserable, associated with fever, lethargy, drought—but also with thunderstorms ( headline today from New York Public Radio’s Gothamist: “Thunderstorms and flash flooding expected to interrupt seventh day of heat in NYC”). In Egypt, dog days herald the seasonal flooding of the Nile, whose onset is traditionally celebrated as an annual holiday for its agricultural benefits. Fever, not so great: one of the many unwelcome symptoms of the lingering COVID pandemic, now enjoying its latest resurgence with the particularly nasty BA.5 Omicron subvariant, which seems to be hitting everybody we know from President Biden on down. Drought, well, yeah—according to the National Integrated Drought Information System (a mutli-agency partnership that monitors these things), more than half of the Lower 48 states are currently in a drought, and closer to home, that includes all of Los Angeles County. In fact, more than a third of the County is experiencing “Extreme Drought,” the second-most severe conditions, ominously characterized by “Fire season lasts year-round; fires occur in typically wet parts of state; burn bans are implemented, water is inadequate for agriculture, wildlife, and urban needs; reservoirs are extremely low; hydropower is restricted.” To briefly digress, the drought and water issue in particular has been a sore point with me for a long time, and it’s not just a seasonal thing. Water policy was one of the first issues I tackled as a young intern researching radio editorials for what was then the #1 station in the Los Angeles market. I cut my teeth on the Peripheral Canal debate, a proposed “delta conveyance facility” that was part of a package of water projects signed into law that year by Gov. Jerry Brown. This was an open canal designed to skirt the eastern edge of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and carry more fresh Northern California water southward. It was also intended to correct the hyrdrological problems from the existing pumping system that pulled all the southbound water directly through the Delta. That practice eroded the Delta farm levees, depleted the fish populations, degraded the water export quality with pesticide-laden agricultural runoff, and wasted more water than necessary flushing out the Delta into San Francisco Bay. More than 40 years ago, our Southern California water agencies were warning that the demand for Northern California water would become more acute. As populations grew, our groundwater supplies were overdrafted, and our Colorado River imports were incrementally reduced under legal agreements with competing states. But no sooner had Brown signed that historic bill—a measure that would have completed the so-called “missing link” in the State Water Project successfully championed back in the 1960s by his father, Gov. Pat Brown—than an unholy alliance of hardcore environmentalists and Big Agriculture qualified and passed a referendum that overturned the law only two years later. Since then, with every proposed Delta fix bitterly opposed by envirionmentalists and agribusiness, and successive governors—up to and including Gov. Newsom—failing to deal with it, the underlying supply problems have only gotten worse. Thanks to climate change, the drought maps show quite clearly over the past 20 years that the natural drought cycles, prevailing for centuries, are longer and more intense. We’re only at the beginning of our multi-year drought period. We can’t blame the dog days for all of that, but according to the Farmer’s Almanac, by the time you read this they’ll officially be almost over—though Californians know that the weather traditionally stays hot and dry through September and fire dangers remain high. But let’s try and look on the bright side. My brother and I (and a surprising number of cousins) all share birthdays in August, which is something to look forward to. Moreover, I proudly share my own birthday with some famous folks: “Bird,” jazz legend Charlie Parker; director William Friedkin (French Connection, The Exorcist); actors Ingrid Bergman, Rebecca DeMornay, and Elliott Gould; pop star Michael Jackson; and that most mavericky of mavericks, Arizona Sen. John McCain. For some years, though, my birthday has also been tinged with melancholy because it was in 2005, while we celebrated my 50th, that we heard the news that Hurricane Katrina had just made landfall in New Orleans. It seemed initially like the city had dodged the worst of it, but as we partied, unimaginable disaster was slowly unfolding there. Hemingway wrote that, “The world breaks everyone, but afterward, some are strong at the broken places.” I try to keep that in mind, not just in the dog days of August, or of our lives in general, but every day.
Joel Bellman

Share Story on:

August 5, 2022

A Topanga Memorial