Depending on whose belief or tradition you choose to follow, dog days last anywhere from 20 up to about 60 days. Even folks on Blair Branch in Letcher County when I was growing up didn’t agree on the exact length of the “season”, if you want to call it that.
Uncle Stevie Craft maintained they began the second week of July and lasted through the second week of August. Mom always said they were the last week of July and the first two weeks of August. Other folks claimed they went from July 4 through the first of September. My dad said it was all a bunch of foolishness.
In any event, most folks believed that it was a time of year when evil spirits were most apt to be stirring about and bad things were apt to happen. If someone got sick or injured, old timers claimed that dog days brought it on. If a drought set in or, conversely, we had a summer flood, hey it was dog days and something terrible was to be expected.
Some people believed dog days were so named because it was a time of year when dogs were most likely to have fits or get rabies. I was in college before I learned that the name originated in ancient Egypt and had to do with the time of year when Sirius, the bright morning star, also called the dog star, started to again become visible in the sky, just before dawn, after having been invisible for a period of months because it was only in the daytime sky. Hence the name “dog days.”
If you want more information, Google “dog days” or Sirius or look them up in an encyclopedia if you are computer challenged. There’s no end to the amount of information out there even though a lot of it is as contentious as the beliefs of the folks on Blair Branch in my youth.
One thing that Mom, Uncle Stevie and most of their contemporaries did agree on was that copperhead snakes were especially dangerous during dog days. Local lore said that it was the time of year when snakes were getting ready to shed their skins and that, somehow, their eyes were clouded over to the point that they were practically blind. As a result of this condition they would strike at anything that came close to them as opposed to trying to slither away.
I have no idea if there is a iota of truth to that old belief, but I can tell you for sure that two of the three times I’ve been bitten by copperheads did, in fact, happen during dog days. I can also tell you that neither of the snakes lived long enough to tell their buddies about biting me and that neither of their carcasses indicated that they were getting ready to shed their skins. I just happened to be in the wrong places at the wrong times and not paying nearly as much attention as, perhaps, I should have been. I was not deliberately trying to provoke a fight with either snake, but I would have tried to kill them if I’d seen them before they saw me.
Suffice to say that getting a copperhead bite is not something you should try just to learn how it feels.
In any event, I am especially, with good reason, leery of snakes this time of year. Couple that with the fact that some friends in Berea recently found a copperhead in a very small enclosure that houses the pump that runs their ornamental waterfall, another story I had just read in the Letcher County Mountain Eagle newspaper about a woman who had killed one that was snuggled in a container on her porch, and yet another from a former neighbor who’d had one bite his boot just that morning and you may better appreciate a scare I had last Sunday night.
It was after midnight and I couldn’t sleep so I ventured out to the front porch to enjoy a bit of the coolest night we’d had in last two months. I was listening to the screech owls and crickets and figuring I might even hear an early katydid.
Between the swing, where I was sitting, and our front door we have a little wicker table about 30 inches high. About eight inches below the tabletop, it has a woven shelf for books or magazines or what not. Cooney, our vole killing cat, likes to sleep on the shelf.
Anyway, I stood up to come back into the house and about the time I reached for the door handle I saw a blur and simultaneously felt something give me a very solid whack just behind my right knee. I yelled something unfit for publication as I jumped higher and farther than I have since Mr. Parkinson came into my life.
A big wicker chair and its cushions that I crashed into are all that prevented me from tumbling down the flight of concrete steps and getting seriously injured. I thought, for sure, I’d been snake bit and was relieved that I did not feel the incredible searing pain that instantly follows a copperhead bite.
That’s when Cooney jumped down from her perch to see what was going on and I realized she had swished her tail at me when I walked by and I thought it was a copperhead. I know that a snakebite would have been much worse but it would not have startled me any more than my cat’s snaky tail had just done.
But, hey, it’s still dog days, so be careful out there.