Monday, August 19, 2013

Dog Days Of August

They call them the dog days of summer and because I have a dog, and because the heat finally seems to be on, this seemed to be the moment to contemplate heat and humidity and summer in the Florida Keys.
I was on Curry Lane after Cheyenne and I left the car not too many blocks away on Southard Street. And though my fur coated friend looks half dead she was having a grand time, sniffing back and forth, the sidewalks all to herself and no rush to be anywhere at all. Then she found the air conditioning drain and sat in the puddle, in the weeds, to cool off. Dog days indeed.

The funny part about the "dog days" is they have nothing to do with terrestrial dogs, rather the star constellation that looks like a dog whose brightest star is Sirius. Romans correlated the hottest days of summer with the appearance of the dog star Sirius so they called them the dog days of summer, and we and our dogs are stuck with it.
In any event the dog days of summer have finally hit the Keys. I have to say the weather overall has been unusual from last winter till today. We had almost no cold fronts and none of any great severity last Winter, while Spring was fresh and cool and pleasant and quite dry. Summer then never seemed to be ready to kick in until finally the rains came and then in over abundance of course followed by unseasonably strong wind and the heat and humidity and mosquitoes seem to have been kept at bay for the most part. Until now, and that makes this a summer delayed in the Keys.

And so, as schools open and the traditional summer harvest break ends, as people Up North starts to look for leaves to change color soon, as the prospect of frost starts to permeate the conciousness, that is the time Key West starts to bake in earnest. Geographers tell us heat builds in August owing to the fact that the sun, already starting to dip, has been steadily baking the northern hemisphere and that heat stored in the ground is being released by the time August rolls around and it takes a few weeks for the stored heat to be released. So it gets hot in defiance of the dog days stuff.

I incidentally still lack any botanical skills whatsoever but I did like the little purple berries that look like small pale grapes or large pale blueberries. Identity as always unknown. I offer them up to confuse or titillate or simply the way they struck me as rather pretty. When i was a child picking and eating grapes off the vine was my sign that summer was almost over and school was on the horizon.

It is said that a good parking space in Florida is any space in the shade, not always available and not often available for residents. I value my parking under my stilt house more for protection from the sun than from rain. Getting into an over heated car can be a trial especially at this time of year.

Walking sidewalks anywhere in the city it's a good idea to look for the shady side of the street. I keep an eye on cheyenne to make sure she isn't burning her feet. Sometimes you'll see people standing in the sun with an anxious dog on a leash pacing around, comical looking but actually an effort not to burn its pads. Humans should be required to go barefoot to appreciate the dog's point of view.
You'd think that the Keys in summer when heat and humidity clamp down would be unbearable and that's why the snowbirds flee, but it really ain't so. Heat is relative and many people say they can handle a hundred degrees of desert heat and good luck to them. Around here it doesn't often go above 90 and hardly ever hits an actual hundred, which makes me wonder about the whole theory of fleeing the heat of summer in the Keys. But there again I prefer it when people leave so one doesn't want to foster the belief that it's not that hot.

Nevertheless people flee in droves in the Spring in time to see their families for Easter, and then the influx is families for summer vacations, and now they are leaving and for a couple of months the streets should look like this:

The eyebrow house design has been made famous in Key West, the overhanging roof is a vestige of a design theory that upper windows could be kept open in the rain and thus help circulate air in the house. Apparently it doesn't work as the overhang traps rising hot air. Better to have functioning air conditioning.

I have lived without air conditioning in the tropics. I spent several weeks on a boat in the Panama Canal one rainy summer living and panting with my dogs, all of us breathing by fans alone. That was my toughest time without air, but even during a power outage things get pretty sticky. It can be done but I am not a purist in a world of energy convenience and i like my air. I really like my artifical cold air especially in the car. I figure having a blast of cold air in the car makes me a better driver especially when traffic is stopped, patience comes with coolness...

The fact is that air conditioning breeds inefficiency, we build to accomodate the energy consumption instead of building to conserve energy. Every time you see a cubic block of apartments roasting in the sun you have to wonder how people lived before air conditioning. The answer is they built homes that were suited to conditions. Old Florida homes had "chimneys" on top, vents that sucked the air through the house and out of the roof through a gabled arrangment on the roof line. Decking was covered by roof overhangs that provided outdoor seating that was weatherproof and cool, so the interior could be vented without rain or direct sunshine penetrating the house. All these techniques are lost in the rush to build cheap housing for millions of migrants who end up spending huge amounts to cool their boxes.
Check out the side of this old house, the cement water cistern with the downpipe directing rain water into it. I have the same arrangement at home because my house was built in 1987 before there was piped water on my street. I run my entire house on filtered rain water, I drink it, shower in it, flush it and feed it to my dog who prefers it to the chlorinated brine (4% seawater) provided by the aqueduct. When my cistern runs dry, twice in six years, or when I am doing a load of laundry I am grateful for the switch that enables me to access the piped water, but rain water tastes good, doesn't leave calcium in my kettle and doesn't drain the South Florida Aquifer. Yet cisterns are no longer permitted. Such is the madness of modern life.
While I acknowledge and understand the shortcomings of the eyebrow homes, every time I see one I am made aware one more time how people adapted to their enviornment in centuries past. People lived in Key West before air conditioning and got through summers just fine. If you look at pictures of people in those days they wore suits and ties and top hats under the Florida sun...Look around today and see how fashions have shrunk even as our energy consumption has grown.
So that is how we survive the summer heat. I admit I am looking forward just a little to the second cold front of October when the grip of oppression is broken and we start to enjoy cool breezes, dry weather and open doors and windows- "good sleeping weather," and the rumble and drone of air conditioning is slience for a few weeks at least. Posted with Blogsy Posted with Blogsy

5 comments:

Martha Tenney said...

What a lovely post! Lots to enjoy.

When the interior temp of my house hit 87 I bought a window a/c unit. I used it for about a week, now I have put it in storage. The evenings here are cool and I leave a few windows open. 55 feels almost freezing after temps of 90+.

That is too bad re cistern use, but I'm glad you still enjoy yours. I no longer have well water; I'm back to horrid city chlorine.

We have a few more days/weeks of hot weather, but when the nights cool down around upper 40s you know the party is nearly over. Some rejoice and can finally breathe, some of us have wintry flashbacks and start winterizing our homes.

This will be my first winter without a fireplace since...forever. But there's a coffee shop two blocks away with a wood stove :^ )

Singing to Jeffrey's Tune said...

Great post - thanks for the lesson about the dog star.

The purple berried plant is called American Beautyberry (or the French Mulberry). It's fairly edible, some make a jelly/perserve from the berries. I have eaten both the berries (in small quantities) and the jelly. It's better than seagrape jelly.

They are native to USA. http://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=CAAM2

Conchscooter said...

Martha- I think you the potential to live a very good life in a small town. I envy you the abuility to weather winter, which opens up so many choices.
Jeffrey- always an education. Next time I am going to taste them. If they are sweeter than seagrapes I may end up in a purple tinted orgy.

Martha Tenney said...

Thanks to Jeffrey! I had no clue what that plant is!

Singing to Jeffrey's Tune said...

Careful, in certain readings later, some people said they got nauseous. I didn't experience anything.