Finding ways to create something beautiful in the dark nights of a complex world
July 17, 2022

The Dog Days of Summer


These are the long days. The days of heat and dust. The days of quiet skies and dulled colours. Days of eclipse and renewal. These are the dog days of summer.

Journal entry:

23rd July, Saturday [should read 16th July - blame the heat!!]

“Martins twist and flit around the large ash,
 Clustering in the branches like cockney parakeets.
 En masse they drop, forking down to the water surface, 
Swimming the air with dolphin-like grace.

We slip the mooring ropes and leave.”

Episode Information:

Heading for shade
Heading for somewhere 'cool and green and shady'

In this episode I read two short extracts from Miles Hadfield’s (1950) An English Almanac published by J.M. Dent and Sons.

Wilmcote dusk
Dusk at Wilmcote (on the South Stratford upon Avon Canal)
Taken by Donna (16/07/22)

Soundscape of dusk, recorded at Wilmcote (South Stratford upon Avon Canal) at 21.15 on 16th July 2022.

For more information about Nighttime on Still Waters

You can find more information and photographs about the podcasts and life aboard the Erica on our website at noswpod.com. It will also allow you to become more a part of the podcast and you can leave comments, offer suggestions, and reviews. You can even, if you want, leave me a voice mail by clicking on the microphone icon. 

General Details

In the intro and the outro, Saint-Saen's The Swan is performed by Karr and Bernstein (1961) and available on CC at archive.org.

Two-stroke narrowboat engine recorded by 'James2nd' on the River Weaver, Cheshire. Uploaded to Freesound.org on 23rd June 2018. Creative Commons Licence. 

Piano and keyboard interludes composed and performed by Helen Ingram.

All other audio recorded on site. 

Contact
For pictures of Erica and images related to the podcasts or to contact me, follow me on:

I would love to hear from you. You can email me at nighttimeonstillwaters@gmail.com or drop me a line by going to the nowspod website and using either the contact form or, if you prefer, record your message using the voicemail facility by clicking on the microphone icon. 

Transcript

JOURNAL ENTRY

23rd July, Saturday [shpuld read 16th July - blame the heat!!]

“Martins twist and flit around the large ash,
Clustering in the branches like cockney parakeets.
En masse they drop, forking down to the water surface,
Swimming the air with dolphin-like grace.

We slip the mooring ropes and leave.”

[MUSIC]

WELCOME

Welcome to a hot summer night, still a little sticky from the days heat. This is the narrowboat Erica tucked into a bankside deeply carpeted with clover, narrowcasting into the darkness canalside.

The sun, milky, but hot, has long dropped below the horizon. The air is thick and still. Not even the young willow the bends over us moves. The canal is mirror calm, broken only by the rings made by surfacing fish. Let’s enjoy the cool of the night together. It’s so good to see you. Welcome aboard.

[MUSIC]

NEWS FROM THE MOORINGS  

These are the long days of summer. The slow, quiet routines of high summer play out across the day. Gone are the frantic and boisterous activity and noise of late winter and spring. It would be temptingly easy to suggest that a lethargy has descended alongside the dust of summer heat, but that would be misleading. The flow is just different; more understated. From time to time, coveys of ducks, push out from the bankside undergrowth into centre water, dipping their beaks to drink, pinhead jewels of water decorating their sleek heads. Mothers, sometimes accompanied by fathers, escort their juveniles – by now they’re usually down to one or two survivors. It’s the early mornings and evenings that they are most active and visible. The moorhens strut on long legged, beak-faced and wide-eyed, among the tall rushes and iris jungles that flame with loostestrife and foam with meadowsweet. They are nimble and edgy – always eyeing me with distrust. Get too close and they’ll bristle with outrage, and tear screeching annoyance across the water, part running, part swimming, part flying. Mostly, they prefer to stay hidden in their green, watery, vegetative castled worlds.

The swans appear and disappear. Serenely gliding the days. They carry with them a sense of importance, as if they are aware that their presence is a bit of an event. Ducks and moorhens – generally – move out of the way, people stop what they are doing, often offering a word of greeting. They sweep passed, heads held high on their elegant serpentine necks, turning their heads gracefully to the left and then to the right. I’ve noticed that the two adults often do this in synchronism. It adds to the feel that this is performance, theatre, a polished routine, immaculately executed. The two youngsters have taken to the habit of scooting along with one foot, the other tucked up behind them on their back. It gives them a rather appealing, child-like appearance. Reminiscent of children enjoying scooting their scooters. They do remarkable well in keeping a straight line.   Their fluffy grey heads covered in more down than feathers lack the water repellent quality of adult outer plumage. Consequently, they constantly sport this scruffy, unkempt, pulled-through-a-hedge-backwards appearance. On Monday, I was working outside. The cob, the male, wandered over with his familiar hunchbacked stoop. Eying me, he shook, and then lay down in the longish grass beside my feet. For a while he contentedly grazed the grass. Every now and then, I was aware of a beady eye checking on my movements. After a while he tucked his beak into his wing and fell asleep. His beautiful, glistening, black current of an eye, lost in a drift of tiny snow-white feathers.  

These are the days of quiet routine. Summer, and everything with it, has gotten into their strides, found their natural pace. It is certainly not the case that nothing happens – although you might be forgiven for thinking so. Just now, as I began to think about what I can tell you about all the lives that live alongside us, I was stumped for a while. Things are pretty much as they were last week and the week before and the week before that. The cygnets are growing, as are the few ducklings, the fish are bulking out, but even so, these are almost imperceptible incremental things. But that is good.

Just over 70 years ago, Miles Hadfield (1950) in his An English Almanac, wrote:

“During the dog-days [the hot days from July 3rd until August 11th] few birds sing. True high summer has been reached and we may pause and survey the scene. All the gay spring colours have gone. Woods and fields are in their deepest and richest greens. We see the England of our classic painters, a landscape of still and calm, under massive umbrageous tree. Hedgerows are full of the larger flowers, hills and moorlands beginning to glow with colour.”

That appears to be the point of this time of year. The short racing sprints of spring have now given way to the marathons of summer. This is the long-game. The time of growing and flourishing after the birthing. The strengthening and the healing after the challenges of pairing, bonding, and the raising of young. It can take it out of you, this living thing, we need to know our natural pace and set our lives accordingly – and we do well to take note of our non-human cousins.

It's also a time for renewal, the ducks and swans are moulting and some are in eclipse. This is more obvious in the drake mallards – primarily because they lose their glossy, iridescent green head feathers. By the water’s edge, piles of swan feather’s lie. If you like swan feathers, now is a good time to collect them! The moult and eclipse are the times when last year’s main feathers are shed and replaced with new plumage. When the flight feathers are lost, until the new ones grow back, the birds are grounded, unable to fly. This is their eclipse. It makes them very vulnerable to predators and so they will often present themselves less often in the open. Their behaviour being subdued, less boisterous. It is particularly noticeable with the chippy mallard ducks. When we had hens, the times they went into moult could be heart-breaking. They looked so miserable, the feathers bedraggled and lacking sheen, they would stand hunched in the shadows looking utterly crestfallen. The ducks and swans don’t seem to be quite so affected, but it is hard to tell. Non-domestic lives tend to adopt behaviours that serve to mask any signs that a potential predator might perceive as weakness and therefore identify as an easy target.

Whatever the case, these days of the eclipse and moult signal this time of summer as a time of renewal as well as growth. In the trees it is marked by Lammas growth. The flush of new foliage growth that splashes fresh limes and mint-greens on the rich canvas of olives, moss, and forest and racing-greens.     

These are the days that allow us to breathe.

[MUSIC]

DOG DAYS OF SUMMER

The heat again is beginning to build. After a couple of days of respite, it roils across the fields, thick and dusty. The sky turns from cobalt blue to heavy chalk as if it were a giant press; squeezing out every last drop of heat and pushing it into the earth. The fields here have been cut, leaving them parched and filmed with dust. Earlier, I watched a solitary rook, standing alone amid a desert of bleach-browned grass. He was staring intently at the earth. He was probably hunting beetles and worms, but, for all the world, he looked like a hunched professor, misplaced, cast adrift in a world that does not know his name. He didn’t move for the entire time he was in my sight.

The midday air shimmers and mirages, bending and warping the trees and hedgerows of the mid and far distance into Daliesque phantasies. Where we are tied up, the fox-thin line of towpath, baked hard and gritty, is, for the most part, lined with thick oases of vegetation on bank-side and land-side. They thrum and sparkle with life. Butterflies and moths and dragon and damsel flies, bees and flies, dazzle the air. Deeper in their green heart, particularly on the off-side bank, coots, moorhens, voles, water-rats, harvest mice, feed and shelter from the glare. If ever we need proof of the importance of green corridors, protected from cutting, it is now. Places where the verges have been cut have turned to hard earth and scorched grass. The grass will almost certainly grow back, but the lives who depended on it in these dog days of summer might not be so lucky or resilient.

Unlike a river, the canal doesn’t feel cool and inviting. It lies, still. Skimmed with pollen and dust. It has the static look of coloured resin of a model scene; as sullen and as sulky, as thick and oily, as it does in winter when the temperatures hover just below zero.

And still the heat rises, even though the sun is now westering. The outside thermometer read 46 degrees centigrade (118 degrees in old money). It’s not really that. The sensor is reading the heat bouncing off the cabin roof, but it is still pretty hot and set to get much hotter over the next few days. Earlier Donna scorched her foot when she accidently stood with bare feet on a metal bulkhead! All week, my phone has been pinging with increasingly strident warnings of extreme heat. Initially they were playful ‘summer scorchers’, then the Met Office began sending out advisory yellow alerts. Mid-week, this was replaced with an amber alert – I can’t remember (at least in this locality) of an amber extreme heat warning. On Friday, this was upgraded to an unprecedented Red alert that warned of, in their words, “a very likely risk to life.” Temperatures in the high 30s and possibly even breaking into the 40s (100 degrees Fahrenheit) are being forecast from Monday and Tuesday.

The definition of what constitutes a heatwave is rather complex and borders into the dark arts. The official definition is “when a location records a period of at least three consecutive days with daily maximum temperatures meeting or exceeding the heatwave temperature threshold. The threshold varies by UK county.” For around here, that means three days of above 27 degrees (80.6 F). Further south and in cities it is 28 degrees (82.4 F).     

Hot spells and heat waves at this time of year are fairly common. If you are a long term listener you might be aware of my fascination with Buchan’s cold spells and Miles Hadfield’s (whom we met earlier) obsession with them. Well here we have an instance to call on, not one of Buchan’s cold-spells’, but one of his ‘hot spells’!

Hadfield writes,

“The Roman belief that the heat of the ‘dog-days’ (3rd July to 11th August) was because the dog-star Sirius, rose and set with the sun, was rather more in accord with the events if not with this cause. For statistics and Buchan in particular show that the 12th to the 15th inclusive are likely to be extremely hot; they form the first of Buchan’s so called hot spells, and on one of the, the 15th in 1881 our hottest day occurred. The temperature rose to just over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.”

He ends this section with –

“The average temperature for the month [of July] is upward of 60 degrees (15.5 C) – the figure we are all taught to believe is perfect.”

The 1881 record looks set to be broken and it is interesting how this is being played out in the press and social media. There is certainly a feeling of anticipatory disquiet. I don’t think it is just among boaters, who take heat very seriously. It seems to be more widely felt.

But tonight, the night once more wraps itself around us, the still waters, stretch out before us, like a shining mirrored path made of quicksilver. It looks solid enough to walk on, curving gently to the right into a copse of trees, midnight black. All along the bankside, tufts of meadow sweet glow pale and ghostly. The vetch has been eclipsed by the dark. Let me leave you with the sounds of gathering dusk that I recorded earlier on this dog-day of summer. Just before I recorded, a woodpecker screeched along the hedges of the opposite bank, alighting in a scraggly oak tree. The air is filled with humming insects drawn to the honey-scented meadowsweet, the teasels and rusting sorrels. Jackdaws, pigeons, collared doves, join the evensong of the dusk chorus. Sheep who have had a hot day of it, call to each other in the welcome cool.

[SOUNDS OF THE DUSK]  

SIGNING OFF

From the Narrowboat Erica, I bid you a very good, peaceful and cool night, good night.

WEATHER LOG