Indian summer … or not?

By Jim McGuire

Contributing columnist

“Isn’t today wonderful!” an elderly friend exclaimed by way of a greeting.

She lives on a small farmstead not far from where Painter Creek empties into the Stillwater. I’d stopped by her tidy rural home to drop off a container of pulled pork slow-roasted on my grill the day before.

When I arrived she was standing at the edge of her beloved flower garden, now dazzlingly a’bloom with sprawling clumps of mums in gold, purple, red, orange, lavender, lemon, burgundy, and several nameless hues in-between.

Beyond the garden a dandy mixed woods extends all the way to the river. Maples and hickories, sassafras, oaks, several big walnuts, hornbeam, tuliptree, ash, sourwood, beech, sweet gum, poplar, dogwood, pawpaw. Sycamore down along the water. Scarlet sumach bordering the eastern edge. There’s even a Kentucky coffee tree over by the fenceline.

Like other local woodlands, this forested patch was ablaze with October’s finest fiery hues—reds and yellows and oranges that simply glowed in the crisp light of the deep-blue morning sky.

“A beautiful day, for sure.” I proffered the container. “Brought you some barbecue.”

“Oooh,” she said, grinning with delight. “And I’ve a big bag of sugar pears, from that tree in the side yard, for you to take home. I remember how you love ‘em.” She laughed. “We’ll trade.”

For the next few minutes we stood in comfortable silence, enjoying nature’s presentation of sunshine and autumn scenery. Then she had a question.

“How do you feel about Indian Summer?”

“I don’t understand,” I said after a moment’s puzzlement. What are you asking?”

“Well,” she said, “do you think this is Indian Summer — the last of the nice weather for the year? Or do you think we’ll have other mild spells, perhaps even some days in November … and if we do, will they also be Indian Summers or something else?”

“Ahhh,” I said. “Now those are interesting questions.”

So we retired to a pair of rockers on the sunny back porch. My friend brought out glasses of tart cider and slices of her homemade pumpkin bread. Between equally delicious bites and sips, we discussed our thoughts and philosophies regarding the vaguely interpreted but widely proclaimed period called Indian Summer.

No one really knows where the name “Indian Summer” originated. The term does not appear in print or manuscript form in this country prior to 1778. However, it certainly wasn’t taken from the Native Americans. Their sensible seasonal names derived from the lunar cycles or “moons.”

Instead, the term Indian Summer seems to be a purely American invention — though the sort of weather it describes isn’t. Germany has its Old Woman’s Summer and England its All-Hallow Summer. In fact, in most other countries where such a mild autumnal interlude typically occurs, there’s invariably a similar descriptive term.

According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac (the one with that mysterious hole in the top-left corner) Indian Summer is warm, windless, the atmosphere hazy or smoky, with a high barometer and chilly nights. The mild days must also follow a cold spell. But the kicker is the publication’s insistence that Indian Summer can only occur between St. Martin’s Day (Nov. 11) and Nov. 20 — a critical and controversial point they’ve been making for well over 200 years. To back this claim, they quote an old folk proverb: “If All Saints’ (November 1) brings out winter, St. Martin’s brings out Indian summer.”

“Personally, I think they’re right,’ I said. “If so, then all this week — as pleasant and lovely and welcome as it’s been—was merely October serving up a string of perfectly splendid days.”

My companion stared thoughtfully at the nearby woods with colorful patchwork of colored leaves. “I agree,” she said. “We’ve had a few gray, chilly days, some cold nights, but no killing frost. Nothing we’d mistake for a permanent seasonal turn to backtrack from.”

“Yes, that’s the way I see it, too. Indian Summer has to be a true regression, a relief from a winter-like weather foretaste. As much a mood — a state of mind — as an ephemeral season-within-a-season. I’m not sure when I’d end it’s timeframe—but once we’ve passed Thanksgiving, any brief mild spell thereafter always seems to me a weather quirk. Brief, unexpected, appreciated, but nameless.”

Once again she paused to ponder, then nodded. “That makes sense to me, too. So this incomparable day really isn’t genuine Indian Summer?

“No,” I said. “Don’t think so … but it’s a gorgeous autumn day I’ll treasure forever.”

Jim McGuire, a nature columnist, resides in Englewood, and can be reached at [email protected]

Jim McGuire, a nature columnist, resides in Englewood, and can be reached at [email protected]

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