Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Something to be Thankful for

In the spring of 1621, two natives were hunting near the beach at Patuxet in Massachusetts, now known as Plymouth. Samoset was a Wabanake and Squanto, a Wampanoag. The area was the site of Squanto’s former village, but his people had been ravaged by disease brought over from Europe by slave traders and the tribe had been wiped out.
Both Squanto and Samoset spoke English. They met originally in England where they had both traveled with explorers. In 1620 they had returned together to find only bones in the ruins of what had been Squanto’s village. The two men had since gone to live with another group of Wampanoags nearby.
Imagine their surprise that spring afternoon when they came upon a bedraggled group of English settlers living in Squanto’s former village. The first word alleged to be said by Squanto as he walked in to his occupied village and approached the strangers was, “Welcome.”

The English interlopers were in tough shape and would not have survived much longer. But Squanto decided to stay with them for several months, teaching them how to cultivate the plants they found in the new world, including corn which became their staple. He taught them how to tap the maple trees for sap. He gave them meat and furs, and taught them the medicinal value of some of the native plants as well. They learned to dig clams and other shellfish, and to use plants and animals from the sea as fertilizer for their crops.

By harvest time, the immigrants had much to be thankful for; they had been yanked back from the brink of disaster by the Indians. They now enjoyed sufficient food and new homes that the Indians had helped them build. Captain Miles Standish invited Squanto, Samoset, their leader Massasoit and their families to a celebratory feast of thanks. The Wampanoag men arrived with over ninety people in tow, as well as an abundance of food to contribute. The ensuing feast lasted for three days, and was a celebration of peace and friendship between the Wampanoag people and the English settlers.

The Pilgrims had escaped religious intolerance in their homeland and made a new life in the freedom of the new world with the help of the Wampanoags. Unfortunately, they forgot the hard lessons learned and began to impose their own religious prejudices on the natives. How terrible and sad that less than fifty years later, the settlers took up arms against their benefactors in King Phillip’s War. Squanto could not have imagined that his kindness to the Pilgrims would be the beginning of the end for the native peoples of North America.

As we celebrate all that we have to be thankful for this Thanksgiving, spare a thought for Squanto and the Wampanoag people. Without their help, the pilgrims would have perished and become a historical footnote, rather than the founders of a great nation.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

In The Throes of Indian Summer

Here in the northeast we are experiencing that rare weather pattern better known as “Indian summer.” There are many definitions of what constitutes true Indian summer, but what isn’t in dispute is that it is lovely and warm, comes in October or November, lasts for at least a few days, and follows a hard, or killing frost. Some variations say that it must precede the first snow, with temperatures of at least 70 degrees Fahrenheit, but I never depend on such stringent criteria to define my Indian summer. If the sun is out and the late autumn days are balmy and still, or stirred only by a slight breeze from the southwest, it is Indian summer for me.

This year, it came after the first snow, which happened a few weeks ago on a cold and miserable Sunday. That was a nasty day of big, wet flakes mixed with sleet and a cold rain. It coated the grass in slush, but dissipated by the following morning. It unfortunately coincided with me having to drive into the city an hour away to pick up seven arrivals from the corporate headquarters on the west coast who were flying in to Logan airport…bad timing, to be sure. At least I earned time-and-a-half wages for my efforts and was able to take a company car.

That day was like a distant memory this past Sunday, as the frost melted off the grass by mid-morning, and we reveled in the hazy warmth of a low sun and a warm, sweet breeze that stirred the mostly bare trees. Even now, a few days later, though the sun is weaker, it is still weirdly mild outside and I love it.

But it got me to thinking: where does the term “Indian summer” come from? I did a little research and found that its true origins may be lost in time. But there are some things we do know. In most parts of the northern hemisphere, there is a name for the warm weather that follows the hard frost. In Bulgaria, for example, it is known as the “Gypsy summer” or sometimes, “Gypsy Christmas” presumably because it makes outdoor living more bearable for those wandering folk. In Germany it’s known as the “Web summer”, because a certain type of spider weaves webs on the grass and Hungarians know it as the “Crone’s summer”, which refers to the medieval association with Halloween and witchcraft.

The oldest written reference to the term Indian summer was apparently in a letter written by a Frenchman, St. John de Crevecouer, in 1778. He describes, “…an interval of calm and warmth which is called the Indian Summer; its characteristics are a tranquil atmosphere and general smokiness”, referring to the common occurrence of haze in the warm meadows. But where do Indians fit it to the picture? Although no one seems to know for certain, it is suspected that many native peoples here in the United States had a habit of setting fire to the grasslands during this time of year. The smoke mingled with the haze, allowing them to be better able to sneak up on their prey when hunting. Other sources contend that northern tribes saw the warmth of the dry winds as a gift from the gods of the southwest desert; a reprisal of summer, just before the winter.

On Sunday, Mac and I took Rigby down to the shore with the thought of walking her up and down the sand, but it was so nice on the beach, we set up chairs near the surf and read for a few hours. It was like medicine for the soul.

I hate to see this beautiful weather leave, because I know it is likely our last reprieve before winter’s icy grip enfolds us. But for today, it is wonderful.