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.