Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Wither goest thou, "Indian summer"?

It’s been a pleasant Indian summer, with the temperature reaching summer-like peaks last weekend in Blackburg. This is a much-beloved mid-season, a time when waning warm fall days stand in sharp contrast to impending cold weather. Whiffs of the immediate past pleasantly cloud the knowledge that it's going to get really cold, and not too long from now. It's heady stuff for writers and poets.

All this got me thinking about the origins of this peculiar term - "Indian summer." When and where did it creep into our language? Opinions abound, and the research is less than definitive, but here’s a bit of what I’ve found, interspersed with some fall photos.

A branch over Bass Lake, near Blowing Rock, NC.
According to Charles Cutler, in his O Brave New Words!: Native American Loanwords in Current English, the term “Indian summer” is one of the many 18th Century “Indianisms” European settlers inserted into the burgeoning American version of the English language. Many of these nascent words and terms that were creeping into that odd beast we call American English were martial in nature (warpath, war club, war dances), reflecting, no doubt, the Native Americans' ongoing response to European provocations. In this light, Cutler believes that “Indian summer" was dubbed “one of the gentlest” of Native-American influenced terms. Cutler also noted that this period of mild autumnal weather was known in Europe by many other names, including St. Martin’s Day, Old Wives’ summer, and All-Hallow summer. The English language, like the settlers themselves, seemed eager to adapt, assimilate, and conquer.

Cutler continues: Several theories seek to explain the substitution of Indian summer in U.S. usage. In 1832, the Boston Transcript suggested that the name arose because this time of year occurs when "Indians break up their village communities, and go to the interior to prepare for their winter hunting." Some people more romantically derive the name from the similarity of the season's haze to the smoke from Indian fires. Others offer the explanation that Indians forewarned whites about the short-lived respite before winter or suggest simply that Indian summer is most noticeable in regions once inhabited by Indians.

The maple next door. A nice one.
Meteorologists, not surprisingly, have also weighed in. William Deedler of the National Weather Services states that Indian summer is generally considered a "period of considerably above normal temperatures, accompanied by dry and hazy conditions ushered in on a south or southwesterly breeze." Many consider that these conditions must occur after one hard freeze.

Candles on the deck catching the late afternoon sun.
One of the earliest descriptions of Indian summer comes from Francis Parkman, who wrote in "History of the Conspiracy of Pontiac" (1851):

...then succeeded that gentler season which bears among us the name of the Indian summer; when a light haze rests upon the moving landscape, and the many-colored woods seem wrapped in the thin drapery of a veil; when the air is mild and calm as that of early June, and at evening the sun goes down amid a warm, voluptuous beauty, that may well outrival the softest tints of Italy. But through all the still and breathless afternoon, the leaves have fallen fast in the woods, like flakes of snow, and everything betokens that the last melancholy change is at hand.

But not all sources cite Native Americans as the inspiration for the term. Some look - aghast - to British interactions with the subcontinent of India itself. Several scholars think the term comes from the nautical lexicon of British sailing ships trading with India. In a 1923 article in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Robert de C. Ward reports that "under the Regulations of the British Board of Trade one of the load-lines on ships bears the initial letters 'I. S.,' this indicating the maximum depth to which vessels can be loaded for voyages during the 'Indian summer,' which means the fine weather season in the Indian seas." India Pale Ale, anyone?
Henry David Thoreau praised fall foliage in his essay "Autumnal Tints," first published in The Atlantic Monthly in October 1962. He describes the purple grasses, leaves, elms, oaks, and various maples. Of the red maple he says  "all the sunny warmth of the season, the Indian summer, seems to be absorbed in their leaves."

And in my little world, no set of autumn photos would be complete without some of Asta frolicking. Here's her enjoying a warm Indian summer afternoon, oblivious to any silly essays. Locked in the moment. Put that camera down and throw the tennis ball.

Asta takes a final sniff from our wildflower patch before the first freeze.

And goes dashing off toward the tennis ball.

In Blacksburg, the forecast is calling for highs in the 60's through the end of October. As Emily Dickinson said, the skies will put on "the old sophistries of June." Enjoy it you can; I know I will.


These are the days when birds come back,
A very few, a bird or two,
To take a backward look. 

These are the days when skies put on
The old, old sophistries of June, -
A blue and gold mistake. 

Oh, fraud that cannot cheat the bee,
Almost thy plausibility
Induces my belief, 

Till ranks of seeds their witness bear,
And softly through the altered air
Hurries a timid leaf! 

Oh, sacrament of summer days,
Oh, last communion in the haze,
Permit a child to join, 

Thy sacred emblems to partake,
Thy consecrated bread to break,
Taste thine immortal wine!

-Emily Dickinson

Sources: O Brave New Words!: Native American Loanwords in Current English
by Charles L. Cutler, 1994.

Henry David Thoreau, "Autumnal Tints," The Atlantic Monthly, October 1862, published on the American Transcendentalism Web.

"The 'Indian Summer' as a Characteristic Weather Type of the Eastern United States", by
Robert de C. Ward, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 62, No. 2 (1923)

"Just what is Indian summer...." by William R. Deedler, National Weather Service. NWS website. (1996)

A note on citation style: this is formatted however I please, thank you.


Mark P said...

Don't know where I first heard this, but it's so true:

"Autumn truly is what summer pretends to be: the best of all seasons. It is as glorious as summer is tedious; as subtle as summer is obvious; as refreshing as summer is wearying.
Autumn seems like paradise."
-Gregg Easterbrook

FairiesNest said...

Interesting facts and stunning photos! Here's a quote they bring to mind,
"Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower."
Albert Camus
Happy Autumn!