"A beautiful and happy girl, With step as light as summer air, Eyes glad with smiles, and brow of pearl, Shadowed by many a careless curl Of unconfined and flowing hair; A seeming child in everything, Save thoughtful brow and ripening charms, As Nature wears the smile of Spring When sinking into Summer's arms.
Years have passed on, and left their trace, Of graver care and deeper thought; And unto me the calm, cold face Of woman's pensive beauty brought. More wide, perchance, for blame than praise, The school-boy's humble name has flown; Thine, in the green and quiet ways Of unobtrusive goodness known.
Yet hath thy spirit left on me An impress time has not worn out, And something of myself in thee, A shadow from the past, I see, Lingering, even yet, thy way about; Not wholly can the heart unlearn That lesson of its better hours, Not yet has Time's dull footstep worn To common dust that path of flowers.
Thus, while at times before our eyes The shadows melt, and fall apart, And, smiling through them, round us lies The warm light of our morning skies,-- The Indian Summer of the heart! In secret sympathies of mind, In founts of feeling which retain Their pure, fresh flow, we may yet find Our early dreams not wholly vain"
from Memories - John Greenleaf Whittier, 1841
Indian Summer conjures up thoughts of unseasonably warm and delightful autumn days. As in the excerpts of the poem above from John Greenleaf Whittier, we recall the earlier joys and pleasant hours of spring and summer, while knowing that change is imminent. The fleeting illusion of summer foreshadows the coming of dreary and dark days.
This "weather singularity" - a climactic event recurring at the same time each year - has been noted in other countries and earlier times. In the UK, St. Martin's Summer is associated with the date of Nov. 11, and is celebrated still in rural areas by bonfires, roasting chestnuts and wine. St. Luke's Summer - Oct. 18 - is a similar event, with both noting the coming winter season and time of waning light and increasing cold. In Russia, and some other Slavic countries, it is referred to as Old Ladies Summer. Bulgarians call it Gypsy Summer - perhaps a reference to the "stealing away" of summer or a cruel trick or illusion.
Whatever it has been called, this meteorological occurrence tends to appear in areas where there is a wide variation of temperature between summer and winter - i.e. the northern parts of the world. True Indian Summer only appears after a frost, usually a killing frost, and temperatures must climb above 70 degrees. In weather speak, a large high pressure area off the coast (usually causing the frost) is then joined by warmer temperatures from the south in a clockwise rotation of wind around the high pressure. This illusion of summer, however enjoyable, is short-lived as the warmer temperatures move offshore.
The first mention of Indian Summer in the US was in 1778 by a French-American farmer, St. John de Crevecoeur, in his "Letters from an American Farmer". A great quote was penned by Thomas DeQuincy in 1855 - "An Indian Summer crept stealthily over his closing days" - a poignant reminder of man's mortality. The stanzas from "Memories" above also touch on the passage of time and thoughts of days gone by.
So where does the "Indian" part of Indian Summer come from and why? There are lots of theories, one being that this was the traditional harvest time of squash and corn for native peoples, as they knew the harsher weather was not far behind. Some say it was the hunting season, and a brief period of milder weather may have given them an edge in tracking and killing, providing the winter stores of meat to see them through until spring. The animals would be fattened with the plenty of summer and early fall, providing more meat for preserving. Others theorize that it was the time when natives took advantage of dry and sometimes hazy weather to mount attacks on white men who were increasing in number and invading native lands. Or, some point out, it was a slur on native people, suggesting a type of "Indian giver" something that was given and then taken back. It seems there is no definitive evidence, but the fact remains that we can still count on a few glorious summer-like days before we have to endure the cold winter months ahead.
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