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The Glory of an Indian Summer

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Sometimes, a spell of unpleasant weather in the fall in the northern hemisphere is interrupted by some warmer, drier days. We call this more benign period an “Indian Summer.” Why?

Geography Matters

A true Indian Summer occurs only in certain latitudes: the northern United States, southern Canada, and certain parts of Europe. The main characteristic is that it occurs after a killing frost.

Climatologists call it a “weather singularity”—that is, an event that happens at roughly the same time each year. It is marked by warm, dry, hazy air that arrives in October or early November depending on location, in the shoulder season between the turbulence of heat and thunderstorms and the frigid onset of winter blizzards.

In 1817, the American writer John Bradbury eloquently noted that “The air is perfectly quiescent and all is stillness, as if Nature, after her exertions during the Summer, were now at rest.” It delivers a tantalizing glimpse of the season past and cheats us into thinking “Winter won't seem so long this year.” Spoiler alert: It will seem just as long as it always does.

Origin of the Term Indian Summer

Let's give it up for Michel-Guillaume-Jean de Crèvecoeur. He was born in France in 1735 and emigrated to New France (Canada) in 1755. After a spell of military service, he bought a large farm in Orange County, New York and started writing about colonial life in America.

In his Letters from an American Farmer in January 1778, he wrote (translated) “Sometimes the rain is followed by an interval of calm and warmth which is called the Indian Summer; its characteristics are a tranquil atmosphere and general smokiness. Up to this epoch the approaches of winter are doubtful; it arrives about the middle of November, although snows and brief freezes often occur long before that date.”

This is the first known written reference to “Indian Summer,” but clearly Crèvecoeur must have heard it somewhere; he didn't invent it.

Michel-Guillaume-Jean de Crèvecoeur, also known as John Hector St. John.

Michel-Guillaume-Jean de Crèvecoeur, also known as John Hector St. John.

No one knows why the word “Indian” is used in the phrase, but lots of people have taken guesses. Phrase Finder gives us a sampling:

  • The haziness associated with the phenomenon came about because of the fires set by Native Indians on the plains;
  • It was when Indigenous people brought in their crops;
  • “The phenomenon was more common in what were then North American Indian territories”;
  • “It originated from raids on European settlements by Indian war parties, which usually ended in autumn”;
  • There is the prejudicial association with the alleged duplicity of Indians that came from white settlers and the short period of calm weather being a false summer; and,
  • The fall was a preferred time for Indians to hunt because, with leaves on the ground, game animals had less cover.

A fellow by the name of H.E Ware, almost certainly erroneously, traces the origin of the phrase to the Indian sub-continent.

North American Indians prefer to be called Indigenous Peoples or First Nations, so, in these days of wokeness, will the phrase Indian Summer have to change?

The Poetry of the Indian Summer

There's something about the phenomenon of the Indian Summer that gets poets to take up their quill pens and gush forth with lyricism.

Hamlin Garland gave us:

. . .In the brief heat of noon; the corn,
So green, grew sere and dry—
And in the mist the ploughman's team
Moved silently, as if in dream—
And it was Indian summer on the plain.

In “My Indian Summer,” Robert Service wrote

Here in the Autumn of my days
My life is mellowed in a haze.
Unpleasant sights are none to clear,
Discordant sounds I hardly hear.
Infirmities like buffers soft
Sustain me tranquilly aloft.
I'm deaf to duffers, blind to bores,
Peace seems to percolate my pores . . .

And here is Theresa Ann Moore:

Winds wickedly blow like stripping thieves
The landscape is covered with fallen leaves
Barren limbs somberly concede…
As a turn about warms and misleads. . .

Meanwhile, Dorothy Parker, as usual, turned acerbic in her poem “Indian Summer”:

In youth, it was a way I had
To do my best to please,
And change, with every passing lad,
To suit his theories.

But now I know the things I know,
And do the things I do;
And if you do not like me so,
To hell, my love, with you!

That's not a particularly exultant note on which to end, so let's turn to John Keats for something more uplifting. His 1820 poem “Ode to Autumn” is not about an Indian Summer but it richly describes the bounty of fall.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease;
For Summer has o’erbrimm’d their clammy cells . . .

Where did summer go?

Where did summer go?

Bonus Factoids

  • “Blackberry Winter” is a phrase used in many parts of the world to describe a cold snap that occurs after blackberries have set their blossoms in late spring.
  • Linsey-Woolsey is a cloth sometimes used for making long johns. A “Linsey-Wolsey Winter” is the last period of cold weather before spring finally takes hold and the thermal underwear can be put away until called back into service in the late fall. An ancient English proverb advises “Ne're cast a clout till May is out.” A “clout” being winter underwear.
  • The “Dog Days” of summer typically last from early July to the middle of August in the northern hemisphere. They feature hot, sultry weather, drought, and thunderstorms. The phrase traces its origin to Ancient Greece when it was believed that the torrid heat drove people and dogs insane. It also coincides with the rising of Sirius, the dog star.
  • In the United States, October 18 used to be called St. Luke's Summer, with the saint's feast day being associated with dry, calm weather. While in Europe, a spell of good weather in early November was called St. Martin's Summer, the saint's day being November 11.

Indian Summer

Sources

  • “Indian Summer.” The Phrase Finder, undated.
  • “Just What Is an Indian Summer and Did Indians really Have Anything to Do with it?” William R. Deedler, National Weather Service, Fall 1996.
  • “Hints of an Indian Summer.” BBC News, September 3, 2013.
  • “Indian Summer Poems.” Poem Hunter, undated.
  • “The Origin of the Blackberry Winter.” Tiffany Means, ThoughtCo.com, February 4, 2020.
  • “The Dog Days of Summer.” The Old Farmer's Almanac, June 22, 2021.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on September 23, 2021:

That I agree.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on September 22, 2021:

This is an interesting and informative article. Thank you highlighting the phrase,The Indian Summer.

Nice narration, poems, and pictures. A pleasant read. Thank you for sharing!

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on September 22, 2021:

You are welcome Peggy.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on September 22, 2021:

We used to enjoy the Indian Summers when we lived in Wisconsin. And oh those glorious leaf colors! Thanks for all of this background information. It was enjoyable to read.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on September 22, 2021:

Thanks for your comment Maria. How often do you have a frost in Alabama? Like never. The official definition of an Indian Summer is a warm period following a killing frost.

But, I'm happy to cut you some slack, like when it gets really cold in the Deep South and approaches 35F you might want to call a spell of 45 degree weather an Indian Summer.

Good to hear from you.

MariaMontgomery from Coastal Alabama, USA on September 22, 2021:

A lovely and informative article. When I lived farther north in Alabama, we had Indian summers from time to time. Now I'm near the coast, so we don't have them. We also had blackberry winter, the same as Indian summer, but in reverse. I enjoyed your article.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on September 22, 2021:

Hi Louise. I strongly suspect there hasn't been a frost in Norfolk yet this autumn, so you are enjoying an extension of summer. Make the most of it.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on September 22, 2021:

Rupert, I live in the Southern Hemisphere. We don't say summer in the part of my country. We called it Harmatta, though it were a summer, but sipping health out of a person. It's dry, and sometimes warm and cool. But almost windy. With the world wide climate changes going on, an element of rain has been add to it. Otherwise, bush fires is resulting.

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on September 22, 2021:

I think we're getting an Indian Summer in England at the moment, it's been so warm the past few days, really nice! They said it's going to feel cooler tomorrow though, so I don't know how long this lovely weather will last for. A bit longer, I hope!

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