Indian Summer, Hazy Days of Autumn
By: John Shepler
"Ah, this is freedom," I thought, as we headed the car east on Highway 72 into hazy blue skies blended with milky gray clouds. I pressed back on a button overhead and the moon roof slid open like a trap door. The whole car lit up inside as a hot orange sun warmed the right side of my face. In summer, that extra solar energy might have been almost intolerable. But now it felt good. In the coolish air and shorter days of mid-autumn, the sun's rays felt distinctly invigorating, even therapeutic. It was great just to be cruising in short sleeves with all the windows down for perhaps one last time this year. Breathe in that air and hold it. It's not going to last.
Perhaps that is the true magic of Indian Summer. The knowing that any day with temperatures in the 70's and warm, dry breezes could be the last of its kind for six months or more. We get lots of these days in late spring and early summer. But then we are at the beginning of the season. It's sort of like opening a new box of cookies. No need to be careful about savoring them. There are so many more to come. It's when you get down to the last few of anything and there are no more at hand that you start to get careful about getting the most value from the ones that remain.
There are other aspects to the fall season that help to magnify the enjoyment of those Indian Summer days. Looking down the highway, the scenery is dotted with pockets of yellow and red woven into the tans and browns of cornfields being harvested. Fall foliage lights the landscape and makes it a special treat. The greens of summer are pleasing to the eye, but you soon get lulled into the sense of everything being green so that nothing in particular stands out. The autumn leaves are not so easily ignored by the senses. Every tree is a different shade. Many of their leaves are scattered on the lawns, still a golden yellow. The older ones have turned brown, but they are piled high at the curbs waiting to be vacuumed by the city trucks or burned to add to the smoky haze and sharp aroma of the fall air.
For me, the term Indian Summer was defined by a story that my dad used to share with us kids each year. It was a picture story called Injun Summer by John McCutcheon that ran in the Chicago Tribune magazine. There were two scenes. The top one showed an older man and a young boy looking at fields of harvested corn. The spent corn stalks were tied at the tops in bundles to make rows of corn shocks in the barren fields. As the man wove his story about how the Indians used to inhabit that land and dance around their teepees in the moonlight, the scene switched to another picture, where the boy could see the corn shocks becoming teepees and the Indians reappearing as ghosts in the smoky atmosphere. Our family would later go for rides in the country, and with every plume of smoke sighted in the distance, one of us would say "there's another Indian campfire."
Indian Summer may well be historically related to Native American culture. That time of the year, just before the snows of winter, was prime hunting season. The warm weather encouraged animals to be out foraging for food, and the haziness in the atmosphere helped to cloak the movements of the hunters. Some tribes were known to set grass fires to accentuate the haze in the air and make it even harder to be spotted by their prey. The warm southwestern winds were also regarded by Native Americans as a blessing from the gods in the American Southwest.
A completely different explanation for the name Indian Summer comes from the shipping industry, where ships that crossed the Indian Ocean would carry extra loads during this predominantly fair weather season. Ships were said to have lines inscribed on their hulls with the initials "I.S." to indicate the safe load level for sailing during Indian Summer.
Our Indian Summers are a welcome gift that allow us a few more opportunities to finish working on the house, get the yard in shape, take the bikes out on the road or just lounge on the patio, topping off the charge on the solar batteries inside of us. The fluttering of the leaves as they disconnect from thinning branches and helicopter to the ground tell us that we're dealing with entropy here. There's no going backwards. The season will surely progress from a time of comfortable warmth and beauty to a dormant interval of cold air and gray landscapes before the first blanket of snow comes to perk up our spirits again. We get another reminder as the clocks are set back an hour at Halloween and we start leaving work with night already upon us. It's time to start moving back indoors and burrowing for the winter.
But, wait. We may get yet another bonus or two before Christmas. The high pressure zones that move in to clear the skies and suck warm air from the gulf northward may form again when we least suspect. Then we'll enjoy another few days or even a week of dramatically above normal temperatures in the midst of the declining daily averages. Don't put your favorite T-shirt and light jacket away yet. Indian Summer may well be offering an encore performance.
Books of Interest:
Indian Summer, A Native Americn View of Nature - Indian Summer is a collection of 26 full-color photographs, paired with the views of eight Native American authors. To these authors, the land is sacred. Standing Bear speaks for many Americans when he says, "From Wakan Tanka there came a great unifying life force that flowed in and through all things .... Thus all things were kindred and brought together by the same Great Mystery". The authors stress the importance of loving and respecting the land. They show us how such respect can benefit all peoples. The photographs by Betsy Wyckoff in Indian Summer represent more than 30 years of photographing nature throughout the United States. They have appeared in gallery exhibitions, as cover and internal art in various publications, and are owned by numerous private collectors.
Also visit these related sites:
Indian Summer Golden Leaves Bag - A carpet of golden autumn leaves signals the last warm days of Indian Summer in the fall season. Get this wristlet or bag design for yourself or as a gift.
Injun Summer by John McCutcheon - Here's the picture story that my dad shared with us each year when it ran in the Chicago Tribune Magazine. Little did I realize that they had been publishing it since 1912. Thanks to reader Vera for finding this site. It's a wonderful trip down memory lane.
Just What is Indian Summer? - A fascinating article by Bill Deedler, Weather Historian at the Detroit/Pontiac Michigan Weather Forecast Office. Talks about the history and meteorology associated with Indian Summer.
Autumn Fireworks - Could it be mere chemistry, or is nature throwing an independence celebration this month, as her colors light the sky?
Arbor Day, J. Sterling Morton's Legacy of Trees - How one man's passion to beautify a treeless prairie led to a worldwide holiday of environmental awareness.
Copyright 1999 - 2017 by John E. Shepler. Contact me at: John (at) JohnShepler.com
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First Published: October 31, 1999 as part of A Positive Light