The great summer of 2014 came to a snap close last weekend, when an Atlantic depression struck Ireland, bringing gale force winds to most of the country, and plunging the temperature from the balmy teens down almost to freezing last night. It is a dramatic change in the weather.
The lawns are strewn with the litter of dead leaves, broken conkers and storm tossed branches. The roads are crunchy with beech mast, hazel shell, alder cones, ash keys, sycamore helicopters and acorns.
The meteorological records show a long summer that was better than the average, with lower rainfall, higher temperatures and higher sunshine. This pleasant summer gave way to a fantastic Indian summer all through the month of September and into early October.
We now use the term “Indian Summer” to refer to something positive. An extension of the good weather. In the past it was often used in a negative sense. It is nature playing cruel tricks on plants, fooling them into germinating seeds that are doomed by winter frost. It has connotations of infertility, inconsistency, inconstancy. It might have been used to refer to the foolishness of a late flowering love affair. The Indian Summer of a Spinster was seen as a foolishness in a society where the function of marriage was to produce children. In modern society we are far more tolerant of romance, marriage for love and even gay marriage.
“Indian Summer” is one of those terms that has been researched to find the origin, only to come up empty. We will probably never know who invented the term or why. The origin seems to be from New England, and it was in widespread use in the 18th Century.
The original usage of the term referred to a period of unseasonably warm weather AFTER the first frost. The Old Farmer’s Almanac has adhered to the saying, “If All Saints’ (November 1) brings out winter, St. Martin’s brings out Indian summer.”
There is a theory about the Indian Summer that SOUNDS viable. Early New England settlers lived in fortified palisades, especially on the frontier. There were conflicts between the British and the French spilling over from the Wars of the Spanish Succession and the Seven Years War in Europe, followed by the War of Independence. The British, French and Colonists made frequent alliances with native american tribes and engaged in raids up and down the frontiers. In addition, the Indian tribes were engaged in their own battles with each other and with the white settlers.
Once the snows of winter fell the Indian tribes would settle in to their winter lodges. For the white settlers the risk of an Indian raid were greatly reduced by winters grip. In this context an Indian summer was not a good thing. It extended the season in which a war party could swoop down on a settlement and drive off some livestock or raid food stores. Indian summer carries a connotation of the treacherous nature of weather opening a door to danger. As an explanation for the origin of the term it seems to match with the negativity of original usage. While Summer brings plenty an Indian summer brings violence and the potential for want and even starvation.
There is only one problem with this theory. It is wrong. Indians raided all through the winter. In King Philips war 1675-76 both the Settlers and the Indians campaigned through the winter. The Great Swamp War was fought in mid-December when frost made it easier for the settlers to attack the Indian Lodges on the swamp. The Deerfield raid was in February, which would have been in the icy grip of winter. So the notion that raiding parties did not venture out in winter snows is simply not true.
Fall, leaves, fall; by Emily Bronte
Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;
Lengthen night and shorten day;
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree.
I shall smile when wreaths of snow
Blossom where the rose should grow;
I shall sing when night’s decay
Ushers in a drearier day.