Like September, which comes to New England not as a month but a season, November around these parts doesn’t follow the calendar. You feel it in your bones.
November is when you scrape the windshield, put the snow tires on, and go over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house. You stare at the spare, gray, trees, shudder, and yearn for Christmas or your favorite winter solstice holiday. I once worked for a Vermont public relations firm that tried to sell November as “Serenity Season” between the foliage and ski tourist seasons. It didn’t fool anybody.
Between the first frost of fall and the snows of winter, New England often experiences a summer-like warm spell like the one we’ve had for the last week or so. High temperatures are expected to reach into the 70s — until Tuesday, Election Day. But then, many people find a chill in the air around that time anyway.
On Wednesday, my wife and I visited a nearby state park. We stopped at sunset to snap these pictures of the last of the foliage against the mirror-like pond. A mother and her young son stopped to see what we were taking pictures of. “Scenics,” I exclaimed, which opened the inevitable topic of the weather.
“Of course, I’m a traditionalist, so I know what it’s called,” she said. “Indian summer. It’s warm weather after the first frost.”
That got me to thinking. I hadn’t heard that term for a while. We listen to the weather forecasts twice a day, every day. Not one of the meteorologists had breathed the words all week.
Yet I knew the phrase well. There it was, in my 1996 Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary: “IN-dian SUM-mer, a period of mild, dry weather, usually accompanied by a hazy atmosphere, occurring usually in late October or early November and following a period of colder weather. [1770-80, Amer.]”
The term dates from Colonial days here in America, according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac. The phenomenon isn’t exclusive to North America, however. In England and Europe it’s known as St. Martin’s Summer because it falls near St. Martin’s Day. Even Shakespeare referred to something he called All Halloween Summer. The idea of a “second summer,” as meteorologists now call it, is common throughout at least the Northern Hemisphere.
The earliest use of the phrase “Indian summer” comes from memoirs of a French-American farmer written in 1778. It may have something to do with indigenous tribes who used the bonus warm spell to stow crops for the winter. Other explanations include the haze from native campfires, or the period of migration from hunting grounds to winter camps.
Granted, 15th-century farmers weren’t known for their political correctness, but why is the term offensive today? According to Indigenous Corporate Training Inc., a second summer is a late summer and therefore “Indian summer” perpetuates the stereotype that all natives are late.
For that matter, indigenous peoples aren’t Indians at all. Using a term coined by uninformed 15th-century wrong-way explorers makes as much sense as one by an 18th-century farmer.
That’s the charm of our language, and its curse.
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