Indian Summer

It doesn’t really feel like summer, but then it’s not like December either. People are foreswearing their parkas and stocking hats, and we had a rain storm this morning. It’s mid-December in Colorado for Christ’s sake! It’s been mild, if not warm — making it not very seasonal at all.

When I was growing up in Texas, we used to play touch football during the Christmas holidays, wearing shorts and t-shirts. Not in Colorado, though. Ordinarily, we wear our heavy coats and sometimes our cross-country skis. Is this just Indian Summer or … perhaps … climate change?

Apparently, Indian summer is not restricted to North America.

Native American lore has several origin stories.  “The Algonquian people … believed that the condition was caused by a warm wind sent from the court of their southwestern god, Cautantowwit (great spirit) … another origin states that Native Americans would routinely use this brief period of warm fall weather to gather a final round of supplies before winter’s hold set in.”

Another relates to the first European settlers in New England that believed they could lower their guard against the local Indians during the winter for they would not attack in the cold. The late fall warm spells signaled more Indian activity and required additional vigilance to safeguard their stock. Alternately, a period of late fall warmth was the time to gather the last harvest.

According to The Almanac, “the criteria for a true Indian summer:

“As well as being warm, the atmosphere during Indian summer is hazy or smoky, there is no wind, the barometer is standing high, and the nights are clear and chilly.

“A moving, cool, shallow polar air mass is converting into a deep, warm, stagnant anticyclone (high pressure) system, which has the effect of causing the haze and large swing in temperature between day and night.

“The time of occurrence is important: The warm days must follow a spell of cold weather or a good hard frost, but also be before first snowfall.

“The conditions described above also must occur between St. Martin’s Day (November 11) and November 20. For over 200 years, 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.’”

Whatever it’s called, the changes in weather patterns at this time of year impact everyone. It may not be the flapping of butterfly wings in the Amazon that cause heat waves in Sweden, but it definitely can be a melting glacier in the Antarctic that could cause flooding in Miami.

The earth is a great, interconnected set of systems — biological, geomorphic, climatic — and these systems and others interact and change over time; sometimes predictably and sometime unexpectedly. We humans, unlike most biota on the planet, try to understand and predict these changes. We also believe that we can affect them, control them somewhat.

That seems to be human nature.

Our first step is to identify the phenomenon, and name it. Centuries ago, we identified the late fall warm spell, and gave it various names. The Almanac notes, “In parts of Europe, a similar phenomenon is known as an ‘Old Wives’ Summer’ or ‘St. Martin’s Summer’.” Not having Indians, the Europeans didn’t then refer to it as “Indian Summer.” Today, we might have called it “Indigenous People’s Summer” or even “Native American Summer.”

I’m sure we can come up with a slew of names better than those or ‘Old Wives’ Summer’ or ‘St. Martin’s Summer.’ But, I kinda like the name “Indian Summer,” because as a kid you could still go outside barefooted to play and not have to wear a coat. It made you feel more like one of those Indians, sneaking up on a deer or a trespassing white man.

Just try to sneak up on someone during “Old Wives’ Summer”.

Additional Information:

The Almanac, Indian Summer: What, Why, and When?, Wednesday, December 15, 2021

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