What is Indian Summer?

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PHOTO: DENNIS BARNES

Astronomical events during the fall of 1993.

Three upcoming events in October and November are so
intriguing that I won’t apologize for allowing
them to dominate the following paragraphs. The first is
this November’s total eclipse of the Moon–an eclipse
for the entire country to finally enjoy. The others are the
annual (and ever-popular) changing of leaf color and the
somewhat confusing period known as Indian summer.
 

An Eclipse for All America

How many of you witnessed the total lunar eclipse of last
December or the one last June? Unfortunately for those in
the West, the former was visible in its entirety only in
eastern parts of the United States. The June eclipse, on
the other hand, was an extremely West-oriented affair (only
Hawaii got a full serving of it). So I tell you with great
delight that on the night of November 28, 1993, the entire
United States will finally get a chance to see a
third–and probably very different looking–total
eclipse of the Moon.

I saw last December’s eclipse and know that it was one of
the rare, very dark lunar eclipses that occurs after the
Earth’s atmosphere is clogged with ash or sulfuric acid
haze from a major volcanic eruption. (You’ll probably
remember that this was the handiwork of the June 1991 blast
of Mt. Pinatubo.) By the time the June 1993 eclipse
occurred, the Pinatubo haze had significantly abated. But
because the Moon passed more centrally through the Earth’s
shadow, the eclipse was still not very light.

That’s why I’m so eager to see November’s eclipse; the
volcanic veil should be even further thinned, and the Moon
will be crossing closer to the southern edge of the Earth’s
shadow, or “umbra:’ It’s more than likely the Moon will
remain easily visible; in fact, it will probably shine a
cheerful orange or pink–with perhaps a few eerie dark
patches–throughout the eclipse.

The accompanying timetable lists the times at which the
most dramatic effects of the eclipse can be seen. The light
shading of the “penumbra,” or peripheral shadow of the
Earth, is usually not detectable until it’s about halfway
across the Moon’s face. Every total eclipse of the Moon is
unique, so this is one event you shouldn’t miss. Hopefully,
skies won’t be so overcast where you live that they hide
the Moon on the big night. Unfortunately, if you miss this
one, you’re out of luck–no total lunar eclipse will
be visible from anywhere in the world again until April 4,
1996, when only the eastern United States will get a look.

Other interesting astronomical events in November include
the striking gatherings of the planets, Moon, and stars. November’s partial solar eclipse is only visible in
the extremely southern part of the Earth. But on November
6, Hawaiian readers will get a chance to behold the rare
sight of Mercury passing across the face of the
Sun–as long as they’re careful to observe the Sun
safely.

Flame of Foliage Color

Returning our gaze back to Earth, we find October colors
that even the most brilliantly hued lunar eclipse can’t
match (although I did see purple briefly in last December’s
eclipse). “October is the month for painted leaves,” says
Thoreau in his little-read essay “Autumnal Tints” (which I
highly recommend). Of course, you’ll find that even the
great Thoreau cannot capture all of the complexity,
majesty, and heart-piercing poignancy of fall foliage.

I’ll be brief and only mention a few observations about
autumn’s leaf-color changes. One little-known fact is that
all of the vivid hues of these leaves–the reds,
oranges, yellows, and purples–are actually present in
leaves year-round. But it is only in autumn that the leaves
lose chlorophyll, the chemical that produces the dominant
green color, permitting the hidden hues to be revealed.
Also interesting is how factors such as tree age, location
in direct sunlight, and anything else you can think of,
decide which trees (or parts of a tree) start changing
color first.

Indian Summer

When the term “Indian summer” resonates in our minds, most
know only that it has something to do with warm spells in
October. But, as weather-watcher and New England folklorist
Eric Sloane once declared, “…no one is completely certain
as to its exact date, its origin, or even what the term
implies:’

Many authorities believe Indian summer is the first spell
of decidedly warm, calm weather after the year’s first
frost. If we accept this definition, of course, Indian
summer falls on different dates at different places and in
different years, making it really hard to keep track of.
But there have also been attempts to identify this “second
summer” or “fifth season” with one of two periods that are
reputed to have this kind of weather every year on the same
dates.

In Europe, for example, there are two versions of Indian
summer: “St. Luke’s Little Summer” and “St. Martin’s
Summer.” The former runs from St. Luke’s Day on October 18
through October 28. (St. Luke is the author of one of the
Bible’s four Gospels about Christ’s life.) The latter runs
from St. Martin’s Day (Martinmas) on November 11 through
November 20. St. Martin was an early bishop who died in
A.D. 397. This active missionary in Gaul gained a
reputation as one of the greatest wonder workers in his
time. In the United States, of course, Martinmas is
overshadowed by Veteran’s Day, the day on which World War I
ended.

A less famous period–invoked presumably when the
appropriate weather occurred between St. Luke’s and St.
Martin’s summers–is Allhallown Summer, named for All
Hallows’ Day on November 1.

But now comes the most delightful complication of all. St.
Martin’s summer was once known as “goose summer,” probably
because, in parts of Europe, November is regarded as the
time when geese are in season. For instance, in German,
November (spelled the same as in English) means “geese
month.” But the term “goose summer” gave rise to a word
that describes the delicate strands of spider web that are
common in many lands during spells of warm, calm weather in
autumn: gossamer. (The transition from goose summer to
gossamer may have even included a stage in which there was
a “gauze summer.”) I first learned of the connection
between gossamer and Indian summer, and about the aerial
feats of tiny spiders, in Eric Sloane’s Look at the
Sky
(Hawthorn Books Inc., 1970). You can read about
other interesting twists in the etymology of gossamer in
the Oxford English Dictionary.

But what about the origin of the term “Indian summer”
itself? One leading theory holds that the periods of warm,
still weather in autumn were the times when Native
Americans began their fall hunting trips. Another theory
claims that the haze characteristic of these periods was at
first thought to be caused by, or at least to resemble, the
smoke from Native American campfires in the hills.

Although many parts of the United States have spells of
such weather, the most common and exemplary episodes of
Indian summer occur in the region where the term first
appeared, in records written during the Revolutionary War:
the Mid-Atlantic states and the Ohio Valley. Indian summer
in this region is generally caused by high-pressure systems
that frequently stall near West Virginia at this time of
year.

By the way, some authorities maintain that Indian summer
occurs not after the first frost but after the first
freeze–and that the intermediary spell of freezing
weather is known as “squaw winter.”

Happy Thanksgiving

We are often reminded that the American holiday of
Thanksgiving got its start with the Pilgrims and Native
Americans in 1621. But few people know that we probably
never would have had this holiday were it not for Abraham
Lincoln, the Civil War, and a woman named Sarah Josepha
Hale.

There was no regular yearly celebration of Thanksgiving for
almost 250 years after the Pilgrim’s first feast (despite
what you may have learned in second grade). It was Sarah
Josepha Hale who, from 1821 until 1863 (42 years!), wrote
editorials in women’s magazines arguing for a national
celebration of Thanksgiving on a single day each year. Her
editorial in September 1863, published in the midst of the
Civil War, sparked the interest of Abraham Lincoln, who
thought it was an excellent idea that would bring together
the divided country. On October 3, 1863, Lincoln decreed
that the last Thursday in each November should be a
national Thanksgiving Day. So, before you take that first
bite of fresh turkey this Thanksgiving, take a second to
give thanks to these two.

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