Friday, May 25, 2018
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Indian Summer: myth, message

The cold, wet, windy weather this weekend, with hints of frost and freeze or even a snowflake or two, would have been prophetic for early American settlers.

At least, that is, if they were listening to the Native Americans of the time. The latter believed that the initial onslaught of wintry weather was a wakeup call. Or so the legend goes.

Indian lore held that their ancestors ignored preparations for the frigid starvation months ahead. So the Great Spirit sent Squaw Winter - naturally, men would blame it on women, eh? - to teach them a lesson.

Squaw Winter was a first taste of ice, sleet, freezing cold, and snow to come. The braves were penitent and the Great Spirit relented, granting his people a gentle period with enough time to harvest maize and squash and salt away fish and game.

On the strength of the legend, the period over time became known as Indian Summer. It has become so well-entrenched in our autumnal harvest traditions that there are even textbook definitions of the occurrence: a short period of mild, sunny days and fair nights, with calm to light winds, usually in late October or early November in these latitudes.

Indian Summer is marked by dim, soft sunshine and a rich blue sky that appears smoky or hazy on the horizon, as some weather observers describe it. A cool, shallow polar air mass stagnates and becomes a deep, warm high-pressure center.

The high-pressure center, so the explanation goes, is characterized by a strong low-level temperature inversion that produces stable air. In turn, that concentrates smoke and dust near the ground, accounting for the haziness.

White settlers in pioneer America supposedly thought that the smokiness in the air was caused by fires the Indians built on the prairies. These days the mechanical harvest of tens of thousands of acres of soybeans and corn also raise a grain dust that can contribute to a hazy horizon and colorful sunsets in the Midwest and the Great Plains.

A similar balmy period also occurs in Europe. It is known by a variety of terms: All-Hallow Summer, Old Wives Summer, Second Summer, St. Martin's Summer, and God's Gift to Poland.

Some sources allow that Indian Summer, by whatever name, may occur more than once in an autumn, or not at all. Same for Squaw Winter.

In any case, the “bluebird days” of autumn are just the ones that people love to see when planning harvest or pioneer festivals and similar events that observe America's natural and cultural heritage.

These transitional weeks, with shortening days and cooling temperatures, trigger strong responses in wild creatures.

Fish, from walleye and yellow perch to smallmouth bass, react by feeding more heavily than during late summer doldrums to store up fat energy for winter and for spring spawning.

Many species of birds, from neotropical songbirds and shorebirds to hawks and ducks, respond to shorter days by migrating south. And the first hard frost ends the migration season for that long-distance insect, the monarch butterfly; those caught in the freeze will die here.

White-tailed deer change coats, from light summer red to heavy winter gray. The bucks scrape the velvet off their new antlers and prepare territories for the breeding season, or rut, which usually begins in November in these parts.

And so it goes. Almost no plant or animal is untouched by autumn.

Humans included.

The foregoing seasonal ruminations call to mind some other lore and legend, some of it purely fanciful, however quaint:

  • Jack Frost - An imaginary sprite who each autumn dances across the woodlands, tracing intricate ice patterns on everything from leaves to windowpanes.

    Some people still believe, the fairy tale aside, that frost triggers the spectacular change in leaf-color. In truth, frost hastens the browning of leaves and their fall.

  • Woolly bears - These are hairy caterpillars of tiger moths, sometimes misnamed woolly worms. Typically they are black at either end with reddish-rust bands in the middle, though you may find ones in everything from ivory to brown and black and gray.

    Folklore held that the wider the black bands of the woolly bear, the more harsh the coming winter. Caterpillars aren't smart enough to foretell anything. Woolly bears come in different colors at different stages of development, called instars. But they are fun to watch when they wriggle across a sun-drenched country lane on an autumn afternoon.

  • Fat squirrels - They often are pointed to as a sure sign of a tough winter ahead. Actually, fat squirrels, or any well-fed mammals or birds, are more a testimony to the past summer's plenty - lots of nuts and berries and seeds - than an indication of coming winter woes.

    Squirrels know no more about coming winter weather than woolly bears. But nature equips them all, through evolution and trial and error, to be ready for almost anything.

    Steve Pollick is The Blade's outdoor writer. E-mail him at

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