Thursday, November 12, 2009

On Indian Summer and other Days

“It’s been a unique year.”
That was the comment a farmer friend made to me before church the other day as I gently questioned his progress in the race against time we call harvest.
A unique year, indeed.
A wet spring that seriously delayed planting, a cool summer that made for slower-than-usual growth, and a rainy fall that’s slowed the harvest way down. For the rest of us, it’s been kind of like rooting for your favorite team to come back from overwhelming odds, including a whole bunch of bad luck and some terrible calls by the officials.
Here’s hoping things work out better for our farmers than they have for the Bears so far.
But, the long spate of bad conditions was replaced by the nicest kind of fall weather last week. They call it Indian Summer.
No one really knows the exact origin of the term, though some of the guesses range from downright racist and historically inaccurate to, simply, the time when Native Americans harvested their crops and burned off the grasslands, which created the haze that is often a part of the autumnal scene. But all seem to agree that it refers to a period of warm, calm weather that occurs sometime after the first hard frost and before the snow flies. It is, certainly, one of my favorite times of the year. Partly because of the wonderful respite it provides, and also because of the memories and traditions it represents.
One of them, for me, and for millions of others, was “Injun Summer,” a two-panel drawing by Chicago Tribune cartoonist John T. McCutcheon that portrayed a boy and his grandfather watching the sunset changes occurring in a nearby field at the end of a hazy fall day, as explained by the grandfather:

“But every year, 'long about now, they all come back, leastways their sperrits do. They're here now. You can see 'em off across the fields. Look real hard. See that kind o' hazy misty look out yonder? Well, them's Injuns—Injun sperrits marchin' along an' dancin' in the sunlight. That's what makes that kind o' haze that's everywhere—it's jest the sperrits of the Injuns all come back. They're all around us now.”

The timeless cartoon first ran in 1907 and continued until 1992, when it was dropped for fear it might be offensive to Native Americans.
While that very well may be the case, to me, it perfectly captured the mystery and magic of the season. Every year, my dad and I would wait for the cartoon to be printed on the cover of the Trib’s magazine section. Every year, we would look at it, clip it out, read and re-read it, and dream of a final few warm fall days spent out of doors, as crackling leaf fires filled our noses with the sharp, sweet aroma of season’s end. My brother, who also shared those moments with dad, kindly gave me a framed copy of the cartoon a couple of years ago that hangs above my desk, reminding me daily of years and seasons gone by.
But while Indian Summer is possibly the best-known name for this time of year, there are no lack of descriptors for an unusually nice stretch of warm fall weather, with many northern countries having their own traditions.
Two of the best came to my attention courtesy of Father John Burns, who, as a true student of the Saints and the days that honor them, mentioned them in his Sunday homily as they occurred. St. Luke’s Day, on October 18th, is often known in Great Britain as St. Luke’s Little Summer, and is noted as a day for fine fall weather and, also, a night to dream about one’s future spouse:

“St Luke, St Luke, be kind to me

In dreams let me my true love see,”

But my favorite Indian Summer alternative is St. Martin’s Day, a popular feast day around the world that marks the transition from the growing season and harvest to winter. It is often a time when that last burst of warm weather can occur in many of those countries, plus it has another meaning that might warm us all a bit.
You see, St. Martin started out his adult life as a Roman soldier. He is, therefore, the Patron Saint of Soldiers, and his feast day was yesterday, November 11th.
Also known as Veteran’s Day.

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