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 by: Bill Oetinger  11/1/2016

Indian Summer

It’s late October in Sonoma County and it’s 80° outside. I am tempted to say it feels like that delightful moment in May when Spring blossoms into Summer. But that’s not quite right. This feel different and quite unlike any other season of the year. Somehow the air manages to feel both warm and brisk, all at the same time, or perhaps varying as one moves from sun to shade…a tactile cocktail.

This is what we call Indian Summer. It’s one of my favorite times of the year, and Northern California does a version of it that is as nice as you will find anywhere: a delicious, glazed confection lasting several weeks, perfect for bike rides and the lazy after-ride beer-and-wine-and-chips sessions that follow along behind them….out on the deck or patio, of course. 

After I took the notion to write about Indian Summer, I realized I knew next-to-nothing about that phrase. So I looked it up and this is what I found…

“Indian Summer is a period of unseasonably warm, dry weather that sometimes occurs in autumn in the Northern Hemisphere. The US National Weather Service defines this as weather conditions that are sunny and clear with above-normal temperatures, occuring late-September to mid-November. It is usually described as occurring after a killing frost.”

That defines the term, but not its roots, and for that, no one has yet come up with a satisfactory answer. It first occurs in print in 1778 in America, but it appears to have been in common usage for quite some time prior to that. The scholars agree the “Indian” refers to native Ameicans and that it is an American term. Some speculate that the seasonal phenomenon of balmy weather late into the fall was explained to the first European colonists by the natives who were already here, as in: “Don’t worry about that frost; you have a moon or two of decent weather before real winter arrives.”

By the mid-19th Century, the phrase had worked its way into many books and other publications, and in addition be being used to describe the season, it had taken on some metaphorical weight as well: it was loaded with a bittersweet poingancy. For while the somewhat similar conditions of May might presage the bounty of Summer and Fall—the optimistic notion that we have survived another Winter and that warm, prosperous times lie ahead—the warm, cozy glow of Indian Summer was something of a false promise…that it may be nice now, but it produces no harvest and only leads to the cold, dark days of Winter.

I can certainly relate to that. Whether we are blessed with a lovely Indian Summer or not, I think most people feel at least a touch of melancholy in the Fall. Whether it’s because we end our calendar year near Winter Solstice—and balance our books for the year—or whether we just feel some atavistic angst brought on by the shortened days and the changing light…who knows? Most people will feel it, somewhere deep inside, whether they reflect on it or not. Another of our rather finite span of years has been pretty well all used up. Did we have a good year? And most tellingly perhaps: how many more of them will we be given? 

I can say, for instance, that if I live as long as my father or my grandfather, I have about 20 more years—20 more Indian Summers—left to me. I may outlive them by a few seasons, or I may be hit by a truck on my next ride…or some sneaky cancer might reach out and wrap its tentacles around me and snatch those seasons away. Anyway, even if I am allowed the full 20, and even if the last few aren’t spent in so much decrepitude as to be no fun…even then…Christ, the last 20 seem to have gone by in a blink! Turn around and they’re gone. Bittersweet? Yeah…just a bit!

It may be that those intimations of mortality lend some extra emotional loading to these gorgeous days, with that lambent light, the stained-glass colors in the vineyards and woods… Whatever moody mindset we bring to it, this sesaon certainly knocks most folks for a loop. And it isn’t just the cozy warmth and the quality of the light. There is another change afoot that is equally amazing. In our part of the world, it pretty much stops raining back there in May, with the onset of Summer. We have no more showers for a third of the year at least, and we have no big mountains, so no accumulated snowpack to drip feed our streams through the dry season. All the grasses turn golden and most of the spring streams turn into dry arroyos. The Indian Summer definition above says it comes after the first killing frost of the year, but in this temperate, coastal climate, we don’t do killing frosts, or not often. In our region, Indian Summer almost always follows the first rain of the season…the first rain since May.

Right on schedule, we had that first rain last weekend. Light, tentative drizzle on Friday and Saturday, then a brief but intense gully-washer on Sunday. I got in a nice ride on Sunday morning, ahead of that front. The on-line forecast said it wouldn’t rain until 3 PM and that was about right. I got chased home by the first little sprinkles around 1:30, and by late afternoon it was raining crowbars and claw hammers. Even though I had cleaned my gutters on Saturday, they still couldn’t keep up with the downpour.

FallJust add water: that’s the standard recipe for just about everything that grows. As soon as we get that first soaking rain, Mother Nature rolls up her sleeves and gets to work. Within a day or two, the formerly golden meadows begin to show a hint of green: little seeds busting loose and reaching for the sun. That metaphor about nothing vibrant coming after Indian Summer may work for literary purposes or for folks in some other regions, but for us in the coastal hills of California, it definitely means a season of rebirth and renewal. In a typical year, by the middle of November, our fields and the understories in our woods will be carpeted in grasses and clovers as green as Ireland. It’s a seasonal turning as dramatic as any other, anywhere. It’s freakin’ miraculous.

And the best of it is: we get to be out there on our bikes, cruising through the changes. We get the warmth: mid-70’s and even mid-80’s now and then. We get that golden-honey light shining on the colors of autumn. And we get that tide-race of new, green shoots, coursing up every creek cut and swarming out across the hillsides. It’s a dizzy, intoxicating brew. 

While other parts of the country are battening down the hatches ahead of the next hurricane or putting on the storm windows ahead of the first snowfall or rowing boats down the main street of some poor town knee deep in floodwaters, out here on the Left Coast, we’re still throwing legs over top tubes and heading out into that Garden of Eden known as Indian Summer. I don’t know what we did to deserve so much wonderfulness, but if this is what the weather gods are dishing up around here, I am for sure loading up my plate and coming back for seconds. Who knows how many more of these feasts we will be given? 

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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