Anglos have long been in the habit of appropriating—or misappropriating—American Indian references for anything from professional sports to cowboy movies to politics to fake history (as in President Trump’s nasty slur of a U.S. senator as Pocahontas). But there is one Native American reference that represents nothing but beauty and poetry: Indian summer.
After the first blast of real winter, Indian summer is the blessed return of autumn, with mild temperatures, sunny days, and, at least in New Mexico, night skies so clear the stars and planets seem to sit on your shoulders.
This is the season during which the entire world would want to be New Mexico, when despite all our poverty and crime, we New Mexicans are the envy of the species.
Having endured a covering of fresh snow, nights in the low 20s and highs barely touching freezing, we’re back into the 50s and 60s—downright balmy compared to recent days.
Here is what my 24-volume 1961 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica has to say about Indian summer:
“The haziness of the air, the musty odor and glorious mordant coloring of the leaves, the smell of smoke from rampant fires in the dry woods and the relaxing psychological effect of the warmth following the previous cold snap all contribute to the distinctive and romantic stereotype of Indian summer that has been cherished by generations of Americans.”
The current issue of Britannica and the online Wikipedia are a lot more sober, calling it simply “a period of unseasonably warm, dry weather.”
The online Britannica helpfully explains, “The term originated in New England and probably arose from the Indians’ practice of gathering winter stores at this time. This autumn warm period also occurs in Europe, where in Britain it is called All-hallown summer or Old Wives’ summer.”
Whatever its origin, Indian summer is special. If you need an additional fillip to season this season, this is approximately when the leaves change. The maples in Fourth of July Canyon color themselves vermillion and the aspens on Sandia Crest quake with gold. Although these colors are now past, the willows and cottonwoods along the bosque were still beautiful when I saw them recently.
What more could a beset New Mew Mexican ask for to make his world resemble heaven, if only for a moment or a month?
Indian summer is when nature gives us a last chance to prepare for winter. All the chores I have failed to finish when the weather was warm and winter distant I now have to do in a rush.
I have to climb to the roof to scrape the dead leaves, twigs and pine needles from the gutters so that he coming snows can melt into the downspouts.
I have to finish chopping, splitting and stacking the ponderosa, piñon, juniper and oak logs to feed my two stoves. I have to move wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of wood beneath the house’s overhang so it will be dry and close by when storms descend upon us.
My wife has to take down, disassemble, wash and store the hummingbird feeders until the quarrelsome birds return in April. And I have to fill the hanging feeder for nuthatches, finches and other birds who against all odds and all reason, endure in these mile-and-a-half-high mountains through the winter, just as my wife and I endure.
We have to bring in the lawn furniture, take down the swing, remove the window screens and lock down the windows. Our 38-year-old log home never really seals properly against the cold air, but we do the best job of it that we can.
We reorganize the living room as we do every year, shifting the sofa and love seat and recliner to be as near as possible to the large stove so that we can bask equally in the warmth of the wood and the glow of the flames.
We strip the bed of its cotton sheets and light blanket, tucking in fresh flannel sheets and a luxurious winter comforter. Now we are set to read in the long winter evenings, laze abed awaiting the late winter dawn and, at any time, to cuddle in our haven from the cold.
Thus Indian summer gives us that blessed rarity in the world, a second chance to do right what we failed to finish the first time around.
Sigmund Freud described pleasure as the absence of pain. When you have known pain and it disappears, the relief is wondrous. Likewise, when you have tasted the bitterness of the first onset of winter, its surcease is pure delight.
That surcease, my friends, is Indian summer. Enjoy it while you can. Real winter is just around the corner.