Indian summer is the summer after summer. It’s that period of time – a few days or a few weeks – of warm air, wide open skies, and stillness, summer’s last stand before the chill of autumn sets in.
Growing up, I always loved Indian summer. I still do. It feels like a secret. Regular summer is all loud and bro – high fives, keggers, and backwards caps. Indian summer is for introverts – long walks, long shadows, deep thoughts, and a tinge of melancholia. Its rewards are subtle, spiritual even.
Is the phrase “Indian summer” racist? It might be. It’s hard to say. No one really knows how the term originated. Some sources suggest fairly innocuous origins. Others claim it’s a euphemism for “false” summer, as in shifty and deceitful, like “Indian giver” – a racist epithet for someone who gives you something and then takes it right back. Either way, naming a weather pattern after a category of human beings is probably ill-advised, or at least silly. Try these on – Irish Spring, Asian Autumn, Latvian Winter – and you quickly see how empty and meaningless they are. Even if the phrase Indian summer isn’t explicitly racist, it’s tainted by the slight possibility that it might be.
And yet Indian summer lingers on.
As a boy the whole idea of Indian summer captivated me. Like a lot of young white kids growing up in the United States, I fell in love with Native American culture, or rather, my image of it. I mean, these people were always camping. How cool was that? They hardly wore any clothes. They didn’t sit behind desks in stuffy classrooms. They didn’t have homework. They learned by doing stuff, not by reading about other people doing stuff. While my life seemed utterly constrained on all sides by social expectations nobody remembered creating, Indians roamed free through forest cathedrals, bathed in shafts of light, and drinking cool, clear water from unpolluted streams. But there was one problem. This was all a Romantic projection. I didn’t know much about real Native Americans. I’d seen some movies. I read a few books. I’d lingered for hours in front of the dioramas at the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum with their miniature depictions of Chumash life in prehistoric Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. I’d hiked the coastal foothills and come upon pictographs in caves and foot-holds carved into steep canyon walls from a time before the Rancheros. I felt their presence in dry stream beds beneath the sycamores and on the long curve of empty beaches at dawn. Even the California missions, in many ways their sepulchers, reminded me more of the Native people who built them than the padres who prayed inside of them. Though their time had come and gone, the First People felt more present to me than myself. Such is the dizzying confusion and wild imagination of adolescence.
In the 18th century, when Europeans were first learning about Native Americans, many of them fell under a similar spell. Influential writers and philosophers wrote glowingly of the “Noble savages” that roamed the untouched wilderness paradise of the Americas. For these European intellectuals the existence of Indians provided evidence for their assertion that “Natural man” was in every way superior to his European contemporaries. Society, Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued, turned us into phonies and fakes. Christianity compelled us into conformity, and polite society forced us all behind masks. In Native Americans many European elites saw the hope of humanity – that it was possible to return to what Rousseau called a “state of nature” and reclaim our original goodness.
But the sad fact was, these Europeans didn’t know the first thing about Native Americans. It was all made up. They projected their own needs onto the Native people of the Americas without their knowledge or consent. In a very real sense, this phony affection was as racist as the genocidal hatred that followed.
My captivation with Native American culture was all wrapped up in my dawning environmentalism. Moving into my teen years in the seventies, I grew increasingly aware of the terrible costs of industrial civilization – pollution, resource depletion, habitat destruction, and mass extinction. My already acute melancholia grew to alarming proportions. And so did my resentment. More and more it seemed to me that the Native Americans, and Original Peoples all over the earth, had it right, and that we ignored their wisdom at our own peril.
All of this came to a head every Indian summer. When the hubbub of summer faded, when school was back in session, when the tourists packed up and left, my hometown of Ventura returned once again to its quiet, natural rhythms. The leaves began to lose their verdant urgency. A slow fade fell over everything. But the sun shone in the sky with a familiar ferocity. By October the ocean water got warmer – warmer than June, warmer than July, and warmer than September even. Surfing in the early evening after school, Venus rising in the twilight, the Channel Islands silhouetted against the darkening sky, I could almost hear the river-reed canoes of the Chumash oarsmen slapping the water as they plied the channel on their long journey home. But it was probably just my surfboard.
Growing older means growing wiser. At least it’s supposed to. And as we all get better at examining our unconscious biases we feel freer and lighter with each passing year. There’s nothing better than finally admitting that you’ve been wrong all these years. It feels good to let go of bad old ideas. As the Zen saying goes, “How refreshing, the whiny of a pack horse unburdened of everything.” Maybe we can do without the phrase “Indian summer.” But if we all decide it isn’t harmful, maybe we can keep it. To me, language is poetry – all of it. Not always good poetry, but poetry none the less. And Indian summer is a two-word poem packed with deep meaning and beautiful power. It is a love-word, a word that at least tries to get at something real, something profound. Like all the best language, “Indian summer” tries and fails to express something that cannot be expressed.
So in these long, last days of Indian summer, before all of the leaves fall and clatter down the street in colorful drifts, take a walk along the river or through the forest or down the streets where you live and let the ghosts of what was and what will be move through you like smoke from long-ago fires. Hear the voices of ancient songs in the wind, songs no one ever wrote down. Feel the warmth of the sun on your face. Move out of your knowing and into your being. Let your edges grow soft, your boundaries diaphanous. Let everything in and everything out. Know the whole of the world as yourself, and all sentient beings as expressions of the same spirit that animates you. Feel yourself disappear and surge forth all at the same time – a paradox your mind cannot grasp but your heart fully understands. These fleeting forms, this passing light, this glorious, ephemeral Indian summer – let it be the prayer you long to say, but never could.