As mornings turn darker and darker, leaves start changing colors and the summer heat becomes the nip of autumn, many bemoan the end of summer. I don’t. Yes, vacation time is over; outdoor pools are closed and tennis goes indoors. We are all back to the routines of the regular year. But the riotous colors of the flora and the invigoration of the cool weather make it all worthwhile.
When I was at university in the northeast of the United States, I adored walking through the fallen leaves at this time of year. Their crackle was not a sound of the end of something. Rather, it signaled another relation with nature, another way of enjoying the myriad ways we are all part of the biosphere. I never felt intruding on or destroying the foliage; it was just a question of feeling and hearing something wondrous at the same time.
When I lived in the mountains of Switzerland, I marveled at the changes in colors of the trees at different altitudes. As one climbed up from the Rhone Valley, there would be yellows and reds on the mountain tops long before the greens left the valley floor. It was as if an artist was changing paint brushes in a most logical order. The higher up regions came first, then the lower levels.
Why do American refer to certain moments during this period as Indian summer? Technically, the term refers to a period of unseasonably warm, dry weather that sometimes occurs in autumn in the Northern Hemisphere. It is defined as weather conditions that are sunny and clear with above normal temperatures, occurring late-September to mid-November. It would be arrogant to say that the expression comes from colonial America since it is found in similar forms in other countries. But the term Indian summer, for Americans, is closely associated with the country’s origins in Puritan New England.
Indeed, the period harkens back to the initial relationship between the original settlers and the Indians celebrated in Thanksgiving, in October in Canada and November in the United States. The celebration is supposed to highlight the positive ways in which the Native Americans helped the settlers to survive during their first, harsh winters when the cold set in. But the relationship should not be overly glorified; the history of the treatment of Native Americans by the settlers is one of conquest and displacement, eventually finding most of the native inhabitants of the North American continent driven from their lands and placed on infertile, inhospitable reservations.
A recent controversy surrounding an American football team shows how sensitive the memory of this period remains. The Washington professional National Football League team is called the Washington Redskins. There is a raging controversy over the team’s name. The President of the United States himself commented on whether the term "Redskins" is insensitive to Native Americans. “If I were the owner of the team and I knew that there was a name of my team — even if it had a storied history — that was offending a sizeable group of people, I’d think about changing it,” President Obama said in an interview. In spite of the president’s comment, team owner Dan Snyder has refused to rename his team. The controversy shows both the breadth of the President’s interests and his limited power to influence domestic events.