Shades of Red: On Indian Summer


Arts & Culture

Babie leto. The summer of old women. Even today, years after leaving Russia, that’s what I always call Indian summer in my head. The stress on the first syllable, the second merging seamlessly into that bright le of false warmth. The time of year I’m happiest to live where I do, forgiving for once the winter cold that lasts just a little too long, the days that grow just a little too short a little too quickly—and then seem to stay there indefinitely. The summer of the old women. I’ve often wondered why it is that some elderly hags should get special claim to these days of deceptive warmth, what it is in the ember of reds and honeyed yellows of the leaves that calls to them above everyone else. It seems somehow unfair, that privileged ownership.

A falling spindle of fine thread, catching the rays of the sun on its way down from the sky, letting the light play off its gossamer thinness. The flower crab spider’s web carried through the air by the autumn wind. It’s the finely spun yarn of a young girl who has been weaving without rest for days and nights on end. Long, long ago she was kidnapped by the sun, and now, she must spend her endless lifetime spinning fine thread for his pleasure. On the bright, clear days of babie leto, you can see her handiwork spiraling through the air. She is the woman of the second summer. And she may be timeless, but old she most certainly is not.

A lumbering long-haired creature of mythological proportions who comes out of hiding with the first notes of warmth that follow the early fall cold. His name is Baba. His hair is like a collection of finely spun spider’s webs—and he can use it to tickle people to their deaths. He is the true owner of those waning days of warmth, old women be damned. They’d better watch out for his deceptively inviting hair.

There are the more prosaic explanations, of course. The name refers to the time of renewed mildness when old women can take advantage of the sun’s heat one last time, to warm themselves before the coming winter months. It hearkens back to the time of year when the field work was finally done for the season and the peasant women could at last turn their thoughts to the newly welcome drudgery of household tasks: the wash, the cleaning, the sewing. In the days of old, it’s said, the onset of babie leto signaled the proper time to start pickling food for the winter—and that it was, too, the time when all old quarrels had to be put to rest. It’s said that, in the first days of babie leto, it is good luck to go hunting—on horseback, of course—with an adolescent boy by your side. Do that, and horses will grow brave, dogs good, and people healthy.

My first memories of Indian summer are bound up with the reds and yellows and oranges and browns of autumn on a certain quiet New England hilltop. It’s in a little corner of my old hometown, close to a lake where I’ll one day go to summer camp and a farm that sells the most fragrant Cortland apples I have ever tasted. The corner is called Indian Village. The houses here are classic colonial, the streets, classic Indian. Seneca. Oneida. Seminole. Quaboag. All tucked away behind a protective layer of elms and pines and oaks.

It’s late October. Halloween, to be exact. And for the first time since I’ve learned the meaning of “trick or treat,” it’s not freezing cold. We can actually wear our shiny costumes instead of having to pile on layer after ugly layer—and who cares how pretty my dress is underneath that old coat? No one will see it anyway—of second-hand clothing. I’ve been invited to go out with a school friend, and my mom has just dropped me off at one of those colonial houses. Everyone is excited that it will be warm, that we won’t have to run from house to house in a haze of startled frost. My host’s mother looks outside the open window. “Indian summer,” she says. It will be a while before I learn that that’s what it’s called, and that it’s not just a reference that the people lucky enough to live in Indian Village use as a sort of sign of their special in-ness. The memory is too neat, of course. I’m sure I must have heard the words somewhere else first. But in my mind, that’s when I first learned that the old women weren’t the only ones claiming ownership of those early fall days. It’s hard not to think of those winding uphill streets whenever the name comes into my head.

No one really knows what exactly it is the Indians had to do with this time of year to have given it their name. In January 1778, J. H. St. John de Crèvecoeur wrote a letter containing what’s thought to be the first reference to Indian summer as such. “Then a severe frost succeeds,” he writes, “which prepares it to receive the voluminous coat of snow which is soon to follow; though it is often preceded by a short interval of smoke and mildness, called the Indian summer.” Unfortunately, de Crèvecoeur leaves us little besides his impressions of the weather.

According to one account, the name is simply an accident of geography: the time of year was first recorded by early settlers in regions where Indians abounded. Others, however, hold that it refers to the haze in the air that resulted from Indian prairie fires—fires that were lit predominantly in these early weeks of autumn. Yet others argue that the name is tied to the autumnal raids that the Indians paid on the early settlers, after a short lull during the colder days that came before. Others, however, are far more generous. Raids were neither here nor there, they say. Those warm days carry the Indians’ name because the Native American tribes were the first to recognize the weather pattern for what it was and to take advantage of the relative mildness to lay in food supplies for the winter.

Or maybe the name doesn’t come from the settlers at all, but rather from Native American legend. The warm winds that made it easier to hunt and gather food, the story goes, were a present from a god of the Southwest desert, Cautantowwit, his way of giving thanks for devoted worship. In the creation myths of the Algonquin, Cautontowwit is credited for giving form to the first modern humans, out of clay or living tree. Isn’t it fitting, then, that he would also be the giver of a final burst of productive weather, before the barren nothingness of the winter months?

Of course, there’s a far more cynical version of the term’s origins. The settlers called it Indian summer because, like the Indians, it was fickle, fleeting, and untrustworthy. Just a copy of summer, not the real thing.

It may as well have been named for the residents of Indian Hill for all the proof any of these stories has of being true. But one element seems consistent in all the tellings and retellings. The name has nothing to do with the colors of the leaves.

Gradually, the term Indian summer has spread beyond its American origins. First to England, replacing a bevy of poetic names—All Halloween Summer, in Shakespeare’s day; St. Luke’s little summer, St. Martin’s Summer—with that single term. Then to France, capturing the popular imagination with the success of Joe Dassin’s classic homage, “L’été indien.” (Now that I think about it, I likely heard the name in French before I ever did in English; Joe Dassin—himself American born—was always popular in Russia, and I’d hummed the tune many a time before its meaning actually sunk in.)

And the Indians and old women aren’t alone. Over the years, many others have laid claim to those days of waning heat. In the southern Slavic countries, it’s known as gypsy summer. I’d like to think that has something to do with the colorful vibrancy of the gypsy music and the sound of guitar strings by the open fire. In Italy, it’s a time of year owned by San Martino, or St. Martin. In China, the rightful heir is the tiger: a tiger in autumn, they call the warm weeks. It seems at once more majestic and more menacing that way. The names are many. The legends, more numerous still. But one thing is constant. Everyone wants to label it, as if by giving it a name they could capture it for certain, make it last, somehow, make those mystical days more real, more concrete, more weighty and momentous.

I’m six, or maybe seven. My grandfather and I are walking in the woods. He has made me a slingshot out of a fallen tree branch and I am busy aiming my new treasure at nonexistent targets. I don’t much feel like talking. I feel his hand on my shoulder. “What color is that?” he asks, pointing with his walking stick—that, too, has been carved carefully out of found wood, just like my slingshot—at a nearby tree. Reluctantly I look in the proffered direction.

“Red,” I reply.

“Look,” he says, the word like a military command.

“I am looking,” I counter.

“No.” He cuts me off with authority. “You are not. Now, what color is it?”


“Then how about that?” He points his stick at a tree across the forest path.

Red,” I say again. I am getting angry at the stupidity of this game. I want to keep walking with my slingshot. I don’t know what he wants from me, but I certainly don’t like it.

“No.” He is curt. Like me, he’s clearly none too pleased. “It is certainly not red. You aren’t looking.” He sighs and puts down his stick. “That,” gesturing with a tilt of his head at the first tree, “That is purpurniy. It’s the color of royalty. You’d be hanged for calling it red. And that over there,” nodding now toward its neighbor, “that is bagryaniy. Remember that. Get it through your head. Nothing is plain red, not now, not ever. How can you look if you don’t even pay attention to what you’re seeing?”

I stamp off in a huff. I have no need for a lesson in Russian vocabulary or history, thank you very much.

But somehow, more than twenty years later, the names have stuck. And with them, the colors. The one, closer to a purple, a deep, penetrating shade that seems to glow into life under the fall light, a reminder of faded royalty that appears once a year for a final hurrah: purpurniy. The other, the color of thick, fresh blood: bagryaniy.

Another lesson in Russian vocabulary. Omut. The deepest place in a lake that has been further deepened by the current. Figurative: a deathly place or situation, that sucks a person in and is capable of destroying him. The closest English equivalent is whirlpool. That is how Vladimir Vysotsky describes babie leto in his song of the same title (the poem is actually by another Russian poet, Igor Kokhanovsky). The poem’s parting words: “It’s a whirlpool, it’s a whirpool, babie leto.” I sing the song often. It’s one of my favorites. I’m not sure how old I am when my mother asks me if I know what it means, and I admit I do not. Now I do.

At the end, isn’t that the biggest gift that Indian summer can give us, whatever name it goes by, in whatever garb it appears? The gift of beauty, not just of the world, but of the language through which we choose to perceive it and with which we choose to name it. The beauty of a language that is more than description, that lets you see and penetrate the colors of autumn with new eyes. Eyes that will understand that, no matter what you say, in whatever language you choose to say it, red will never be just red.

Maria Konnikova is a writer living in New York. Her first book, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, will be published in January. She is at work on a novel.