Non-Profit Internet Source for News, Events, History, & Culture of Northern Frederick & Carroll County Md./Southern Adams County Pa.


Wisdom from a Turtle in Indian Summer

Bill Meredith

"Israel, you aint got the brains of a sea turtle!"
… Long John Silver, to Israel Hands, in Treasure Island

Sometime in 1919 Victor Herbert wrote a song that, for him, was uncharacteristically reflective and melancholy. It was a lovely melody, but it was full of strange chords like minor ninths and augmented fifths which made it impossible to sing. Apparently it didn't fit any of the shows he was working on, so he laid it aside and forgot about it. Twenty years later, Al Dubin wrote lyrics for it and Tommy Dorsey recorded it, featuring a young vocalist named Frank Sinatra, who could sing impossible songs.

I remember hearing it on the radio, probably on the "Hit Parade" program; it became a jazz standard for a while, but it gradually faded away. It has been a long time since I heard it last, but lately it has been playing in the back of my mind as I walk to the post office or putter in the yard. It's like internal muzak… you hear it in the background and it's not unpleasant, but it keeps you from concentrating on other things, and you can't turn it off.

Summer… you old Indian Summer…
you're the tear that comes after
June-time's laughter….

There doesn't seem to be any consensus about why this time of year is called "Indian Summer." The explanations I've seen fall into three main groups. American usage attributes it to American Indians who either did their own harvesting in a brief warm spell after the first hard frost, or raided white settlers who were harvesting at that time. British usage centers on the colonial empire in India, when sailing ships took advantage of a period of calm fall weather in the Indian Ocean to export loads of tea. And some writers use it to describe the last years of good health in a person's life, before senescence and senility set in. In any case, it's a brief and bittersweet time; looking forward, the discomforts of winter look worse than they probably will be, and looking backward, the good times of summer look better than they really were. It's a time that encourages melancholy thoughts.

You see so many dreams that
won't come true…
dreams we fashioned when summer
time was new….

Warm weather lasted until the end of October this year. The first hard frost hit my garden on Oct. 29; then after a few days it warmed up again, making the first week of November the beginning of Indian Summer. It's a reflective time; not much is happening in the world of nature. Most of the summer birds have gone south; most of the winter birds haven't arrived yet. Driving along Route 15, the fall colors were better than I expected, in view of the drought, but now the leaves are fading and drifting dreamily from the trees. In a week or so, a cold front with wind and rain will come by and bring them all down, and we will be in that forlorn, nameless season when it isn't fall any more but winter hasn't really got here yet. This used to be a grand time for kids; we would rake the leaves into a big pile in the driveway and spend a few days jumping into them, and then we would burn them. In those days every kid carried wooden matches in his pocket, and if you made a small pile off to the side, you could set it afire and then pour water on it and cover it with an old burlap sack, and you could put feathers in your hair and send up smoke signals to all of the other Indians in the neighborhood. The whole countryside would reek with that incomparable acrid smell, an aroma today's kids will never experience.

You are here to watch over
some heart that is broken
by a word that somebody
left unspoken….

We actually had normal rainfall in June, and it looked promising for gardens; but then the drought hit us. The corn in the field behind our house would have reached an elephant's eye only if it was a baby elephant that was lying down for a nap. Between the reduced crop production and the diversion of corn from our food chain to the ethanol factories, the coming winter will be tough on folks with low incomes. Wild plants did a little better; there is a good crop of nuts and fruits to start the local wildlife toward winter. Honeysuckle bushes and poison ivy vines are covered with berries, and crab apples hang heavy on the trees. Even the weeds did well; walking through a field the other day I saw horse nettles covered with tiny tomato-like fruits, poisonous to humans but nutritious to birds. The ground under trees is carpeted with acorns and walnuts; squirrels are busily running along the utility wires on Lincoln Avenue with walnuts in their mouths, and my lawn and flower beds are pock-marked where they have buried them. But it is not entirely a success story; many plants, under the stress of drought, throw all of their resources into producing fruits and seeds, which leaves them weakened and less likely to survive next year. Brush and undergrowth are stunted; deer will suffer if we have a hard winter, and small birds and animals will have fewer places to hide when predators are about, or to keep warm when the winter storms come.

You're the ghost of a romance in June
Going astray…
Fading too soon; that's why I say,
Farewell to you, Indian Summer.

Driving along a back road last week, I stopped to pick up a turtle that was trudging across in front of me. Its shell was caked with mud; obviously it had buried itself early to hibernate because of the drought, and the recent rains brought it out for a last snack before going back to bed for the winter. It was old, probably comparable to my age in turtle years; we are both in the Indian Summer of our lives, and we both have lived longer than the actuaries would have predicted when we were born. Looking at its eyes, I saw no wisdom; there was only patience and resignation. But perhaps at our age those are traits we both need, as memory fails and joints stiffen. If we resign ourselves to accept what we cannot change, and have the patience to wait, winter will pass and spring will come. Perhaps there was wisdom there after all. Perhaps the song fits us both. Al Dubin must have been a genius to see this 67 years ago.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith