The Master Gardeners

Gossamer Days in Indian Summer

Bill Meredith

I’m always surprised at how little I know when I look up a word I have been using all my life. We had a cold snap with frost the first week in October, followed by a week of balmy weather, and I remarked to someone that it was Indian summer; and later, for no apparent reason, I looked up the phrase. I had it right according to the first definition, but the second definition surprised me: Indian Summer is "the final years of a person’s life, regarded as being serene, tranquil, reminiscent, etc." According to that, I have been living in Indian summer ever since I retired a couple of years ago.

The second week of October this year provided a day that fit both parts of the definition. It was warm and sunny, so I decided to clean out a flower bed— a non-urgent job that had been waiting a couple of years for me to get around to it. No timetable was involved, so it was serene. My wife was out shopping, so it was tranquil. And it turned out to be reminiscent too, in a way I could never have predicted.

It was a gossamer day: clear, with no wind, and warm. On a day like that, if you look through a sunlit space against a dark background such as trees, you will see scores of hair-thin strands of silk crisscrossing the area. And if you look closely, at the bottom of each strand will be a tiny spider. Newly hatched spiderlings instinctively climb to the highest available point— usually a blade of grass or a bush— and start spinning a strand of silk, which wafts away in the breeze. On gossamer days, the breeze consists of gentle currents of air rising as the sun heats the ground. These currents catch the silken strands and lift them upward, and when the pull of the silk thread exceeds the weight of the spider, away it goes. 

Traveling this way, by ballooning, is an uncertain way to get to a predetermined point, but that doesn’t matter to a spider. It doesn’t possess the quality of foresight, and doesn’t need it; wherever it goes, there are sure to be insects for it to eat. Some of the hatchlings will go for miles before they alight; others will get their silken parachutes caught in the same bush they started from and stay in the same community where their mother lived. Some will get carried out over the ocean and perish; some will be eaten on the wing by dragonflies or swallows. It sounds hazardous and uncertain, but life is like that. Over 37,000 species of spiders are known to science, and it has been estimated that an acre of meadowland contains over 2.25 millions of them; so it must work. Enough of them will land on someone’s water-spout, or in similar benign places, to procreate the next generation.

I like spiders, so I sat by the flower bed and watched them for a while before getting on to the task at hand: separating and replanting irises. A good many weeds had to be pulled out in the process, so I went to get the wheelbarrow to put them in; and the combination of irises and wheelbarrow proved to be one of those odd connections that took my mind back to childhood. I was playing in the yard one evening in 1937 when my father pulled into the driveway in a brand-new Chevrolet. I was 4 years old, and didn’t know a new car was in the offing, so the memory is as vivid as if it had happened yesterday. He had gone to town and picked it up after work, and on the way home he had encountered our neighbor, Tillie Van Gilder, and given her a ride. Never known for tact, Tillie made a remark about being the first one to ride in the new car, and that didn’t sit well with my mother; she never liked either the car or Tillie much after that.

Several years later, when we had moved to another farm, a neighbor gave me a bushel basket of irises and I took them home and asked my mother where she would like them planted; she replied that she didn’t like irises, because Tillie Van Gilder was always bragging about hers. I recalled that this was so; Tillie had beautiful iris beds all around her yard, and spent a lot of time on them. She was a sharp-featured woman, full of energy, and always bent forward as she walked; and she walked fast. She gave the impression she would have run if it had been lady-like. I often saw her pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with hoes, rakes, spades, and plant clippings as she bustled from one flower bed to the next. In spite of my mother’s opinions, she was a good neighbor.

Images of Tillie and her wheelbarrow, mixed with the spiders, drifted through my mind the rest of the afternoon, as I took four hours to do a job that should have required one at most. Later when it came time to sit on the porch with the evening’s cigar, the day produced its biggest surprise. A couple of weeks earlier, in response to an ultimatum from my wife, I had cleaned out my office; and in the corner of a closet there was a shoe box of clippings I had brought home after my mother died. Just for something to do, I took the box out to the porch, lit my cigar, and started sifting through the yellowed pages torn from magazines and newspapers—recipes, poems, religious tracts, postcards, obituaries— and near the bottom I found a get-well card the Farm Women’s Club had sent my mother one time when she was sick. Everyone in the club had signed it… names I had not heard or thought of for 50 years or more. One in particular jumped off the page at me: Matilda Van Gilder.

I wonder if the "etc." in the definition of Indian Summer includes coincidences?

Erratum:: Last month I wrote that Zino Davidoff’s cigar store was in Zurich. This is incorrect; it was in Geneva. To all aficionados I may have offended, mea culpa.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith