The Mystery of Indian Summer

A thick, smoky haze, often observed by early American writers, may have been the result of a weather phenomenon that no longer occurs.

October in Minnesota’s Superior National Forest. Photo: National Forest Service

Oct. 19. P. M. — To Pine Hill for chestnuts.
It is a very pleasant afternoon, quite still and cloudless, with a thick haze concealing the distant hills. Does not this haze mark the Indian summer?

-Henry David Thoreau, Journal, 1855

In present-day usage, “Indian summer” often rather loosely refers to any spell of pleasant, warm weather that occurs after the leaves have begun to turn and the real summer has ended. Among early American writers, however, Indian summer was marked, rather specifically, by one sign — a smoky haze that lingered in the atmosphere and was especially pronounced on warm, calm days after the first frost of the season.

The etymology of the term is unknown, and theories as to its origin proliferate; most of these (at times somewhat pejoratively) seeking to ground the season in some American Indian religious belief or seasonal practice — hunting, agriculture, war, and so on. But by the late eighteenth century its meteorological connotation had become well established, with French-American writer J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur providing an early reference in a 1778 letter from German Flatts, New York: “sometimes the rain is followed by an interval of calm and warmth which is called the Indian summer; its characteristics are a tranquil atmosphere and general smokiness … it arrives about the middle of November.” The event was illustrated not only in prose but landscape painting as well — eponymously by Hudson River School painters such as Albert Bierstadt in 1861, Sanford Robinson Gifford in 1862, and Jasper Francis Cropsey in 1866. Significantly, accounts seem to portray a uniquely American phenomenon, specific to New England and the Midwest (and particularly remarkable to migrants from Europe).

From de Crèvecœur to Cropsey, late eighteenth- to mid nineteenth-century observers depict the hazy air of Indian summer with a frequency that makes us wonder if the occurrence they observed was, perhaps, much more pronounced then than it is today. By the 1830s, even as scientific inquiry into the matter waxed, the Indian summer itself may have been declining in prevalence, as commenters began to view the Indian summer as something of lingering anachronism. As Bela Hubbard suggests in 1877, “We look in vain for any recognition … in pages not more than half of a century old. [The Indian summer] seems to have departed from the land of the Puritans with the vanished forests, and doubtless these had much to do with its former prevalence.”

Albert Bierstadt. Indian Summer on the Hudson River.

Albert Bierstadt. Indian Summer on the Hudson River.

 

Lyman Foot, a U. S. Army doctor who had been stationed in Missouri and at Fort Brady in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, responded in 1835 to an open inquiry from the American Journal of Science and Arts into the origins of the smoky haze. Foot, based on his own observations as well as “considerable pains” taken to consult with “the Chippeways, Menominees, Winnebagoes and others” offers an anthropogenic explanation: that a particularly warm period in the fall would provide an advantageous opportunity for these indigenous agriculturalists to clear annual grasses or crops killed by the first frost. Foot describes having observed a “peculiar redness of the sky” from as much as four hundred miles distant as “the fields, the swamps, the forests and the prairies are set on fire by Indians and hunters.” Echoing Hubbard, Foot observes “the appearance of the decline of Indian summer in the eastern states … the forests there are disappearing. What are left (Indians, there are none,) hunters dare not set fire.”

Natural explanations, however, persisted. Zaddock Thompson, in his 1842 The History of Vermont: Natural, Civil, and Statistical, suggests aerosols created by the “solvent power” of the atmosphere from decaying leaves. Meteorologist John Brockelsby elaborates in 1873:

The Indian summer, with its genial warmth and misty veil, occurs at that period of the year when the leaves of the forest are falling, and the vegetation that covers the surface of the earth is beginning to decay. In view of this fact, the author was led to think, some years ago, that the decomposition of the decaying vegetation, which Leibig terms a slow combustion, (eremacausis), might impart that peculiar haziness to the atmosphere which is seen during the Indian summer. This phenomenon was ascribed to the same cause by another observer, Dr. E. B. Haskens, of Clarksville, Tenn., who also suggests, that the Indian-summer haze consists of carbonaceous matter or smoke produced by the oxidation of the lifeless vegetation.

Although Thompson and Brockelsby may have been on to something — hydrocarbons produced by decaying leaves do indeed produce hazy aerosols (Peter J. Marchand, Autumn: A Season of Change, 2000) — other times of the year have their own haze-producing factors, too: deciduous trees produce isoprene and conifers produce turpene; the latter (in addition to providing the forest’s piney scent) is known to combine with other compounds to form a haze that enhances cloud formation and keeps the forest cool. But turpene and isoprene emissions in the Northeast correspond with temperature, rising sharply in July and reaching a plateau in August and September.

Perhaps another, far more serious problem with the trees-produce-haze hypothesis has to do with what William M. Denevan terms “The Pristine Myth” — A romanticist view, fueled by writers such as Thoreau and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, of primeval forest filled with noble savages that is as ethnocentric as it is inaccurate. The clearing of land (frequently by fire) for agriculture by indigenous populations was widespread prior to Euro-American settlement and many parts of the Northeast now have greater forest cover than they did in the time of the Puritans.

Foot’s anthropogenic hypothesis seems the most plausible, even though his account remains anecdotal, as historical population estimates for American Indian groups are notoriously inaccurate and the extent of indigenous agricultural practices in general is not well-documented. Prairie fires, eremacausis, and terpenes may have all combined with other, yet-to-be determined factors to produce an Indian summer haze of a hue and thickness that can’t be seen today. I, for one, imagine on warm November days that distant treetops look just a little different than they do in the rest of the year — though that could just be burning leaves and smog.

Sanford Robinson Gifford. Indian Summer in the White Mountains.

Sanford Robinson Gifford. Indian Summer in the White Mountains.

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All About the Detroit Events Center

The first application, submitted in October, was reviwed by the City Planning Commission. Olympia Development of Michigan submitted a revised application in March which was approved by the City Council on April 21, 2015. The fate of the Park Avenue Hotel, a historic district, is likely to be determined by the Historic District Commission on June 10.

October Submission

9/17/2014 staff report to City Planning Commission
10/20/2014 Detroit Events Center site plan and architectural drawings
10/22/2014 Staff recommendation to City Planning Commission
10/27/2014 City Planning Commission recommendation to City Council
11/4/2014 City Planning Commission supplimental recommendation to City Council  
11/10/2014 Adverse impact staff memo to Historic District Commission

March Submission

4/6/2015 Project Narrative in Support of Planned Development (PD) Rezoning (approved by City Council April 21, 2015)
4/1/2015 Supplemental staff report to City Council
4/6/2015 Detroit Events Center site plan and architectural drawings (approved by City Council April 21, 2015)
4/20/2015 Olympia Development of Michigan commitment letter regarding Eddystone Hotel
4/20/2015 rezoning ordinance (approved by City Council on April 21, 2015)
4/21/2015 A Resolution Regarding the Redevelopment of the Historic Eddystone Hotel (adopted April 21, 2015)

June 10 Historic District Commission meeting materials

4/28/2015 Request for Notice to Proceed (seems to require Adobe Reader)
6/10/2015 Historic District Commission special meeting agenda
6/10/2015 Historic District Commission staff report
6/10/2015 
Eddystone Hotel Request for Concept Approval

Useful Links

Michigan Local Historic Districts Act
Economic Hardship, Feasability and Related Standards in Historic Preservation (MSHDA)

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Pontiac: The ‘Platform City’ That Never Was

Pontiac is the seat of Michigan’s wealthiest county, but much of downtown is vacant as the city’s population has fallen steadily from its 1970 peak of 85,000. No, don’t blame it on the auto industry. The decline began in 1960 when county offices moved to an undeveloped field on the city’s fringe, and was hastened over the next few years as neighborhoods were razed to create Wide Track Drive (now the Woodward Loop), a ring road which allowed two intersecting highways to bypass the city center altogether.

To cap it all off—pun intended—planners C. Don Davidson and Bruno Leon envisioned demolishing much of downtown to create an elevated ‘platform city’ that would span the downtown street grid, reaching from one parking structure to the next.

This never happened, of course. By the time construction began in 1980, much of the ‘Pontiac Plan’ had already been forgotten. All we were left with was a parking garage.

See my article in Mode Shift for more.

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Boys Find Mastodon Bone in Shelby Township

Kids Discover a Discovery [Free Press]

Yeah, a discovery! Photo: Detroit Free Press

Two Shelby Township eleven-year-olds have discovered the axis bone of an American Mastodon. The species—once a major food source for humans—has been extinct for about 6,000 years.

According to the Detroit Free Press, Andrew Gainariu and Eric Stamatin “were doing what 11-year-old boys do — fishing, catching crayfish and gathering sticks and rocks to build a dam.”

The Free Press did not note the inherent irony — that the two boys discovered an extinct species while they were engaged in activities that, themselves, are presently on the brink of extinction.

“Yeah, we found an actual discovery,” Mr. Gainariu told the Free Press. “This doesn’t happen to kids.”

Kids might discover more discoveries if they spent more time digging around in creeks.

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Walk Score Gives Detroit the Shaft

(And El Paso, Too, But We Don’t Care About Them*)

Walk Score‘s oft-cited walkability index rates the pedestrian-friendliness of locations throughout the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and even provides on its website easily-readable green-to-red heat maps for U. S. addresses. It gives Detroit a score of 50 out of 100, ranking our city at #22 in the 50 largest municipalities in the United States. Not bad, right?

Except, as cycling blog m-bike.org observes, Walk Score is broken.

One glance at the Walk Score website’s map view, and it is quite obvious that something has gone terribly wrong with the organization’s assessment of our city:

Green=good, red=bad. Screenshot: www.walkscore.com

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Where Did All These Neighborhood Names Come From, Anyway? (and Why it Matters)

Photo: www.alliedfabrication.com, used with permission.

Detroit’s neighborhood names are on Google Maps now (actually, they have been since 2009 — does this mean we’ve finally achieved our dreams of becoming a world class city?) and other major Internet content providers have also joined the game, identifying and displaying the names of neighborhoods. Palmer Woods, Corktown, West Village — at last, we can geotag photos to them on Flickr, debate the merits of their dive bars on Yelp, and scope out their real estate on Trulia. Foundation-backed think tank Data-Driven Detroit has proposed using their boundaries to elect City Council members by district, and they’ve even spawned a series of cute, map-themed wall decor inspired by Chicago-based typographer Jenny Beorkum’s Ork Posters.

Let’s not get too excited, though! While some of these titles — Indian Village, Herman Gardens — describe historically and visually distinct sections of the city that are well-known among Detroiters, others seem to be, well… rather dubious.

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Challenging the Myth of Pruitt-Igoe

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, a documentary by Chad Freidrichs, comprises yet another attempt to interpret the history of Pruitt-Igoe, a vast and ambitious St. Louis public housing project by Detroit architect Minoru Yamasaki that was completed in 1956 and failed sixteen years later. By the late 1950s, the quality of life of Pruitt-Igoe’s residents had already begun a catastrophic downward spiral as the buildings fell victim to vandalism and disrepair and became a haven for crime and violence. The complex was demolished in the early 1970s.

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Detroit: The Capital of Comic Sans?

Quicken Loans CEO Dan Gilbert espoues the virtues of Comic Sans at TEDxDetroit. Photo: Jonathan Oosting, MLive.com; I think this is fair use.

This past winter, Philadelphia entrepreneur and blogger Jason Lorimer commuted back and forth between his city and Detroit a dozen times, leaving us with this list: Six Things I Love About Detroit… So Far. Up there with regular, easy-to-like stuff like “live music” and “Avalon Bakery” was an item whose recognition, I believe, is long overdue: our typography.

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