Sunday, 19 September 2010

September: Old Wives' Summer


Since the Julian calendar reform in 46 B.C. September has been masquerading under the wrong name, i.e. ‘The Seventh’; March was the first month in the year, and when the Romans changed the calendar they kept to the old name; force of habit, probably, they didn’t like major changes any more than we, ok then, I do.

The same is true for the three following months, of course.

September can be a lovely month; we bid good-bye to summer, the heat has gone, but the days are still mild and soft, in the fields the harvest is in, it is time for sowing the new crop. Radiant reds, yellows, and deep dark blues of ripening fruit glow in the branches and the vines hang heavy with grapes; September is the start of a busy time in the vineyards.

This stretch of warm days, marked by a meteorological period of stable high pressure known as Indian Summer in English is called ‘Old Wives’ Summer’ in Germany.  Such weather conditions allow for wonderful, clear views across the lowlands far into the distance and trees, woods, rivers, lakes and the skies above acquire a sheen rarely seen at other times of the year. Leaves colour up intensively at this time and the kaleidoscope of nature’s tints becomes a miracle to behold.

The name Old Wives’ Summer (Altweibersommer) derives from the activities of  young baldachin spiders; these spin long, silken threads which float in the air like the wispy white hair of an old women; the spiders use them to sail through the air in early autumn. These delicate strands are often no more than a glint of silver  caught unexpectedly, as they sway in the gentlest breath of a breeze, outside the window or between fence posts. They are at their very best when covered in a suspicion of dew in the light of a sunny early morning.

Folk wisdom calls these gossamer threads elves’ weave, or dwarves’ weave.

In the hedgerows everywhere berries are ripening. If the supply of haws and hips is particularly plentiful, it is said that a harsh winter must be expected. Green hazelnuts are ready for picking and after a hot summer walnut shells are hardening and turning pale brown.

Although nature is catching her breath before the onset of autumn proper and the first frosts of winter, kitchens are busy. In September Mother was in a race with time, bottling fruit, making jams and jellies. She kept earthenware crocks filled with green beans in brine and prepared her own Sauerkraut by shredding an endless supply of white cabbages and layering it with salt and juniper berries, the whole wrapped in vine leaves.

These crocks stood on shelves in the cellar; throughout winter, when green beans or Sauerkraut were part of the menu for the day, she’d go down and simply remove the wanted quantity from the crock. She also pickled vegetables, we had pickled gherkins, onions, and red cabbage. Pickled herring, plain and green herring, fried and pickled, were available for most of the year too, although she preserved the latter mainly in spring.

Apples for storing over winter were selected at this time. They too had shelf space in the cellar although the larger quantities were kept in the attic.

Father was busy ordering and storing potatoes, coal and firewood. It was his job to fill the designated bins and shovel the coal into the separate coal cellar from the pile which had come down the chute under the cellar window.

None of these jobs, with the exception of making jams and jellies, is relevant today. We buy fruit and vegetables at any time of the year, heating comes by virtue of the national grid and we certainly no longer value that wonderful feeling, the deep satisfaction, that come with providing for the family’s needs and safeguarding its existence during the leaner time of winter.

There is no need for any of that effort, that labour of love. Whether we are the richer or the poorer for our easy way of living I don’t know. That question needs more careful examination than I have time or space for here and now.

What we can do is go out, watch the leaves changing colour and the baldachin spider create its pathways of silver threads in the air. Nature’s autumn fireworks are about to begin.


  1. Thank you for such a lovely post, I loved reading about autumns of your memories, they sound so very busy but wonderful at the same time. I am enjoying the photos and reading all that is written about your approaching autumn while we here in NZ are welcoming spring with all her fickle ways. Autumn is so steady and spring is her opposite; we have just experienced some very stormy days and they are still continuing although to a lesser extent.
    The pictures you have painted here in your words are so beautiful.

  2. friko i'm just in from a bike ride through the early autumn colours of gold, cornflower blue, purple, orange-red, pale yellowish brown, and dark green. the water (for i rode beside a river) a deep glistening blue with banks in the shade an olive brown. in the sky, v's of geese doing practice runs for the trip south to florida. it's a beautiful transition exquisitely contained within your words friko. steven

  3. Friko, you do descriptions better than anyone. What a gorgeous posting. It makes me want to sit and watch and notice, something I'm not very good at.

  4. "...a glint of silver in the caught unexpectedly as they are caught in the gentlest breath of a breeze." Love that line Friko, makes me appreciate my white hair.LOL Wonderful inspiring post. Got a chance this week-end to enjoy nature at it's best by the lake.

  5. I enjoyed hearing about that spider; you've described it beautifully. I grew up in a place with four distinct seasons, and autumn was my favorite. Now I live in Florida. September is much more subtle here, but it's still September. That slight turning of dryness and coolness in the air is just enough to send the memory spinning. I wonder if you are familiar with the Sinatra album "September of My Years"?

  6. What an utterly beautiful tribute to the coming of autumn. I am pleased to learn of the baldachin spider, and, of many gorgeous phrases, I particularly love "a suspicion of dew." As to whether we are the richer or the poorer, I would only say this: upon moving up to the Hudson Valley, we had no garden for the first two years. Last year, we had tomato blight, and our harvest was generally poor. This year, the first where we've really had the pleasure of the garden and putting by tomatoes in various guises, as well as other vegetables, reminds us how much we had missed this connection to garden and nature.

  7. Just this weekend it has begun to feel like autumn here in the Pacific Northwest. I have been listening to acorns hitting the rooftop today; the fall rains have begun to visit us and they are bring down leaves, twigs and acorns everywhere.

    Oh, I bet that sauerkraut of your mother's was something else: what a great memory!

  8. Beautiful word pictures, Friko! Absolutely wonderful.

    There are a few of us still pickling and canning (bottling.) We'll dig our potatoes in a few weeks. We didn't grow up with that way of life but chose it for ourselves -- back-to-the-land hippies is what they called us.

    Thanks for the amazing description of this lovely time of year.

  9. What a beautiful post, Friko. You almost make me look forward to the upcoming chill, and that's not easy because I'm a real summer person. You paint a beautiful picture with your words - of times passed, of times to come.. of the here and now.

  10. Your writing is so evocative. Reading this post makes me so much more aware of the scents (and sense) of autumn that I realize is slowly getting lost.

  11. There's a quiet urgency about autumn that beguiles the soul in spite of not needing to put up food for the long winter ahead. It's an urgency that encouraged my husband and I to go on a long tramp in the forest today.

    Your description of the spiders and the history behind the name Old Wives Summer is poetically written.

  12. The perfect description of an ideal autumn!
    I'll hug this to me as I pedal off this morning , through the rain .

  13. An interesting question, Friko. I believe we're poorer for total dependence on the state and big box stores for everything. Generations of children will never know the wonderful smell of preserves bubbling or pickles soaking in brine. I don't think they're better off for it.

  14. It's a tricky one, isn't it? My grandmother continued to bottle fruit and make jams until she was nearly 90. We all enjoyed the fruits of her labours but, she would say, 'old habits die hard'. In her day, these tasks were undertaken out of necessity. There was no other option, unless you were wealthy.

    I doubt that today's young people will feel any poorer for not having had the experience but, we who have known different times, will miss it on their behalf.

    As ever, a thoughtful and beautifully written post, Friko.

  15. Wonderful post that makes me want to go outside right now and pay attention. Thank you.
    I do think we have lost more in attaining our life of ease than we have gained. Seems too many have just gained obesity from lack of activity and the need for Prozac.
    I kind of wonder what our "grands" will be telling their "grands" about their lost way of life?

  16. A lovely post, Friko. Our autumn here in the Pacific Northwest has been less than idyllic. It has rained almost every day and the garden looks really bedraggled. But in a small way Jerry and I are trying to get back to basics. We are heating with wood from our own land, cut and split by Jerry. I should be doing something with the green tomatoes that will not ripen. But I just seem to be captured by the computer.

  17. Everybody has said it already - what a beautiful piece of writing. You really make me feel privileged to be around to see autumn through your eyes. We are just back from walking the dog followed by coffee in the car - parked up 5mins from home, in total peace with waterfalls, mountains and heather and lovely sounds all around. A time to wonder and a time of joy. One of my friends is harvesting beetroot, so the pickling etc still goes on. Thank you again. Every Blessing

  18. I enjoyed this. I had none of that growing up. We were city folk.

  19. Thanks for visiting my blog and commenting. Love your pictures and the story! xx

  20. You have reinforced the preparations our house goes through each Fall...bringing wood to the front porch for fires to warm us. Gathering the last of the garden offerings and drying herbs for the coming winter - sometimes I take these for granted but your thoughtful words make me appreciate it all again.
    And we are headed home now - through the Yukon and everything is golden.

  21. Friko, this description of Old Wives Summer was so beautiful. I enjoy your descriptions of the landscape that surrounds you. When we lived in the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia we had so much abundant fruit and vegetables to process and store that it was exhausting work. Now as we farm in northern Alberta we have a huge garden and it keeps me busy blanching and freezing as we patiently wait for the rain to stop and the crops to dry before they can be harvested. It's been a very strange September this year. Enjoy the beautiful vistas you see at this time of the fall. It must be a special time.

  22. This sounds like how my mother-in-law described life in her country [in eastern Europe.] Not to be a pessimist, but I think life back then kept us more connected to the earth. We saw our food, and how it grew, and the work involved. Simpler times, in some ways, but so much richer in others. Lovely trip down memory lane, Friko! My own grandmother's back kitchen was also full of bins of flour and sugar and sides of bacon hanging from the rafters. The supermarket is dull by comparison!

  23. Nice to note that several of your
    followers are fellow Northwesterners.
    I like the German word for Indian
    Summer. I love your line:
    /They are at their very best when
    covered in a suspicion of dew
    in the light of a sunny early morning./
    That and the image of the webs
    hanging between and off fence
    posts and railings. Stirring and
    beautiful, you have found the poet's
    path to preparing us for the stab
    of ice chill and snow cover that
    lurks on the horizon, or just behind
    it. Indian Summer always fascinates
    me here in WA state. Our Fall
    colors do no match the New
    England blazes, but they do
    stir the blood, and make us
    break out the scarves; most of
    mine are cotton, and several
    shades of tartan red. You
    tours, your forays, hikes and
    gentle ramblings are something
    to savor, to seek out for each
    of us to shake off the doldrums
    of our own dominion.

  24. You've made me homesick for a kilner jar! LOL :)

  25. What a lovely post Friko and so evocative of your past Septembers. My mother was born in Paris and never did any canning, jamming or anything like that. It is I now who make jam out of our fig tree or other fruits from local farmers, kind of a reverse role in a way. I never knew that sauerkraut could be made at home – we usually went to an Alsacien restaurant in Paris – just like I would not think you could make coca cola at home. Did homemade sauerkraut taste different? More sour maybe?

    My reminiscences are more like long walks in the Montmorency forest in the fall with my dog. We are barely in the fall here, the weather is still very warm (95 F/35 C) but we usually can see leaves changing in October.


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