Mainly I suppose that autumn begins here in the desert around the middle of August. Hardly anyone believes me when I say that sometime around the middle of that month there is a subtle, barely discernible change in the nighttime temperatures. A centimeter of movement on the thermometer that prods me to get out blankets for a good airing in preparation. This is the harbinger of fall and while it may be two-thirds wishful thinking, it nevertheless manages to sustain me while the summer musters its dwindling battalion of one hundred degree days for a final assault. Then with a suddenness that is almost alarming it's fall in the desert and this moment escapes many of those who do not dwell here year round.
I can almost hear the hushed sound of an osprey feather as a light breeze guides it through a maze of ocotillo branches and lays it softly on the ground. Autumn in the Sonoran desert is an acquired taste. Colors splash through canyons. Foliage is fruiting, including barrel cacti, soapberry trees, desert hackberries, and wolfberries. Broom flowers are a favorite of hundreds of butterflies, bees, wasps, and beetles. One can walk through creosote flats and suddenly come upon a flash of cottonwoods or sycamores along dry riverbeds; oranges and bright yellows in landscapes that are otherwise muted.
In other parts of the world autumn is celebrated with the Goose Fair of Nottingham, England. The three-day Fair begins on the first Thursday of October and with the exception of 1665 when the Great Plague was at its worst, and the two world wars. It has reportedly been held each year since 1284 and it's here that lays one of several linguistic links between the words goose and gossamer. Saint Luke's Day is October 8th and the British sometimes refer to this as Saint Luke's summer. It was likely that the English would call this stretch of weather goose summer. since this late-year warm spell usually overlaps the prime season for eating geese. Even though the original meaning has vanished from English, it remains in German, where November was known as Gansemonat, literally, "Goose-month."
Other experts believe it's derived from "spider threads spun in fields of stubble in late fall, either because of a fancied resemblance to down, or because geese are in season then." By the fourteenth century, gossamer was being used to refer to the film of cobwebs that frequently drift in the warm autumn air and get caught in grass or bushes. That sense gave origins to today's noun gossamer.
The Webster's 1828 Dictionary defined it as "a fine filmy substance, like cobwebs, floating in the air, in calm clear weather, especially in autumn. It is seen in stubble fields and on furz or low bushes, and is probably formed by a species of spider." The adjective usage of the word has been added since then. Today's Merriam-Webster's Dictionary calls gossamer: "a film of cobwebs floating in air in calm clear weather" and " something light, delicate, or insubstantial "
As an adjective gossamer first materialized in print around the turn of the nineteenth century. It carries several senses: filmy, sheer, light, delicate, or tenuous and has been on many occasions waxed poetic over. Edgar Allan Poe favored it so much he used it in three of his well-known works. The Black Cat, The Fall of the House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum:
- Else there is no immortality for man. Arousing from the most profound of slumbers, we break the gossamer web of some dream. Yet in a second afterward, (so frail may that web have been) we remember not that we have dreamed.
- Or rather-He passed Us-
The Dews drew quivering and chill-
For only Gossamer, my Gown-
My Tippet-only Tulle-
Because I Could Not Stop for Death-
Other still wonder if it comes from goose summer and "gaze à Marie" citing two sources that explain the idea that the fine film of cobwebs seen floating in the air in the fall is named after the custom of eating goose on November 11 for St. Martin's Day. However this is questionable since November is a long way off from summer. In Forgotten English, a 366-day Calendar of Vanishing Vocabulary author Jeffrey Kacirk asserts that "the gauzy, airborne material, or 'gaze à Marie,' was for centuries believed to be the remnants of the Virgin Mary's winding sheet, which fell as she drifted into Heaven."
To which another experts counters:
- I'd never heard the "gaze à Marie" story, but even if Mr. Kacirk is correct and people have believed it for centuries, it still isn't the origin of "gossamer." The dictionaries are right: "gossamer," meaning "a fine, filmy substance," comes directly from "goose summer," an unusually warm period, similar to our "Indian summer," often occurring in mid-November. This is the same time of year when spiders are wont to spread their delicate webs across lawns and bushes and when St. Martin's day is traditionally celebrated with a goose dinner.
"Goose summer" ("gossomer" in Middle English) was originally used as a name for these warm days in England, but beginning in the 14th century "gossamer" came to be applied to filmy spider webs and similar material, such as fine gauze. The rationale for the transference of meaning is unclear. Most probably it was simply that the webs were most often seen during "goose summer," but an association between the fuzzy down plucked from the doomed geese and the delicate webs drifting through the autumn air may also have played a part.
Sources:World Wide Words