KIMBALL, Neb. – Goose Summer is a nearly forgotten concept, and that seems a bit ironic when you consider that the term gave us English-speaking folks the word gossamer.
Gossamer, of course, means a fine, filmy cobweb, or an extremely delicate gauzy fabric, or things that are extremely light and delicate.
In looking at the etymology of the word, it appears to have come to us from the middle-English of the 14th Century as a conjunction of the words gos (goose) + sommer (summer).
Goose Summer referred then and refers now to the warm period in autumn – usually late October or early November – when the first icy blasts of wintry weather have faded and the world seems to reawaken in a brief but lovely golden splendor. Today this period is most often called Indian Summer, and sometimes, in England and on the Continent, St. Martin’s Summer.
Late October and/or early November was, in 1300’s England, the traditional time for harvesting geese. It also coincided with the ballooning flight of millions of recently hatched spiders which relocate to winter quarters by being borne aloft on threads of silk in sun-warmed air currents. These silky threads were associated with gos sommer and gradually became known as gossamer, and that name stuck while the reference to autumnal Goose Summer faded.
In Sweden the season has been called sommertrad (summer thread) and in Germany Gänsemonat, or goose month.
But, you might say, it’s just barely September. What’s all this about Goose Summer then?
Well, to make a short story long...
The other day I came across a funnel web spider crouching in its web, prepared to sally out and ambush prey.
This type of funnel web spider is a member of the family Agelenidae, which belong to the suborder Araneomorphae. The ubiquitous grass spider (Agelenopsis) is also a member of this suborder, so the two are related. And grass spiderlings are common autumnal balloonists all across the planet. The Americas, Europe, Asia, Australia. Everywhere.
So with summer fading, coming across the funnel web spider reminded me of ballooning grass spiders, which reminded me of gossamer, and Goose Summer, and, well, you get the picture. It’s a bit untidy, but that’s how my mind sometimes works.
As you might imagine, given the topic, I really like spiders. I always have. I’m afraid I irritated Miss Meyer in second grade when I announced that Charlotte, of Charlotte’s Web fame, was obviously an example of Araneus cavaticus. In other words, Charlotte was a barn spider.
Miss Meyer was quite pleased the next day when I showed up with a barn spider in a baby food jar. But I digress.
The day after I saw the funnel web spider, I noticed a plethora of jumping spiders. These guys (family Salticidae) are really cool. They are ambush hunters with amazing vision. Rather than build webs to trap prey, they leap out and capture the bugs that they eat. Like all spiders, they do have the capacity to spin silk, but they use this almost exclusively to anchor and tether themselves when leaping.
Many of the jumping spiders I saw yesterday were red-backed jumping spiders, most likely Phidippus cardinalis, or Cardinal Jumper.
These are interesting because in the color and texture of their red hair they demonstrate mimicry of the multillid wasps, also known as velvet ants or “cow-killer” ants. The female multillid wasp has one of the most painful, yet least toxic, stings known to man. In mimicking the multillid, Cardinal Jumpers are likely able to prevent some predators from attacking them. Which could be useful.
As summer fades into September, college football is beginning. Our local side, the Nebraska Cornhuskers, played Arkansas State at home in Lincoln Saturday night, which was the evening of the day I spotted the colorful red spiders, adorned in very much the same color as our beloved Cornhuskers. Furthermore, the Cornhuskers were known as the “Bugeaters” back in the day (1892-1900). So do the math. Those spiders were a good omen.