Peter Dykstra

Mother Nature is not always kind, but she has been kind enough to let me use her website to dump my thoughts on unsuspecting readers. I try my best to report and opine on science, politics, money and everything else that goes into defining our relationship with the natural world. I tend to bitch a lot, but in my defense, I think it’s because science, politics, money, and even Mother Nature and her staunchest defenders provide a lot of stuff to bitch about.

There will be no bitching today. Spring is way cool. That’s partly because it follows winter, the cruelest season. Spring has to look good compared to its predecessor, kind of like Bush and Obama. (Sorry, I know I said I wouldn’t bitch….)

So, back on the positive track, what’s the red stuff?


Diamorpha Smallii is the taxonomic name. It has another name, Small’s Stonecrop. But in Georgia, we call it Red Stuff. The Red Stuff is an endangered species, and for about six weeks in the southern spring, it’s really, really red. It’s been found in only six states in the Southeastern U.S., and it thrives in only a few places, one of which is a few miles from my home.

Red StuffHere’s how the Red Stuff works: Sand and nutrients gather in small, erosion-based depressions in stone outcroppings, like Arabia Mountain near Atlanta and its bigger, better-known neighbor, Stone Mountain. Over thousands of years, a few oddball plants take hold. In nature, oddballs are very much like they were in your high school: They get mocked in the hallways or beaten up in gym class on a regular basis.

The Red Stuff bursts out in outrageous glory in the early spring of the Southern U.S., and it peaks in the month of March. Thousands of little depressions, a few feet in diameter, blaze bright red with the small shoots of diamorpha smallii. By the first truly hot weather in May, the red blazes are gone — first replaced by tiny white flowers, then literally burned out and replaced by barren, sundried stalks bearing the seeds of next year’s crop. The Red Stuff may be an oddball, but on Arabia Mountain, it rules.

A picture can’t possibly do justice to what this looks like during the peak season: Acres of scattered, screaming-red ovals of life against a bleak background of tan and gray rock. Spring could find no better way to scream.

But it screams everywhere. In Vermont, when it stills looks and feels for all the world like winter, the sap starts to run in maple trees, not completing a marathon until it’s boiled, bottled and poured on our pancakes. On the shores of Delaware Bay, the Horseshoe Crabs — clawless, nearly brainless, prehistoric critters, stage their own spring break, with all the mating but minus the wet T-shirt contests.

Nearly every part of the country has a great natural spring ritual: In Delaware, horseshoe crabs drag their ugly little selves up on the beach during the full and new moons in May to recreate a 300 million year-old mating ritual. In March, thousands of sandhill cranes arrive along a 70-mile stretch of the Platte River in Nebraska. You can watch them on CraneCam. April brings out the bluebonnets, the state flower of Texas, carpeting huge swaths of the state. The caribou start migrating across Alaska’s North Slope in mid-March, preceding the mosquitoes by a few months.

Up and down the East Coast, dogwoods bloom, at least in the areas where they haven’t been ravaged by a fungus blight, like Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains. In the Hudson and Delaware valleys, a few diehard fishermen still snag the shad that swim up the river to spawn. In Baraboo, Wisc., endangered whooping cranes arrive back north from their Texas wintering grounds. In the Northwest, salmon defy nets, hooks, and hydro dams to swim upstream, spawn, and die. In San Diego, gray whales feed a healthy tourist whale-watching industry just by swimming by on their way to their summer home in the Arctic.

Bruce Stutz is a nature writer who’s penned some great pieces on the North American environment — including his past descriptions of the shad spawning and the horseshoe crab orgy in Delaware Bay. He wrote a book called Chasing Spring a few years ago. It’s his journal of an effort to do precisely that, from the earliest spring in the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic spring that happens just before the Arctic autumn. Stutz writes with an enthusiasm that sprouts right out of the page as he describes his own wondrous discoveries. Go chase down the book and enjoy if you want to truly treasure spring.

There will be no whining here, nor any further mention of spring being cool because it’s when baseball has Opening Day. Spring may happen in February along the battered Louisiana Gulf Coast, or in June near the Arctic Circle, but it’s cool.


Peter Dykstra is the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit. He writes three columns for MNN: Media Mayhem on Mondays, Political Habitat on Wednesdays, and Green States on Fridays. (Yes, he writes a lot.)