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Author Bruce Stutz, 'Chasing Spring'

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Here in Washington it's still cold and gray. The trees are bare, and only a few misguided daffodils and day lilies have poked shoots above the ground. Up in New England you won't see green for a while. But down south, the azaleas are budding out and spring is just about springing.

According to author Bruce Stutz, spring doesn't so much spring as lurch across the country in fits and starts, in a rhythm that's changing, he says, with global warming. Stutz spent several months following the season, a story he recounted in his new book, Chasing Spring: An American Journey Through a Changing Season.

Bruce Stutz joins us now from our New York bureau.

Hello there.

Mr. BRUCE STUTZ (Author, Chasing Spring: An American Journey Through a Changing Season): Hi.

ELLIOTT: So Mr. Stutz, what was it that set you off on this quest?

Mr. STUTZ: In the fall of the year, I had had heart surgery to repair a broken heart valve that was fixed. And once it was fixed, during my recovery period in the winter, I realized that my spirits were flagging and decided that what I wanted to do was to renew my spirits and my health by following the spring season. The trip begins at nine hours of daylight and ends up at 24 hours of daylight in the Arctic.

And by the time I reached the Arctic and experienced 24 hours of light, and the intense growth that's going on around you, you begin to realize how much a part of the world you can be when you're just surrounded by change and by light.

ELLIOTT: Now, wherever you went on your trip, it seems you found evidence of changes in the way springs arrives. I'm thinking, for example, in Colorado there's less snow on the mountains and that can set off a whole chain of effects.

Mr. STUTZ: What I found was, in the Rockies and in the mountains in the West, one of the problems has been less snow, and since these mountains depend upon the snow pack to provide water for the areas downstream, winter snows are very important. I kind of looked at it, since I was looking at my life in relationship to the spring season, was that in 1950, in the year I was born, the world's carbon emissions have gone from 1.5 billion to 6.8 billion tons.

ELLIOTT: Tons per year, you mean?

Mr. STUTZ: Yes. And the carbon dioxide level since 1950 has gone from 310 to 380 parts per million, and it's done so faster than any time in the last 20,000 years. And so what's happened is, is that spring has been undergoing a change. It's a very altered spring from what we've known over the last 30 years. In Washington, for instance, a study done by the Smithsonian found that of 100 species, 89 of them now flower five days earlier than they did 30 years ago.

ELLIOTT: Now, what do we know about why that is? Is the reduced snow pack part of a global warming trend? Or is it caused by something else, maybe drought?

Mr. STUTZ: No, the reduced snow pack is caused mostly by the temperatures that are happening up in the mountain areas, and so that there is a lot of precipitation in the mountains, but the precipitation is falling as rain, and so the rain in the winter runs off and runs out into the streams, and by the time summer comes, when the areas below are depending upon the snow melt for their water, that snow melt is no longer there.

ELLIOTT: Mr. Stutz, you talk a good bit about the ways average people can sort of notice this, whether it be something blooming a little earlier or noticing birds in your backyard that maybe wouldn't have been there a few years ago at this time of year.

Mr. STUTZ: One of the interesting things is, is that the map that every gardener knows, through which they decide which plants will survive in which area, has changed...

ELLIOTT: Which zone you live in determines what you plant.

Mr. STUTZ: Exactly.

ELLIOTT: Right.

Mr. STUTZ: Right. And so that zone, map of zones, has changed over the last 30 years so that plants that would once not survive in Pennsylvania, say, now are able to be planted in Pennsylvania and further north. So these are kinds of things that people have begun to notice on their own and don't have to go very far in order to either appreciate spring or appreciate the changes in spring.

ELLIOTT: Now it seems the cycles of nature might be out of whack, but people still greet spring with the familiar traditions. You and your family have your own spring tradition. You search for mushrooms.

Mr. STUTZ: Yeah, one of the events for me and for my children in spring were always the arrival of the morel mushrooms, and they're the one mushroom that comes out in spring, and all the other ones come out in the fall. But the morel mushroom is a sure sign of spring, and it has an earthy smell and an earthy look that seems to represent the development of the season.

ELLIOTT: Now, will you read for us from your book?

Mr. STUTZ: Yes, this comes when we're out in the forest and we actually are looking for the morel mushrooms.

(Reading) To see them, we'd lie down, all of us on our bellies, flat out on the ground, and turn our heads in the hope that by scanning the dark pallet of the forest duff from this vantage we'd see against our low horizon morel mushrooms standing. If at this moment a hiker came through the woods, I don't know what he'd think. I don't know what we'd tell him. Anything, I guess, but that morels grow here. I remember realizing that the mushrooms were not quite as important as the ritual of the going out in the woods in spring, of our children pressing their cheeks to moist warming soil and knowing the exhalations of the spring earth.

ELLIOTT: Bruce Stutz is the author of Chasing Spring: An American Journey Through a Changing Season. Thanks for speaking with us.

Mr. STUTZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.