Viewed with eyes of wonder, any wander in the woods is a pilgrimage. The exuberance of life is plain whether trees are leaf-laden or bare winter sculptures to bending strength. The silence of winter woods lets you hear faint things normally lost in leaf rustle, like a squirrel scraping meat off a hickory nut 40 feet over your head or a nuthatch snapping a flake off bark to get at a grub underneath.
Snow gives away how many animals get around on foot like we do, and one of the thrills of winter hikes is animal tracks. Humans first ventured into cold climates because hunting is easier in snow.
Of all the signs of life you find in snow, bluets might be the most exuberant. Even frost-resistant wildflowers dare not bloom as early as bluets. Like the mosses they often grow among, bluets produce most of their energy in winter, when bare trees let sunlight hit the forest floor most intensely.
Bluets are tiny plants happy with soil so thin and sandy it is barely there, but they need moisture. Mist and fog will do, and they can get more water from melting snow than an equivalent volume of rainfall. Wet winters answer bluet prayers, so it is no wonder they may wink from snowy streambanks.
The full glory of springtime wildflower wonder is no longer as subtle as bluets. Exotics like daffodils and forsythia have come and gone, and lenten roses were happy to see Easter pass so they coul abandon their burden of blooms.
Natives like cut-leaved toothwort are sprouting in even remnant, quarter-acre woods, and a mile or two hiking ought to yield several species of flowers, though most are small this early.
The biggest, showiest flowers bloom in another month, just before leaf-out steals the sunlight, and that is when the University of Tennessee Botany Department holds its wildflower pilgrimage. The 58th annual event runs from April 23 to 27 and offers something for all degrees of ability and ambition.
If you fancy yourself too stout to give a damn about flowers, there is a 14-mile back-country hike from Newfound Gap to Smokemont Campground that climbs 1,169 feet and descends 4,050.
If hip surgery has turned walking across a room into a hike, there are talks and slide shows by renowned biologists and exhibits of plants, photographs, art and more.
You can learn to tell bluets from bluebells or mist-net bats and hear their echolocation calls through pitch-shifting microphones. There are birding motorcades and nighttime spider hikes, fern walks and photography classes and journeys into the mountains natives and settlers knew.
People come from Michigan and Maryland to participate in the Wildflower Pilgrimage because the university’s botanists assemble dozens of naturalists from among their peers every spring and organize hundreds of hikes over several days while the exuberance of spring reaches crescendo.
When you learn to identify hay-scented fern amid a hillside of it while an ovenbird that will knit a few old fronds into a roof over its nest stakes its territory with song, you remember hay-scented fern. When you at last find a nearly invisible ovenbird nest because the female flushed and startled you right before you would have stepped on it, you realize what a wonder life’s exuberance is.
Bluets do not need a central nervous system to express how grateful they are for the bounty they are among. The long stalks their little leaves power to mount a winking, blue flower are a pilgrimage to the sky. Doubt not their faith because they lack a brain.
Which reminds me, don’t forget to visit springwildflowerpilgrimage.org to see what wonders you might want to wander among this year.