It’s about this time of year that I begin getting distracted on the trail. I stumble over tree roots and rocks more, my attention diverted from the trail itself to three, five, 10 feet into the neighboring terrain. Scanning, constantly. I grow quieter on group hikes; my responses to fellow hikers limited to a delayed “right” or “sure,” wondering later if I offered to bring a main course to a pot luck.
It’s early, I know, not even mid-February. Still, you never know. It’s been relatively warm, sufficiently wet … down there somewhere may be that harbinger of spring that means so much more than a groundhog seeing its shadow. Down there, somewhere, the first budding wildflowers of spring, the season’s true first responder. (Well, first true visual responder; the spring peeper often weeks it out as the first aural hint of the season.)
Tiny, delicate, these early risers desperately need those first rays of the season for energy, to fuel their growth, to survive and prosper. The oaks, the elms, the hickories, the beech of the lofty reaches of a deciduous forest can afford to sleep in; dominators of the forest canopy, they have all summer to hog precious sunlight. Down here on the forest floor it’s a another matter. Spring wildflowers have a narrow window. They must work fast to meet their needs. They have a week, two tops, before the flora a level above leafs out and blocks the sun. Then the level above that an so on up the food chain until the understory — dogwoods, redbuds — begin the massive suck-up of sun, drawing the curtain on the spring wildflower show. But that’s a ways off.
Today, the focus is on the forest floor, in search of the first, delicate droopy mottled leaf that will, shortly, yield an equally delicate yellow petal with maroon pinstripes. That first trout lily is hard to spot, but once it presents itself, a dozen neighbors step forward, then, a little ways up the trail, a dozen more. Or, if you’re not on higher, drier, rocky trail, if you’re hiking a lowland prone to wetness, your first sighting may instead be a spring beauty, a lovely (and yes, tiny) white petaled bloom that is more apt to emerge en masse, as a carpet of white blanketing the forest.
So yes, maybe I am a little ahead of the game (though Dave Cook in his “Piedmont Almanac” writes of the third week in February: “On slopes with southern exposure the first trout lilies and spring beauties might adventurously appear.” But the temperature was in the 70s last week, it’s in the mid-60s as I write. And the sun is unfettered by clouds to do its life-giving thing.
Too early? Perhaps.
But close enough that I can’t take the chance of missing out.