On being a naturalist

My naturalist skills failed me today. As I was sitting in the backyard a tree started staring back it me. It was an eerie feeling to look at something and not know what it is - like a stranger stalking me. "Stranger Danger!" as a preschooler would say. I sat there for awhile, continually looking over my shoulder, until finally I had enough. I stood up, walked through the soggy grass in my socks, scaled the 5 foot wall like I always did when I was small, and stood up right in its face. Its needles are long and pointy and sharp, and the tree put up its defense by poking me. Ouch! I was undeterred. The night was black and the only light I had to see was from the neighbor's distant lamp post. I ripped off an end from one if its branches. It had enough to spare. I spotted a dark blog resting on one of the branches, and I reached in to grab a mature, open cone. I also groped around the nearby branched that sacrificed itself for my identification purposes, and I also stole a young cone. It wasn't going to ever reproduce, anyway. That tree has been there forever and I have never noticed it. Our beloved family dog, Sable, is buried underneath. So is our cat, Diedra. RIP. And yet all of the times I have been out there, sitting and gazing at the stars, or walking and climbing around the walls for hours, I've never, ever noticed this tree. It stands alone, this big, giant tree amongst my mother's landscaping and flower beds. And our long lost pets.
I jumped down the wall and went on a mission to meet a new friend, and discover once and for all what this tree is. I went straight for my Pojar, which luckily was already sitting on the table on the porch. It's a good thing to have on hand if you live on the Coast, but as I discovered earlier today, it is useless in the deserts of Eastern Washington. The key in the front led me to Pinus contorta: shore pine. Nope. I finally had to pull out the big guns: I ran to my room and pulled out my dusty (all the dust that had gathered from the last 4 years since I had touched it) Hitchcock and Cronquist Guide to the Flora of the Pacific Northwest. It is a beast. I cracked the pages to the index in front and was immediately overwhelmed. I hardly remember what a dicot is, and I certainly couldn't find the pine in here. I was trying hard to identify this mysterious tree of mine as legitimately as I could. But Hitchcock and Cronquist finally pulled me over the edge and I grabbed my computer. Google. "Pine trees in Washington State". That led me to none other than the exquisitely scientific Wikipedia. There was only several options to choose from in terms of evergreen trees in Washington state, so even in the dark, I was able to narrow them down significantly right away. I click one one name and I refer to the picture. Could this be it? Could this be that mysterious stranger leering at me in the night? I think it is. Ponderosa Pine! Pojar must have missed this one, oddly enough.
I use my superior research skills (wikipedia) to investigate. I learn that the ponderosa pine is especially adaptable to climatic conditions, resulting in 4 different 'geographic races'. So which subspecies is this new friend of mine? That question shall be answered another day, hopefully during the light of day. But for now, my hands are sappy and sticky and smells like fresh pine. All these years that we've had a fake plastic Christmas tree I've always missed the fresh scent of pine in our home. I had no idea I could simply venture outside to take in the sweet smell of ponderosa.

Good night, dear friend. See you tomorrow, in the light of day.

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