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Paul Willis


The Thing That Is Not

(Maianthemum stellatum)

Climbing out of Canyon Creek in September sun,
the ladder leaves of false Solomon's seal.
False. As if the flower does not measure up
to what it is supposed to be, and never will.
Known only by what it is not.
Shading all this falsity is Douglas fir—
a true positive, one would suppose,
named for the intrepid Scot who scoured
the Columbia Basin for plants and seeds
to diversify the British gardens of his betters.
But think of the scientific name,
Pseudotsuga menziesii, given
in honor of Archibald Menzies,
the botanist-surgeon who sailed along
with George Vancouver in 1792.
That part, sure. But pseudotsuga—that means
"pseudo-hemlock." As in, sort of like a hemlock,
but no. And that's not all.
Checking the index of my natural history guide
to the North Cascades, I discover
false bugbane, false chanterelle,
false lily-of-the-valley, false spikenard,
false miterwort. This habit of definition
de negativa has got to go,
in spite of its theological roots.
The church fathers—Augustine, Aquinas—
realized that God could only be described
by what he or she or it was not.
God is infinite, for example:
in other words, falsely finite.
But surely—a flower, a tree?
Can't we take them for what they are?
It's a little like calling a member of the Skagit tribe
non-white. Which, all too often, we do.
We, kemo sabe?

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