First Grade, Forever

Five-year-old me, on my way to my first day of first grade

As Hurricane Harvey curved east and north, away from its landfall near Rockport, its rampage through Houston, and its nearly total immersion of the Texas Golden Triangle, families and businesses focused their attention on immediate needs: shelter, drywall removal, mold remediation, and the complications of living without electicity or water.

More than homes and businesses had been damaged, of course. Hospitals and medical centers, recreational facilities, and schools also faced substantial challenges. Entire school districts, poised to begin a new year of classes, were forced to delay their openings for as much as two weeks.

Under normal circumstances, school days missed because of weather would be cause for celebration. But as delay followed delay, more than a few astonished parents and grandparents heard children asking some very unusual questions.

“It was odd,” said one friend. “I was watching the kids, and the youngest one kept asking when he could go back to school. I was surprised by his enthusiasm, so I asked why he was eager to go back. I was even more surprised when he told me, ‘School’s fun. We learn stuff.'”

Listening to her, I couldn’t help remembering my own school experiences. They weren’t always fun — there were those times tables to be memorized, after all — but they were filled with the excitement of discovery, and a sense of achievement. We did have a good bit of fun, and we learned stuff.

My first day of first grade came after weeks of preparation. My mother made a new dress for the occasion, and I filled my new pencil box with #2 pencils, a small plastic sharpener, an Eberhard Faber “Pink Pearl” eraser, a 6″ wooden ruler, colored pencils, and a pair of blunt-nosed scissors.

When the great day arrived, my parents and I already had visited the school to meet my teacher, tuck my pencil box into my assigned desk, and make the name tag I’d wear during the first week.

Eventually I carried my lunch, but like most of my friends I found the thought of eating a hot lunch at school exciting, so I had nothing but myself to take across the street on that first day of first grade: a very small girl who felt impossibly grown up, entering a world she scarcely could imagine.

Student teachers share a reading circle ~ Montana, 1950s

In 1956, my fifth grade year, Rachel Carson wrote an essay titled, “Help Your Child to Wonder.” In that essay, she asserted:

A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement.

And so it was, through the whole of my grade school years. Despite the inevitable frustrations and failures that accompany the learning process, and despite a natural shyness that sometimes made trying new things difficult, I loved my teachers and was well-served by them.

Step by step, curiosity and a challenging curriculum expanded my world beyond the boundaries of our small Iowa town. To be fair, the world my classmates and I encountered wasn’t always fresh, new, and beautiful — though often enough it was — but time in the classroom helped us begin to sort through the complexities and ambiguities of life.

Neither naive nor unobservant, Carson understood that children’s views of the world necessarily would be tempered by time and shaped by experience. In her essay, she added this:

 It is our misfortune that, for most of us, that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.

On the other hand, she also believed that our best experiences of childhood — the simple joys of curiosity satisfied, of discoveries made, of knowledge gained — could be reclaimed. As she put it:

If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow.
Once the emotions have been aroused — a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love — then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response. Once found, it has lasting meaning.

True as that may be for children, it’s no less true for adults.

My relationship with Andropogon gerardii, a grass commonly known as big bluestem, could serve as an example.

Known as “The King of the Prairie,” big bluestem was one of four grasses which dominated the great American plains. In combination with little bluestem, Indian grass, and switchgrass, it provided forage for herds of buffalo, deer, and elk; today, the species still provide excellent forage for cattle and wildlife.

Big bluestem on the open range ~ Chase County, Kansas

When I first encountered big bluestem in the Flint Hills of Kansas, I recognized it both by its height and also by its “turkey foot” shaped seedhead. I was so taken with its beauty, I began looking at other grasses more closely. Eventually, little bluestem and bushy bluestem became familiar, but other grasses remained a mystery.

On impulse, I gathered a clutch of grasses during a day’s wandering, and brought them back to Texas. For nearly a year they languished in a floor vase, while I made vague promises to myself that “someday” I would learn their names.

Finally, an opportunity arose. Tom Adams, the botanist who confirmed my recent identification of swamp milkweed, was holding a workshop designed to be “an introduction to the basic identification of grasses, using hands-on dissection of diverse species.” I decided to sign up, despite some puzzlement over “dissection.” Who in the world dissects grass?  I wondered. And what is there to dissect?

In the first five minutes of the workshop, I got my answers. People who want to identify grasses dissect grasses, and we were going to dissect the spikelets of fifteen native grass samples, using the needles, tweezers, scalpels, and loupes laid out before us.

To say I was overwhelmed would be an understatement. I might as well have been back in first grade.

Still, as the day progressed, I became less awkward with the dissecting tools, and more comfortable with the vocabulary.  When I discovered the word ligule lurking in the midst of the lemmas, glumes, paleas, and culms, it was like finding an old friend in a crowd.

I recognized the word from a song written and performed by a favorite Kansas group, the Tallgrass Express. Titled “The King of the Prairie,” it always had amused me that someone would write a paean to a grass. Still, it was a nice tune. Perhaps, I thought, I’ll finally learn what “ligule” means.

And so I did. Like spikelets, ligules differ from grass to grass, making them one of the most dependable ways to identify a species. Whether I’ll be able to identify all the grasses in my floor vase with certainty, I can’t say — but I know where to find their ligules, and I have a song to enjoy while I work.

The King Of The Prairie
Oh the Big Bluestem grows on the prairie’s Great Plains
He can handle the heat and a month without rain
He blankets the pastures with tall purple stems
In the warm summer evenings they dance in the wind
In the warm days of April his first blades will show
And start drinking in sun to send carbon below
The roots take that energy to make the grass grow
In the cycle of life the Big Bluestem knows
He’s the King of the Prairie; he’s the tallest of all
He’s green in the summer and red in the fall
He grows high on the ridge and in the meadows supreme
The cows and the calves love his kingdom of green
He’s the cattleman’s favorite with his bushy green leaves
Those heifers and steers he surely can please
His roots go down twelve feet, his stems reach up nine
When they burn off the prairie, he grows back just fine
He has riches of rhizomes and ligules and blades
And he wears his crown low by the soil for shade
A turkey foot serves as his scepter so high
To carry his seeds for the next summertime
His roots are a fact’ry ‘neath the ground of the plain
They build up the soil and drink up the rain
Those roots grip the ground in the flood and the storm
And hold the grass up to the sunshine so warm

Every time I listen, I smile a little more, and I’ve listened so often in recent days I nearly have the words memorized. “The King Of the Prairie” is botany with a beat: a fun song that’s filled with information, easy to sing, and perfectly fitted for first-graders of any age.


Comments always are welcome.


113 thoughts on “First Grade, Forever

  1. What? Learning times tables not fun? Oh horrors! In some early grade, probably first or second, we had the assignment of drawing what we’d eaten for breakfast that morning. In the upper left corner of the page I drew simple forms representing things like an egg and a glass of milk and a piece of toast. Then, having fulfilled my assignment, I filled the rest of the paper with numbers.

    A song in praise of big bluestem? Who knew? It’s clear the study of the glume brings no gloom to you.

    1. I thought you might catch that throwaway line about times tables. At least I finally memorized them. I could recite them right now, if anyone asked, but no one’s asked in a while — probably sixty years.

      It’s fascinating to me how some people are innately comfortable with numbers, while others do better with words, and still others with art. I never would have filled a page with numbers, that’s for sure. I learned to use them in practical ways, but I never got the delight from them that some of my classmates did, and that you obviously do. I don’t worry about it, since I can function perfectly well in all the ways that require math, but I do find it curious.

      That big bluestem song delights me no end. Tallgrass Express is the same group that wrote Clean Curve of Hill Against Sky,” which may be my favorite of their songs. It’s good driving through the prairie music.

  2. This whole essay is a treat from start to finish, and then a nice song for dessert. You’re always learning neat stuff, and passing it along in a fascinating presentation, so thanks.
    I’ll pass this along to my aunt, and when she sees that picture of you off to school, she’ll say, with 100% certainty, “Just look at those curls!!” :)

    1. Oh, those curls. My mother was a great fan of patent leather shoes and Shirley Temple curls. She grew up with a cobalt Shirley Temple milk pitcher on the breakfast table during the Depression, so I suspect her affection for the curls may have been rooted there.

      If anyone had suggested to me when I began blogging that I’d one day be writing about grass dissection, I would have laughed them out of the room. But “write what you know” can be terribly limiting. It’s much more fun to get a hunch, or ask a question, or have an experience, and then begin toying with it. Sometimes a draft will sit around for years, like this one did, with one piece and then another attaching itself, until it suddenly comes alive. I’ve had the big bluestem song sitting around for five years — just waiting for the right time.

  3. Identifying plants is very detailed. I had a short introduction for trees and it seemed to be a lot of eliminations to get to the tree to be identified. Very tedious.The first day of school is so special. I clearly remember my first day of kindergarten and the first words I learned to read in first grade. We did not even start reading until the second part of the year. My kids started reading at age 4.

    1. It is detailed — far more detailed than I’d understood. That’s one reason the workshop was geared toward helping us identify only the genus. For my purposes, that will be perfectly adequate, and it’s going to take some time even to achieve that. Of course, when I first became interested in Texas wildflowers, I categorized almost everything as “pretty flower,” so I know that progress is possible.

      I read so early that I don’t have particular learning-to-read memories, but I certainly remember the reading circle in my first grade classroom. Our little wooden chairs were painted in primary colors — red, yellow, and blue — and the fingerpaints we used were the same colors. What I remember is the first day I combined blue and yellow. What a revelation!

  4. Fascinating, and a real truth about why school isn’t all bad, and a reminder of how much I hated the plants section of Biology (and how I’d like to go back and do it again, so that I’d learn) — and yes, I, too, gasped, “FINGERCURLS!!” :-)

    1. I don’t even remember a plants section in biology. I remember pressing leaves between sheets of waxed paper in autumn, but I suspect that was a grade school art class, not biology.

      Of course, the older I get, the more I find the gaps in my education. As solid as my foundation was, there’s so much more to learn, and do. Choices have to be made — no one can know everything — but the beauty of it is that, once “out of school,” there aren’t any limits on the curriculum.

      It tickles me that you noticed the curls. That’s one of the best things about the photo. If Mom had posed me and taken a frontal view, they wouldn’t have been so obvious.

  5. Ooooo, lovely.
    My son would say “I hate school” in middle school, but he went off to school quite happily. He went as an exchange student to Thailand in 11th and said that half the time his teachers didn’t show up. He said, “I found that I like school and want the teacher to show.”
    Taking photographs and going outside is that return to childhood and magic and joy for me. Last night I walked to choral practice and surprised a doe with two spotted fawns. Mom moved forward a bit and then I photographed the fawns walking very carefully and stiffly, like mother. Just lovely.
    And I like the song! Science is so fascinating, all those WORDS to play with.

    1. Having words to play with is delightful, and the workshop certainly reminded me how important vocabulary is in any new endeavor. Without precise, agreed-upon meaning, plant parts could be mis-identified — just as in other situations sailboats might go aground, or diagnoses miss the mark. What’s lovely is that it’s possible to be perfectly accurate and playful at the same time — that’s what makes “The King of the Prairie” so appealing.

      You’re in a wonderful spot to enjoy both the outdoors and photography. Being able to encounter fawns and their mother is special enough, but I’m sure being able to share the images and the experience is equally satisfying. Maybe we should call blogging “show and tell for big people.”

      I’m with your son on the issue of teachers showing up. Of course, some teachers aren’t especially skilled or knowledgeable, but if they show up every day, they’re at least teaching something about responsibility.

  6. “Botany with a beat,” I love that. I had forgotten how much I love your writing. This was a treat. You have a beautiful way of bringing interesting elements together in a very enjoyable read. This is a nice start to my day.

    1. It’s so nice to see you, Teresa. I’m glad you enjoyed the piece; there’s nothing like a cheerful song in the morning to make the day go better. Thank you, too, for your kind words about my writing in general. That brought a smile.

      Do you have big bluestem on your land? I didn’t realize that it’s native there, but it seems to have been an important grass in your state, too. This is a nice summation of its characteristics and its distribution. I think the days of my equating grass with a nice spread of bluegrass or bermuda are just about over.

  7. Botany with a beat! A delightful and informative song and essay. Both made me smile.

    I am always intrigued by what interests you and learn each time you share. This essay also prompted some childhood memories of my early schooling.

    1. When the phrase “botany with a beat” came to me, I smiled, too. And isn’t it true that added knowledge about something we already enjoy can add value? I’ve always liked “The King Of The Prairie,” but now that I know something about the plant and its environment, I enjoy the song even more. I suspect I’ll also see the grass itself differently the next time I encounter it.

      Based on your curiosity and eagerness to learn about the places you’re traveling, I suspect you enjoyed your formal schooling, too. Now? You’re just on an extended field trip.

      1. I was curious and loved to read, but my teachers always reported back to my mother that if I spent less time visiting in class I would know what the lesson instructions were all about. A little ADHD perhaps given a chaotic home. I bailed on serious high school studies, something I always regretted, and finally achieved a college degree in my 50s. And now it’s one big field trip. Love that!

  8. From your first day of school to grass identification. You never lost your love of learning. I love those long curls, by the way. Sweet photo. I wish I could remember more from my school days but what I do remember are not good memories, so that’s probably why I don’t recall more. The photo of grass collecting in the spiral notebook reminds me of a book my husband made in 1954. I still have it, can you believe the samples are still holding up!

    1. It seems to me that unpleasant memories fade more quickly than pleasant ones, unless we make an effort to hold on to them. Thinking back to some of the worst experiences of my life, and some of the more unpleasant situations, I can recall them, but it’s as though they’ve been drained of emotional content. They remain as “just the facts, ma’am” kinds of experience. On the other hand, these pleasant memories of grade school days remain fresh and vivid, apparently without any effort on my part at all, and always bring a portion of happiness with them.

      A couple of years ago, I went to an exhibit about Lindheimer in New Braunfels. Some of his herbarium sheets were included, and I had the pleasure of seeing plants pressed and dried by Lindheimer himself. I have a photo of one sheet that’s dated 1845, so I’d say your husband’s will be around for a good while.

    1. Well, thank you for that, Pit. I seem to recall that you’ve done some teaching yourself, and I suspect that your students remember you as fondly as I remember mine.

    1. After I read your post about your storm damage, I wondered if some native grasses might be a nice addition to some of that open space. I had no idea that we had so many colorful native grasses that can be used as accents, and that can be kept from taking over the world.

      It’s amazing how much help even the slightest bit of information can be. Just knowing the names of the different types of seed heads, like spike, raceme, and panicle, can at least narrow down the list of possibilities for identification.

      I think I started out being pretty proud of those curls, but after a while, the demands of a grade-school life — like dodgeball and monkey bars — made them more trouble than they were worth, even for my mother. For a while, they stayed around for special occasions, and then they were gone. I wish she were still here to tell me when it happened.

  9. I had the worst time memorizing my times tables. Still don’t know them! I’m firmly of the belief that if God had intended us to do math in our heads, She wouldn’t have given us calculators!

    That’s some set of Shirley Temple curls, kid. My mom wouldn’t ever let my hair get that long when I was a kid. To this day, I hate my hair short. First thing I did when I left home was grow my hair out. My mom is of the helmet hair generation — short (less than 4 inches long), teased up and poofy, and sprayed with hairspray until it wouldn’t dare move. She goes to the beauty saloon once a week, they fix her hair, and it stays that way til next visit.

    1. While I was searching for the correct name of those pink erasers we used, I came across some sets of vintage math flash cards: addition, subtraction, and multiplication. Just seeing them took me straight back to our living room, where my dad and I would sit every night during one long year, working with those things.

      Somehow, I’ve assumed that you’ve always had long hair. You did a good job of growing it once you got control of things. I laughed at that “helmet hair” reference. I still see it from time to time. Remember the fad of wrapping freshly-done hair in toilet paper at night? Once I remembered that, it was a short slide down memory lane to orange juice cans and Dippity-Do. What an era.

      1. Satin pillowcase is what she uses. She also sleeps like she’s laid out. My dad used to comment that with her hands folded on her tum, her elbows were like tank traps. Shoulder length was as long as I was ever “allowed” to have my hair when I lived at home without getting Mom-nagged. Every morning I would rat it up, spray it down, and glop on all that makeup. Once I left home for the AF, the makeup got dialed way back, and no more ratting. I have really fine fly-away hair and all that ratting just trashed it and split the ends terribly so I had to keep getting it cut. After I was in the AF, I would braid it down the back, loop the braid over so the ends were tucked in at the base and use a large silver clip to clip the braid to the back of my head. It was neat, in regs, and out of my face. Took me maybe five minutes to do. (I still wear it that way on occasion.) When left to my own devices, I’m pretty low maintenance.

  10. Love the photo of you heading off to first grade. I’m not at all sure my folks took one of either me or my sister, and unlike you, I really don’t remember much about that day. What I’m sure of is that somewhere along the way, I developed a love of lifelong learning, a curiosity about things, an eagerness to research. And all those traits are exceedingly necessary for a writer!

    Glad you helped satisfy your own curiosity by taking that workshop. It sounds like way more work than I’d want to invest in the subject, but I’m eager to soak up the knowledge you gleaned!!

    1. It’s not important where or when we first became aware of the world around us, and curious about it. What’s important is the curiosity itself, and the willingness to learn. I’ve always loved research, and still do, although the form it takes has changed substantially over the years. But I remember those long afternoons and nights in the libraries with great affection. I still can call up specific study carrels I preferred and the smell of the stacks. I suppose it’s akin to the difference between books and electronic readers.

      Well, who knows? Maybe some detective along the way will solve a crime by noticing a patch of native grass that’s been planted on that perfectly manicured golf course. Curious about why it’s there, he engages the services of a botanist, who goes out with him to examine the patch. Then….

  11. That is such a fun and happy song! Botany with a beat! You are such a gift to all of us!

    The photo of you leaving for school is just precious. Who wouldn’t love that lovely young gal who basked in unconditional love?

    Unlike you, I skipped part of my first day of school! My playmate Wanda and I were so busy playing at recess that we missed hearing the bell. When we realized we were tardy, we hid our bashful selves for the rest of the day!

    My mother was the second-grade teacher, and I’m sure they knew where we were and decided the best would be to ‘let them be.’

    That’s so great that you attended that workshop and continue to learn/soak in new experiences.

    1. I’m just so fond of that song, and the group’s work in general. The next time I’m in Kansas, I’m going to check their schedule; it would be fun to hear them live. They’re quite a crew, and it’s always fun to remind myself of their history.

      Given your love of horses and your history with them, there’s another song of theirs I’ll pass along. It involves a young girl, and her first solo ride home. I think you’ll like “Runaway Nell. Here are the lyrics.

      In a bit of a coincidence, my mother’s name was Wanda. I certainly laughed at your technique for dealing with that missed bell. Did anyone ever say anything to you about it, or did they just let “listen more carefully” be the lesson of the day, and move on? The story amused me especially because it reminded me of my freshman year in college, when there were still dorm mothers, and curfews: 10 p.m. during the week, and midnight or 1 a.m. on the weekend. Missing curfew, even by five minutes, was considered a serious infraction, so the obvious solution was to — stay out all night, and come back once the doors were unlocked in the morning! If someone didn’t arrive in time for bedcheck (bedcheck! in college!) we’d cover for one another. When I hear the complaints of today’s “feminists,” I often think, “Sister, you just don’t know.”

      1. Thanks for the link to the song, which is loading now. Ditto for the lyrics. I am one who is guilty of having up to 20 tabs loaded, and they stay there until I can read them – usually offline. What’s frustrating is when I get home and find ‘page cannot be found.’ — older versions worked better.

        No, Wanda and I did not get in trouble, and no one mentioned our absence. I was ultra ultra sensitive, and if my mother scolded me for the slightest thing, I would cry – deep remorseful tears – I never wanted disapproval…. Wanda was pretty sensitive too, and we were both tomboys and thrived outdoors. I was also a bookworm, ha, you can understand that!
        It would be spooky to experience what it’s like in dorm life these days. I remember an art student wrote me once during her freshman year and was heartbroken. she said it was like being in a candy store – every drug available was there, and if a boy asked you out and you didn’t sleep with him, you weren’t asked out again.. she had written because she was ‘dumped’ on a county road after saying non, and walked back to the city….

        oh the art teachers! they often serve as sounding boards, and if teacher raises a guarded concern, then perhaps they should rethink their plans…. anyway, for sure, i would not want to be in that environment without the wisdom gained from years and years of experience.
        what’s on your plans for the weekend? you reap the most from your free time – an inspiration for many who ‘have nothing to do’ with their free time! i’ll be taking another load of ‘stuff’ from the cloud forest back to poza honda… and next week will drive back to jama in hopes of getting the rest of my things from casa loca. last trip they were digging a big canal between the gravel road and the house, and the excavator had broken down. dud for the trip!
        enjoy your weekend and i’ll be back online at some point next week.

      2. the song is a fun one! yes, it seems that the most stubborn horse suddenly finds its energy when heading toward the barn… i’ve witnessed many friends struggle with that runaway horse, especially if they head for the barn at an ‘easy gallop’ with no knowledge that a spirited horse will bolt into full throttle!

        one friend confessed that he knew little about horses and when his horse bolted, he leaned forward and put his hands over the horses eyes! he seemed genuine – what a unique way to stop a runaway horse!

    1. Yes, ma’am — sausage curls, although back then they were known as pipe curls, or Shirley Temple curls. They didn’t last very long into grade school, but they made for a great first day of school photo.

      If you click on this link, you can find sound clips from one of their CDs. There are some similarities to traditional music of your new area. I suspect both you and Dr. M might like it.

      When I was in Kansas, I talked to an old man who remembered riding the prairie as a kid. He said that grasses were so high they were far above his head when he was mounted on his horse. Riding the open range was an experience of grass and sky like no other.

    1. Then you learned them well, Janet. I remember them, too. Heaven knows enough effort was expended getting them into memory.

      I just checked, and was glad to see that the links for your new post about the writing workshop are fixed. Both the email notification and reader sent me to a blank page yesterday, and I was going to let you know. Now there’s no need — it’s all good.

  12. Beautiful photos and a very interesting and thoughtful blog, Linda. I think that having a thirst for knowledge and learning is a beautiful gift and does help rekindle those magic moments of childhood when we view and learn from the world around us for the very first times. I still find myself in a childlike state of awe and excitement when I discover things for the first time, or even when I rediscover things all these decades later. Something to cherish and hold onto :)

    1. You’re right that rediscovery can be as thrilling as discovery. Seeing something familiar in an entirely new way is wonderful. Getting a macro lens certainly was that kind of experience for me, and your posts after you received your new lenses were filled with that same kind of excitement.

      I do think it takes some effort to hold on to the pleasure of discovering the natural world, as well as its cultures and peoples. We’re becoming increasingly detached and passive, for a variety of reasons, but with a little creativity, we can keep and expand on the connections we cherish.

      I’ve toyed with the thought that the best course for many people would be “Remedial Living 101.” It amuses me to ponder the list of subjects that could be covered: “Put Down That Phone,” or “The Proper Response to ‘Thank You’ Is Not ‘No Problem.'” Of course, I have just a bit of the curmudgeon in me these days, so there’s that.

      1. I remember the first time I really looked at a tree near my local rver, an old willow, and in focusing I saw how beautiful the deep fissured bark was, and the lattice pattern it made. And how long green moss hugged some of its boughs like a comfortable cloak, and looking even more how within that moss lichen grew so small and splendid, and tiny mushrooms had spang up amongst them. Just from that focus and for these moments I was in fairyland, joyous and excited at the wonder seen before me.

        I must be a curmudgeon, too, for I happen to agree with you there, Linda :)

  13. I remember school like you do, Linda. But it’s great to hear someone today wants to go back because it’s fun! I understand they have more homework than we did!!

    1. I’m not sure about the amount of homework being given, but I do know that there are occasional moves being made to reduce it. I remember grade school homework being worksheets, the occasional book report, and in the higher grades research papers, but otherwise it was mostly learning spelling and vocabulary words, and of course those flash cards for math. It could be a little tedious, and always was finished before supper, leaving plenty of time for reading or play. Well, except for the flashcards. Those came after supper, when my dad had some time to work with me.

      It is wonderful to know that some kids still enjoy school. An acquaintance who teaches said the response of her students generally was interesting after Harvey. It was as though the forced absence from school actually helped some realize that they’d rather be in school than not. It’s a good sign.

  14. The curiosity of children comes naturally. Everything they discover is new and exciting. They believe in monsters lurking beneath the seas and fairies that live in forests.

    It seems that in growing up many lose that curiosity when conformity and behaviour becomes the most important. This is a pity.

    This is a great article, and it is just as true that some also keep the creative process.

    Thank you, Linda.

    1. They not only have vivid imaginations — able to see those monsters and fairies — they also have an ability to see beauty and interest in the ordinary things of life. When we’re young, the lily is enough. As we age, we’re tempted to believe that only gilding will make it of value.

      It’s easy to become impatient with an ever-questioning child, but the adult who can find ways to take the questions seriously — and sometimes answer one or two! — is doing the child a tremendous service.

      The wonderful truth is that conformity to reasonable social norms, and good, decent behavior toward other people aren’t opposed to either curiosity or creativity. Thank goodness we can keep both throughout our lives.

  15. What a delightful post this is! So fascinating and enlightening. Loved it. Glad to see the little Linda with all those curls and confidence heading to school. I admire the flow of your writing, the way you build up that curiosity in your reader. That was a lot of learning about the simple grass and all the new words. Now I have this cheery song on the Bluestem to play this morning! Thanks Linda for the great post! Hope we nurture and satisfy that child like curiosity in us and continue seeing ‘ a world in a blade of grass and heaven in a wild flower’!!
    Happy weekend!

    1. That’s one of my favorite poetic stanzas, Rethy, and I very much like the way you revised the good Mr. Blake to fit the situation. I’m glad the post brought them to mind, and I appreciate your kind words about the post.

      It was wonderful fun to learn all those words — they sounded funny to me, at first — and then to begin to put them in their proper place. Now that I’ve learned a few, I enjoy the song even more. I think my grasses like it, too, but they’re not saying.

      I wondered if Emily Dickinson had considered the grasses, and indeed she has. You may know this poem, but I hadn’t encountered it. It fits perfectly, I think:

      The Grass so little has to do
      A Sphere of simple Green
      With only Butterflies to brood
      And Bees to entertain
      And stir all day to pretty Tunes
      The Breezes fetch along
      And hold the Sunshine in its lap
      And bow to everything

      And thread the Dews, all night, like Pearls
      And make itself so fine
      A Duchess were too common
      For such a noticing

      And even when it dies – to pass
      In Odors so divine
      Like Lowly spices, lain to sleep
      Or Spikenards, perishing

      And then, in Sovereign Barns to dwell
      And dream the Days away
      The Grass so little has to do
      I wish I were a Hay

      1. Yes, I know this one Linda. Love the way the Grass threads dew drops into pearls or sways to the tunes that breezes fetch. Still Emily feels Grass has nothing much to do! Probably bowing to everything the way they do is not so desirable.

  16. Let’s just hope that the spirit of a child never dies out and that we will always have the ability to reach back and rediscover that spirit ourselves from time to time.

    1. That certainly is my hope, Terry. I think the changes in the seasons can jump-start that spirit. When I saw the NWS Missoula forecast for valley snow early next week, I had a sudden vision of you and Buster out cavorting. Who has more fun than a boy and his dog?

    1. Isn’t it amazing, Oneta? I’d never considered that grass is so complex, although it makes perfect sense that it should be. Flowers have lots of parts, and birds have lots of parts, and we have plenty of parts, too — so why not grass?

      I learned while I was writing this that one of the “big four” prairie grasses is the state grass of Oklahoma. Of course it’s the Indian grass! That one’s a beauty, too. It’s also tall, and sometimes is called yellow Indian grass because of its beautiful color. I think I’ve seen it, but I’m not sure. So — something else to look for.

  17. Anything to do with prairie grasses I love. I’m familiar with little blue and big blue. Switch grass and Indian grass and a few others.

    Your first day of school looks like you had your hair in Shirley Temple curls. Very adorable.

    1. I was looking through my photos last night, and discovered a handful of very nice grass photos. I don’t have a clue what any of them are, of course. The good news is that I know where the photos were taken, so I can get back there this fall and be a little more intentional about identifying them. Some are so feathery and delicate — they really are beautiful.

      I did notice last weekend that the bushy bluestem is getting tall. It’s still green, but when it turns that lovely rust color, it will be very nice, too.

      Ah, yes. Shirley Temple. Those are her curls, all right. I didn’t mind them, although I could get a little fidgety while the process was going on. There’s one of those Olan Mills photos that shows them in all their glory. I need to see if I can find that, just for grins.

  18. I can still recall sitting in the bath before bed and reciting the times tables with my Mum. My father was a botanist (as I’m sure I’ve told you before) but I remember him bringing home flowers for identification and watching him as he checked through the facts of the plant and compared them with a Flora. I too learnt words like ‘glabrous’ from him and a whole dictionary of Botanical terms, many long since forgotten. I don’t think he was too interested in grasses – I think he much preferred flowers.

    1. I confess that I prefer the flowers, myself. That’s one reason I’ve been slow to learn about the grasses. I’ve seen them primarily as a background for flowers: albeit an attractive background. But over the past three or four years, they’ve begun to differentiate themselves one from another, and become more interesting in the process.

      Apart from that, scientific method is scientific method, whatever the object of interest, and learning to go step by step, slowing down enough to really observe the details of an object, is invaluable.
      Working with the grasses, I couldn’t help thinking of Audubon, who dissected birds in order to learn how to paint them. Painting the surface of a bird is one thing. Painting a bird with an intimate knowledge of its bones, muscles, and feather structure is something else — and it’s probably the reason most people can spot an Audubon print.

      1. There’s a restaurant that we go to near here that has four Audubon prints hanging on the wall. I spotted them the moment I walked through the door and was thrilled by them.

  19. I am enjoying the King of the Prairie song, and all the pretty words which detail the parts of the grass. Who would have thought there was so much poetry and music in a blade of grass? I am glad we keep on learning ‘stuff’.

    1. Lemmas and rachemes and spikelets — O, my! It’s a whole new world out there on the grasslands, and since I do enjoy the prairies, it seems only right to learn a little about what makes them what they are. I have been surprised by how many colorful grasses we have here in Texas. I’ve seen a few, but somehow it never occurred to me that they were natives. Silly me.

      Poetry and music abound in nature. One of my favorite childhood hymns began with the verse:

      This is my Father’s world, and to my listn’ing ear,
      All nature sings, and around me rings the music of the spheres.

      I found a lovely Elaine Hagenberg arrangement of the tradition hymn that I suspect you’ll enjoy.

      1. Oh I enjoyed the arrangement very much. So much, in fact, that I spent most of the afternoon listening to Elaine Hagenberg’s compositions. And here’s my ‘silly me’ moment; because of your post I have finally worked out what the blue grass in blue grass music means.

        1. Ah, bluegrass — the best grass in the world for barefootin’, and some of the best music in the world. We’ve got a bluegrass association here in town that provides free monthly concerts and opportunities for jamming with other musicians. It’s not the bluegrass riches I found in Utah, but it’s still great.

  20. Nice little tune. I remember at some museum there was a display of the grasses of the prairie showing their root systems, how deep they were. pretty impressive, roots 6, 9, 12 feet deep on those grasses. I imagine going to that workshop was much like my first day in Geology class when we pulled out the drawer with the tray full of little of rocks we would be expected to learn to identify.

    1. I think your experience in geology class was a great parallel to what I experienced. Not only was I clueless about the grasses and the vocabularly used to describe them, I had no idea what some of the tools were — or at least what they were going to be used for. A scalpel’s pretty easy to identify, after all, but I hadn’t expected to be wielding one.

      I love rocks. When I travel, I’m as likely to bring back a bag of rocks as anything else. I’m pretty selective, but I have a few special ones: a red rock Abiquiu, a crystal from Arkansas, a whole assortment of fossilized Texas clams and snails.

      Have you ever done anything incorporating rocks into your art? I have a sudden vision of glass wrapping rock — an artful variation on Rock, Paper, Scissors.

  21. Oh, how I loved school, from kindergarten through grad school. I even became a professor in middle age, putting me right back in those hallways filled with the wonderful scents of paper, linoleum floor cleaners, and still a few pencil sharpeners here and there! I love your grass lesson, and I think I’d enjoy dissecting a few of those stalks myself. I don’t think I’ll ever stop wanting to learn about things, even things I would never have imagined wanting to read about. Sometimes I come upon an article about, say, oysters or coal or agriculture finance, and I plan to just read the opening line or two, and suddenly I’m hooked and deep in a 20-page read!

    1. That’s how it happens for me, too, Lexie. Something catches my attention, and the next thing I know, I’m reading about the soybean market or circus cemeteries. I have a new customer whose boat name contains the symbol µ. I can’t remember the second half of the name just now, but when he confirmed it was the symbol mu, I asked if it related to his work. Indeed it did — and now I know a bit more about relative permeability and capillary pressure in the oil and gas business. I don’t know much, and I really didn’t need to know anything. But it’s interesting, and it provides a starting point for conversation with a new customer.

      I laughed at the linoleum floor cleaner. There’s a hotel in Blessing, Texas, that smells just like my grandparents’ house. It’s a combination of wood polish, floor cleaner, breezes instead of air conditioning, and good smells from the kitchen. And, yes: there still are some linoleum floors.

      It’s funny — I became a teacher in Liberia solely because a teacher was needed. It was wonderful, and I learned that oh-so-true lesson: if you want to learn something, teach it to someone else.

  22. Pink erasers and plaid dresses. (And those riding metal and wooden desks replaced over time by fake wood tops.) First grade was such a great opening – fall always seems like the beginning of a new year even now.

    (I know people moan about reciting tables, but recently realized those math tables, like sight words in reading, were all about fluency in the subject. You know them so well that the brain doesn’t have to waste time or energy and can focus on the more important concept. Probably both well worth the time – along with hand writing which produces much more than legible words. Not a math person, but have begun to see it’s more than was taught to us – if that makes sense.

    Oh, the grasses now. Just this morning I was watching a large patch of ordinary stems wildly waving their little hands in the wind – they all seem to know the answers – maybe we should pay more attention to them? Cool class – cool King!
    And so much nicer to be younger than that now.
    Enjoyed the post

    1. I don’t know about your experience, but for me, the “way it’s ‘sposed to be” is school opening after Labor Day. The excitement of the new school year was considerable: partly because we’d be back together with friends who’d spent the summer at camp, or at their grandparents, or on vacation with their families.

      And even though we weren’t “in school” during the summer, it didn’t mean an end to learning. There were visits to the bookmobile, day camps, Vacation Bible School, and summer jobs. Summer work always was a learning experience — in some important and practical ways.

      What you say about math does make sense. Eventually, the geometry and algebra that had been completely opaque to me began to prove useful — when I started sailing and had to navigate. Today, I can be fascinated by things like the Fibonacci series, but my understanding still is limited. (Check out this great cartoon.)

      There’s a new grass that’s just popped out on all the medians — perhaps it’s the one you’re seeing. It’s structure is fairly simple, so I may be able to identify it this weekend. As with so many things, being able to rule out a few options in the beginning can really help.

  23. I love that photo of you on your first day of first grade. How cute, and your mother made a very pretty dress for you. Kids do have a lot of curiosity. I think that you never lost that. Your interests are varied, and you never seem to lose interest in learning something new. How lucky are we that you pass it on to us.

    1. I don’t know whether any child can fully appreciate their parents’ gifts, but my mother was a fabulous seamstress, and even as a kid, I knew it. She went beyond dresses to make slacks, blazers, and even coats. She made all of my dolls’ clothing, too. What she didn’t sew, she knit. I particularly remember a skating outfit she knit for my Terry Lee doll: skirt, sweater, jacket, and a little hat with a pompom on top. I never picked up the skill — probably because I didn’t have the interest. But while she was around, it didn’t make any difference.

      That’s the key, isn’t it? We’re not going to learn about what we’re not interested in, so the first step is learning how to be interested. That’s an interesting thought, all on its own.

  24. What a delightful timely lesson for me. Fascinating! I’ve been admiring various graces being planted here in Southern California as we alter our landscape to more drought resistant plants. I’ve been considering some grasses for my parkway area but have progressed only to noting my response based solely on visual observation. Soon I will need to identify them by name and learn more specifics about them.

    1. As it happens, one of the things we were asked to do prior to this workshop was to familiarize ourselves with the use of a dichotomous key. That mysterious tool turned out to be fairly simple to use. In fact, one provided by the Texas Forest Service helped me identify some salt cedar I’d found in bloom a couple of years ago.

      Before that, when I began searching for information on keys, the first one I found was related to California grasses. It’s a wonderful page, with a basic vocabulary, information on how keys work, and links to every sort of resource concerning California grasses. It should, since it’s put out by the California Native Grasslands Association. It might be useful to you in the future.

      I love the little unconscious substitution in your second sentence: your reference to various “graces” being planted. That’s perfect, really. Grasses not only are graceful, they’re also a gracious addition to the world.

      1. I chuckled when I reread my typo “graces” ‘cause the grasses I see are indeed graceful. Thanks for the link! I recall coming across that site months before I was thinking about grasses and had completely forgotten about it. That information will be very helpful.

  25. I simply love your writing, Linda. This post brought many emotions for me. Socially, school was difficult for me. I just never fit in. I spent more time trying to deal with the cruelties of kids than I did focusing on studies. I suppose I did well, carrying good grades, but I do not remember much benefit or amazement of learning at the time. I have learned more in the last ten years living on this place than I did as a young person. There were other factors that contributed to those young learning years, that made for unhappiness and difficulty. I made it through is all I can say.

    But here… being so immersed in nature I find a tremendous blend of what I did learn in school – so maybe it wasn’t all wasted! Biology, science, writing, a little math, research and art – I find myself tapping into those old roots of learning, and today I have such an appreciation for it all.

    We are looking at a “Wetlands Restoration” program for the pecan orchard property. Restoring to native grasses – like Bluestem – is part of the plan, if it all comes to fruition. I am so excited about this possibility! I find many of the native grasses fascinating and quite beautiful… especially as they change color in the autumn months. We hope this land will benefit wildlife, and be a place of learning and appreciation for all.

    1. It sounds as though you’ve discovered the same thing I have. Course work that didn’t seem particularly relevant or useful at the time can reemerge even decades later, and help enrich life, or solve problems. When I began sailing and navigating, geometry and algebra suddenly became useful. Once I started exploring the world of plants, my Latin classes gave me a basis for understanding plant names. Those hours devoted to grammar, rhetoric, and vocabulary have benefits that are less obvious: until I start writing, and discover that the stash in my little word-pantry is larger than I realized.

      Given the time you’ve already devoted to your land, and your understanding of it, it makes perfect sense to me that you’d want to begin a process of restoration. I just recently learned that the piece of burned prairie I featured here used to be a rice field. If they can turn that rice field into prairie, you certainly can transform and enrich part of your environment. Can you imagine Daisy and her friends standing hip-high in a field of native grasses? I certainly can!

  26. Great memories. I loved school from day one. At one time I thought I could be a perennial student, even when I began teaching! The treasure of learning never leaves us, and there is always so much we need to learn. Lucky us. And lucky we are to have friends like you who continue teaching us things we never knew we didn’t know.

    1. I’m not surprised you were a school-lover. You’ve been learning your whole life, academically and otherwise. Beyond that, you seem to have a good sense of a great truth of life: some things aren’t worth learning, and setting them aside gives us more time and energy for the important (fun, enjoyable, useful) things.

      It just now occurred to me that two of the more derogatory terms people use are “know-nothing” (rooted in the so-called “Know-Nothing” political party, perhaps) and “know it all” (sometimes synonymous with smart aleck). Between those two extremes lies a wonderful world of curiosity, discovery, and learning: and thank goodness for that.

  27. Botany with a beat. I love that! In fact, I’ve been saving this post till I had time to savor it because I knew it would be all the things I love in a Linda post. Nostalgia, stories of your childhood, something intriguing and new and that full circle. It’s also intriguing. Loved the music and I’m so glad you showed the diagram with the ligule. See, we learn something new every single day — or should!

    1. If learning with song is good enough for Sesame Street, it’s good enough for me. Wouldn’t it be fun to have a whole series of songs for various grasses? Why should Big Bluestem be the only one with a song? I just might suggest that to the Tallgrass Express crew.

      One of the reasons that full circle you love works so well is that it’s an integral part of the learning process. We talk about learning curves, but I’ve always thought of the learning process being more like a spiral: like a Slinky toy held up and allowed to drop toward the floor. We learn, and then we experience, and then we learn more: moving ever deeper into the subject at hand. It might not be the best analogy, but it does allow for the great truth of life: there’s never an end to what’s left to discover.

    1. The prairie does have its praises sung in a variety of ways, communicating everything from the experience of life on the edge of civilization to the greater movements of history. Just for grins, I did a search for “songs about the prairie,” and some real gems appeared. Most of the songs I’d never heard, but as a born-and-bred Iowan, I know the Sons of the Pioneers, and they have one of the most lovely.

  28. The cruelest shock of learning is being told by our peers that everything we once held in awe was “stupid” and thereafter we rush to shed wonder after wonder until we are thoroughly cynical teenagers.

    I suppose it is different for each person but eventually, hopefully, as we mature, we rediscover that all the “stupid” things are truly awe inspiring.

    1. And I don’t think we can discount in this new and improved age the response of parents, who are living, breathing examples of — well, something. I witnessed an infuriating little scene the other day. A youngster, perhaps five or six, had discovered something under a tree, and was pleading with his mother to come and look at it. Mother was so completely engrossed in her cell phone the best she could do was walk over, give a cursory “Ummm…” and go back to her phone. The poor child, obviously deflated, took another look, and then headed off after his mother. The magic was gone.

  29. Now, grass dissection sounds like something I could get into. Not as messy and gross as the worms and frogs I did in high school biology class. I took a sick day, with Mama’s permission, the day the teacher brought in a pre-dissected, Oh, Lord, I hate to say it…… cat. I just could not do it. As much as I love critters, obviously, I was not cut out to be a veterinarian!

    I might start taking closer look at some of the grasses (weeds, most likely) that are growing in our so-called lawn. I might learn something.

    So much to know and so little time!

    1. Oh, those worms. I remember them as being a foot long and an inch in diameter. Of course, I remember my biology teacher, Sarah Gracey Brown, as being eight feet tall with eyes like bunsen burners, so there’s that. Did I ever tell you my frog dissection story? After I discovered it was possible to remove the skin whole, I did just that. Then, I flattened it out, dried it for a while, and then took it home. I put in on my mother’s pillow, just under the bedspread, and waited. It was worth it.

      Yesterday, I was sitting at a red light when I looked over into the median. It was filled with a pretty, foot-high grass that I’ve seen everywhere. Lo and behold, it turned out to be Bermudagrass. I guess I’ve never seen it unmowed.

      1. Oh, you bad, bad girl! LOL

        We must be related; I freaked my Mama one time by holding up a live hog nose snake to the bathroom window. She’d just gotten out of the shower and was wrapped in a towel. She let out a shriek that rivaled the local fire department’s siren. I was too old to be spanked but, boy, was she mad at me.

  30. Interesting you join these topics together in your post. First off, those are beautiful pictures. The first one is like a movie still. Well, glad you’ve fond memories of your school days. School was not fun for me when I was growing up in HK. Not the primary school (primary 1-6) but beginning junior high (we called Form 1-3, your gr. 7-9) school life began to be a bit more interesting. And when I got to Form 4 (gr. 10) I moved to Canada with my family. School was a culture shock then. As for the grasses, here’s a tidbit, botany was in my mind when I was pondering upon a college major. Just pondering. :)

    1. Grade school wasn’t all pleasure. I took some teasing about my pink plaid framed glasses, for one thing; after that, I chose my frames instead allowing my mother to do it. Eventually, I got out of those Shirley Temple curls, too.

      Have you ever written about the changes you experienced in school (and otherwise) after you moved? I can imagine that it was quite different, but I don’t have any real sense of what the changes might have been. Perhaps there was more freedom? or a less-demanding curriculum? I’m sure that cultural differences generally required some adjustment. I think about some of the differences I encountered when I moved to Liberia, and how mysterious some seemed — it was challenge enough for me, and it had to be even more of a challenge to you as a high-schooler.

      I’m not surprised that botany might have crossed your mind as a choice. Even now, although books and film are the primary focus of your writing, your love for the outdoors and especially for birds comes through. Thank goodness we don’t have to have only one interest in life, eh?

  31. I can only imagine what was going through that 5 year old girl’s mind as she walked through the school gate. I, on the other hand, was terrified and thought my mother had abandoned me. Those teachers looked very elegant.

    1. Even though we’d been so well prepared, I’m sure I felt some apprehension: or maybe it was only excitement. I’m sure that living across the street from the school helped. On the playground at recess time, I could see my house. If that hadn’t been the case, I might have felt abandoned, too!

      I do remember the oddest details. My first grade teacher got married that year, and our class gave her a gift of four Pyrex mixing bowls: the old fashioned ones that came in assorted sizes and were red, green, blue, and yellow. Now that I think about it, it was the perfect gift from a class that was learning its primary colors. I wonder if it was accidental, or if the mothers knew what they were doing?

  32. What a lovely tune to wrap up a thought-provoking piece. Learning isn’t so much an activity as a mode of being in the world, and it doesn’t take too long in the classroom to discover who has and who has not imbibed this nectar. But the good news is that most people just need to find the right catalyst to fuel the fire that is learning and then they discover that curiousity knows no limits, as you so amply demonstrate!

    1. It is a great song, isn’t it? And your description of learning as “a mode of being in the world” caught my attention. It brought to mind familiar words generally ascribed to William Butler Yeats: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

      I’m more cautious about quotations these days, so I consulted my favorite Quote Investigator, and found that the words don’t belong to Yeats, but to Plutarch.

      Quote Investigator says the aphorism probably originated with a passage in the essay “On Listening” in Plutarch’s Moralia:

      For the correct analogy for the mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting — no more — and then it motivates one towards originality and instills the desire for truth.

      Suppose someone were to go and ask his neighbours for fire and find a substantial blaze there, and just stay there continually warming himself: that is no different from someone who goes to someone else to get some of his rationality, and fails to realize that he ought to ignite his innate flame, his own intellect.

      Even better, he explains in the linked article how Plutarch’s words probably got transferred to Yeats. Not every rabbit trail runs through the woods!

      1. I was so very taken by the mistaken collapsing of separate quotations into one. It reminds me of the importance of my task of helping students to know that proper citing is no mean skill!

  33. I think most of us have cherished memories from the time in school. I certainly had, at least from the first years. Maybe later on school became more like a burden, but I don’t I ever disliked it. I think grass dissection sounds like fun, but we never got into that when I was in school. :-)

    1. I wonder if one reason school becomes more burdensome in the higher grades might be that our own developing interests aren’t always in synch with what the educational system thinks best for us. The freedom to explore is curtailed in order to meet the requirements of the curriculum. Once we’re freed from all that, we can follow own path, and begin to enjoy learning again.

    1. In her book Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor writes, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” I’m beginning to think she was right.

      it’s so nice to have you stop by, Cynthia. I’m glad you enjoyed my time-travels.

  34. This is a delightful post, Linda…sorry I’m late commenting, I’ve been preoccupied and am very behind on email. It’s so cool that you took that class! Grasses are not as easy as flowers and trees, but they’re beautiful, and intriguing. Have a good weekend!

    1. There’s never any need to apologize here, because here there’s never any “late.” All of us know (or we should) that there’s a life outside these blog pages — and thank goodness for that.

      You’re right that grasses aren’t easy, but as I’ve put my macro lens to them, I’ve found they’re far more beautiful than I anticipated. Of course, that’s what I’ve discovered with flowers, and insects, and insects as well. There’s not only a world “out there,” there’s quite a world “in there,” and it certainly is intriguing. Happy weekend to you, too — I hope your find some beauty and intrigue yourself!

  35. Dissecting grasses, who knew? But then delving into anything deeply offers its own rewards. It is, however, the photo at the top of the post that stopped me in my tracks, taking me back to a long forgotten childhood memory: sitting in my treasured dress with the black taffeta skirt while mom and grandma practiced the high art of hairdressing to give me Shirley Temple curls.

    1. I certainly never imagined grass dissection as the path to knowledge, but I never imagined there were four hundred or so species of native grasses in Texas, either. If I come to the point where I can distinguish one genus from another, that will be enough for me, although I confess I’m in awe of people who’ve dedicated themselves to these different fields (pun not intended) for so many years that they truly are experts.

      Taffeta. I’d forgotten taffeta. My skirt was red, with a black velvet top: and none of that silly velveteen. It was real velvet, and luscious. I just read a post by another woman who’s a rancher in Montana now. She and her sister had Shirley Temple curls, too. Shirley had quite the influence in her day.

    1. Thank you, Lavinia. It’s a time of my life I remember with great fondness, and I’m intent on recapturing some of its best aspects for my remaining years of life.

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