Love the Place You Live

[Ed: When Design Mom opened up submissions to her Love the Place You Live series, how could I possibly say no? It’s still magic, this new place we call home. Thanks for taking a peek!]

“Life is bendable. Let’s see what shape we can make it.”

We’re nearly two years in. Two years since practically fleeing our beloved Portland for small(er) town life. Two years since setting the intention of “a small 1960s ranch house with a big yard and some chickens.” Two years of eyes-wide-open, chance-taking, risk-accepting days. We try hard to let patience and trust lead the way. The things we expected to be hard … haven’t been. The things we expected to be smooth sailing … not always the case.

Still, this place. It has stolen my heart and returned me to something I didn’t know I’d left behind.

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The wide open skies of the high desert give us room to breathe. I still can’t get over the clouds. How did I, a Colorado girl, almost entirely forget the way clouds can tower over you, smack in the middle of a vibrant blue sky? My jaw doesn’t drop quite as far as it did in the first weeks here, but still, I am smacked with wonder several times a week. I’ve written about this before — instead of feeling lost on the vast horizon, being able to watch an entire weather system move across the land pinpoints me securely in place. I like to know exactly where I am.

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Lake life is the thing, it turns out. As a kid, I was landlocked. Then for a decade, I was sodden under city rain for months at a time. Now, I am still astonished that I can head out my front door and be in a pristine river in 15 minutes, or gliding across the silken surface of a clear alpine lake in 30.

Hosmer Lake

Hosmer Lake

Elk Lake

Elk Lake

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For the fourth, we left town in a flurry of late-night decisiveness. (The “late night” piece of that was daring, for us. The “decisiveness” piece was uncharacteristic. Go toward adventure … I’m working on that, hard.)

The Westy loaded by 10pm, we rumbled up the mountain highway toward a thick crescent moon and a place we’d never been before. We abandoned fireworks for friends under the trees, campfire smoke, stars sprayed thick and glittering … and in the morning, we woke to the clear waters of Little Lava Lake.

The mountain peaks stood sentry. We tested a kayak, SUPed (that’s stand-up-paddle, don’tcha know), and watched the girls wade for treasures and dig crawdads out from under submerged logs. We ate sandwiches and slathered sunscreen and yelled in surprise at the icy water. (It’s an amazing thing to stand in snow-melt waters while looking up at the very snowcapped peaks from which they flow. This, too, is to know exactly where you are.)

The kid and I paddled into an inlet, surrounded by tall reeds, and listened to the slap of water under the board, fish splash, hawk cry. I told her that one day, she would realize how lucky she was to know a place like this as her normal–just up the road from home.

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The Great Grain Refrain

Ed note: I wrote this weeks ago, but delayed posting it because I was getting some weird splashback from my experiment — people get offended, for whatever reason, when you change your diet and share the experience. But today, I decided to hit “publish” — because a significant number of friends are supportive and curious, and asked me for the full story. I think it’s important to share our experiences if there’s a chance we can help each other become more vibrant, happy, healthy people. If my avoiding bread and crackers upsets you or fills you with anxiety, that’s OK. I was there, once. I’m not going to start posting paranoid fringe articles about our poisoned food supply. I believe in research and I believe each body is different. I also believe mightily in the importance of food and pleasure. I’d never ask you to give up pretzels or cheesecake or a wicked good meatball sub. In fact, this isn’t me giving advice. It’s just my tale. Feel free to share your thoughts in comments — just be nice.

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Baguettes. Croissants. Grilled toast dipped into warm, golden yolks. Quesadillas. Triscuits, in handfuls, straight from the box. Chocolate cake. Cinnamon cookies. Bagels (oh, man –toasted, charred bits of garlic and sesame seeds, slathered with melty cream cheese, whoa). Pretzels dunked in hummus. Rice crackers. Bowls of oatmeal, thick with cream, swirled with brown sugar and cardamom. Pasta. More pasta. Donuts. Corn chips …

Thirty days later, it was more like this: Bratwurst with sauerkraut, caramelized onions, and stoneground mustard. Flank steak with chimichurri sauce. Sesame-crusted chicken thighs. Over-easy eggs, fried in butter (from grass-fed cows, natch) and dropped over a pile of arugula and bacon. Avocado-cucumber salad. Baby chard tossed in olive oil and sea salt. Roasted broccoli with crispy shallots. Grilled, cumin-spiked cauliflower. Pink lady apples for days. Dark chocolate. Red wine. Almonds. Mango pureed with coconut milk, vanilla, and chia seeds. Tangy yogurt with toasted pistachios. Kimchee. Kombucha. Spaghetti squash carbonara. Eggs poached in spicy tomato sauce. Sweet potatoes mashed with ghee and sea salt. Strawberry-spinach salad …

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I’d watched my best friend transform her health on the so-called “paleo” diet last year and kept saying I’d try it. Then I’d say, no effing way am I giving up English muffins or Cheez-its. I read about it and came away confused and paranoid.There were forums where people exchanged hate mail over whether or not you’re allowed to drink kefir.

I absolutely do not think all wheat is inherently bad or gluten is poison — not for everyone. OK, maybe I’m a tiny bit obsessed with how GMOs have totally mucked up our American grain supplies and NO WONDER so many people can’t digest anything anymore, but … that wasn’t why I did this. Be clear on that. I think way too many people are jumping on the GF bandwagon because they once had a stomachache or they want a miracle cure for life or because they are living in fear, in general, of the world being poisonous. That’s not me.

But I wanted to feel better. I didn’t want to (and still don’t want to) label my approach to food. And I didn’t want to feel pinned in by rules or trends. I know from experience that if I’m denied something, I’ll think of nothing else but that. I wanted to enjoy salad again. Beat the cracker habit. Reset my palate for fresh, colorful meals. Find some richly nutritious, super delicious dinner recipes. Stop buying produce only to toss it in the trash, slimy and wilted, a week later. Start cooking again, with a cutting board and knife, instead of ripping open a box.

And I wondered … could I stop waking up with stomachaches every single day? Would the scale numbers stop creeping upward? Could I feel less foggy, crabby, and lethargic? Just by making vegetables and good proteins the stars of the show? Maybe.

On January 22, reading a Facebook post about so-and-so’s weight loss on the “paleo” program, I thought, OK fine. One week. What the heck. Only, it’s not paleo. I’m not giving up full-fat dairy — there will be cream in my coffee, the occasional slice of cheese. And I won’t beat myself up for eating a piece of chocolate. Honey is still in. Wine, for sure.

I didn’t prepare, or go shopping in advance, or purge my pantry. I just … stopped eating grains. All grains. Including legumes. That day. Because the truth was, the vast majority of what I was shoving into my face was bread, crackers, cereal, and beans. If I was going to reset my palate for fresh vegetables and healthy protein, I had to go 100%. I was eating grain-based foods when I was emotional, bored, stressed, or trying to relax. And this meant, I was eating grains all of the time. Or sweets. Or grain-based sweets.

I posted about this on Facebook, and qualified it with statements like, “I’m now one of those jerks who’s not eating bread and is walking around with glowing skin. You can slap me.” Because I knew what was going to happen — people were going to be offended, freaked out, annoyed. Eyes would roll. And honestly, I was finding it pretty funny and obnoxious too. But then, my best friend called me out, with something like, “You’re taking care of yourself and feeling great. You can share that and be happy about it.” She was right.

Yes, I did get concerned notes and texts telling me that the whole thing was bogus, non-scientific. My extended family seemed nervous about inviting me over to dinner. Some friends who normally interact with me regularly via social media went tellingly quiet. Yeah. It had ripple effects. But mostly, people were supportive, excited, curious. (Interestingly, several friends quietly joined me — only most of them made a point of telling me they didn’t want to “go public,” which … well. That’s kind of awful, right? That there’s such a stigma to trying something new for your health that you need to hide it?)

I got a lot of questions. I’ll answer some of them here.

How did you start? Was it awful? And … you mean all grains?
Yep. All grains. I ate no grains or legumes at all, for what turned into 42 days (more on that later). I ate very high-quality meats, local eggs, vegetables, a little fruit, full-fat organic dairy (though less milk and cheese — mainly cultured yogurt, cream, and butter). Here’s what the first week was like: I was starving for the first two days, petulant. “But what am I going to eaaaaat?!” I went to bed angry, having not satiated the late-night Snack Beast. It quickly became apparent that I’d need to load up on produce. I’d need twice our usual number of local eggs. And since I’m very, very squeamish about meat production, I’d need to pay more regular visits to our fantastic, local butcher.

So, that’s what I did. I replaced the pile of pasta or rice with an even bigger pile of salad or roasted vegetables. I swapped the daily toast under my fried egg for greens. I upped my egg count to two, added bacon. I filled avocado halves with tuna salad. Bought toasted coconut chips to satisfy the need for sweets. Stocked up on seeds and nuts. Experimented with (holy expensive but delicious) almond flour, which, it turns out, makes fantastic pancakes. I made at least two vegetables for every dinner: a fresh salad and a cooked root vegetable or roasted cruciferous, usually. Small portions of meat replaced grain-based sides.

How long did it take to feel the effects?
Five days in, I realized I hadn’t even thought about my nightly cocktail or glass of wine. I had no cravings for bread. Sweets sounded good as an idea, but I didn’t really want a cupcake. There was a near miss over fresh, hot popcorn. But my energy was up. And I’d lost four pounds. That, in and of itself, was enough motivation keep going.

What did your spouse and kid eat? Did you make them do it, too?
My spouse wanted to try it, but caved quickly to the dietary complexities of traveling. My kid already loves to eat fresh vegetables over most other options (I know. Luck of the draw.) and has always been underweight, so I wasn’t about to overhaul her eating with restrictiveness. I made her breakfasts and packed her lunches as usual. But mostly, the reason I didn’t bring them on board was this: I knew I couldn’t succeed if I was simultaneously trying to convert a child and a partner to new eating. For this, I focused on me. And they reaped the benefits, especially at dinner time.

So what were the final results? Would you do it again?
Thirty days later, I had eaten drawers full of produce, could fit into my favorite jeans comfortably for the first time in two years, had a clear complexion, no stomachaches, and had lost eleven pounds. Probably the biggest and most fascinating surprise was this: one night, while getting up from the couch, I was stunned to realize that the mystery pain in my shoulders, hips, and knees–which had crept up on me in the last year and felt like a tender bruise inside each of my major joints–had entirely disappeared. (Some very amateur googling suggests maybe it had been bursitis? Who knows. But with a family history of rheumatoid arthritis and auto-immune diseases, I’d been worried and in more than a little denial.) Clearly, some kind of inflammation was alleviated by this dietary change — though I managed to add a small amount of yoga to my routine, my (lack of ) exercise didn’t really change. And the pain still hasn’t returned.

My meal repertoire had expanded in fantastic ways — which it tends to do when you remove boxed and bagged carbs from your options. And I didn’t miss bread. At all. Which floored me. In fact, it became such an easy way to eat, I went 45 days without grains. The streak was broken during a trip out of town, visits with friends, restaurants, and less easy access to freshly prepared meals. Even so, I found myself always looking for the healthiest options instead of devouring a massive breakfast bagel as default.

What was your typical daily menu?
See all the lists above. My standbys were:
Breakfast: over-medium eggs on a pile of arugula with bacon or chicken sausage, olive oil, sea salt, black pepper, and sometimes a splash of balsamic. Huge glass of water. French press with cream. (Sometimes coconut milk, but it never had the right mouth-feel.) If you want to get really snobby, you could insist on fair-trade Ethiopian Yirgacheffe beans, like I do.

Lunch: Huge salad with as many colors as possible, maybe some pumpkin or sunflower seeds, balsamic and olive oil — or, gomashio (my mom mixes it for me) and sesame oil. A protein, often from the night before — grilled chicken, ham, leftover carnitas, couple wedges of cheese on occasion.

Dinner: Grilled or braised meat, raw salad, and some kind of cooked veg. Or another egg dish — crustless frittata, shakshuka, a few experiments with zucchini carbonara. Occasional glass of wine. Occasional piece of dark chocolate.

Snacks: Fruit, cultured yogurt, nuts. Full-fat coconut milk/chia seed/fruit “pudding” (just toss it all in the blender with a teaspoon of vanilla and it comes out like tapioca. Pretty awesome.) Water, water, water.

So now what?
In recent weeks, I’ve had a couple of pasta dinners and felt horrible the next day. (Specifically, stomachaches.) This could be the wheat content, or it could be because I binge eat when there’s a bowl of rigatoni and a slab of garlic bread in front of my face. It’s just way too much intake, of way too many refined carbs. This week, I was sick and wanted nothing but Triscuits and cheese, with no ill-effects. So I’m not sure what the culprits are — but I’m not obsessing over it. I’m aiming for a basic rule of thumb — choose fresh foods first. Get full at each meal, but not too full. That’s it, really.

The most important thing is that I relearned some much healthier habits and reprogrammed better mental behaviors. For me, the game of choice, played while standing at the pantry door, has always been a little self-destructive and indulgent. This helped me quiet those voices (you know the ones, “Oh, just one handful of chips. OK, two. Three is fine, you can always stop.” or, “You’re too tired to chop or peel anything, just treat yourself, you deserve it!”). I also proved to myself that even with an incredibly busy life, I can eat well.

So if it’s not paleo, what is it?
As I’ve mentioned, I’m not fond of labeling an effort to eat healthfully. I don’t want it to be a thing. But, if I had to point to a basic reference or source of philosophical inspiration, it would be Nina Planck, farmers market entrepreneur and food activist.

Planck’s words on what defines “real” food:

“It’s old and it’s traditional. How old? Grass-fed beef and wild salmon are two to three million years old – in the human and prehuman diet, that is. Milk is about 30,000 years old – 10,000 at the very least. We’ve been making cheese and yogurt the same way for several thousand years.

“By traditional, I mean it’s been farmed or raised and processed pretty much the way it used to be. Grass-fed beef, not soy-stuffed, hormone-laden beef. A whole egg, not a pasteurized egg-white only liquid. And real food, of course, is real. I’m for butter, not corn oil pretending to be butter. Real food is never an imitation of something else.”

So that’s it, guys. Here’s to keeping it real.

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Above: That, my friends, is The Rebel Within — a savory muffin from Craftsman & Wolves, in San Francisco. Yes, that’s a soft-boiled egg baked inside a muffin. And yes, it was made with wheat flour. And yes, I devoured and enjoyed every single bite.

Finally.

The second bathroom has been gutted since we moved in a year ago. We had a vanity base built and installed, and I finally asked the spouse to hook up a toilet because, well. But we stopped there.

In about two weeks, we’ll be taking comfortable showers and BATHS again!

(Yes, that’s our kitchen range hood sitting on the unfinished bathroom vanity. I know.)

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Root

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The hopeful, vulnerable, reaching-out, light-seeking efforts of spring.

Squares of sunlight belie the biting breezes that sweep through a quick-opened door. Beds are still layered with thick quilts. Fat wrens peck at the thatchy grass, searching for bits.

Tis the season to try, tender and sincere.

Step into my parlor

If the kitchen is the heart of the home, we performed no less than a full organ transplant. That was an exhausting and exhilarating effort. (And no, we still have not selected pendant lights or hung the range hood or painted the pantry door. There were other things happening this summer, like, oh, the spouse almost single-handedly building 200+ linear feet of cedar privacy fence.)

The living room, though — I’d call that effort a full package spa treatment with deep tissue massage. It was relatively simple, but required thoughtfulness and a little muscle. (And two rug purchases. New kitten + new diet + shag rug = unspeakable disaster.)

We started with a dark, dingy, box with filthy wall-to-wall carpeting. Note ugly ceiling fan. The former inhabitants must have been very short — our ceilings are only eight feet high. Not happening.

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The carpets came up early in the renovation process, making way for the wood floors. The whole house was sprayed the same color (Sherwin Williams West Highland White) before we moved in.
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The fan came down, my sister washed the fireplace bricks, and that was it for the living room — moving day arrived. We dumped our couch against a wall and then pretty much ignored this space while we dug out from boxes and nursed ourselves back from the crush of our second move in a year. If it takes five years to hear the sound of a tape gun again, it will be too soon.

But I kept staring at that back wall. It was crying out for built-in shelves, a home for my 17-box book collection. For a fleeting second, we considered getting carpenter bids. What can I say … IKEA hacking came to the rescue again. We bought four of the new 15-inch deep Billy shelves, plus a set of wardrobe doors that luckily fit a unit that was miraculously the right size for our television. (We had to hide the TV. We have our disagreements, but a refusal to build the Altar to the Television God is one thing on which we vehemently agree.)

To bring the shelves wall-to-wall was a matter of measure thrice, cut once — the width of two end units had to be trimmed by several inches. About two hours with our friend the allen wrench, and up they went.

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You know that feeling when you make one relatively small change, and it’s like a door has swung open, cheerful spring breezes sail into the room, and everything akimbo clicks into place? It was like that. We’d made the room smaller, but more square — and it immediately felt bigger, warmer, more purposeful.

That’s when I went to town tearing open those 17 boxes, unpacking my long-stored collection of typewriters, tucking meaningful tchotchkes into place. My inner librarian fairly hummed with pleasure. The kid’s desk and art table slid in neatly under the window. The couch was rotated. Lamps were placed, my childhood coffee table (handmade by my dad) brought into the scene. And it was ours.

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Each of these beautiful machines has a story. The sweetheart at the bottom right is an Olympia SM3 — I figured out that it’s the same make and model as the one embedded in the 11th Doctor’s TARDIS console, only in a more unusual burgundy color.20130625-221215.jpg

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Table by dad. Embroidery/knitting basket inherited from my grandmother. (It still has a few of her unfinished crewel-work projects inside — and gorgeous needles from Germany.)2013-10-04 13.07.39

A lot of magic happens here.
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It’s passed the Christmas tree test, the sick day test, the movie night test, and the dinner party test. In the winter months, the rising sunlight slants straight through the large window for a couple of hours and makes the floors glow. It’s a good room.

First

Dear Noodle,

When you sleep, I watch your profile. You are total stillness. I love sleeping next to you, the salt-smell of your hair, your warm, thin limbs flung lightly outward. Your bird-bone hand might flutter against my shoulder and I hold my breath to keep it there.

Your profile is still exactly at it was on that sonogram image, seven-plus years ago. The upturn at the tip of your nose. The slight bloom of your lips. Your forehead, high and smooth. From your first glimmer, you were a question-mark. Not your being, but your impression upon my being. Our connection was not the instant “I know you!” as reported by the magazines. It was then as it is now — a connection filled to spilling with a query: “Who are you — so miraculous and intact and outside all prediction? Who are you — full of contradiction, all intense need and pushing away? Who are you — already so whole and so skeptical?”

I think you were almost instantly disappointed by the world and the way it squashes magic. So you brought your own. You had, I think, from the moment of your arrival, little patience for much of what this realm has to offer.

You are my mystery. You are my horizon. I carried you and could not even then interpret you. You have always been exactly you. Even inside, you slept when you should have kicked. I fretted. The contractions that brought you were upside down, at the top of my ribcage. I didn’t recognize them for what they were. You saw no reason to dilly-dally and came sliding forth two weeks early, within a few hours of announcing your intent with a shocking gush of water. (That, then, was the one time that you matched the movie-screen cliche of parenting.)

I have learned that my job is to ride your wave. To stand and stay standing, correct my angle, stay balanced. If I steer that way when you want to go this way, I will fall smashing and get rolled up on the sand. Splutter.

There was no struggle to bring you out — only holding on for dear life. I quite literally grasped the railings of the bed and lifted my body upward in an effort to keep you in. And finally they said I could push.

Oh, I should have laughed.

You could not then, and never since, be pushed.

I birthed you — but a more accurate description is this: I let go. I was your gateway, child. From a place within and above, I observed your entrance. From inside a narrow tunnel of conscious-altering pain, my work was only to let go.

You arrived all squinty consternation and bird-baby squall.

You slept when you should have eaten. I nearly broke myself trying to feed you by the book. I finally taped a tiny tube to my finger and pressed it against your high, narrow, soft-as-silk palate and tickled your chin to make you drink. I murmured and implored you. But it was always on your terms.

You taught me in those early, hazy days that when you cried a certain way, you did not, in fact, want to be held or rocked. You told me, in the wordless, forceful telepathy of infants that you wanted to be put down. So I did. And you settled and slept.

But oh, I could not stop gazing at you. You, child, were and are gazed upon with so much love and awe.

Always, you and I, we’ve had a dance of instincts. Synchronized for an instant and then utterly off-kilter. I learn, over and again, to let you lead. Our path is one of constant course-correction.

This morning I brought you to your first grade classroom. A new school in our new town. You said to me several times, “Mama, I feel so important today!” You told me that you were certain the fairies had come in the night to “extra-polish my sweater buttons!”

You brought Piggie in your backpack. Did you choose him because you remember that Piggie was the stuffed friend who saw you through your early, hard days in preschool? He used to ride with us in the mornings. He went to school too, you see, and was scared. You talked to him about it, back then. It helped. (My Piggie voice: anxious whisper and quiet enthusiasm.) You talked to him about school again, last night. (Then you looked at me and whispered, “Mama, can you stop making Piggie talk?”)

You were thrilled on the walk up the hill. You were tickled that you have a crossing guard, “Just like in the old fashioned days!” You told me that you thought the desks would be set in rows, and would open, and that the teacher would teach from a platform, with a book open before her.

You were disappointed in the flat-topped desks grouped in squares. You shushed me, embarrassed, when I pointed out a teacher walking by, a dapper man in a bow tie. You love bow ties. You do not love it when I talk too much.

And when it was time for me to leave you at your desk, you gripped my hand with both of yours, tight.

“I’m scared, mama. I want to be with YOU!” Tears. We walked into the hall and I tried to help you get it together. I murmured encouragement, I told you it was time, that I knew you could do it. That I would be right there, at the end of the day. You would have none of it. “I will NOT go in.” So I brought you back inside and handed your hand to the teacher and you gave in and hugged her leg and cried.

Oh, Noodle. Again, my basics instincts were stymied. You don’t know how hard it was for me to peel your hands away. I looked back and you were peeking at me, tear-streaked, from behind your teacher’s leg. I shot you a thumbs up and a huge smile. My heart was thudding. It was just like those many, many preschool mornings, handing you over to the day.

You didn’t want to let go. And neither did I. With a push, off we both went into Wednesday.

Discovering the yard

The previous owner so obviously loved this yard. Beneath recent neglect, I can see years of investment and work. Besides what’s pictured here, there are tulips, narcissus, daffodils, and hyacinth blooming now. I think a bush in the back corner is a spirea, in terrible need of pruning. The lavender needs attention. I’m impressed that a robust hen-and-chicks is sprawling along underneath a row of Mediterranean Cypress(?). There are tons of daisies, just shooting up leaves. Volunteer holly needs to be ripped out, and a few dead yew hedges must go.

After a bunch of research, I think our 14 juniper trees are Western Juniper. They’ve got moderate cases of mistletoe infection. I read that removing it can mess up your micro ecosystem. But leaving it can mean a slow death for the trees.

A round-up of what’s springing up. I know some of these. A few are little mysteries.

Gardeners, tell me — what are these? Common names? Bonus points for the Latin.

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Above: (left middle) strawberries; (left bottom) wild rose?

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Above: (top left) hardy geranium?; (left middle) poppy?; (top right) flax?

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Above: (top left) daisy; (right) wheat