Human Gophers

dirt engineersDigging holes is sweaty business.  Although the temperature is dropping theoretically, it’s still hot enough to be dripping with sweat at the end of a digging session.  Over the summer I had the idea to take a few of our excellent logs and partially bury them around the second sand circle to make a pathway.  Inspiration for this idea came from the kids last spring, who were using most of the pots, pans and small metal bowls as stepping stones around that same sand circle.  It was imaginative, creative and innovative.  The only problem was, it damaged many of the brand new little bowls that weren’t designed to be stepped on.  The logs seemed like a plausible alternative.

For most of the summer, just a few logs lined the concrete sand circle curb.  A few weeks ago, I started in on them again.  The rains were helpful in softening the ground and I kept at it, mostly in the afternoons when no one else was on the playground.  This week I shifted my plan and started putting the logs in while the kids were at recess.  The log project took on a whole new life.  Of course, there were the questions:  “What are you doing?”  “Are you digging?”  “Why are you digging?”  My favorite:  “Why are you digging up the logs?”

A curious initial crowd gathered around and several children wanted to help.  Getting the concept across that standing in the middle of where the digging was going on wasn’t the most effective way to help was a preliminary challenge.  There was a core group destined for digging and got their hands on the shovels regardless of who else was present.  These kids know how to dig and stayed with me on more than one occasion.  They cleared dirt from holes, measured the holes’ depth with spoon handles and offered their expert engineering advice whether it was asked for or not.  When each log was fitted into its hole and the top was level, they scurried after the task of filling in dirt around the log like a bunch of human gophers.  They stomped dirt next to the log to pack it down, stood on the log to check its stability, and tested out the distance between logs for stepping accessibility.  It was a full-fledged engineering operation.

Just as impressive as the engineering was the collaboration.  Although it was a little chaotic when the shovels and logs first arrived on the scene, eventually everyone who wanted a turn got one.  Three-year-olds and third graders, girls and boys, quiet and high energy kids, all pitched in.  Communication and collaboration are key components of STEM and STEAM education.  Sand and dirt are frequent materials recommended for STEM work in early childhood education. I saw firsthand how sand, dirt and collaboration all came together with the hole digging project.  I’m certain it will be followed by many similar projects, at the Seed and in the individual lives of children.

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Makers

tie dye shirtIt’s no secret that innovation is on our minds.  As we pursue the conversation, timely and relevant material keeps coming our way.   The idea of innovation fits perfectly with our staff’s growing interest in incorporating more of the STEM activities (science, technology, engineering and math) into the curriculum at all levels.  We’re devoting this year to taking a close look at our current practices and reflecting on how we can adjust the curriculum to add depth and meaning to all of our students’ learning.  Always we keep in mind what is best practice for children.  John Dewey, one of America’s greatest educational reformers, once said, “ The school must represent present life — life as real and vital to the child as that which he carries on in the home, in the neighborhood, or on the playground.”  We take this idea seriously as we balance out the twin responsibilities of giving children a full childhood and at the same time ensuring that they are prepared to meet their futures academically, socially and emotionally.

Our work with innovation has brought us to the idea of “makers,” a term that has been furthered by the work of Dale Dougherty (http://www.ted.com/talks/dale_dougherty_we_are_makers).  Dougherty explains that America was built by makers, and making, fueled by curiosity, inspires innovation.  This is not a new idea to the Seed, having been makers throughout our careers, both on the teacher and student level.  STEM education is filled with endless invitations for children to be makers.  Already this year children have tested out their creative hypotheses with everything from tin foil and pipe cleaners to index cards with a small amount of tape.  What’s equally exciting is that STEM is now evolving into STEAM, adding in the arts.  This works for the Seed, giving our artists free range as engineers.  Angelo Patri, in Invent to Learn:  Making, Tinkering and Engineering in the Classroom, said, “Playrooms and games, animals and plants, wood and nails must take their place side-by-side with books and words.”  The power of this blending is immense.

You’ll have a first-hand exposure to our artist-engineers next Thursday when we bring out the dyes for the Seed’s annual Tie Dye and Tile Painting Day.  One of the school’s most popular events, children and parents will make beautiful art in a big way as they twist and tie rubber bands, marbles and other small objects into a shirt.  Color blending will follow, bringing science into the picture.  Each artist will leave for the day with a surprise in a bag.  On Monday morning, an array of colorful new shirts will fill the Seed’s hallway.  It will be a celebration of makers, a splash of color, a burst of inspiration for all the world to see.

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And Then It Rained

submerged tree I knew it would be a rainy day schedule, based on how hard it poured Sunday night.  I just didn’t know the extent of that schedule, for the Seed and the rest of the valley.  Reminiscent of snow days when I was a kid, it was the first ever closure for the Seed due to weather.  As the morning unfolded and a delayed start of school became a full closure, I knew we were in for a different kind of day.

There was a period of time during which newscasters requested that only emergency workers leave their homes.  Being the rule followers that we are (depending on your definition of “rule follower”), Bill and I decided we’d go check on the Seed by walking the 3.5 miles between our house and the school.  When we left it was still raining, so we grabbed our boots and umbrellas and set out.  We passed flooded parking lots, water retention areas swollen with rainfall and waded through ankle deep run-off.  Along a small canal we noticed a nursery with well-watered cacti and saw the tiniest frogs I’ve ever seen hopping away from the canal enroute to higher ground.  At Vineyard and 28th Street there was so much water moving from the golf course to the canal that it formed a small waterfall.  One of my favorite sights was two beautiful horses standing together on a island of dirt, completely surrounded by water.  Before I could get my camera out for a photo, they gingerly stepped down from the mound and into the muddy pool.

It rained on us the whole way to the Seed.  Needless to say, we were soaked by the time we arrived, even with umbrellas.  We expected more water in the parking lot, and were pleasantly surprised to notice mostly just mud left over from earlier 40th Street flooding.  The playground was a different story.  The water level was higher than we’d ever seen it, including a “moat” around Gwen’s Castle.  Both sand circles were pooled and two of the trees were submerged by at least a foot.  The flood created a shoreline like we’ve never had.

Each day since Monday, the water level has diminished.  The moat has been absorbed into the earth and mud is drying up.  Children have gathered along the shoreline, floating newspaper boats out into the water.  Metal bowls  launched as boats now rest on the re-emerging grass.  A new crop of mosquito larvae was discovered, with ideas for how to prevent them from maturing.  One child asked his mom to make sure Bill and I left the water for a few more days.

There is still dirt in the Seed parking lot and evidence of erosion is prevalent around our neighborhood.  Our lives were inconvenienced by an overabundance of rain, a storm billed by some as a 100-year flood (similar to those we had in the 70s), but other than that, life goes on.  On this thirteenth anniversary of September 11, 2001, I recall images of debris and human lives raining down on New York City, and am thankful that our rain was just water.

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Nutrition Mission

tasting fruitOur schoolwide seedfood curriculum is in full force. Preschoolers are cooking bean soup and banana muffins.  Toddlers are tasting different types of fruit.  Lists of nutrition terms are growing longer and even in P. E. classes children are matching food colors with the colors of hoops.  It’s inspiring to see such enthusiasm for food all around the Seed.  We started our nutrition focus last September  and have carried it on throughout the year.  The support from our families has been remarkable and it’s gratifying to see how much awareness and concern there is for children’s nutrition.  For a bit of history, check out this link (http://www.awakeningseedschool.org/2013/08/nutrition-revolution/).

All of this food talk has made me think of my own food journey, particularly in the last five years.  Although I’ve tried to eat consciously since the 1970s, it wasn’t until recently that I’ve been truly passionate about food.  When I decided to go gluten free five years ago, it was transformative for my health and it also brought me back to cooking again.  I discovered that making food can be a creative practice with life-enhancing benefits.  Conversations with a friend helped me get organized by introducing me to mise en place, a chef’s practice of prepping the small parts before assembling dishes (http://www.awakeningseedschool.org/2011/09/everything-in-its-place/).   Beautiful food at farmers markets presented invitations to try different vegetables and I started paying attention to heirlooms, for both eating and gardening.  I also took it on as a personal challenge to use as much of our backyard produce as possible.  I have to say that the internet has provided a wealth of information to fuel my foodie  tendencies.  One of the best discoveries was freezing pesto in silicone mini-muffin pans.  All the basil that came to fullness around the same time gave us nearly a year’s worth of pesto to enjoy.

My food journey took another turn in 2011 when I was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer.  It was cancer that instigated my love affair with cauliflower and brussels sprouts.  While in recovery, a friend sent me The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen, written by Rebecca Katz.  She writes so eloquently about the cruciferous family of vegetables—broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, kale and cabbage—and their antioxidant properties that have been shown to reduce cancer risks.  As I explored ways to prepare them, a whole new world opened for me.  Heidi Swanson’s recipe for brussels sprouts (http://www.101cookbooks.com/archives/goldencrusted-brussels-sprouts-recipe.html) made me a life-long enthusiast and I know I’m healthier because of all the crucifers in my diet now.

My latest food adventure happened this past spring when I was introduced to the Whole 30® as described in Melissa and Dallas Hartwig’s It Starts with Food (http://whole30.com/itstartswithfood/). Following the vegetarian version, I’ve been able to eliminate sugar from my diet (okay, I did eat a LOT of Irish chocolate in July).  It’s most importantly brought awareness of how certain foods, particularly sugar, affect my health.

I’ve always been a passionate learner of topics I find interesting.  It’s apparent that an added piece of my mission is to disseminate information that holds potential for improving the lives of children.  In this case, I guess you could say it’s my nutrition mission.

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Mud and Technology

iPads and a bunnyOne of my favorite Seed images is retired keyboards in the outdoor classrooms with dirt balls nearby.  I love the side by side juxtaposition of technology and mud.  In fact, when asked, I often say the Seed specializes in dirt and technology (quickly adding creativity, kindness, instilling a passion for learning).  I first said the “mud and technology” comment half jokingly during a new parent tour and it seems to have stuck.  I think it’s a great metaphor for what we’ve always tried to do at the Seed—keep our hands touching the earth while maintaining one foot on the cutting edge of new ideas and technology.

On Friday I was hanging out with the 3rd/4th graders and was privy to an innovative “mud and technology” learning experience.  The kids worked in teams to look for creatures in the outdoor environment.  Each team had an iPad and they searched the dirt and rocks for signs of wildlife to photograph.  The photos were downloaded to Project Noah (http://www.projectnoah.org), “a tool to explore and document wildlife and a platform to harness the power of citizen scientists everywhere.”  People from all over the world participate and in addition to helping kids identify unknown living creatures, they learn facts, add questions and share what they know.  It’s an exciting way to connect technology with the natural world.

While snooping around with iPads in hand, we made an interesting discovery.  Near Gwen’s Castle, a child noticed what appeared to be a pile of animal feces.  “Poop.  Yuck!”  Taking a closer look, in the vicinity we found three slightly bloody rabbit feet, a furry white tail, and a grayish mass with green matter inside.  Once everyone who saw it got over the shock and disgust of finding random rabbit parts on the Seed playground, the questions started.  “What killed the rabbit?”  “Where is the rest of it?”  Several children expressed how sad it was that the rabbit died this way.  I reminded them of the whole prey/predator cycle and that it’s the way of nature.

Over the weekend I thought about the rabbit, the poetry we’re just beginning to write, the emergent curriculum, and our emphasis this year on innovation.  As I prepared for my poetry lesson today, the rabbit again came to mind.  I chose questions poems to read to the kids and talked about questions as a way to write poetry.  Thinking of the rabbit, we brainstormed a list of questions:

• What animal ate the bunny?
• What was the bunny doing before the attack?
• What type of bunny was it?
• Was it the same bunny Erick saw?
• Where was the rest of the bunny?
• Was it killed in the day or night?
• How did the bunny get in the school[yard]?

These questions could lead us in a variety of directions, some factual and others pure speculation.  We may not answer all or any of them, but one thing for certain, the practice of asking questions will guide our studies throughout the year.  For questions open doors, and it’s likely when our students open the door to the outside world their experiences with both mud and technology will serve them well.

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Why Innovation?

observersIn the spring we brainstormed taglines for marketing.  One that popped up was “inspiring innovation since 1977.”  When it came time to put together a new t-shirt design, it popped up again.  As I worked on the design, the phrase hung around and it was apparent that, over the years, inspiring innovation has had many layers at the Seed.  It’s a process that, in my mind, is worthy of becoming an intention.  One thing led to the next and before our prep week was completed, we had an exciting focus for the year ahead.

As soon as innovation became an actual intention, all kinds of resources came into the picture.  Being a TED talk frequenter, I found a clip of a school in the Bay Area called the Tinkering School (https://www.ted.com/talks/gever_tulley_s_tinkering_school_in_action).  It reminded me of project days when I taught second grade students who are now walking through the door as parents.  I came across a link to a talk by Derek Cabrera speaking about his students at a prestigious Ivy League school who don’t know how to think because they’ve spent most of their school lives prepping for tests (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dUqRTWCdXt4&noredirect=1).   When Lesley, our 3rd/4th grade teacher, made a professional development presentation to the staff about iPad use in the classrooms, we watched a talk by Will Richardson (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ni75vIE4vdk), who explained that there is a growing generation of children who are teaching themselves.  Through internet access, they are learning to play the piano, develop skills as cinematographers and follow their passions.  Will describes them as “children who are not waiting for a curriculum.”

One of the most helpful resources I found was an article called “Five Discovery Skills That Distinguish Great Innovators,” an excerpt from The Innovator’s DNA (Dyer, Gregersen, and Christensen, 2011).  They describe five characteristics of innovators:
associating - (connecting fields, problems or ideas that others find unrelated)
questioning  – (to understand how and why things are as they are and how they could be changed)
observing – (to gain insights for new ways of doing things)
networking – (talking with and listening to others who may have a radically diverse perspective on things)
experimenting – (constantly trying out new experiences and piloting new ideas)

When I looked at this list, I saw the faces of generations of Awakening Seeds, many of whom are now parents, artists, writers, teachers, lawyers, doctors and engineers.  Frequently I am told how much the Seed has influenced their lives, how the Seed taught them to think and love learning.  They are innovators, changing their worlds in significant ways.  There is nothing on this list that is new to the Seed.  We are revisiting it because we value these qualities.  We want to ensure that each child has frequent opportunities to ask questions, make connections, observe the world, try out new ideas and entertain diverse perspectives. Our hope is that they will grow up inspired, excited about learning and not having to wait for someone else to provide them with a meaningful, relevant curriculum.

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First Ireland

Inishmor This morning a parent asked me how many first days of school it’s been for the Seed.  Thirty-eight, to be exact.  More than half of my lifetime.  I’m feeling calmly excited about this year we’re devoting to inspiring innovation.  Before I start writing about school, however, I need to write about Ireland.

In July, Bill and I flew to Dublin for the biggest adventure of our lives together.  We rented a car and quickly figured out driving on the left side of the road and how to navigate the roundabouts.  We were a team.  After a day in Dublin, checking out the Old Library at Trinity College, we headed to County Clare in the West of Ireland.  The first few days felt like being in a movie.  After eight months of studying maps and researching destinations, it all seemed so familiar.  My interest in County Clare, particularly the Burren area, came from the work of John O’Donohue, an Irish poet and philosopher who was born and grew up there.  John wrote and spoke so eloquently about that place and I wanted to stand on the landscape so dear to his heart.  The Burren is a remarkable area of rolling, weathered limestone hills.  The cracks or “grikes” in the limestone form unusual patterns which invite the imagination’s wildness.  It’s an ancient place with both historical and archeological sites.  I felt connected to this area, where John is now buried, after passing unexpectedly from this world at the age of 52 in 2008.  I understand firsthand why he loved the Burren and County Clare so much.

Before heading north along the west coast, we took a ferry to Inishmor, the largest of the Aran Islands.  They are situated in the outermost part of Galway Bay, facing out into the wide Atlantic.  We weren’t allowed to take our car to Inishmor, so when we arrived there were a dozen or more drivers with vans, trying to entice us to see the island for a price.  Instead, we hired a weathered man with a red horse-drawn cart for our tour of the island.  This turned out to be a highlight for both Bill and me.  The man, whose family had lived continuously on Inishmor for 300 years, had been driving visitors around in his cart since he was fifteen.  He talked of the island’s history, his family, and the island’s delicate dance between sustaining life there as it is amidst the rapid infusion of technological developments.  We decided later that it was our closest encounter with the old Irish traditions and ways of life.

There were other places that captured our hearts and imaginations—the Markree Castle in Sligo, Connemara’s misty mountains, the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, and the Hill of Tara, where the ancient High King gathered his people for ceremonies.  Each place with its unique weather and landscape offered just one more glimpse of Ireland’s complexity.  It’s one of those places that stays with you, long after you’ve crossed the Atlantic and returned to American soil.  Ireland’s mystical wildness continues to float through my dreams, sparking my imagination and inviting me to live from an inner awareness that came to life in landscapes of limestone and green.  Who knows what will surface in the coming year as we seek to inspire the minds and hearts of our brand new collection of Seeds?

 

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Sparkly Night

sparkly nightsWe all know it’s hot.  This time of year is what we endure as a trade-off for the winters we enjoy.  While people in other places are digging themselves out of snow drifts, we bask in the sun.  During months when others have to rely on produce shipped from far away, we can eat local freshness right out of the ground.  A few months of extra perspiration is worth it in my book.

One of this season’s highlights is the 4th of July.  For one thing, it’s nice to have a holiday right smack in the middle of our summer camp.  A day for a breather.  It’s also fun to make art that reminds us of the fireworks we have a chance to see this time of year.  This week we’ve used Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” to inspire works of art.  Stars and sparkly skies fill the hallways.  It’s a week of anticipation, knowing the fireworks lie ahead.

As I anticipated writing this post about Independence Day,  I remembered 4th of July celebrations in the small town where I grew up.  There was always extra excitement for me as a kid, because my birthday is the 5th.  We had a 4th of July parade and we always participated.  My dad had a 34 Ford coupe we called the “jitney.”  (I looked up the word “jitney” and found out it’s somewhere between a bus and a taxi, or can mean an illegal taxi operation.  I’m certain ours was legal.)  My dad was in the color guard so he’d march at the front of the parade, carrying the flag.  Then at the end of the parade route where he’d parked the jitney, we’d hop in with him and re-join the parade.  Along the route, on behalf of our family business, the Thayer County Bank, we’d toss bubble gum, candy and wooden nickels out the jitney window to kids lined up along the red brick street.

As it started getting dark, neighborhood kids gathered at the dead end of our street to shoot off fireworks.  We had sparklers, pop bottle rockets, fire crackers and snakes (the black pellets you light and they burn to create a snake-like shape from the ash), which we were allowed to light freely with little to no supervision.  Later the grown-ups joined us as bigger items were brought out.  One time, wearing a white shirt, I was holding a lit Roman candle.  Initially it shot off without a problem and then all of a sudden backfired.  Since I failed to hold it off to the side as instructed, my white shirt had a big black spot on it.  Fortunately, I wasn’t injured, just left with a good story to tell.

Our childhood, especially where my siblings and I grew up, held considerable freedom.   The kind of independence we experienced is sadly becoming extinct in most childhoods.  I like to think the Seed is somewhat of a stronghold for children to experience the freedom to create, imagine, explore and wonder.  At the all-school meeting on Monday, one of the teachers mentioned the current playground trend of collecting empty cicada shells.  She held up a big bag of recycled sandwich bags and offered them to anyone wishing to collect cicada shells, instead of wasting new cups.  There it was, an invitation that both supported curiosity and promoted earth-friendly practices, quietly presented during a week typically noted for its fanfare.  On Friday night when I’m enjoying the 4th of July fireworks with my family, I’ll keep in mind that’s it’s how we are on the regular days that matters most of all.

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Floating In a Sea of Art

peace love kindnessIt’s a big time for art.  This morning as I was walking into the school, a parent stopped me and remarked how impressed she is with the quality of art in our summer program.  I would have to agree.  Each week, as the theme changes, it’s hard to imagine that it can get any better and then it does.  It’s inspiring and humbling to see children making such beautiful works of art.  And gratifying to be surrounded by teachers who hold art in high regard.

I’ve had my own art immersion going on as well.  On Sunday afternoon I had an art opening at Desert Song Healing Arts Center (http://www.desertsongyoga.com).  The theme was “A Way Through:  art as a path for healing.”  In addition to the exhibition of my work, I talked for awhile about the role of art as a healing practice as I recovered from two different cancer diagnoses in 2011 and 2012.  I shared my cancer art journal and reflected on the interplay between my art’s evolution and my personal journey.  Complimenting my contribution to the day was an extraordinary musical offering by local musicians Jane Hilton (http://www.waywardfiddler.com/bio/bio.htm) and Darin Mahoney (http://www.darinmahoney.net).  Over 100 people attended the event that ended up being a celebration of the resilience of the human spirit through art and music.

As I looked out into the crowd, I was appreciative of the various communities of which I am a part.  Each of those communities—family, friends, the yoga studio, and Awakening Seed—was well represented.  One of the most meaningful guests was Anne Sager, the lively spirit, an artist herself, who co-founded the Seed with me in 1977.  It made me smile to see some of our current teachers in attendance light up when I mentioned Annie was there and had driven up from Patagonia, Arizona, just for the event.  The support was overwhelming and I’m still floating in the afterglow.

As I talked about my relationship with art and healing, I quoted the singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash (http://www.onbeing.org/program/rosanne-cash-time-traveler/1048), who talks about her own artistic process:  “I want so much to touch those things in my life and in my work, and I just keep looking for the veil to be lifted even in a fraction of a moment, you know, I’m always looking for that.”  Sunday’s event felt like a lifting of the veil, with a glimpse into a deeper part of myself.  As I returned to the Seed this week, I thought how fortunate we all are to have these summer weeks devoted to art.  If we can help each child even in a small way catch a similar glimpse of his/her potential as an artist and human being, then it will be a success, above and beyond all the beautiful works hanging in the hallways.

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Glass Gems

corn beautiesCorn has always been important in my life.  After all, I grew up in Nebraska and continue to identify myself as a Cornhusker, even though I moved away and never attended the University of Nebraska.  I have vivid memories of my dad teaching us how to eat corn on the cob, rolling the warm ear right onto a full stick of butter.  We still enjoy watching him consume corn with his butter.  Lately I haven’t eaten as much corn as I used to, although it’s really hard to pass up a bowl salsa with fresh corn tortilla chips.  Corn is a part of my heritage.

A few years back, soon after we moved into our neighborhood and decided to make our whole back yard a garden, our neighbor popped his head in through the gate.  I try to plant at least a bit of corn each summer and he noticed the stalks pressing skyward.  Somewhat in disbelief, he exclaimed, “This is a science yard!”  I chuckled at the time and often recall his statement.  Yes, it’s a science yard.  I like to experiment with all kinds of heirloom plants and seeds.  I find it interesting how much the garden varies from year to year.  Some years a variety will do really well and the next year, nothing.  This year’s experiment was my most rewarding success so far.

In 2012 I stumbled across a photo of glass gem corn (for a detailed history of glass gem corn, check out this article:  http://www.nativeseeds.org/community/199-the-story-of-glass-gem-corn-beauty-history-and-hope).  I was so taken by this corn that I tried to place an order.  It was a year before I could actually purchase it.  I paid $7.95 for a pack with fifty multi-colored kernels, then had to wait another six months for the right planting season.  When I finally did plant the seeds, I kept an eye on them vigilance I generally reserve for children.  They spent their first few weeks protected under wax cones to keep the birds off.  Once the shoots were too tall for birds to extract from the soil, I introduced them to the sunlight.  They thrived.  For several months the stalks huddled together in a section of the garden, a luscious green and looking mighty healthy.  Still, my last few crops of corn weren’t that productive, so my expectations were low.

When it came time to harvest, each ear sheathed in a faded dry husk, I was astonished.  Unwrapping the ears one by one, my eyes could barely believe what I held in my hand.  Each ear was so unique, many of them fully developed, and filled with colors ranging from purples, to yellows, lavenders, pinks, and even some indigo kernels.  All translucent.  Several people I’ve talked to about the glass gems have asked if they are edible.  I’ve heard they are, like popcorn.  However, they are so stunningly beautiful I will not be eating them.  Butter or not, the only thing feasting on my glass gems with be admiring eyes.  I have lots, so let me know if you’d like me to share.

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