Okra Forest

volunteer okraA small okra forest fills the space between the sidewalk and straw bale bench in the kindergarteners’ outdoor area.  It was not planted intentionally, by the class anyway.  When I first noticed the broad green leaves, I thought it might be okra.  Although it’s a food not high on my list of favorites, I’ve tried to grow it before and it seemed familiar.  The two pods provided confirmation.  When I checked with Kerri to see if they’d planted okra, she told me a story about one of her students who loved it and often brought okra for lunch last year.  Hmmm…it’s likely that a few of those juicy white seeds landed in the dirt and turned into the current mini-forest.  After further investigation, I learned that the student who loves okra planted some at home with his parents and the plants were unfortunately eaten up by local rabbits.  Which made our volunteers even more significant.

A couple weeks ago I attended a gardening workshop with Greg Peterson from the Urban Farm (http://www.urbanfarm.org/the-urban-farm-story).  The focus was on how to think about gardening in the desert.  Greg talked quite a bit about the solar aspect, where the sun is going and the kinds of plants that thrive under certain exposures.  He spent at least half of the workshop talking about soil.   He said that dirt won’t grow much of anything by itself—soil needs dirt, moisture, organic material, air space and everything that’s alive in the soil.  His strongest recommendation was to keep building the soil by adding organic material (compost) over and over.  I was happy when he suggested just adding compost to the top of the soil without doing a lot of digging.

There was one bit of wisdom that stayed with me, although it hadn’t been given nearly the amount of time as soil preparation.  Greg reminded us to pay attention to special plants that come up, especially the volunteers that choose to sprout on their own.  My interpretation of this statement was that these plants want to grow in their chosen location.  They are a good match for the environment in which they reach up through the soil.  They are strong and hearty.  I thought of this as I discovered two beautiful artichoke plants in my garden, most likely from plants I allowed to go to seed last spring in a spot I was planning to designate for composting.  And the apple tree going on its fifth season, originated from my granddaughter’s random planting of a seed from her apple.  As I thought about this, the okra forest came to mind.  I don’t know if there’s a deeper meaning behind the okra’s appearance in the kindergarteners’ outdoor area.  Perhaps it’s a message telling us all to pay attention to the surprises in our lives.  For me it’s also an invitation to be a little more open-minded about certain foods I’ve shied away from.  And maybe it’s a way to see someone in a different light through understanding what they love.


Carnivals of Halloweens Past

River Drive Halloween

We’ve had a monsoon of enthusiasm from our alumni lately.  Little did I know that a few dozen Seed archive photos would invite such an enthusiastic  response.  Last night while digging through closets at home, I hit a photo jackpot.  I was searching for old carnival photos and ended up reliving the last 38 years of my life.  It was surprising how many names and memories came back to me when I saw those young faces.

I found several photos from our first carnival, which happened in 1982.  It was originally established by our APA (Awakening Parents’ Association) as a fun and safe Halloween alternative.  It was held in our very small enclosed playground, which would fit inside the current toddler playground space.  We had no lights and limited funds for set-up, so it happened during daylight hours.  In 1984 we moved to a new location and the carnival expanded.  I vaguely remember getting rained out that year, then the weather let up and we went ahead with the carnival that night.  I recall that we added lights to the event.  By 1986 we had moved again and our playground offered a slightly bigger space for the carnival festivities.  One of the biggest changes to the carnival was the addition of the Mystery Theater, which has been a long standing tradition ever since (http://www.awakeningseedschool.org/2011/10/its-all-a-mystery/).  In addition to the entertainment aspect of the Mystery Theater, the proceeds are contributed to the staff faculty fund.

Over the years we’ve added a raffle and silent auction, more games and lights, and a photo booth.  The food offerings have been through a multitude of transitions, with the consistent element being an excellent array of desserts.  We now have an over-the-top cake walk, face painting and bounce houses.  We now ask each class to be in charge of a game booth and parents take turns running the booth.  We also ask each current family to sign up bring baked goods, sell raffle tickets and volunteer for a half-hour shift during the carnival, which frees up the APA coordinators to keep an eye on the big picture during the evening.  This year our raffle prizes are posted online with an option for online raffle ticket purchases  (https://seedschoolraffle.eventbrite.com), so Seed supporters who can’t make the event can still participate.

There are several reasons I love this event:
•  I appreciate the community aspect and how it connects our past families with the present.
•  I enjoy the opportunity to work closely with our APA coordinators who spend an immense amount of time putting this event together.
•  I love being involved with the Mystery Theater players, each year thinking of new ways to entertain and make our audiences laugh.
•  I’m deeply grateful for the proceeds, which not only fund classroom projects but also are the primary source of preschool scholarships for the Seed.

The carnival exemplifies everything the Seed is about and I hope you will all find a way to participate, help and support this significant community event.


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It’s All About Connection

playdough scientistsFour stories surfaced.  At first they seemed unrelated, but with further thought, it became apparent that the stories are all about connection.   Connections made by children, connections made by teachers, connections teachers are helping children make.  They are about connecting to the world beyond and from our past experiences.  Here are the stories:

#1:  On Monday morning as everyone was arriving in their freshly tie dyed shirts, one of the  kindergarten girls announced to her teacher, “My brother has a tie dye that looks like how the earth began!”  The teacher made sure I heard this quote, knowing my passion for kids’ quotes.  (When I checked on this later, it turned out that her brother had a much more detailed description/theory that included explosions and the swirling Milky Way.)

#2:  During a grade level meeting after school that same day, our PreK teacher shared an account of two girls working on their journals.  The first child drew a heart and was trying to figure out which letter the word “heart” starts with.  She was beginning to sound it out when a friend stepped in to help her. The second child remembered, “I know what heart starts with. I drew one the other day. Let me find it.”  She began to flip through the pages of her own journal until she found the picture that she had drawn of the heart. When she found it, she noticed that she had written an H, R, and T next to her work. “These are the letters you need,” she said. She read them aloud, making the sounds for the other child to hear, and then helped her as the first child wrote the letters down next to her heart.

#3:  At the grade level meeting for the youngest classes, I heard this story from the 2.5/3s  teacher:  “We were making play dough.  We mixed the dry ingredients first and before combining the water and oil I asked what they thought would happen when we mixed the two. After we’d all guessed, I poured. We passed around the mixture as it bubbled and separated and talked about what we were seeing. One child said, ‘I see bubbles,’ which were the balls of oil in the water. Next we passed around the liquid mixture and a tablespoon so everyone could add a little to the dry ingredients. What happened next was even cooler! I’d added a Kool-aid packet to the dry mix for an added level of sensory experience and when the wet mix hit the dry, it turned red! After that each child tried adding a scoop of wet to a new and still white patch of dry mix so they could turn their own portion from white to red.”  What started out as a group of two or three children ended up being a standing room only situation.

#4:  I’ve been working with a few of our parents to bring more visibility to the school through our Facebook page.  After posting the tie dye photos, one alumni Seed wrote the following:

“I’ve been showing my husband your Seed posts and I had him look at the website. He said ‘I think you should have just shown me all this when we started dating. It explains so much of who you are…it would have saved time. We should have gone on a tour before we got married, at least!’  He’s really jealous and wishes there was a grown up Seed.”

When I made the connection myself between these four stories and how they related, it helped me see that one of our most important roles as a school is to help our community feel connected.  It happens by teaching with intention and keeping our eyes wide open to what children are thinking and saying.  It occurs when teachers talk with each other to further our work of helping children put ideas together.  And it extends out to Seeds past, present and future who very much continue to belong.

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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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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.


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?