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Poke Sallet and Purple Alligators

A commotion in the lawn caught my eye. There was a flash of gray and white in the pokeberry bush towering 8 feet high in our wild flower garden.


Red stalks shook and green leaves trembled. The mockingbird was tending his buffet, the first pokeberries turning black and succulent–ready to be snatched.


From now till fall, this native bush will keep flowering and forming berries. The mockingbird will be in charge of the harvest. We’ve even seen him in November gobbling freeze-dried remnants left on browned and slumping stalks.

The mockingbird is not the only pokeberry-lover in the family. On Halloween night 2007, a tiny boy stuffed into a too-tight alligator costume was more interested in exploring pokeberry bushes than he was in collecting candy in the neighborhood.


In fact, to Everett, fruit and berries have always been more seductive than candy. It was risky to allow him to investigate the juicy berries that night…but his mama kept a watchful eye. Entranced, he gathered beautiful berries in his little purple hand. None in the mouth, thank goodness, though they say pokeberry juice is the least poisonous part of the plant.


The part he didn’t like was the washcloth in his mama’s hand once we got inside…my heart melts every time I look at those uplifted alligator arms and the little tiptoe shoes—all begging for me to rescue his sticky purple self.


The pokeweed name comes from an Algonquian Indian word meaning a plant used to color feathers and horses. But my neighbor George calls it poke sallet, like so many others who grew up eating the very young leaves for a delicious spring dish of cooked greens. (Some say don’t pick them if they have grown higher than six inches off the ground. And be sure to cook them well, up to 3 times, pouring out the water every time and getting fresh.)You could even buy it canned, until about the year 2000 when workers were no longer willing to go out picking poke weed for the cannery.

You can be badly poisoned by eating mature poke weed, its seeds and roots. But the juice of its berries makes a lovely ink. Many a letter home during the Civil War was written by a soldier using a bird feather and poke berry juice. The words are still legible a century and a half later. As is the Declaration of Independence, its beautiful calligraphy in poke berry ink from the hand of Thomas Jefferson.

We don’t let the poke weed take over, though I think it would like to. Every year, though, we let one big one grow in a place of honor. For the grandkids and the mockingbirds. And, when I’m feeling daring, a little poke sallet savory with garlic and olive oil.



Susan Yoder Ackerman is a writer and gardener in Newport News, Virginia. Both her writing and her gardening are enhanced by tending a century-old family farmhouse and eight grandchildren that come and go. You can email Susan at



Summer Surprises

The first surprise was a piece of stainless steel chimney apparatus on the ground. That was followed by tufts of insulation. The crowning clue was a dark moving shadow and the flap of huge wings.

Mother & Child

Three huge vultures. That included the pair that we saw preening and kissing in our neighbor’s back yard. It also included their baby, just as big, but tufted with down and obviously waiting on our rooftop for some regurgitated carrion.

Then suddenly there were four. Apparently these past months the old corn crib back in the ravine—the last vestige of the J.H. Yoder farm unless you count the dairy house blocks in our terrace—had been serving as a black-headed vulture nursery.

So for days now, the two chimneys on our house as well as the nearby pine branches and the flat top of the dead oak have been staging areas for baby vulture flight. We watch them flap and flutter and spread their huge black wings to the sun.

That’s out the front window. Out the back windows we’ve been watching the tiniest hummingbirds guzzling our sugar water. This is the first summer we’ve had to re-fill the feeder every three days; there must be babies. In the last few days, there have also been skirmishes. Either the babies have grown up and become territorial, or there are strangers stopping by and meeting resistance from the more permanent residents.

It should not be a surprise that the largest and the smallest birds are raising babies here. We have seen every other kind this year as well—catbirds, robins, mockingbirds, wrens, house finches, doves, cardinals, brown thrasher, and the list goes on.

One morning we heard sweet noises in the chimney…two young starlings flew out when we opened the damper—into the dining room.Ilse caught them in a tee-shirt and let them go again.

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That same week Robby came downstairs early to find Ilse reading to her daughter on the couch. He was sure she had set him up to think there was a brown bat hanging from a corner of the living room wall. But actually, there was!!! It is a complete mystery how that bat came into the house. On the bright side, it tells us that bats are part of our ecosystem here, and maybe part of the reason why there have been fewer mosquitoes! Everyone was too shocked to get a picture of the bat as Ilse ushered him out on a towel and put him on a branch to wait for darkness.

The flowers are surprising us, too. The scent of my first tuberoses ever fills the front yard. Thank you, Lisa, for a start of them last fall.


And who knew azaleas could be so gorgeous this time of year?


Or how artistic a volunteer wild morning glory appears?


I also love how the mystery lilies pop up on cue in August, my mother’s bulbs. They are almost over for the season.


Some people call them naked ladies, but the flowers I call naked ladies are much more in your face than these demure lavender ones. We’re still waiting for these red ones to pop up this summer.


Some people think that August is a tired season, when the garden looks drab and little happens. Au contraire….our August never ceases to surprise and amaze!











Susan Yoder Ackerman is a writer and gardener in Newport News, Virginia. Both her writing and her gardening are enhanced by tending a century-old family farmhouse and eight grandchildren that come and go. You can email Susan at



Mimosa Confessions

Tuesday, August 5th, 2014-Miracles in the Garden with Susan Yoder AckermanComments Off

It is dusk. Robby and I are lingering over a shared piece of apple pie as we finish dinner outside by the brick garden wall. Suddenly there is a familiar throaty whirr—and a hummingbird zooms past us. And another. The first perches on the clothesline and rests nearby. The second shoots to the very tiptop of a small mimosa tree.

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The hummingbird carefully inserts its tiny beak into each pink spray of flowers, swinging from one to the next.

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A mimosa-lover. Like me. And that’s my confession.

Yes, I know mimosa is not native. I know it becomes invasive along the roadsides and crowds out other plant species. We aren’t supposed to have them in our yard. And, for years, I didn’t.

But I loved the month of June, when open car windows on the way to the Outer Banks brought a rush of mimosa fragrance and the roadside lined with blossoms. And, coming home from anywhere, taking the Fort Eustis exit ramp off #64, I knew we were home when our headlights revealed trees heavy with pink blooms hanging over the roadway.

Mimosas aren’t native to Virginia, but I guess I am native to mimosas. As a child, I found the low, round, smooth gray trunks and branches inviting to climb. When summer came, the heavy perfume of mimosa blossoms drifted on the humid night air, and filled our dreams as we slept by open windows.

The exotic flowers—crisp and delicate at the same time—were sweet little scented brushes to tickle the nose. The pink and cream color made them look like a dessert. Running through dewy grass in the early mornings, the dried flowers from the day before stuck to my feet and got tracked into the back porch. I can feel them still.

After my mother died and before her home place passed to new owners, I dug up a fig bush to transplant to my house a mile down the road. I picked up several clay pots of amaryllis bulbs also growing under the dappled shade of her spreading mimosa tree.

And that’s how Robby and I learned firsthand how easily mimosas spread. Before I knew it, a mimosa was coming straight up in the middle of our fig.


After my amaryllis bloomed, and I set them out to gain strength over the summer, mimosas popped up in all the pots


And so, we have mimosas. For now, we are letting one grow. It’s beginning to make a nice little space of shade on the corner of the driveway, just right for our outdoor table. We can always cut it down any time, we tell ourselves. And someday we will. But until that day, we will take joy in the sight of hummingbirds dipping and swaying in its frothy pink blossoms.




Susan Yoder Ackerman is a writer and gardener in Newport News, Virginia. Both her writing and her gardening are enhanced by tending a century-old family farmhouse and eight grandchildren that come and go. You can email Susan at



Blowin’ in the Wind

Monday, July 28th, 2014-Miracles in the Garden with Susan Yoder AckermanComments Off

It was just a simple pulley ordered from Lehman’s Hardware, the fabulous place in Ohio where you can find any interesting gadget. I hoped it would change my life. For decades I had longed for a beautiful airy clothesline on which to pin flapping sheets and tough-to-dry blue jeans and towels that would come in with that rough fragrance that tells you: line-dried!

I had grown up with a mom whose favorite job was laundry. I think she found it therapeutic to run her Maytag wringer washer, the beaters thumping, the rollers pressing out the soapy dirty water, my little sisters standing behind to guide the flat wet clothes into the clothesbasket to await their rinse.

The first movie my family took of little me as a toddler, I was crawling in and out of a torn sheet on the clothesline, making the hole bigger with every pass through it. The clothesline was a play place.

My grandson Everett was just a few days old, when the first row of diapers went up so beautifully in their Rockbridge county back yard. I loved the look of new white diapers blowing in the wind.


The clothes-hanging gene must have come through full force in his mom, our daughter.

When she heard what I was writing about today, she sent me a photo of her full four lines of this morning’s laundry, hung the way her African friends taught her during her time in Zambia.


A clothesline was a happy place. And I wanted one of my own. Hence, the pulley. Robby spent a long time figuring out just what gadget would work best for us. We reminisced about trips to Nova Scotia, where farmhouses and town cottages had lines swooping up off of porches and up into distant trees, the family wardrobes out for the world to see in full living color. The pulley and lines were ordered, along with spacers to keep the clothes up off the ground.

After sitting in the basement in its box for several years, and after endless discussion about where in the world a clothesline could appropriately be installed in our yard without annoying ourselves or the neighbors, the pulley was finally installed. Robby cut a small cedar out of our thicket and made a post. He set the post in cement, and lined up the double line between the cedar and a mulberry tree down in the small ravine along the property line. We were in business.

Or were we? After a few weeks of Robby “trying it out to see if it worked,” it dawned on me that I hadn’t yet hung up a single article of clothing or a towel. When I was out, or off visiting the grandchildren, Robby would do up all the laundry and hang it meticulously on the line. There is nothing like the lovely order of the clothesline after Robby has hung each piece. Even the shop rags look beautiful.

Not only was he sorting the laundry, working on stains, doing each load so as not to get lint on his black tee-shirts, and then hanging it up in such a picturesque manner, he was also taking it down and folding it. I started to find my drawers filling with neat piles of clothing. He was making an art form out of the laundry.

So how could I complain? Even little Everett, now 8 years old instead of newborn, was copying his granddad and asking to try out the line, especially working those cool spacers and sending the clothes sailing down the ravine by pulling on the line.

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So one day not long ago, when I had a sewing project to do, I did a sneaky thing. I started the washing machine and put in two lengths of African cloth that were to be made into valances for Anje’s entryway windows. Robby was not consulted. I carried them outside, stretched them out on the lines and stepped back in satisfaction. The sun was freshening the batik cloth; the wind was blowing. My life indeed had been changed, but as always when living with my husband, in delightful and unexpected ways.

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Susan Yoder Ackerman is a writer and gardener in Newport News, Virginia. Both her writing and her gardening are enhanced by tending a century-old family farmhouse and eight grandchildren that come and go. You can email Susan at



High Summer: Chicory Petals and Blackberry Brambles

Monday, July 21st, 2014-Miracles in the Garden with Susan Yoder AckermanComments Off



In all my Tidewater summers, I have yet to see chicory growing along the road along with the Queen Anne’s lace and goldenrod. Go west just a short ways, however, and it starts brightening up the roadside. The arresting blue of a chicory flower has always been one of the charms of visiting my relatives in the Shenandoah Valley, along with cool nights and mountain vistas.

When our children were little, we moved to the Valley ourselves for two years. The flowers and the goldfinches swooping in the thistles sustained me in a stressful time. I loved the chicory so much, I used it to make a first-day-of-kindergarten dress for little Ilse.I embroidered the petals with the prettiest blue floss I could find. The photo is decades old now, and the glimpse of chicory on the bodice a little vague, but the child is as radiant as I remember her.


This week I was in the valley visiting our daughter Anje. I noticed that her yard was fringed by a meadow, and that the meadow was hazy with blue chicory brightened by Queen Anne’s lace. This was my chance to dig up a few plants and bring them home to my wild kingdom. Maybe I could grow chicory for myself!

There was precedent for it. Though chicory didn’t grow along with other Tidewater weeds naturally, over the years, however, there were two places where I had seen it. The first placewas in James Burkholder’s eclectic garden of exotic and heirloom plants at his home on Lucas Creek road not far from my parents. I’m sure he grew it because he was charmed by it just as I am.

The second place was Quarterfield Farm. When we kept our horse there, I found a stand of chicory right beside the open stable door, its blue flowers brightening the bench where we sat to watch the horses and share thoughts with the farmer after our work in the stalls was over. Probably the seeds had arrived in a bale of hay from a hayfield in the western part of the state.

Not far from the chicory was a sprawling bramble of blackberries. He said pick all I wanted. I shared the blackberry jam and cobbler with him.


The chicory is no longer by the stable door, nor is the farmer sitting on the bench. But this week the blackberries were rioting, thorny and vicious as ever. With permission from the caretaker, I filled my bowl one last time. A young red fox curled up in the grass not far from me, watching my every move with bright eyes. The mockingbirds chased and cavorted as always. The horses blew through their noses and cropped grass.


I brought the blackberries home and set them on the hearth next to the chicory blossoms trimmed from the plants Robby had tucked into the ground. I don’t know for sure that the chicory will take hold and grow here in Tidewater. I don’t know for sure that the blue flowers will gladden my heart in a few weeks.

But it is high summer. I cherish memories of gardeners and school girls, of barn doors and roadsides. The chicory is blooming somewhere in Virginia and perhaps in my own yard–one can always hope.


But what I do know is this: here in my Tidewater house, the blackberries have been transformed into a generous pie, its juices spilling over its crust and smoking on the oven floor. We will celebrate the season of chicory and blackberries. We will celebrate summer.






Susan Yoder Ackerman is a writer and gardener in Newport News, Virginia. Both her writing and her gardening are enhanced by tending a century-old family farmhouse and eight grandchildren that come and go. You can email Susan at



Crape Myrtle—a Tree for the Ages

Monday, July 14th, 2014-Miracles in the Garden with Susan Yoder AckermanComments Off

I open the attic window and lean out. Crape myrtle flowers billow below me in a pink froth.


It’s that time of year. Blooming crape myrtles line grassy sidewalks in small towns everywhere. White church steeples rise out of a sea of pink. Visitors from France gasp at the rare outrageous blossoms so familiar and honey to us.

Not only do crape myrtles grace Virginia so beautifully in every season, but this particular tree is to me almost like one of the ancestors. In our last heavy rain, rain-drenched blossoms floated over our walkway as if we were about to have a rosy visitation.


When we moved here in 1971, I was told that the crape myrtles in the front yard had been planted early in the century by the family Grandpa at the time, poet and orchard man S. P. Yoder. I don’t remember why we moved one of them to the back yard. But it was a happy stroke of luck. Three generations of grandfathers have passed away by now.We are the grandparents. Our children have been born, grown up, and moved away. And the crape myrtle still blooms.

Its trunk is old and sculpted now.


Children climb in its branches.


Birds bathe in its shade.


Wild friends take refuge on its smooth surface.


In winter it becomes an ice sculpture.


In fall it blazes with glory.


Its leaves drift down to nestle beside a mossy brick.


Our ancient crape myrtle casts its blossoms on the driveway, footprints of those from times gone by. This is truly a tree for the ages.



Susan Yoder Ackerman is a writer and gardener in Newport News, Virginia. Both her writing and her gardening are enhanced by tending a century-old family farmhouse and eight grandchildren that come and go. You can email Susan at



Swamp Rat from Lucas Creek

Monday, July 7th, 2014-Miracles in the Garden with Susan Yoder AckermanComments Off


It is midsummer, and wild Turk’s Cap lilies curl back in the blazing sun. Blackberries disappear as fast as they ripen along Lucas Creek, and the orange witch fingers of trumpet vine flash through their brambles above the tide’s murky reach.

Bobbing on a stem of cord grass, red-winged blackbirds sing sweetly, while fiddler crabs scamper around their muddy holes.

Lucas Creek is home. When I left at the age of 18, to spend a year out west, my best friend cautioned, “Remember, you’re just a swamp rat from Lucas Creek.” I did not forget. I came back to live in the farmhouse my grandfather built a stone’s throw from it.

The brown channels of the creek rise and fall with the tides–dangerous, mysterious, and powerful. The creek has no sandy shore or rocky coast where people play casually. It meanders to a rhythm and meaning we have not learned. It commands fear and respect.

One bend of the creek was the favored swimming hole of the young farm boys of the 1920’s. After a hot day in the fields, they gathered there to splash, swim, and horse around. One evening they got ready to go home and noticed a pile of clothing still on the creek bank. One boy had been lost in the waters. They never used that swimming hole again.

When Mennonites first bought land here, there wasn’t even a bridge across the creek, just some logs to cross at low tide. One young man greased the logs when he knew a rival suitor was about to cross in the dark to call on the girl they both fancied.


The first bridge turned Lucas Creek Road into a vital thoroughfare. But it took another hundred years for the creek to feature a wide bridge with generous sidewalks, the bridge we have today.

When I was a girl, the bridge did not invite nature lovers. It was narrow, with high concrete sides. When riding my bike, or walking, I hurried across, hoping a car would not appear to share the bridge. Often the short bridge and the road leading across the marsh were covered in high water.

Sometimes I slipped under the bridge in a rowboat. Bunni and I launched off Stony Point along the Warwick to explore its tributaries. I felt like I was going to a secret place, where few others could go. I loved looking up at the shadowy, cool underside of the bridge, plastered with swallow nests.


The bridge for this century has been more welcoming. Wide sidewalks invite bird watchers and a few fishermen. Children can see through the railing, while still staying safe.


To be sure, this boy holds his sister’s hand securely as we trek across the bridge in a red wagon this summer, a favorite destination.


We could always count on seeing something very special. One day it was muskrats, swimming and puttering and nibbling busily at the roots of plants. Labeled a swamp rat myself so long ago, I felt an immediate kinship.


Another day it was a beautiful two-inch minnow, inexplicably on the edge of the bridge, far from its swirling swimming brothers below.


Once we startled deer in the tall grass between two loops of creek.

This week I needed to pick up library books at Grissom. The weather was awesome, so I set out on foot across the bridge. I was stunned at how much there was to see. Just in the time it took for me to make my way across the bridge, a great egret stalked its prey on long legs, its white feathers glistening. A great blue heron flew over the creek.

A bald eagle soared, circled, and then landed in a tree just above a good fishing spot, its white head reflecting the sun through the leaves and branches. Osprey fluttered and swung high in the sky.

Nostalgia is good, but sometimes things actually get better with the years. Raptors were rare to see when I was a child. Now I can count on seeing big birds hunting and fishing every time I go to Lucas Creek. The bridge is child-friendly now, nature-lover friendly. It’s a place of breath-taking sunsets, of morning mists.

These summer days, I am at happily at home in my habitat, the swamp rat from Lucas Creek.


Susan Yoder Ackerman is a writer and gardener in Newport News, Virginia. Both her writing and her gardening are enhanced by tending a century-old family farmhouse and eight grandchildren that come and go. You can email Susan at



Emergency!! Out of Pickles!

Monday, June 30th, 2014-Miracles in the Garden with Susan Yoder AckermanComments Off

The winter was wearing on to spring, when I had a shock. I was making a sandwich, and used up the last of the bread and butter pickles.

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It was no big deal. I could just go down into the basement and get another jar. Except that—when I went down the stairs to get one– there were no jars of pickles in the basement! I panicked. No pickles! I was quite aware that I hadn’t made any last summer. Lisa’s garden had been rich in beans, poor in cucumbers that year. And, lest you get the wrong impression, I am not really into canning much. I make jam and pickles, and occasionally put up tomatoes, if I have a lot. That is all.

But, ever since I was a child, there was ALWAYS another jar of bread-and-butter pickles in the basement. I looked among the jars of grape jam, hoping to find a stray quart of pickles that Robby’s sister Debby had made and given at Christmas along with her delicious pickled beets.

But Debby’s pickles were gone as well.

It would be a long wait and a lot of dry sandwiches till summer’s first excess of cucumbers.

I know, I know–I could have bought pickles. Yes, grocery stores sell them. I have eyed the jars suspiciously over the years. But this variety of pickles does not come from the store. It comes up from the basement. That’s all I have to say about that.

June came, and Lisa opened her garden to visitors on a beautiful cloudy Saturday. As I directed guests toward the flower beds, I could hardly contain my excitement. I had noticed several club-shaped cucumbers on vines in the kitchen garden! Everyone else wanted the skinny ones. I took these babies home and got busy.



These pickles are easy and delicious to make. You can buy packets of mix, or you can follow the directions from the Mennonite Community Cookbook, as I did


We are now in pickle heaven again! And, down in the dark cellar, there is a beautiful row of jars all ready for many sandwiches to come.



Susan Yoder Ackerman is a writer and gardener in Newport News, Virginia. Both her writing and her gardening are enhanced by tending a century-old family farmhouse and eight grandchildren that come and go. You can email Susan at



Flower Faces Under Summer Sun

Monday, June 23rd, 2014-Miracles in the Garden with Susan Yoder AckermanComments Off

The solstice has come and gone. Now all flowers are summer flowers, including the spring ones that linger. In that category I would place this white false indigo that sprang up in a place it was not planted, blooming in a season it wasn’t intended for. How cheeky it looks in that stand of goldenrod.


I’m pretty sure it is saying “Nanny nanny booboo” to me because I tried so hard to get BLUE false indigo staretd. Really, the white indigo is very pretty, as is this bank of airy whites beyond the front steps where I once kept a tidy bed of red impatiens. That was until the deer ate it like strawberry shortcake.

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This week I drove Interstates #64 and #81, with frequent glances toward the side of the highway, and the wildflowers there. What a delight to pass tangles of riotous sweet peas, a swag of orange trumpet vine, and blue lupines standing at attention in a median valley! Peachy day lilies, ruddy butterfly weed, and ethereal blue chicory added pizazz to the sweep of grass on the shoulder. Along the way there were tall mullein plants with their gray-green leaves and yellow blossoms. Now and then I glimpsed a yucca’s sharp leaves and large white bells. The pink and green of crown vetch sprawled over slopes. Daisies, coreopsis, and coneflowers dotted the hillsides.

I drove safely and didn’t take photos, but here are the faces of a few of the front yard wildflowers that were waiting for me when I got home:


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Daisy fleabane

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Dark-eyed Helen

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Blanket flower or gaillardia

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And many, many more…what a beautiful season is summer, at home and on the road!













Susan Yoder Ackerman is a writer and gardener in Newport News, Virginia. Both her writing and her gardening are enhanced by tending a century-old family farmhouse and eight grandchildren that come and go. You can email Susan at


Fun with Fungus, Fiddler Crabs and Fireflies

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014-Miracles in the Garden with Susan Yoder AckermanComments Off

Last week the newspaper reported that June 14 was meant to be Play-Outside Day.

At our house, that day comes every day.

There’s a garage full of bikes, cars, balls and bats


There’s a playhouse for stirring up messy dishes with mulch and rain barrel water


And then there is outdoor play that transcends toys and play equipment:

Feasting on mulberries and honeysuckle


Finding the funny fungus on an early morning walk


Startling small bunnies and goldfinches in the coreopsis, or passing time with baby birds.


Chomping on sorrel leaves (oxalis) while waiting for the butterfly bush to bloom and attract a tiger swallowtail.


Feeding your baby doll a tasty meal of green money plant pods and shelled seeds (lunaria).


Taking the wagon to Lucas Creek Bridge to see muskrats, great blue herons, and fiddler crabs.


Waiting all day for dusk so you could catch 40 fireflies in the front yard and let them go again.


Yes, today and every day, in this place, it is Play-Outside Day.


Susan Yoder Ackerman is a writer and gardener in Newport News, Virginia. Both her writing and her gardening are enhanced by tending a century-old family farmhouse and eight grandchildren that come and go. You can email Susan at






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