Giving Birth to Light Part 2: Brigid’s Day

Jump  to Composed Couscous and Corn Salad

After enjoying five days of lovely weather (temperatures in the low 50s–that’s in Fahrenheit), and considering how I haven’t really adjusted to real “winter,” I must say I was excited to see an early spring in the forecast for Ohio.  And then I read that Punxsutawney Phil, the famous groundhog, saw his shadow, indicating another six weeks of winter.

Closeup groundhog (Marmota monax)

A groundhog - Image by Eifelle via Wikipedia

I scoffed at the groundhog.  Surely, a professional meteorologist, like the ones predicting an early spring (thank you, global warming!), and who has gone through years of school and training in the natural sciences, would more accurately predict the weather than a two-hundred-year-old rodent that whispers to a man wearing a top hat.

Well, science be damned!

As I sit and type this, the sky is dumping confectioner’s sugar onto the countryside.  At least two inches of that cold white stuff that so enthralls my girls has fallen, and by the looks of things, it won’t be stopping anytime soon.  Even more annoying (and equally amusing), the local forecast for the rest of February has–you guessed it!–changed to six more weeks of winter.

I’ve been tempted to be the Southern redneck stereotype (which I do sometimes become in moments like this) and go out and shoot me a groundhog and cook it out of spite.  It would make for an amusing blog post, certainly, but it’s not very nice.  So instead, I just shake my fist at the squirrels dancing around in the snow, mocking me and my dreams of spring.

Well, we enjoyed the lovely spring-like weather while it lasted.

I hiked with the kids on the nature trail.  My husband took them fishing.  I was able to spend two warm, sunny afternoons sitting in the grass, writing.

Since Vasant Panchami and Imbolc, I must admit, I feel like I have been channeling the creativity goddesses.  Between writing and coming up with creative projects for the rest of the year (I have a fantastic king cake idea, if I can find the supplies I need), my mind has been churning along at warp speed.

Imbolc falls on February 1 or 2, depending on the Gaelic or neopagan tradition.  It comes from the Gaelic word meaning “in the womb,” as it refers to the start of the lambing season.  Imbolc traditionally honors the Celtic goddess Brigid (or Brigit), who is the patron of poets, blacksmiths, and healing.  In some traditions, she is also associated with apple blossoms.  She is also the goddess of wisdom, physical and intellectual uplifting (like mountains and learning or prophecy), and the home and hearth.  She also is the protectress of newborns; Celtic women used to hang crosses fashioned from apple or rowan branches over their babies’ cradles to invoke Brigid to protect their babies from harm.  In Irish mythology, she was also seen as a warfare goddess.

Fire-bearers circle figures of The Green Man f...

Another way Celt descendants celebrate Imbolc: Fire-bearers circle figures of The Green Man fighting Jack Frost. Imbolc celebration in Marsden, West Yorkshre, February 2007. - Image by Steven Earnshaw via Wikipedia

Brigid was so important to the Celtic peoples that, upon their conquest and subsequent Christianization, the Roman Catholic Church came up with Saint Brigid, who still possesses some of the qualities of her pagan counterpart.

One side of her face was that of an ugly old hag, and the other was that of a beautiful young maiden.  This was to signify her role in the transformation of winter and death into life and spring.  In the pagan Wheel of the Year, Imbolc complements Samhain and signifies the lengthening days and nearness of spring.  Brigid is a personification of that.

Some traditions also referred to her as the Corn Bride or Barley Bride (“corn” in this case is the archaic word that really means “wheat” or any “grain,” as corn did not come to mean the yellow grain from North America until Europeans began to colonize it).  It was a reference to her role as a fertility goddess.  Additionally, since Imbolc falls at the end of the dark half of the Wheel of the Year (when the days are shorter, basically), the lunar month in which Imbolc falls is referred to as the Chaste Moon or Bride Moon (because the next lunar month is when spring starts and is associated with birth).

Imbolc altar

A neopagan Imbolc altar - Image by Christina's Play Place

I’m not sure how the ancient Celts celebrated Imbolc, but many Wiccans and neopagans generally celebrate by dressing a sheaf of wheat, corn, or barley in white lace and ribbons (like a bridal dress), laying it in a basket, and treating it like a baby or a doll bride.  At the end of the festival, they usually burn the sheaf for prophetic purposes.

I must admit that I have not done this, pretty much for lack of a ceremonial sheaf.  My tradition, instead, is to cook something where grains play a prominent role, to honor the Corn Bride, and usually with something white (like potatoes or fish or turkey), to honor the Chaste Moon.  I’d also prepare something that hints at warmer months ahead.  And, instead of invoking Brigid for prophecy, I usually invoke her for creativity (and when I was in college and law school, I’d also invoke her for educational purposes).  This I’d do by lighting candles during the dark of night and burning some incense that would remind me of the coming spring (like lavender, my favorite herb).

Sprouting Garlic

I was in a creative writing frenzy yesterday after my husband came home from work, but, naturally I took breaks for coffee and snuggle time.  During one such break, I noticed one of my globes of garlic had sprouted.  I took it as a sign from Brigid:  the white papery outside of the globe is like a bridal veil, and here is new life–hope–sprouting from within.  I’m not sure what it might be a sign of, but it was refreshing to see while happily writing.

Composed Couscous and Corn Salad

Since I’ve been experimenting various recipes from the newest addition to my cookbook library, The Vegetarian Family Cookbook by Nava Atlas (and, by the way, after testing so many recipes, I have found that I love this book!), I decided to try something that involves wheat and/or corn as a primary ingredient for my Imbolc dish.  I decided to go with this recipe, because it involves wheat (in the form of couscous) and corn.  It really serves 6, but since I was cooking it as a feast (translate:  I wanted leftovers for the next day), I was cooking it alongside some simple baked chicken.

The ingredients of this dish are more summery in flavor, but I wanted something that made me think of warm days (and, to be honest, I sorely miss Louisiana springtimes, which start in February and are sunny and florid).  What I love about this recipe is that it can be dressed up for any occasion.  In fact, I plan to make it for the Super Bowl, but I’ll be adding various cheese slices to the spread.  It looks fancy, so is a great dish for entertaining.  This can also be an eat-with-your-hands group dish.

Ingredients

  • 4 medium potatoes, any variety, or 2 medium-large sweet potatoes
  • Ranch dressing or vinaigrette
  • 3/4 cup couscous
  • 2 cups cooked fresh corn kernels (from 2 to 3 medium ears) or frozen corn kernels, thawed
  • 1 tablespoon light olive oil
  • salt to taste
  • minced fresh parsley for topping (optional)
  • 1 red or green bell pepper (or half of each), cut into narrow strips (I diced mine, as my kids prefer them that way)
  • 1 cup baby carrots, or to taste
  • 1/2 cup black olives, preferably cured and pitted (I omitted these, as my kids are not fond of them; in my opinion, kalamata olives would work equally well)
  • 1 cup red or yellow cherry tomatoes, halved (or 1 medium red tomato, diced)

Directions

Cutting the Potatoes

  1. Bake the potatoes until done but still firm.  When cool enough to handle, peel and cut into bite-size chunks and place in a small mixing bowl.  Toss with enough dressing or vinaigrette to moisten.
  2. Pour 1-1/2 cups boiling water over the couscous in a heatproof container.  Cover and let stand for 10 minutes, then fluff with a fork.
  3. Combine the couscous with the corn in a mixing bowl.  Drizzle in the oil and toss well.  Season gently with salt.
  4. Mound the couscous mixture in the center of a large platter.  Sprinkle with minced fresh parsley, if desired.
  5. Arrange alternating piles of potatoes, bell pepper, baby carrots, olives, and tomatoes around the couscous mixture.
  6. Each person can make up his or her own plate.  Serve additional dressing or vinaigrette to drizzle on the raw vegetables as desired.

As you can see, it’s a fairly simple recipe.  The longest part is the baking of the potatoes, but you can shorten that time by opting to nuke them in the microwave.

Composed Couscous and Corn Salad

So my review on Nava Atlas’ cookbook is a stellar one.  Most of the recipes involve ingredients that are inexpensive and easy to find, even when you take into consideration that I live in rural Ohio, where eating tofu is equated with godless fascist hippie communism (I wish I were exaggerating).  The recipes are very simple, and she gives options and alternatives to many of the recipes, if you want to kick it up a notch.  She also writes to those who are new to vegetarian cuisine, sharing recipes and tips for adjusting away from meat.  And, as I have demonstrated in this and some of my other recent posts, it’s easy to build upon her recipes to add your own personal flair to them.

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Ringing in the New Year

Jump to Black-Eyed Peas Recipe

Jump to Collard Greens Recipe

We spent New Year’s at home.  New Year’s Eve with toddlers sounds like it wouldn’t be very interesting, but you’d be surprised.

I made some homemade queso dip.  My husband made a spicy (yet kid-friendly) guacamole.  We bought some chips, some of those confetti bomb thingies, and pink champagne for grown-ups and sparkling grape juice for the kids.  And, because regular old New Year’s party favors are boring, I grabbed some Darth Vader party favors during my grocery run.  We all got buzzed up on sugary sweets and danced to one of the dance party games for the Wii.  As midnight drew near, we all donned princess dresses (even my husband threw on a wig and a cape for the kids’ amusement) and turned the party into a “Darth Vader princess New Year’s Eve dance party.”

We explained to the kids that we were going to cheer on the end of the old year, 2011, and the beginning of a new one, 2012.  We explained that some people refer to the new year as a “baby.”  Within the last few minutes of 2011, we turned on the TV and cheered with New Yorkers during the countdown as the ball dropped.

For New Year’s Day, we followed a blend of traditions.  From my husband’s Kalenjin culture, we follow the tradition of power-cleaning the house.  The belief is that by cleaning on New Year’s, you’re starting the new year off with a clean slate or a fresh start.

From Southern culture, we cook black-eyed peas and collard greens.  I’ll take a moment here to admit that it’s not really something I grew up with, as my Polish-Yankee mother and Latino father.  But I grew up in the South, and we’d usually visit someone on New Year’s Day, and they would serve us black-eyed peas and collard greens.  Black-eyed peas represent coins and the greens represent dollar bills–eating them together is supposed to bring wealth and prosperity for the new year.

A lesser-known fact about this Southern tradition is that it’s actually an ancient one.  The practice actually originated in ancient Israel as a Rosh Hashana dish (serving black-eyed peas with a side of something green), and when Jews immigrated to the United States in the 1730s, they shared this tradition with non-Jews, and it became a big hit.  This was true especially in the South, where it blended with soul food cuisine–adding collard greens and pork stock–to make it an absolutely fantastic culinary experience.

Veggies that go into black-eyed peas

Veggies that go into black-eyed peas

The black-eyed peas recipe I use was passed to me by a friend with Arkansas and New Orleans roots, although the recipe is more Louisianian in flavor.  Now that I am living in Ohio, I had the added challenge that such things as fresh black-eyed peas and andouille sausage are next to impossible to find, so I had to make do with canned black-eyed peas and kielbasa.  It still came out all right.

The following few days, as I’d briefly mentioned in my last post, we’d been trying to watch the skies for the Quadrantid Meteor Shower.  However, the only thing we saw falling from the sky was a bunch of snow.  Sadly, the clouds blocked out most of the stars.  And now, from my having been going out at 3 am in hopes of seeing a meteor so I could wake the kids and show them, I seem to have been bestowed with the gift of a nasty head cold.

What a way to ring in the new year!  [insert sarcastic face]  It has taken me three days to write this post because it hurts my head to look at the computer for extended periods of time.

Black-Eyed Peas Recipe

This recipe is very simple to make.  You can prepare it either in a crock pot or on the stove top.  You could even substitute the black-eyed peas for red beans to make red beans and rice.  In fact, this is the kind of recipe that you could set to cook and then go do other chores (like power-cleaning your house for New Year’s).

Ingredients

Black-eyed peas cooking

Black-eyed peas cooking

  • 1 pound black-eyed peas, soaked overnight  (or 2 cans of cooked black-eyed peas)
  • 1 pound sausage, sliced into discs (preferably andouille)
  • 1/2 bell pepper, diced
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning (this is a staple spice for all Deep South cooking)
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika
  • water

Stove-Top Directions

  1. Combine all ingredients in a large pot with 5-1/2 cups of water.
  2. Bring to a low boil and reduce heat to simmer for 2 hours. Water should cook off and leave a thick casserole consistency.  (If you’re cooking with canned peas, cut the cooking time by half, or else they’ll get all mushy and gross.)
  3. Remove bay leaf before serving with rice and/or cornbread.

Crock Pot Directions

  1. Combine all ingredients in crock pot with 2-1/2 cups of water.
  2. Put on low and let cook covered for 7 hours.  Check after 7 hours.  (If you’re cooking with canned peas, cut the cooking time by half, or else they’ll get all mushy and gross.)
  3. Stir and turn up heat and leave uncovered for last hour if consistency is too soupy.
  4. Remove bay leaf before serving with rice and/or cornbread.


Collard Greens Recipe

Ingredients

Collard greens cooking

Collard greens cooking

  • 1 bunch of collard greens
  • 2 oz salted pork
  • 2 teaspoons Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning
  • water

Directions

  1. Rinse the collard greens individually and thoroughly.  Trim off the stems, if desired.  Chop up the greens into strips.
  2. Combine all ingredients in a medium-sized pot and fill with enough water to barely cover the greens.
  3. Set heat to low and cover.  It should take about 40-45 minutes to cook.  Once the greens start to soften, stir occasionally.  The greens are ready when they are rather soft and don’t taste bitter.

Don’t drain out the liquid; it’s jam-packed with nutrients.  Traditionally, people soak it up with cornbread or rice.

A Southern New Year meal

November Recap Part 2: Happily Hiking and the Awesome Cranberry

Jump to How to Hike with Small Children

Jump to Making Trail Mix

Jump to Homemade Spiced Cranberry Sauce

As I mentioned in my prior post, this is to be the second part in summing up November.  And as I mentioned before, we spent most of November hiking the local nature trails.

I’ll begin by sharing some of our adventures on the trails.

Probably the scariest moment was when Sunfilly threw a tantrum for no apparent reason (as two-year-olds are wont to do), throwing herself into a pile of leaves along a creek bank.  Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a small, dark brown banded snake slithering out of the leaves towardsher.  My split-second reasoning was this: “Garter snakes usually get startled and try to get away from screaming humans.  This snake has a diamond-shaped head, a trait shared only by poisonous snakes.  Poisonous snakes tend to be more aggressive than nonpoisonous snakes.  Even baby poisonous snakes are poisonous.  It’s probably not a garter snake and probably poisonous.  It’s not worth waiting to find out.”

Possibly a baby copperhead.

This is the snake that I killed and the stick I whacked it with. It's a crappy underbelly shot. This is a lousy picture because I took it using my pseudo-intellectual phone.

Okay, well, actually it was instinct, but that was what pretty my instinct was saying.

In that split second, I grabbed the large branch Starkitten had been using as a makeshift walking stick and whacked it on the head with all my strength.  Three times.  Then it was dead.

I took advantage of this tragic situation (I don’t like killing things that aren’t for food) to explain to the girls why I ask them to be careful when going through leaves, or why I instruct them to stay on the trail, or simply why they need to listen to me.  Starkitten is old enough to understand when I say that something can hurt her, but I think that when she observed the snake die, she understood what I meant when I explained that snake bites could make her die, too.

Since the snake’s head was crushed pretty badly, I couldn’t determine for sure what it was, but I suspected that maybe it was some kind of water moccasin, which I thought was pretty common in North America.  Then after talking to one of the volunteer park rangers I meet frequently during our hikes on the trail, I’m led to believe it may have been a baby copperhead, which was his suspicions based on my description of the markings and the aggressive behavior of the snake. He informed me that water moccasins don’t live this far north, which surprised me, considering how cold it does feel in humid Louisiana; and those nasty buggers made a terrible habit of getting into the house I grew up in and sleeping on the black curtain rods, blending in with the viny design of the metal.  I assumed they did something similar here–hiding in warm buildings to weather the cold.  But apparently it gets too cold for them in Ohio.  I was also surprised that copperheads do live here, as I always thought of them as preferring warmer climates.

Well that was a fun little herpetology lesson for me.

A group of slider turtles sunning themselves on dead trees in a creek.

And speaking of herpetology, we did spot quite a few red-eared slider turtles here.  They are fun to observe, especially when there are many of them piled onto each other on some log, sunning themselves.  The game the girls and I played was to see how long we could watch them quietly before startling them into swiftly diving into the water.  Hopefully such games will prepare them for the eventual camping and hiking trips my husband and I would love to take them on, where you would have to be extremely quiet to spot an animal, or to avoid something spotting you.

And one thing that I have really enjoyed about autumn in Ohio is the plentitude of migratory waterfowl.  I never really saw them so numerous in Texas, and rarely in Louisiana.  Here, they are everywhere.  And what is really amazing is that, in the late evening or early morning, if the kids are asleep or being quiet, you can hear the geese honking and ducks quacking overhead as they fly south–past my old home–for the winter.  The stillness of late November, after the first snow, really made experiencing this seem surreal.

As we passed someone's farm along the trail, we spotted a flock of ducks. Too bad it wasn't a public hunting grounds...

But when it was still warm enough to hike, and since it rained quite a bit here (making me think of that song by Guns n Roses),  we would happen by flocks of waterfowl anywhere there was water.  And “anywhere” included low-lying spots in some farmer’s land that had just accumulated water from all the rain.

Ducks and geese were a lot braver than the slider turtles and certainly braver than the wood ducks in Louisiana that I grew up seeing, but not as used to humans as the ducks we would see at the public parks in Dallas (where the birds were used to being fed by humans).  They would stare at us as we passed, swimming off nonchalantly if the girls got too loud, and only flying away if they thought we were running towards them (which at first the girls would do–“Look, Mommy, a duck!  Let’s catch the duck!”).

The "mystery bird." It blends in with the tree on which it is perched.

There were also some kind of crane or heron that we would observe on occasion.  It would sit up high in the trees, and then suddenly dive into the water, and emerge with a struggling carp in its beak.  It looked very majestic.

Even more amazing to observe was the rare sighting of a bald eagle swooping over a lake and catching a fish in its talons.  We saw it happen twice, and both times Starkitten couldn’t stop talking about it.

How to Hike with Small Children

The trick to hiking with small children is all about patience and preparation.

You have to realize that kids do not have the stamina that adults have, even if they seem to have a million times more energy, and toddlers will have meltdowns about things over which you have no control (Sunfilly once had a meltdown because a dragonfly landed on Starkitten and not her).  And if they are in a foul mood, it is probably best to not take them hiking, because the odds that they will not obey orders that would ensure their safety are pretty high.  And you have to keep in mind that they cannot regulate the body temperatures as efficiently as an adult, so overdressing or underdressing them can lead to an unhappy toddler or ultimately even a sick one.

I typically took them in the morning, right after a big breakfast, and dressed them in layers.  This way they were in a good mood and it would be easy to dress/undress them to make sure they were comfortable.  And this way, by the time we returned, they would be nice and sleepy and nap well.  I also made sure they had comfortable sneakers for hiking (there are hiking boots for kids at specialty stores, but since we don’t have that kind of money, I looked for sneakers that seemed to have a lot of cushioning in the soles and arch support).

Maybe it’s because I’m a little neurotic, but I tended to keep my backpack stocked with things like:

  • an extra change of clothes and socks for each girl
  • diapers and wipes (and diaper wipes are great for washing your hands in a pinch)
  • a first-aid kit containing Benadryl, children’s pain reliever, bandages, Kleenex, Neosporin, and pain reliever for me
  • pocket ponchos for each of us
  • several bottles of water
  • a Thermos full of coffee for me
  • kid-sized Thermoses filled with milk for each girl (they are amazing at keeping drinks cold, even in the triple-digit Texas heat, for several hours, and they have convenient tot-friendly straws which detach for easy cleaning)
  • trail mix
  • a lunch box with our picnic lunch
  • a few empty plastic shopping bags in which to put garbage

Of course, the backpack was certainly heavy, and reminded me of my ROTC years in college, but it was worth having these things handy when we needed it.  I usually would carry Sunfilly on my shoulders on the way home, so undoubtedly my back was sore, but I was amazed at how much weight I was losing from all the exercise.

As for lunch, I usually packed fruits like apples, oranges, and peaches.  For protein, I’d pack tuna or egg salad sandwiches, although occasionally it would be hard boiled eggs with crackers and cheddar cheese squares, at Starkitten’s request.  If I forgot to freeze my ice packs for the lunch box, I’d pack the non-perishable lunch kits, like the tuna kits or chicken salad kits that you can get at any grocery store.  These kinds of foods are low-mess and can be eaten while sitting on one of the park benches we’d find strewn along the trail, or even while sitting by a stream and watching the ducks.

For conservation reasons, I’ve educated my girls about the harms of littering.   That is why I’d make sure to pack extra garbage bags.  I’ve explained that dumping your trash on nature can hurt the wild animals and plants.  Of course, now Starkitten complains when she sees an empty beer bottle or some other refuse marring otherwise pristine woods.

After the snake incident, I make sure to keep a walking stick handy.  The walking stick I use is just a branch from a tree chopped down by our landlord.  It’s straight, solid oak and is handy for whacking whatever nasties may try to hurt my babies.

Starkitten flaunts a maple leaf she found, which is larger than her head, and her makeshift walking stick.

And I cannot stress the “patience” part of hiking with kids enough.  Some kids love being outdoors, some don’t.  Some kids are content to walk and explore nature, others want to get messy in it.  Fortunately for me, my girls love being outdoors and are learning to not just grab at things.

But I still have to keep them engaged.

So we play games, like who can find the biggest leaf? or how many colors of leaves or flowers can we spot? or how many turtles can we find?

I’ve also noticed how easy it is to educate kids during a nature walk: that fungi and insects and vultures help to clean up things that have died and return them to the earth to benefit other living things; that the gingko tree is a living fossil; that some animals hibernate and some migrate; that not all trees shed their leaves for winter; and even how to watch the clouds for rain.

Making Trail Mix

Trail mix is really great for staving off growling tummies, and is packed with carbs and protein.  Since it’s expensive, I tend to make my own, as the ingredients can be much more affordable if you buy them individually (and in bulk).

You can really mix together any combination of ingredients, but here is what I tend to use, as the kids seem to like it best:

Homemade trail mix.

  • peanuts
  • dried edamame
  • sesame sticks
  • raisins
  • dried cranberries
  • dates
  • sunflower kernels
On occasion, I may toss in some M&Ms, as it makes the kids happy.  I’ll also toss in dried blueberries or strawberries or fiigs if I find them on sale at the local natural foods store (yay for supporting small businesses and organic farmers!).  If I was mixing it for myself only, I’d add wasabi peas, which are just amazing, and toss it all in some cayenne powder.  I like my food spicy.

Homemade Spiced Cranberry Sauce
I’ll spare you the cliche “why we should give thanks” Thanksgiving speech that everybody and their mother has said something about and skip right to the food.  I tried a citrus brine for the turkey for the first time, and it was divine.  Another thing I tried for the first time, and my family and our guests loved it so much I’m finding myself making it at least twice a week is homemade cranberry sauce.
I honestly never thought it would be so easy to make, but it was.  And, frankly, I don’t think I can ever eat canned cranberry sauce again–and my husband made that declaration on Day 1.

This is where the cranberries started popping.

Ingredients
  • 4 cups (about 1 bag) of cranberries
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon ginger
Directions
  1. Pick through the cranberries for any that look overripe or moldy or just gross you out.  Rinse them and let them drain.
  2. Pour the sugar and water into a medium saucepan and bring to a boil.  Stir occasionally so that the sugar dissolves better.
  3. Let it boil for 3-5 minutes.
  4. Add the cranberries.  Reduce heat to medium and boil for about 10 minutes, or when the cranberries start popping.
  5. Reduce to a simmer, add the spices, and stir.  Let it simmer for another 2 minutes.  Then remove from heat.
I’ve read that most people cool it and then refrigerate their cranberry sauce, but my family likes to eat it while it’s still warm.  With the spices, it gives all kinds of warm fuzzy feelings that are classic for this time of year.

Okay, so I'll get a little Thanksgiving-sentimental here. I'm thankful for evenings like the one pictured here, enjoying a perfect sunset to a perfect day lost in Mother Nature with my family.

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