Wednesday, March 29, 2006


Yesterday afternoon I went to a neighbor's house for our sorta-twice-monthly knitting or spinning (or crocheting or felting). My former suburban mind still finds it humorous to call someone a neighbor who lives four miles away, but then I remind myself that I only pass four houses between here and there, so she's only five houses away. Before getting to the heart of this post, I have to announce that I finished knitting my scarf! It is so exciting to have a scarf that I knitted from yarn that Katherine spun from wool that grew on our sheep named White Feather. When I look at clothing in a store, I wonder if the person who sewed it was paid a living wage; and if it contains animal fiber, I wonder if the animal was treated humanely. I wonder what type of chemicals were used to process the fiber. But I know everything about this scarf. I know that White Feather has had ram-ewe twins for the past two years, and she's the friendliest sheep on our farm. She loves to be scratched on her head. Katherine loves spinning, and she was happy to spin the yarn for me. No chemicals were used in processing, and there is the ocassional bit of straw stuck in the wool to remind me just how natural it is. Making my own scarf from scratch is one of the things that is so wonderful about our life out here.

My neighbor and I try to get together every two weeks so we can work on our fiber projects. She has alpacas. We have sheep and angora rabbits. Our daughters are very close in age and great friends. Although both of them know how to knit, they usually wind up playing while we moms work on our projects, chat and have afternoon tea. Part of our conversation yesterday centered on how little human interaction there is in our modern world. My family has recently gone through all the movies made from Jane Austen books, and they have left me feeling dreadfully cheated. People used to connect with each other so much more than we do today. I can understand why the Amish are opposed to having telephones in their homes but accept the necessity of having them for business. They value the importance of real human connections and realize that the telephone would reduce the quality of their lives in many ways. Between the telephone and email, we have this false sense of connection to people, but neither can replace the joy and relaxation of sitting down with a friend over tea or for a meal. While regular contact with people is important for mental health in good times, it is even more important in sad times. If a person is ill, how can a phone call compare to a visit and a fresh bouquet of flowers or an offer of assistance for something that may have fallen through the cracks during the illness? If someone has lost a loved one, how can an email compare to a hug?

In Jane Austen's time, people regularly visited each other. It was a part of the daily chores of English ladies to pay social calls on each other. They regularly had dinner guests, and following dinner, they played cards or entertained each other by playing the piano and singing. Women in 19th century America had quilting bees. Men helped each other build a barn or harvest their crops in the fall. Today, farmers have machines to harvest their crops. They pay professionals to build a barn. Few women sew or engage in fiber arts. The family dinner is becoming an endangered activity. The thought of inviting friends to dinner is rare indeed. People are building more expensive kitchens, and they are cooking less. And people are spending less time with each other.

In 2006, people spend time with their computers, their iPods, their TiVo, their Xbox, their PlayStation, their BlackBerry. While they feel more connected than ever, they are actually less connected to real live human beings than ever before. The words are there, the commitments are there, but the benefits of human interaction are gone. Somehow a smiling emoticon just doesn't give us the same emotional lift as a real live smile from a person we know and care about. "LOL" doesn't make us feel as good as hearing a friend laugh at something we said.

So, what are we to do? Thoreau's words come to me again, as they have so many times in the past. "Live deliberately." Stop. Think. Examine choices. Turn off the auto pilot that is pushing us through life. I have attempted to banish the phrase, "I don't have time," from my speech. It's a lie. I have all the time in the world, and I have a choice about how I spend it. Last summer, I made a conscious decision to invite friends over for ice cream one afternoon a month. One woman, commenting about what a great idea it was, asked me how I had time for it. I replied, "I just decided to do it." It sounds simple, but life is simple. I wrote it on my calendar, and I planned around it. Adjusting my thinking has not been simple though. I still catch myself thinking that I can invite someone over "next week." After a month or two of planning to invite someone next week, I am reminded of what my mama used to say ... "Tomorrow never comes," and I stop myself in my tracks and send the email or make the phone call to invite someone over.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Barn cleaning

Yesterday when it became obvious that the temperatures would be in the 50s, it was equally obvious that it was time to work in the barn. During the winter, the barn becomes a mess because it is so cold, no one does much more than is absolutely necessary. The animals are fed and watered, but hardly anyone takes the extra time to throw away feed bags or clean up after themselves in the storeroom. When everyone got home from church yesterday afternoon, we had a quick lunch and set to work.

Katherine spent most of the day mucking out stalls -- in other words, she shoveled up manure and soiled straw, put it into the wheelbarrow, then rolled the wheelbarrow out to the various trees and shrubs whose mulch disintegrated over the winter. Once all the trees were mulched, she started a new pile that will rot and turn into garden gold (AKA compost). By the end of the day, she had cleaned out three large stalls, as well as the milking parlor.

Mike also worked on the milking parlor. There was an area on the end, where the concrete ended before the wall started, and mice quickly decided that this was their buffet! In other words, the floor on one end of the milking parlor was dirt, rather than concrete, and the mice burrowed their way into the milking parlor. They would get into the goat's grain and minerals, leave mouse dropping all over the place, and they multiplied rapidly. Mouse traps couldn't catch them fast enough, and then the little geniuses buried the mouse traps! So, Mike shoveled out several inches of dirt yesterday and filled it with concrete! I've lived out here long enough to know better than to prematurely declare us the winners in any animal conflict, but I do hope that we don't see any more mice in the milking parlor.

Margaret helped me deworm the sheep, and she did a few other chores to help everyone else. She was moving a little slowly though, because she's getting over a cold. She and Katherine also mixed up about 100 pounds of goat grain.

Jonathan also did a few little things in the barn, but his biggest contribution was cooking dinner. He made penne alfredo with broccoli for the vegetarians, and he kept an eye on the stewing hen that I had put on the stove earlier in the day, and when it was cooked, he stripped off the meat. When I came inside in the evening, I quickly whipped up a batch of dumplings and added them to the pot.

I spent most of my time working on the storeroom. The floor and counter were covered with "stuff" and very dusty and dirty, so I spent the afternoon cleaning up all of that, and it's really thrilling to see such a huge improvement at the end of the day. I can hardly think of anything else that gives me as much joy as working on the farm. It feels so real, so genuine, so necessary, so important. There were moments yesterday when I felt happier than I could ever describe. It was hard to stop and come inside when the sun went down. After dinner, we played a card game called "Oh, Pshaw!" where I came in dead last. Then I went to bed and fell asleep very quickly after my head hit the pillow -- once again proving that good, honest work is the best cure in the world for insomnia!

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Lessons from daffodils and tulips

When I decided to "force" spring bulbs this season, I did it simply because I didn't want the unplanted bulbs to be wasted. I love flowers, and at least I'd be able to enjoy them if I planted them in pots. I didn't do it as any type of learning experiment. Indeed, I would never have guessed that I could learn anything from spring bulbs. That looks funny even as I write it! I've had spring bulbs in my garden for years. If they had any lessons to teach, I'd have learned those lessons long ago. Right?

But who among us has not learned something new about a person when we had the opportunity to live with them, even if for a short while? Living with my tulips and daffodils has taught me a lot, not only about the flowers, but also about life. They've reinforced the idea that patterns in nature repeat themselves over and over again -- and I'm not talking about patterns that can be seen with the eye. These are patterns that can be felt with the heart and quantified with the mind. Several days ago (am no longer sure if it's been three or four days), I noticed the daffodil in the vase above the kitchen sink was starting to open. One petal of the flower was starting to peel away from the rest of the bud. Every time I went back to the kitchen, I glanced at the bud, hoping it was open a bit more, but even today there is still just that one petal that is slowly peeling away from the rest of the bud. Then last night, I walked into the living room to find another daffodil starting to open. Three petals were unfurling, and I could see the beautiful pink cup in the middle. A part of me wanted desperately to reach up and gently peel away the other three petals, to make the flower bloom so I could enjoy its beauty immediately! But I knew that would ruin it. If I tried to force it to move faster than nature intended, I would destroy all its beauty.

I remembered my first experience with hatching chicken eggs in an incubator. Almost everyone tells you that you cannot -- you must not -- interfere with the hatching process. Even after the chick has pipped the egg, you cannot help it by peeling away parts of the shell. I read detailed explanations from a variety of farmers around the country on Internet groups who said that if you don't let the chick force its way out of the egg, it won't have the stregth to survive. They say that the hatching process itself is vital to the chick's health. Then there are a very few who say that it's okay to help if you see that a chick hasn't made any progress in a couple of hours. Maybe the shell is too dry, and the chick is stuck. You see, the chick has to spin around in the shell 360 degree, breaking the shell as it slowly turns. If the humidity in the incubator isn't high enough, the inside of the shell might be too sticky for the chick to turn.

It seems that this desire to "help" increases as you move further up the food chain. While probably everyone would agree that you shouldn't help a flower bloom, a few people think you should help chicks hatch. Even more think we humans need to help livestock give birth, and the desire to "help" increases as the animal's value increases. The funny thing is that when the various protocols are researched, it often turns out that "helping" does more harm than good. A study was recently released about lambing. Conventional wisdom would say that lambs born in the barn, who have their umbilical cords neatly cut and their navels dipped in iodine, would have lower mortality, especially when someone is also there to make sure they start nursing properly. The study actually showed that lambs born under such conditions had a higher mortality rate than those born in the field with no "help" at all.

Once you move all the way up the food chain to humans, the desire to "help" with birthing is so strong that almost one in three American babies is now born by cesarean, even though studies have never shown that they are saving lives with a cesarean rate any higher than about 1-2%. My despair about the total lack of respect for women's body and the birth process was what pushed me from the field of childbirth education and labor support almost 10 years ago. The irony is that while I was regarded as radical in my views with human birth, I am learning now that even I didn't have enough respect for the birthing process.

Last year, we had a ewe whose placenta did not come out after a few hours. I knew that in humans, most doctors would manually remove the placenta after an hour, if they waited even that long. I called a vet, who said that it was a problem, and I went to her office to get a syringe with oxytocin, an artifical hormone that should cause the uterus to contract and expel the placenta. I came home, gave her the shot and waited. An hour passed and still no placenta. I posted a message on the sheep board, expecting to have to at least one or two breeders yelling at me for waiting so long (several hours) before doing anything. Instead, they were reassuring me that everything would be fine. One woman said she had a ewe who dragged around the umbilical cord for almost a week before finally passing it. She said there was a slight risk of infection, so I could give her a shot of antibiotics if I wanted to be safe. It wasn't easy, but I followed the advice to let nature take its course. Six days later, the umbilical cord was gone, so we assumed the placenta had finally come out. Obviously nature had taken care of everything, because a year later, that ewe is still walking around and looking pregnant for this spring's lambing. I told this story to the son of a dairy farmer, and he was shocked that I didn't have the placenta manually removed. I don't think it's a coincidence that a dairy cow is worth 4-10 times as much as a sheep.

I am continually amazed at all the lessons life has to teach us. We just need to open our minds to the possibility that we do not know as much as we think we do. We have to turn off the voice in our head that is telling us we have all the answers, simply because we are human. How ironic that it is considered an acceptable excuse for making a mistake to say, "I'm human!" when we use that exact same explanation to assert our dominance over the universe.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Shearing day

Yesterday was one of those days when you go to bed knowing that you did an honest day's work. After catching 15 sheep in the morning, we went to a farm about six miles away to pick up four yearlings that we sold to a lady last year. She only wanted them for pets, so we agreed to have them sheared every year in exchange for their wool.

The shearer arrived at 4:00, and we got to work. Last year, we had an assembly line set up where one person brought sheep to the shearer, then when they were sheared, one person would give them dewormer, one person would vaccinate, one person would trim their hooves, and someone would return them to the pasture. Another person had the job of bagging up the fleeces. Last year, we had help. Mike's parents and his niece were here, and we were all very busy! This year, Margaret was sick, and we had no extra help, so we decided to simply get the task of shearing done. Mike brought the sheep to the shearer and returned them to the stall, while Katherine rolled up the fleeces, and stuffed them into the garbage bags that I was holding. Today we will trim hooves and deworm before letting the sheep back into the pasture.

In the photo, Mike is about to pick up Majik, who has just been sheared, and yes, that huge amount of fleece belonged to her! She is one of our biggest wool producers, and her fiber is very long, which is great for spinning into bulky yarn. Katherine spun her wool from two years ago and used part of it to knit a scarf for herself.

We also got a huge surprise yesterday. When the shearer (who has raised sheep for years) flipped over one of the yearling ewes to clip her chest, he said, "Oh, this one's really pregnant!" The surprise is that we were not going to breed yearlings again after all the lambing problems we had last year with yearling ewes. I wrote on my calendar that Monet jumped the fence five months ago, so any lambs born this week would be his, even though we never saw him mate anyone. I didn't think a ram would go to the trouble of jumping a four-foot fence TWICE if there wasn't a ewe in heat. Guess I was right. We'll have to keep an eye on her, although it's not as easy to know when a sheep is going to lamb as it is to know when a goat is going to kid. I just hope she doesn't have any trouble.

Friday, March 24, 2006


I can't believe how busy we've been, and it's not even noon! The phone rang at 7:30. It was the post office, informing us that our goslings had arrived, so Mike jumped in the car to pick them up, while Katherine prepared a brooder for them. Calling it a brooder sounds much more high tech than it really is. It's just a horse trough that was retired because it started leaking. Katherine put a waterer in there, as well as a crock for feed, and she hung a heat lamp on one end, so the goslings can stay warm. The good news is that all nine goslings survived their trip from New Mexico, and none seem the worse for wear.

After breakfast and regular chores, it was time to get the sheep rounded up for the shearer, who is coming this afternoon around 3:30. That ordeal took two hours! These are the types of days I suppose most people assume that we have regularly, and they wonder why anyone would ever want to live such a life. These are the types of days that elicit comments such as, "It takes so much discipline to live a life like that!" It really takes no discipline at all. It's just common sense. The sheep must be sheared, so we have to catch them all for the shearer. What else would we do? When something has to be done, we just do it. If we didn't want to do it, then we wouldn't be living out here.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The story of Patches

When I walked into the living room this morning, our cat Patches was lieing on top of the piano. She looked so beautiful, I had to grab the camera and start taking pictures. After the first flash, she stood up and stretched, but she did agree to stick around and let me continue taking pictures for a bit.

Patches has an interesting history with us. She arrived at Antiquity Oaks two years ago, tiny and pregnant. She was so sweet and loving, we knew someone must have dumped her. This was not a typical country cat. We watched her get fatter and fatter, and knowing that her kittens would be feral if not handled from birth, we watched her as closely as we could. One day she came to the barn quite skinny, so Margaret followed her when she left. When she discovered six kittens in a hollow tree, we decided to bring them into the barn. Patches, however, being very independent, would not have her babies living in the barn. We watched her as she carried every baby back to the hollow tree! Two weeks later, as their eyes started to open, Patches decided it was time for her babies to live in the barn.

Patches was such a great mommy. She took great care of her babies, even one who was quickly named Fat Louie (after the cat in the Princess Diaries). Our Fat Louie loved to nurse. When he was only a month old, he was twice as big as his brothers. He never left his mommy's side -- or should I say, her never left her tummy! He ran after Patches everywhere, and the moment she stopped, he started to nurse!

When her babies were three months old, we took Patches to the vet to get spayed. I wanted her to be my new house cat. She was so beautiful and cuddly! When we brought her home from the vet, I carried her into the house. She slept on my bed, kept my feet warm and lulled me to sleep at night with her purring, but after six or seven days, she walked out the door and never came near the house for more than a year. I'd see her once or twice a week walking across the pasture with a mouse or vole in her mouth, but I respected her independence. Then last fall, I came to the house from doing chores one night, and Patches was sitting on the front porch. When I opened the door, she ran into the house, and this has been her home ever since!

Now that spring is officially here, I am wondering if she will stay with me. Did she only decide to spend her winter in a human house after hearing about senior citizens who winter in Texas or Florida? I hope not.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Tragedy averted ... by a few minutes

Katherine came running into the house about an hour ago to tell us there was a fire in the barn. A heat lamp had fallen to the ground and caught the straw on fire. Luckily, it had not fallen long before she got out there, because the fire hadn't spread more than a couple feet. The whole barn was filled with smoke, and Katherine knew where it was coming from as soon as she opened the door, because she saw the smoke rising up from the stall where three mother goats and their five babies were staying. As soon as Katherine opened the door, the three mothers ran, but the babies didn't move. Katherine said they simply stood like statues staring at the fire. Whether they were mesmerized by the flames or were starting to suffer the effects of smoke inhalation, we'll never know. She had to move all the kids out of the stall herself, picking them up, pushing them, doing whatever she could to get the five of them into fresh air. I am so very proud of her. She immediately unplugged the heat lamp and threw a bucket of water on the flames -- very important to do that in the correct order! I'm not sure I would have thought to unplug the lamp first.

It is so horribly scary to think that had Katherine gone out there even 10 minutes later, those goats and possibly all the other goats in the barn could have been dead from smoke inhalation. An hour later, and there would be only ashes where the barn now stands. This is one of the reasons I hate leaving here. Yes, there is always lots of stuff to do out here, and I also love the peace, but I never leave without worrying that everyone will be okay until I get home again. Yesterday, Katherine went outside to find one of the goats stuck halfway through a fence. Little Beauty had managed to get the front half of her body through the woven wire, but her belly stopped her from getting the back half through, and the thought of backing up isn't something that goats usually consider. Goats have died when getting stuck in fences if someone doesn't find them soon enough. It's great having children because hardly an hour goes by when someone isn't outside doing something, even if it's just walking through the pasture enjoying nature.

Three years ago, we left for a day in the suburbs, and we returned home to a disaster. When we got out of our car, we smelled something strange. The kids immediately said that we had a gas leak, but I didn't think it smelled quite like liquid propane. The ground was covered with snow, and as I approached the barn, which is near the propane tank, I started to sense a sloshing feeling under my feet. It was a typical frozen January. Sloshing was abnormal. As I got closer to the barn and saw more standing water, my brain suddenly screamed the answer. The barn and the surrounding area was flooded. There must have been a malfunction in the pump room again! I screamed, "It's flooding! We have to get to the pump room!" I tried to go through the barn, but when I stepped into a stall that had several inches of water in it, I lost my footing and fell into dirty water, straw and manure. I struggled to get to my feet and decided to go the other way around. I came running out of the barn and around towards the smaller barn that housed the pump room, and I fell again. Finally I got to the pump room and was greeted by a geyser of water shooting up and out of the water tank, flooding the room and spilling out into both barns and the surrounding area. When I came out of the barn, I tripped and fell again. I started screaming and crying. Katherine, who was only 10 at the time, came up to me, gave me her hand to help me to my feet and told me in the most convincing voice she could muster, "It's going to be okay, Mom." She kept her arm around me as we walked to the house, and I continued weeping.

When we walked inside, Margaret took one look at me and struggled to stifle a laugh. She suggested that I take off my wet clothes in the foyer, and she offered to wash them for me. She also told me that everything was going to be okay -- as she picked straw and bits of manure out of my hair and wiped my face. And my girls were right. Everything was okay.

Living out here has provided us with more living in four years than most people eek out of 40. We deal with birth and death regularly-- things that most people in our society almost never see. We try to cheat death as much as we can if it's an animal we love -- or we end the life of a rooster who starts attacking people. We are judge, jury and executioner. Sometimes I feel like the ruler of a small country. Sometimes I think I've slipped back in time 100 years.

We laugh so much -- at ducks, goats, sheep, our own foibles and shortcomings. We scream in anger and frustration when things don't work. We learn new things every day. Sometimes we have to learn things more than once. We all know that heat lamps are the #1 cause of barn fires, so we had all been very careful to secure the heat lamps to the eye-hook with a clip. Someone didn't do that with this heat lamp. It was hanging on a nail and fell off. We're so lucky that the timing was perfect. This was just a learning exercise. It could have been a tragedy of the worst dimensions. There were eight does in the barn, as well as two bucks (including the son of the 2005 AGS National Champion), and 12 kids. But the timing was right, and our only loss is a charred heat lamp.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Learning all the time ...

I just learned something new! Every fall I get mad at myself for "wasting" a bunch of spring bulbs that I never get planted. I've always heard about forcing bulbs, but with my total lack of a green thumb, I didn't think it was something I could do. Last fall, I decided I had nothing to lose! I googled "forcing bulbs," read several different articles on the subject and stuck the bulbs in the bottom of the frig.

In January, I took out four bulbs (two tulip and two daffodil) and sat them on top of four bud vases that had an opening big enough to hold the bulb, and I filled them with water, so only the lower half of the bulb was in water. Roots grew!!! Woo hoo!!! And shoots came out of the top! So then I planted some of the other bulbs in pots. I put dirt down on the bottom and really crammed in the bulbs, side by side. A couple weeks ago, I was enjoying a daffodil blooming in one of the vases. For the past few days, I have been enjoying beautiful tulips in my living room, and I have a mixed pot of daffodil and tulip bulbs still in the basement (it's about 50 degrees down there). I also have a few bulbs left in the frig, which I will plant in the next few days. I love fresh flowers, and this is a wonderful way to enjoy them.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

More babies ...

I can't believe I haven't posted in almost two weeks. Last week was spring break for Mike and the two older kids who take classes at the junior college, so everyone was home and busy! At the end of the week, the girls and I attended a homeschool conference. Margaret and I spoke about community colleges. Our session appeared to be well received. Margaret also led a Harry Potter book discussion with a group of children.

While Margaret and I were giving our presentation, the population at Antiquity Oaks grew by another two baby goats, both doelings! Jonathan and his dad were home to dry off the babies and make sure the kids got a good start nursing. Then Saturday night after we got home from the conference, Margaret checked on Carmen and came into the house to tell us that she would definitely be giving birth before the night was over. And she did. We all went out to the barn for the event. She had buck-doe twins, and I want to keep both of them. (They're the kids in the picture.) They are the first kids out of our new sire, Pegasus, who is the son of the 2005 National Champion Doe. Then Sunday night, our mini mancha, Tulip kidded with a single doeling.

The conference was wonderful, and my mind has been spinning ever since. Being around homeschoolers and speaking about the subject intelligently (as opposed to hashing over the same old issues that non-homeschoolers talk about) helped me to figure out a few things that I had never thought about before. DoesMargaret's perfectionism come from all those years of music lessons, having teachers who wanted her to "get it right" before moving on to the next piece? Does student-led learning work so well for our family because Mike and I are constantly teaching ourselves new things ... like housebuilding, sewing, spinning, etc? Do the parents of those kids who "watch TV all day" watch TV all night themselves, setting an unfortunate example for their children? Maybe I came back with more questions, not necessarily answers! But I came back with new questions and new ways of looking at things.

Green grass is finally starting to peek through the dead grass that has been covering our pastures for the past few months, and the visits from wild ducks and Canada geese are getting more frequent. It is always so exciting to see the first signs of spring.

Thursday, March 2, 2006

Another dreaded chore

Tomorrow we will be taking our old laying hens down to the Amish to be butchered. It is something I've avoided for as long as we've lived here. I feel like I'm betraying them. They've given us fresh eggs for years, and now that they're no longer productive, they're going to become soup. Unlike the roosters, who are a huge pain, the hens are sweet. They run around the yard, pecking at grass and caterpillars and leave us humans alone. The roosters, however, chase the hens mercilessly and fight amongst themselves. If we don't butcher the roosters to keep the population down, they'll just kill each other, so we're actually doing them a favor by butchering them. After we'd been here a year, we had one rooster die after getting into a fight with another rooster and getting his eye poked out. That could not have been an easy way to go.

We know which hens are the oldest. Our first year we had silver laced wyandottes and buff orpingtons. The second year we added a few barred rocks. The third year it was speckled sussex and a laced Cornish, and last year (with two daughters in 4-H), we added light brahmas, white Plymouth rocks, salmon faverolles and more speckled sussex. So, the wyandottes, orpingtons and barred rocks will definitely be going. I'm not sure if that will leave enough room in the hen house for the new chickens we are raising, so we may have to see if we can tell which sussex are the oldest. I had a chicken judge explain it to me last year at the fair, but it will be interesting to see if I can actually figure out which ones have stopped laying.

There are also a few roosters that were never butchered last year that need to go. When Mike and Jonathan get home today, they're going to catch them and get them loaded onto the trailer, so we can leave at 6 a.m. tomorrow. I wish we had a hen house big enough to house all of them and that we could afford to feed all of them, even after their laying days are done. Once my daughters are gone, and we don't have to get new chicks every year for 4-H, I plan to just get 25 new chickens every year -- or maybe just have my hens hatch a few replacements for themselves. So, hopefully between the hen house and feed bill, we won't have to butcher old hens anymore.


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