Stonehenge, Part One

Just got back from a very quick and yet pleasantly full trip to England.  Among the highlights was heading out toward Salisbury so that we could visit Stonehenge.  Lots of people had sort of discouraged us from going, saying that they’d gone and been disappointed because you can’t get close to the monument anymore–which is true, in a sense.  There’s a cordon at knee height that encircles the stones, twenty or so yards away from them.  Still, since we were there in April, mid-week, the crowd was small and we were able to amble around the perimeter at a slow pace, taking it in.  In some ways, the most exciting view came not there, but in the car when we had almost arrived; we crested the last hill on our way there and suddenly, there it was.  We were all struck by this shock of beholding.

I am really glad we didn’t succumb to other folks’ recommendations that we skip this visit.  Being present in this place mattered to me in ways that I can’t yet put clearly.  While we were there, I couldn’t help wondering about the other people who had also made a point of coming to this place.  What were they encountering?  Could any of them put it into words?  And if they could, would their words help me find mine?

I’ll never know, of course.  Those are not the questions one can ask of strangers.

While I don’t know what they might have put into words, I do know what they put into pictures.  We saw folks making lots and lots of pictures–with everything from a tiny cell phone to a pair of digital SLR cameras carefully calibrated to create a stereoscopic image.  And as we picnicked, I paid attention to their act of paying attention.  Throughout our lunch, I photographed everyone who paused nearby to take a picture, made a record of their effort to record.  For some reason, several folks asked Rob to take their pictures during that interval, so I recorded that as well.

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This set of pictures tickles me.  But here’s the thing; I made them partly to protect myself, to avoid the hardest part of being there.  Because places like Stonehenge risk paralyzing me, at the same time that they strike me as one of humanity’s few sources of hope.  More, perhaps, about this terrifying paradox some other day.  Far sooner, I’ll try to put into words something more manageable about Stonehenge and the other celestial sighting site we visited during the trip–The Royal Observatory at Greenwich.

Rocks, Snow, Gold

The snow is FINALLY melting here, and as it does, I’m learning something new about the yard–where the soil is especially shallow.  Like so much of this region, our yard has lots of ledge.  But since I am no longer in the habit of digging holes just to see how deep I can go (a practice my brothers and I found inexplicably fun as kids), I only knew the whereabouts of the ledgy bits that had to be blasted to lay water pipes and electrical lines when the house was being built.

Looking around now, though, I see areas where the snow melted quickly, and other spots still covered by the dirty, crusty last vestiges.  Some of the variation is due to location–there’s snow in the shadow of the house, for instance, and in the woods.  But in other spots, no above-ground explanations suffice.  So I went looking for insight as to why snow melts unevenly.

Here’s the best short answer I found on the web:

Snow ablation and melt

The rate of snow melt is dependent on energy availability, which is mostly in the form of radiation. Cold snowpacks have a negative energy balance, but warming causes the snowpack to become isothermal (0 degrees C) and additional energy results in positive energy balance and melt. Daily snow melt in forested areas is considerably less than melt in open areas, as forests protect the snow cover from solar radiation and wind. Canopy warming can increase longwave radiation, but the net effect of forest is reduction in melt. Rain falling on snowpack may accelerate its melt rate, but intense sunshine of late spring and summer is the principal melting energy source.

Most operational procedures for snow melt prediction rely on ambient air temperature as the index of the energy available for melt. The temperature index is usually used to characterize the level of the energy balance because it is superior to other simple methods for the full energy balance at the snow surface. The most common expression relating snow melt to the temperature index is:

M = Cm(Tair – Tmelt)

where M is the daily snow melt (mm/day), Cm is the melt rate factor (mm/oC per day), Tair is the daily ambient temperature (oC) and Tmelt is the threshold melt temperature (oC). The critical melt temperature is often set to 0 degrees C but can be optimized for a particular location.

Is that not awesome?!?

Unfortunately for me, it doesn’t really get at the reasons why snow on rock melts faster than snow on soil.  So, I’ve decided to settle on conjecture for now….and that conjecture is:  density.  Here’s my thinking:  soil heats up and cools down much more slowly than does air because it is so much denser than air.  So, one can say that soil holds heat “better” than air.  And rock is denser than soil, so by analogy it should hold heat even “better” than dirt.  I’m sure a geothermal engineer could give me a more precise explanation, but I don’t know any geothermal engineers.

So now, I’m imagining an earth art project based on these new-found speculations/insights.  We bury a message by writing in with rocks on a huge field, and then covering the whole field with another layer of soil and then grow some wildflowers on top.  Every spring, when the snow melts, the message would be visible for a day or two, as the snow above the rock-line writing melts more quickly than that in the rest of the field.  Ah, what to write, what to write?

Part of the reason I’ve been thinking about rocks and temperature is because of the joyful snow melt.  But part of it is because of the far less joyful glacier melt.

paint-glacier-whiteAs glaciers recede, hosts of folks are trying to figure out what can be done to slow the process.  And one guy who came up with a possibly crazy/possibly genius proposal to slow glacial retreat in the Andes is Eduardo Gold.  He doesn’t call himself an artist or a scientist, but what he’s doing is of a piece with other artful remediation projects.  He’s painting the landscape.  Literally. With the help of some men from a nearby village–and funds from the World Bank through their “100 Ideas to Save the Planet” competition, in which he was one of the winners in 2009–he is whitewashing the rocks near the peak of Chalon Sombrero, in hopes of shifting the micro-climate and encouraging the glacier to expand.

Gold and his assistants are using an environmentally-kind “paint” made of lime, egg whites, and water, which they slosh over the rocks.  The premise is that by changing the reflectivity of the surface, the area will become a bit cooler, perhaps enough cooler to re-create the conditions that had been in place when the glaciers were larger.  And if that works, the glaciers will slowly begin to regrow.  Once there’s more glacier, its surface color will be the dominant one, and it will have the right reflectivity to self-maintain.

I hope it works.  It would be amazing if grassroots efforts to stave off climate disruption could generate positive effects.

From an entirely different perspective, Gold’s work also calls to mind some of the issues that Jena Duncan’s project on eating local food brought to the fore.  If I did what Eduardo Gold is doing, it would be an artwork.  If my brother who is an environmental engineer did it, it would be a slightly quirky project, but still all in a day’s work–and decidedly not art.  What is it when Gold does it?

And what does it mean that what an act “is” depends on who performs that act?

Bird Doors, Garden Questions

I ordered my seeds last week.  Shout out to Comstock Ferre for sending the ones I ordered from them so quickly.  It warms a heart to imagine what will be, and the effort of imagining is somehow easier with the bumpy packets of potential in one’s hot little hands.

No doubt such fantasizing about the coming season infused my thoughts about “he-of-the-bird-doors.” If you’ve read a few of these posts, you may remember that Barbara and I are undertaking a supremely fun art-science exploration of a meadow in Carlisle, MA.  And in the middle of that meadow sits a very old home.  And in one of the outbuildings adjoining that home are a set of doors that used to be in the house.  I think there are eleven of them.  The doors are covered with lists of birds–the first arrivals each year for all the species the writer spotted.  Spring and fall, he noted the various birds.  The two doors below show a small sample from the decades-long record he created.

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It seems no outside concerns intruded on this naturalist’s life, for the lists are as long during war years as during calmer times.  Or perhaps such careful attention was a balm for him.  At any rate, the chronicling of the birds clearly dominated his life;  the list claims the middle of each door, with any other information relegated to the margins, quite literally.  Even at this scale, you can see that those peripheral notes compose a far smaller set.  An occasional snow storm is recorded, a particularly momentous family event, a cause for sorrow.  And also, with the same faithfulness that he gave to the birds, he recorded the arrival each spring of the first asparagus.

I get that.  Asparagus is not my bellwether.  If I had to choose, I guess I’d say that rhubarb is.  Though now we’ve a witch hazel, so perhaps that will be the assuring sign.  Nonetheless, I can certainly see why asparagus would be someone’s.  And so, with a tip of the hat to he-of-the-bird-doors, I offer this promise that spring will, in fact, eventually arrive:

“First asparagus”

Amid the litany of birds,
a single garden note each year,
tucked between his penciled chronicles
of avian attention:
“asparagus, Apr. 28″
or “1st asparagus, May 3rd.”

I picture him peering at
the unkempt bed, brushing away
errant strands of moldering hay
hoping to find dogged, knobbed tips
puckering the untilled loam.
A day hence, or two at most,

faintly purpled stalks will follow,
erect despite the chilly nights.
He well knows how quickly they thicken
to record-worthy readiness,
into the notes of his mellow-
throated rhapsody to spring.

Mapping the World

I just came across the website “worldmapper” and I love it.  Of course, I’m predisposed to love maps.  But this one makes me think of Edward Tufte and others who manage to pack a lot of information into a simple visual display.  At worldmapper, the information load is enhanced by comparisons between maps.

Here’s the “regular” map, the one indicating land area for each of the marked nations or territories:

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But here are a few in which additional data is used, and represented by skewing the size of the territory to reflect that info.  In order, top to bottom, they represent nuclear power production, housing prices, personal computer ownership, and deaths of males aged 95-99.  These all loosely correlate with national wealth, I guess, which is in the fifth image in this set.

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To be sure, the skews are not identical, but when you compare them to some of the others maps, their similarity to one another seems more striking.  Contrast them with this one of the total number of children:

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Or this one of the number of deaths due to epilepsy:

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In a way, these remind me of some of the maps in the series “Mappa Mundi,” by NYC artist, Kim Baranowski. Hers are more wry, but they similarly take the convention of a map and render it provocative through the addition of new data.  Check ‘em out!

Framing the Carbon Question

I just got back from a work trip to NYC, during which I spent time with some amazing graduate students.  They are all working on projects that involve regarding art in the context of contemporary philosophy.  Heady stuff, and heartening to attend to the ways they struggle to precisely frame their concerns.

Perhaps because we turned, again and again, to the question of how to “frame” their various topics, that heuristic also affected how I responded to the city.  Put simply, I started wondering how to frame a city when measuring its carbon footprint.  How do analysts decide what to include and what to exclude?

In Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline, he identifies the burgeoning mega-cities in the developing world as auspicious, in environmental terms, and suggests that they may well be more sustainable than rural communities.  Probably he is right.  He has spent a whole lot of time thinking carefully about just such issues.  Certainly he is right that it’s more efficient to run the electricity and water to a million people in an itty-bitty area than it is to run it all over the countryside.  And far more people live in co-housing situations in cities, which are typically smaller as well as denser than rural homes.  Plus, if one needs to truck in food, then it makes sense to truck a lot to a few places than a little to a lot of places.  And city folk have fewer children than country folk, which is environmentally beneficial, since the planet is already straining under the demand of humans for meals, especially for meaty meals.  These are familiar claims, and they all generate data that is captured in typical models for measuring carbon footprint.

But one morning, as my taxi crept along Madison Avenue in rush-hour traffic, I heard a radio announcer say that New York had been the number #1 tourist destination in the US in 2010—with a whopping 45.25 million visitors.  Of those, he boasted, 8.6 million came from abroad.  And that got me wondering about how visitors, and the things that compel them to visit, get factored into the measurement of a city’s carbon footprint.

In calculating the carbon footprint of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for instance, an assessment would typically include the hours that the building is open, the amount of floor space, the energy used for heating/cooling/lighting, the water used, the paper used.  But how to calculate the amount of energy used by the patrons to visit, the amount used by the artists in generating the work on display, the amount used in transporting that work safely?  If a visitor to the city came specifically to see the John Baldessari show, for example, should the entire carbon footprint of that visitor’s trip be amended to that of the Met?  Or a portion, perhaps based on the amount of time she actually spent at the museum?   Right now, it gets measured as part of her personal carbon footprint—but that seems a bit inegalitarian.  Like what insurance companies call an “attractive nuisance,” the Met and other delightful places draw us, and thus we expend more CO2 than we would if those attractions were not there.   Even if all of the carbon footprint is not reallocated to those institutions, it seems that the burden ought, somehow, to be jointly acknowledged.

And what of those shops on Madison Avenue?  Many visitors come to New York expressly for the couture.  The high-end retailers create (or cause to be created) both the goods to temporarily satisfy those cravings, and also the deep desire for such goods that (psycho-ideological engine that it is) can never be satisfied.  Where to circumscribe Hermes’ or Chanel’s carbon footprint? Does it include the years of effort and energy that go into becoming a designer?  Does it cover the energy output for creating samples?  How about for the production costs of actual goods?  Does it include the extra cost of the checked luggage full of new purchases carried home by the happy consumer?  The midnight oil burned by whomever alters said new purchases so they’ll fit a non-model’s body?  What of the energy expended by shoppers to get there, or to visit the satellites such stores have opened all over the country?

Trying to define this framing line reminds me of the scene from The Devil Wears Prada when Miranda schools Andy about the extent to which “high fashion” apparently pervades all sartorial options, no matter how remote they may seem from that category .  If the aesthetic reach of Madison Avenue extends to outlet malls, general stores, and sidewalk carts, then does that mean its carbon footprint does too?

Flip as these questions may sound, I mean them mostly sincerely.  The individual’s carbon footprint in industrializing nations is increasing rapidly.  Why?  Because folks are acquiring the financial capacity to eat more meat and buy more consumer goods.  And even though the new sprawling mega-cities in those nations offer more efficient infrastructures than do rural areas, they also depend upon generating cycles of desire and innovation that make yesterday’s goods seem so, well, yesterday.  As such cities outstrip the dominant cities of today, New York among them, one can only assume that analogous spheres of influence will extend outward, pulling visitors into their urban orbits, and increasing the carbon dioxide output in ways we can’t yet measure.

Morning Star

Venus has been illuminating my mornings this past month.  I’m not crazy about being up in the wee-est of wee hours, but insomnia is certainly made more pleasant by watching the arc that planet traces.  From my pillow, I spy the first gleam at the horizon seemingly due east, and watch her rise and shift, upward and to the southeast, reaching high in the night sky before being obscured by dawn’s broader light.

Morning stars are no doubt an ordinary miracle to folks who pay better attention to the sky than I.  But when it comes to careful late-night looking, I’m a newbie.  My sense of the sky has been shaped almost entirely by scout camp and Greek mythology, rather than by astronomical knowledge.

Which may be why watching Venus has me so undone.  Night after night, from the safety of my bed, I feel myself hurtling east, racing toward the next day.  Venus shines like a brilliant nun or can, bright against the dark sea of sky, helping me gauge how far I’ve travelled.  Charting her progress, I know what I nearly always forget:  that I’m the one who is dashing, scrambling, hurtling through space, rotating 500 miles/hr most days, and spinning 3,000 mph more.  In the time it takes for Venus to disappear from view, I’ve traversed 5,000 miles or more.

And in that dizzying dash, I find I’ve also left behind one of the most hallowed myths of America.  No more “go west, young man,” for me.  Nope.  I understand now that the future’s not there.  It’s to the east, a faint orange glow pierced by Venus’s unequivocal promise:  tomorrow is nigh.

Summer Work

So if you’ve followed this blog since its inception, a scant seven months ago, then you know my husband and I had been planning to move on or about Solstice.  Well, we are finally in!  Not quite settled, but the ratio of cardboard boxes to visible floor is definitely heading in the right direction.

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Far more importantly, though, I started the garden this spring at the new house.  Fortunately, the new house is just a mile and a half from the old house, so it wasn’t too hard to maintain during the ten weeks between first seeds and the actual move date.  And because this year has been so much better, weather-wise, than last year, I’ve been able to delight in the outdoor work and reap some delicious rewards for it.

Perhaps my favorite crop this year is the wheat. Red, hard, winter.  I’ve never had enough space to grow things like wheat before, but I’ve wanted to be part of a grow-out for a while, so this move was the perfect opportunity.  And it’s beautiful!

Although the wheat still has a ways to go before it becomes the base of bread, a lot of the veggies are harvestable right now, including (at last!) the peas. And we have a ton.  Last January, I ordered golden pea pods and two kinds of shelling peas.  Okay, so I ordered a third kind — a sweet heirloom called Tom Thumb that you grow in pots indoors — but it turns out that cats like those pea shoots, and so we won’t be having any this year. Perhaps in some psychic anticipation of my Tom Thumb debacle-to-come, one of the seed companies kindly sent me several experimental seed varieties, including one of peas.  Naturally, I couldn’t resist planting an experimental mystery.  “Experimental pea 712″ has turned out to be the most tendril-dense variety I’ve ever grown.  Maybe that I’ve ever seen.  And the other varieties did well this year, too, so for the next few weeks, we’ll be devising sundry ways to sneak peas into every meal.

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DSC_0050-e1279397583459-200x300What I’m really struck by today, though, is that much of the work I’ll need to do this week is hot & steamy, not because of the mid-summer mugginess, but rather because it is getting food ready for winter.  Peas may be the platonic ideal of a summer food, but since we have so many and since they are a delight in winter, I’ll be spending some time in the next week steaming and blanching them.   Just as I perused catalogs last January, and dreamt of summer, this week I’ll blanch the peas, so that come winter, we’ll be able to eat them and taste summer.  This time-shifting regarding summer and winter reminds me of a line from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, in which one of the many narrator’s describes being out of synch with her environment — “I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter” (l. 18).

But here’s the thing:  I definitely don’t feel out of synch.  To the contrary, I’m beginning to think that in order to be rooted in this place, tied to the life of the plants that surround us, I need to shift in time just as often as I need to resist the impulse to do so.  I remember learning that one hemisphere of the brain is responsible for enabling you to dwell in the moment, the other to anticipate and to recall.  For a while, I had assumed that being really grounded, being truly in time, meant strictly being in the moment, and that maybe my meditating task was to let an entire hemisphere grow quiet.  Now, though, I am thinking that the peas are telling me something quite different:  that the oscillation between being in the moment and being sensible of the work that needs to be done for another moment is not simply a regrettable by-product of our culture’s pesky commitment to post-industrial capitalism.  Rather, it’s basic — a holdover of our shift to agrarianism, and likely more basic than that — a nascent capacity in our forebears that was reinforced every time someone didn’t have to struggle to secure a good dinner.

More Firefly Begetting

My good friend Abigail just got back from family vacation, and wanted to let me know about a song she heard a LOT in the car that week. Yup, ’tis another creative work about fireflies to add to the growing list, this one by Owl City, & called “Fireflies.”

Thanks so much Abi, and happy 8th birthday!!

Fireflies Attract

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Earlier this week, my friend Barbara and I headed out to a meadow just before dusk to meet with Sara, a firefly expert, and Michelle, a fellow firefly fan.   Barbara and I are working on an extended project about this place, and she has made many gorgeous pictures of fireflies here, so we thought it’d be great if someone wise in the ways of fireflies could school us about what we were seeing.

We had a terrific  time, although we didn’t see nearly as many fireflies as we had expected to. It was, it turns out, a bit of a seasonal low point–the waning days of summer’s earliest fireflies, and very early in the waxing of the next species, whose time to spread their wings starts soon.  Still, we learned a ton–including the difference between photuris and photinus, and between boy flashes and girl flashes, as well as assorted details about the evolution of firefly glow and about their mating habits.

Equally captivating, to me, is what the fireflies engender.  As we tell folks about our interest in these beautiful bugs, people send us pictures or point us toward other artists also interested in them.  Two great images that came our way last week were from 19th century Japan.  Here’s one of them:

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Many people in Japan, it turns out, have a profound affection for fireflies.  In fact, that ardor rises to the level of a being a general cultural appreciation of them. Sara had been in Japan earlier in the month, giving a talk at a scientific conference.  To her surprise, even lay people attended.  And not only did they listen avidly, they also asked great questions and seemed to fully appreciate the information being presented by the scientists.

In addition to the images that have come our way are recommendations of other pieces–like this haiku by the poet Issa, who lived approximately two hundred years ago:

A giant firefly:
that way, this way, that way, this –
and it passes by.

Michelle also told us about an artist she’s especially fond of, Canadian Michael Flomen. He uses photographic materials and a deep appreciation of light and chemistry (no wonder he likes fireflies!) to make his images–which are utterly literal and entirely abstract at the same time.    Rather than using a camera, he lets the fireflies walk on photo paper, for example, and leave their own trail.  Here are a couple of his collaborations with fireflies:

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These, in turn, remind me of the work of Martin Prothero, who sets out carbon-coated glass plates and lets animals trace their own paths across them.  Here is one:

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Firefly traces, animal tracks, human artworks — fleeting marks of lives being lived well.

Critical Timing; or, Of Fish and Flowering

This past week was one in which the return to life in this corner of the universe was early.  I’m trying super-hard not to panic about such things; maybe it’s just a weather-ish fluctuation.  It has been a beautiful, warm, dry spring — the antithesis of last year’s waterlogged start to summer.  But I can’t help thinking that this balminess is evidence of dire climate change.  But how to know?  I’m trying to pay better attention, hoping that at the very least, doing so will help me get a better sense of what I am and am not seeing.

High on the list of recent seeings were flowers and fish.  Low, unfortunately, were bees.

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We’ve got a Hawthorn tree in our yard that is normally in full flower in the June-teens.  That’s late for Hawthorns in general, but right on schedule for ours and for this area.  This year, in keeping with its nickname, it commenced awesomeness on May 24, was at its peak around May 29/30, and has already noticeably faded.  Folks who’ve glanced at my recent folio, A Field Guide to Other People’s Trees, know that one of the things I most love about this tree is the week when it’s in flower because the bees cannot resist it.  The tree/bee dyad hums for days, a whirring that is visual and auditory as the bees shake free what they need.  But this year, while there were plenty of the teeny flies that also contribute to that stunning event, there were practically no bees.  Maybe the tree was too early for them?  I haven’t seen many yet.  Or maybe a sign of something more serious?

fish-lad-overview-300x200A quite un-dire event that took place Memorial Day weekend was a celebration at the fish ladder in Damariscotta, just a wee bit south of us.  The fish ladder there has been used by alewives to return from the sea to Damariscotta Lake for centuries, at least, in order to spawn.

Over the past few years, local citizens have worked to make it more amenable to their fishy needs — for increased human presence had altered the landscape and waterscape in ways that made it very hard for the fish to get back to their spawning grounds.  The people have spent a tremendous amount of money and effort building a ladder that the fish will be comfortable using.  And their work is paying off.  Twenty times as many fish climbed the ladder this year as did five years ago.  That means more potential spawn, a stronger alewife stock, and all the benefits that come with re-calibrating an ecosystem back toward its more normative state.  Of course, we can’t undo the changes — and this cement and re-bar laden fish ladder is quite unlike earlier versions.  But the generosity of people who opened their backyards to people to see the ladder, and who let the renovations happen there is encouraging to me.

fish-ladder-2-closeup1-245x300Because the fish run had peaked a week earlier, we saw a modest number of fish compared to the zenith, but it was still impressive.  It turns out that the peak didn’t coincide with the fish festival dates because the fish were also early — lured by the warm and sunny conditions this May.  Their early arrival means a different disruption to the system, with consequences we can’t yet fully know.

Since I was six, I’ve been linked to a school — either as a student or a teacher, or sometimes both.  And so for all of my memory, the annual rhythm has been academic, a year that goes from September to December, then January to May, then June to August.  It’s been a reassuring cycle, one largely in accord with other rhythms, most especially the arrival of new freshmen, the departure of graduating seniors, the appreciation by all of the summer hiatus.  Now, paying attention to these shifts that creatures enact in response to the larger forces, I’ve been working to imagine what it would be like to be more fully in accord with the cycles — and the digressions from such fixed rhythms — that shape the physical world.  It might not demand huge adjustments, but I’m guessing that, in fact, it will….

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