Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, revisited

It is raining. I’m sitting in the new apartment, by my old desk, Natalia came to visit yesterday and she said “You’re a city girl now” and I guess that’s true. I live just inside the “tullarna” (=tollgates), as the Stockholm definition of the city stands. I am surrounded by mostly hard-made surfaces and flowerbeds, not forests, and it’s raining.

It makes me think of this spring. It was intense, for many reasons – but one of the nicer ones was that I got to visit as many as five botanical gardens in three different countries. The first, a revisit to the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh on a sunny day in the beginning of May.

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In a way, one could say this is where it all started: My collection of botanic gardens. Sure, I had visited others before, mainly during my 2012 North America travels starting in Edmonton, Alberta, and ending in Phoenix, Arizona. But there, it had not gotten systematic yet. For one, completely missing the garden in San Francisco, which is supposed to be one of the best in the US, even though that was the city I spent most time in during my trip, is completely unforgivable.

No, it was during my visit to the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh in 2013 that this obsession was really born. Together with dad, we marveled at the lush June flower beds, and how every single corner of the garden seemed to have a plan, every nook a place to discover strange and exotic plants in. And there was no entrance fee! This artistry and garden of knowledge open for anyone to enjoy – a true place in the middle of the city to reconnect to the biosphere in (as I would learn to put words to just a couple of months later when I started the master’s programme at Stockholm Resilience Centre).

After saying goodbye to dad, I then continued down on the continent and visited seven other botanic gardens, but none of them could beat Edinburgh. And revisiting it now, my opinion about it did not change. It is a beautiful place, and I could spend days there, roaming the groves and studying the intricacies of the tropical plants in the greenhouses.

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Or sitting on a bench under the hanging branches of this tree, reading “Ancillary Justice” by Ann Leckie, breathing in the fragrant, humid air – for a moment fooling myself that I could be in an exotic place about to go on an adventure. Escapism, I guess, in a way – but what is wrong with that when it makes your heart beat slower and your breathing suddenly feel lighter.

I believe in the calm of a leaf. And the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh has leaves in plenty.

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terminally lost

It was lying by the window, curled up, gleaming blue. It must have flown in on a warm afternoon, windows open to let the breeze in, and then not found its way back out. Starved.

It’s a purple emperor (Apatura iris), from the right angle the wings take on the depth of the August night sky.

According to father’s butterfly book, it only lives in the deciduous forests in southern Sweden – but then again, the book is twelve years old and summers have gone all awry, winters too, could a Scania butterfly have caught a northbound wind and ended up lost in our aspen, oak and hazel grove by the mid-Swedish lake?

How did it come to be here, and is that why it died? Or was that just an accident, like with the silver-washed fritillaries and green-veined whites that sometimes get stuck inside the sun porch? Will there be other purple emperors fluttering among the lavender and roses now, or was that the only one?

And what kinds of little accidents does the world have in store for the rest of us?

twenty seventeen, first half

I cannot focus. I have not written, properly, since Burkina Faso the first time. When the people overthrew the despot, in the fall and winter of 2014. It’s not that I haven’t had anything to write about – it’s just. The energy to put the thoughts into words. I have not been able to muster it.

I am in Hundby, my father’s summer Eden, and on a whim I packed my journal. I have not written in it for a year, the last note in it is dated Monday, July 18th 2016, it says [translated from Swedish]: “Yet again, the days have passed, I am too tired in the evenings to write, or I have trouble going to bed. I was in Björkskär with H, M, K and J. And today I came home from a weekend in Hundby. Officially, I have not started my vacation yet, but it’s basically as if. I am very tired of my job, even though I really think it is interesting. I have to start writing a more interesting journal. I’m bored already writing it.

After that, silence.

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But I am here now. Making myself put pen to paper. Actual pen to actual paper. (When you read this, it will be a transcription after the fact.) Maybe that is what I need. Being able to see something take form. Follow the words with my fingertips, eyes closed. (So much of my world is digital, I wonder if my obsession with knitting is a protest, a need to have something to touch.)

I hope I can manage my assignment of energy. Summer is really the time to separate the years, the holiday a time to reboot and change. Pink sunsets the time for kind thoughts and forgiveness. I know, I’m sick of myself writing about how I am going to change, that I will start writing again – but now maybe I will? Things actually have changed, I’ve moved apartments, I have a new job, and with that, new colleagues. When to start a new routine, but now? I will.

I will.

the anti-climatic nature of knowledge

I am preparing for a writing workshop with the communications team at SRC. How to write a popular science feature. We were given a list of reference pieces to read, stories about bilingualism, de-extinction, water goddesses, and really old trees. Long and very long articles where science, the lives of extraordinary people and snapshots of the writer’s own journey have been expertly molded into appealing stories. I love this kind of writing.

The idea is that all the participants in the workshop should pitch a story to the recently launched online magazine Rethink. And it’s not like I don’t have ideas, not like I don’t know anything – but to make a story intriguing and eye-opening, it needs to cover scales. The big picture and the detail, a moment to illustrate how large processes come together and affect our lives. As a young researcher, I’m entrenched in the detail. I could tell you hundreds of stories from fieldwork. I could show you figures and maps. I’ve got one scientific paper in review, and another about to be written – and this is the result of two and a half years of hard work. For one of those meandering science features, one needs to include the perspectives of several papers, maybe books, and interviews with experts.

The realization is daunting. What do I really know? Not enough to tell the big picture story of my case studies, that’s for sure. I would have to spend days reading up on everything else, all the important things that fall just outside my narrow research focus, and therefore hasn’t been read. The feeling gets stronger, the further I get into my research career. I’m a PhD student now, and I’ve never felt as ignorant.

But spring is here. Flowers, splashes of color among the brown leaves on the ground. The sun suddenly warm again. We’re heading toward lighter times.

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reunions & winter gardens in Oslo

Two months ago, I took the train to Oslo. We were a whole crew, going to visit Hanna, my former classmate who just moved there to start a PhD. Half of my master’s class, renting a beautiful apartment in central Oslo for the weekend.

My first stop was Botanisk Hage, the Oslo university botanical garden, and I made most others in the group come with me. I don’t know if any of the others shared my love for greenhouses and flower beds, but it was a beautifully crisp, sunny afternoon with temperatures just below freezing, and the garden had no entrance fee. A perfect place and time for a stroll.

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Mid-January in Oslo doesn’t offer much in the way of greenery, but the frost that covered the grass and branches made everything glimmer in the setting sun. The garden takes up an entire inner-city block, and has a hill in its center. The garden is mainly open grass and old groves of deciduous trees, flowerbeds and small ponds on the hillsides. I can imagine it being lush and full of flowers in late May. Now, the browns and gray-greens that ranged from moss and mint felt very tranquil. Like a breath of fresh air in the middle of the busy city center.

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As for the greenhouses, they were more stimulating. Not large, no, quite small actually, and old. Two beautiful metal, wood and glass structures, one tropical with three separate wings, and the other a temperate palm house. When we first entered the wing with the water lily pond in the tropical green house, I could not take any photographs for at least 15 minutes. The humidity and heat made the lens get foggy, the difference from the outdoor freezing temperature and the artificial tropics inside being so extreme. It was a beautiful pond, though, so green, and the orchids in one of the other wings so weird, so inspiring. Breathing that air, carrying so many smells that you can basically taste it. I miss the tropics. That heat and the humidity, it feels like it makes breathing so much easier.

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The Oslo botanical garden was small, but very well kept. I liked it a lot.

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As for the rest of the weekend, I really liked Oslo. So much cool street art (it seems to be a Norwegian thing, it was the same in Bodø and on Lofoten. Tons of really impressive, original street art). Easy to walk through, nice mixture of architecture, cool bars. Expensive, yes, but so is Stockholm. However, what really made my Oslo weekend so memorable and magical, was the company I shared it with. The people in my former master’s programme are truly amazing, and we became such a great group during those two years, and this weekend reunion with half of them, and the Skyping we did with half of the absentees (calling in from Uppsala, England, Argentina and New Zeeland), made this a weekend so full of warmth and laughs and love, that it has carried me for months since.

Sahelian stories: A young researcher trying out social media

Some weeks ago, I was the guest editor of Stockholm Resilience Centre’s Instagram account under the hashtag #SRCFieldwork. Every week, a master’s or PhD student or researcher at the center posts photos and tells stories from their fieldwork experiences. The idea is to give some insight into the work behind the research and also share some of the stories that would never make it into a scientific publication but that can be just as important for understanding a system, situation or problem. And, of course, everyone has to be on social media now – even us dry researchers. We’re increasingly being encouraged to get our messages out there through these new channels of communication.

Social media is in no way new to me as such. I got my first pre-Facebook, pre-blog-boom online community account when I was twelve, and have been writing things online ever since. A lot of my writing has been about traveling and about books. I’ve written about my fieldwork in a similar, travel journal kind of fashion. This Instagram-editorship, however, was the first time that I’ve seriously tried to synthesize my scientific knowledge and research experiences in a concise and systematic way. My week of being the SRC Instagram guest editor writing about my master’s thesis fieldwork experiences gave me a first real taste of what it could be like to wear the hat of researcher on social media – and I must admit I liked it! I ended up spending quite a lot of time picking topics, choosing photos, structuring the story. I didn’t quite want to let it go after my week was over, so I decided to put my posts up here too. Enjoy!


Day 1, #1

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Day 1, #2

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In northern Burkina Faso, approximately 90 percent of the population lives in rural areas and has agriculture as their main livelihood strategy. This region is semi-arid and rainfall is highly variable between years, leading to people having had to adjust their farming practices to the extreme climate conditions. In many rural communities, traditional agroforestry methods are still used. Small fields of sorghum, millet, maize and legumes are combined with trees, shrubs and fallows, creating a patchy, multifunctional landscape of both domesticated and wild plants.


Day 2, #3

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The main goal of my fieldwork was to visit 13 villages to collect groundtruthing data for a land use classification of satellite imagery that I was going to make later. The idea was simple: I would walk in a straight line from the village center, stopping every 100 meters to register GPS coordinates and take photos. Well, it was not simple. With me, I had two farmers from the village to answer questions about management practices, etc. Conducting interviews while walking straight, no matter what came in my way, dense shrubland or rocky hill, in almost 40 °C heat. One day of groundtruthing meant 10 km of walking in total. This was nothing for the farmers, of course, but I have a feeling they found my panting and red, sweaty face curiously amusing. I regularly drank five liters of water a day. Still, I managed to stop occasionally to admire the amazing landscape I was walking through.


Day 2, #4

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Livestock is an integrated part of smallholder farming practices in the Sudano-Sahelian zone of Burkina Faso. Cattle, sheep, goats, donkeys and fowl roam the land and eat whatever is left once the fields have been harvested. Often it’s the children who herd them, and the manure is an important source of fertilizer for the fields. The small ruminants are sometimes slaughtered for festive occasions, but mainly they are kept as insurance. If the harvest fails, or if the family needs to invest in something, they can sell an animal and get the cash they need. Cattle are also seen as a sign of status and influence, and bulls and donkeys are trained to plow the fields.


Day 2, #5

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This is Hamado, the chair of the farmer’s association in his village. In the pink evening haze, he and his donkey are bringing home the haulms of the groundnut harvest. The nuts have already been picked from the roots and will be shelled before storage or transport to the market. The stalks will also be stored and given to the animals as fodder during the dry season.

Hamado says: “It is important that we have fodder for our animals. I tell the farmers in my village to not turn all their land into fields, but to also keep some as shrubland. The shrubs and herbs are an important source of food for the animals, but also provide wild fruits and seeds that the women harvest and medicinal plants that we use if someone gets sick.”


Day 3, #6

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In the multifunctional landscape of northern Burkina Faso, the smallholder farmers don’t only cultivate their crops and herd their animals. Certain wild trees, shrubs and herbs are actively being managed as integrated parts of the agricultural landscape and harvested for their uses as food, fodder, medicines and for religious ceremonies, and are important sources of nutrition for both humans and animals.

This is a baobab tree (Latin: Adansonia digitate). It has a sweet and nutritious fruit that ripens just before the rainy season starts and that kids love to pick. The leaves are dried and used as condiment in soups, and can be used to treat asthma. Both fruits and leaves are also sold at the market, giving the villagers a small but important source of cash income.


Day 3, #7

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Noon is not a fun time to be out and about in northern Burkina Faso. The sun is excruciating and the heat like a vise pressing at your temples. Luckily, the farmers have prepared for this, constructing combined shelters/fodder storages and planted mango and neem trees to provide shadow. When the day is at its hottest, everyone takes a break from work, sitting down in the shadow to eat lunch and socialize. I was often asked to join in their meal. Here, we ate tô, the staple porridge made out of sorghum. You take it with your hand and dip in a sauce made with a wild type of spinach. A little bitter, but very filling.


Day 3, #8

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Fieldwork in a place like rural Burkina Faso sometimes requires a little bit of ingenuity. As my fieldwork partner, I had Elli (@helhet). She was in Burkina to collect soil samples and measure water infiltration and evaporation. However, some tools turned out to be hard to find. No matter – Elli decided she could do it herself. She bought ordinary plastic pipes and rusty tools at the market and spent a couple of evenings in our room swearing over the dull saw. But she prevailed, and managed to construct her own rudimentary lysimeters! Over a period of two weeks, she then weighed these soil-filled pipes at dawn and dusk, as a way to measure the rate at which water evaporated from the soil in different locations in the village. This is an important indicator for how good the soil is to farm in, especially in a dry place like northern Burkina Faso.


Day 4, #9

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The wild shrubs and trees in the multifunctional landscape of northern Burkina Faso are also used as a source of firewood and building material. It is often gathered by the women from the outskirts of the village. Everyone has a task to fill, from the children herding sheep in the afternoon after school, to the old man sitting under a mango tree carving pickax handles.


Day 4, #10

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Soil degradation is a serious issue for smallholder farmers in northern Burkina Faso. They use many strategies to deal with this. One of them is the Zaï (pictured), a soil and water conserving technique in which manure and other organic matter is dug into pits in the poor soil. This increases soil fertility and water infiltration, and sometimes makes it possible for herbs and shrubs to sprout there. These wild plants, in turn, loosen up the highly compacted soil with their roots, which makes it possible for the farmers to plant crops on these lands again.


Day 4, #11

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Written in my field notebook: “During the afternoon transect walk in a village called Tarba, we ran into a big herd of cattle. The afternoon walks are the best. When the heat has started to subside and the light has turned soft orange. The smells come out then too: the dry earth, the harvested fields, the mint-and-thyme-smelling weeds. The cows stirred up dust, making the air shimmer in the light of the setting sun. After a long hot day, the temperature was just perfect, and there was a light breeze. One of the boys who was herding was walking with a little puppy by his side. He was singing, in a clear boy’s tenor, and the puppy was happily running back and forth between the boy and the cows. As if playing at being a shepherd dog.

One of those beautiful moments, walking through the fields and shrubby fallows together with a singing herder boy, his puppy and his cows, while the sun set in a shimmering golden mist.”


Day 5, #12

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One way for smallholder farmers to build resilience in the highly variable climate in semi-arid Burkina Faso is to harvest rainwater. Dugouts and small reservoirs, like here, are mostly used for watering animals, while larger reservoirs can be used for aquaculture and irrigation of rice, maize and vegetables. Access to irrigation water can be an important source of both income and nutrition during the dry season, but is problematic. Dams are costly to keep up, the landscape here often leads to high sedimentation rates into the reservoir, and if not governed well and fairly, the reservoirs and the new water resources can lead to increased pressure on the land, rising inequalities in the villages and displacement of farmers.


Day 5, #13

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Things rarely go as planned when in the field. In October 2014, barely halfway through our fieldwork period, the president of Burkina Faso of 27 years, Compaoré, decided to propose a change to the constitution that would allow him to be elected for yet another term. This led to big protests in the major cities in Burkina Faso. The parliament was set ablaze and other governmental buildings also. Compaoré was forced to flee the country and a transitional government was set up, followed a year later by the first democratic elections in almost three decades.

During the most intense week of the popular uprising, Elli (@helhet) and I were told to stay put in our room. For a couple of days, we did not know which way the protests would go: peaceful transition or escalating violence. The contrasts were extreme, butterflies fluttering in the quiet backyard of our guesthouse in rural northern Burkina, and the confusing messages of closed borders, burning cars and hijacked TV stations in the capital. It was nerve-wrecking. Nothing bad happened to us, though, and after less than a week we could return to our fieldwork, having witnessed the first step in the (mostly) peaceful transition towards democracy in this West African country.


Day 5, #14

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To wind down in the evenings, and especially to not lose our minds during those days of being cooped-up in our room during the 2014 Burkinabe uprising, Elli (@helhet) and I watched quirky sitcoms and ate Swedish candy. I basically never eat candy at home, but in the field Gott&Blandat became like a safety blanket.

I also designed two pairs of mittens. If you want to see the result of my fieldwork de-stressing, check out Elli’s Burkinabe elephants and Vivi’s reindeer at @becausekatjasaidso. Also, if you want to learn more about my classmate Vivi’s fieldwork involving, guess what!, reindeer and craftsmanship, stay tuned. Vivi will be the SRC guest editor later this spring.


Day 6, #15

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The last thing I did in each village I visited in northern Burkina Faso was to return and present the preliminary results of my interviews and groundtruthing. I did this to allow the villagers to learn what I had discovered in all 13 villages, but also to let them correct me if there was something that I had misunderstood. There were always more people at these meetings than the 4-6 farmers that I had interviewed, ranging from the village elders to heaps of children. These conversations were really inspiring and I believe we learned a lot from each other.


Day 6, #16

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In Burkina Faso, they give gifts. In each village that I worked in, they gave me something: More groundnuts than I could ever eat, beans, watermelons. I even got two live hens! The generosity, both with regards to time and resources, of the people I met astounded me.


Day 7, #17

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I think the best chance consequence of my choice of master’s thesis was to end up in the same field sites as Elli (@helhet). I’m not saying that anyone should choose their project based on where their friends are, but having someone to share everything with can make things so much easier. With all the twists and turns that unraveled during the course of our months in Burkina Faso, I’m not sure if I would have been able to come back with so much data and so many positive memories without the support and mere presence of Elli.

Here, we are photographed with Kassoum and Madi, who were members of the farmer’s association in the village where Elli worked and incredibly helpful in the challenging task of collecting soil samples from the dry, hard earth of northern Burkina Faso.


Day 7, #18

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And then there was Abouleh. A former chair of the farmer’s association, but now just the man who knew, whom everyone turned to when there were issues with the farming. He welcomed us when we came to his village, he introduced us to everyone who mattered and he waited for us after our walks, wanting to hear if I had gotten everything I needed. He said: “I am a farmer. I care for my land, for my animals. You only ask about the farming now, but the animals are important too. Say that to your colleagues, tell them: The land and the animals and us cannot be separated.”


Day 7, #19

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I’ll miss the sun rising over the shrublands. The smells of dawn, soft, dry and earthy. The sounds of donkeys and goats. The desperation in a donkey’s scream, or the very un-animal-like braying of the goats. Wherever I heard them, I couldn’t help laughing. And the people. I’ll miss working with the farmers. Their knowledge, sincerity and helpfulness, going out of their way to make sure I got what I needed. I am humbled by this landscape and the people who live there, and can safely say that my experiences from doing #SRCFieldwork changed my life.


Day 7, #20

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Although fieldwork can be truly fun, it is also exhausting. You have to take the time to have some frivolous fun too. The last five days in Burkina Faso, we took the bus south and did some proper touristing in hippo lakes and waterfalls around Banfora. And so, with this photo of me standing on top of one of the Domes of Fabedougou, I conclude the story of my fieldwork in Burkina Faso. I want to thank you for this week. Barka!

autobiographies and the need for introspection

Some time ago, I read two books. It wasn’t intentional, but they happened to be autobiographies and, coincidentally, the authors belong to the same writing group in Portland. After having read them, it kind of made sense. They were about journeys, about finding a way out of a broken past, big sorrow, drugs and destructive sex, a desperate need to feel something. And a will to tell the story of that journey.

The first book was “The Chronology of Water” by Lidia Yuknavitch. Raw and furious and full of passion. Yuknavitch did a beautiful little TED talk about being a misfit.

The second book was “Wild – A Journey from Lost to Found” by Cheryl Strayed. Definitely easier to access, it was turned into a Hollywood movie starring Reese Witherspoon. But also, full of sorrow.

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They inspired me. This way of putting your life into words. Especially Yuknavitch’s fragmented telling of her life. She is oceans more brutal than I could ever be, I don’t crash like a wrecking ball into life, but the way of structuring memories into moments, pictures, an assemblage of the senses. Telling a story in the blink of an eye. I think that’s what I’ve been trying to do, a little, since I started writing at age eleven. And then, a lot, when I started blogging at eighteen. And why I have never managed to stop, just shut it down, even when the time between blog posts has turned into months. Never had the heart to. There is a need there, I think. Quiet, but persistent.

But also, it is in conflict with a much louder need. The one of doing good. The one that sees the wrongs in the world and wants to make a difference. The one that guided me onto the path of problem-solving environmental research and sustainability science. How could I justify spending time on exploring myself through words, when the world is on fire?

Lately, though, I think I’ve started to realize something. The world is incomprehensively complex. In order to actually do any good in it, you need to make good decisions and play to your strengths. But how can you ever do that, if you don’t know who you are? Some people might know from the moment they’re born, at least that’s what it seems like. Those together people who just act and do well and don’t worry. But for the rest of us. We need to find our way, and sometimes just running out into the world without understanding where you come from can lead to skewed judgments and poor decisions and in the end do more harm than good. Sometimes, dealing with yourself is the best thing you can do for everyone else.

And I think, maybe, this is where authors like Yuknavitch and Strayed are contributing to solving a little piece of this complex puzzle of our world on fire. Through their introspection inspiring others to look inside themselves also.

We just have to remember not to get stuck in there. Look inside, and then, look up and enter into the world, clear-eyed, whole, and with a purpose.

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