While Glaciers Slept: Being Human in a Time of Climate Change by M Jackson

A scientist’s personal reflections on climate change and personal loss.

while glaciers slept

“I cannot untangle in my mind the scientific study of climate change and the death of my parents.” M Jackson is a scientist, National Geographic Expert and glacier specialist, but her memoir While Glaciers Slept: Being Human in a Time of Climate Change rarely takes a scientific perspective and never claims objectivity. Rather, Jackson tells the story of losing both her parents when she was a young woman just embarking on life, and the trauma and extended grieving process that resulted.

Following a brief, lovely foreword by Bill McKibben, Jackson poetically conflates her loss with the slow and still mysterious effects of anthropogenic climate change. Her scientific background and explorations of fascinating places–Denali and Chena Hot Springs in Alaska, Zambia with the Peace Corps–inform her writing and yield striking images, as she runs on spongy Alaskan tundra or contemplates cryoconite holes atop glaciers. But it is the personal side of her narrative that allows Jackson to address society’s psychological difficulties with climate change.

Each chapter of While Glaciers Slept is a finely braided essay, considering an aspect of her parents’ lives or deaths alongside a facet of climate change’s challenges. Jackson mourns her mother with the help of Joan Didion’s writing; windmills offer possible “undulating answers” and comfort her on her drive home upon learning that her father is dying. She employs a disordered chronology that slightly disorients her reader, just as Jackson was disoriented. The effect is an evocative, lyrical work of musing and allegory rather than a scientific treatise.


This review originally ran in the September, 4, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 check marks in a dictionary.

The Story of My Heart by Richard Jefferies, as rediscovered by Brooke Williams and Terry Tempest Williams

An exceptional meditation on nature and “soul-life,” republished after many years out of print and contextualized for modern minds.

story

In a dusty Maine bookstore, writer Terry Tempest Williams (When Women Were Birds) and her husband, Brooke Williams, picked up an unfamiliar book that they quickly came to love: The Story of My Heart by English naturalist Richard Jefferies, originally published in 1883. As Brooke writes, “classic works of literature need to be rediscovered and reinterpreted every age for their clues to contemporary issues.” This new edition of Jefferies’s autobiography includes an introduction by Terry and Brooke’s commentary following each chapter.

Don’t be fooled by its small size. This is a book to be taken slowly and savored, because all three of its wise and pensive authors demand and deserve careful consideration. Here is Walden, but more mystical, and with no room to criticize the author for returning to wealthy drawing rooms between his stays in the woods. Jefferies has been characterized as a nature writer and a mystic; in Brooke’s words, “Jefferies writes less specifically about the natural world surrounding him, but in great detail the path his mind takes through that original world.” The Story of My Heart is a philosophical, wondering and wandering, musing, personal ode to the natural world and human potential. The Williamses make his contemplations relevant by analysis–for example, applying the context of climate change–but also explore a more intimate connection, as Brooke ponders the nature of his obsession with this book.

Both literal and spiritually minded readers can appreciate this remarkable collaboration through the counterpoint of Brooke’s responses to each chapter and the timeless thoughts in the original work.


This review originally ran in the November 18, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 9 leaves of thyme.

“Tawny Grammar” by Gary Snyder

And with this post Gary Snyder gets his own tag.


wildEssays from The Practice of the Wild:

  1. The Etiquette of Freedom
  2. The Place, the Region, and the Commons
  3. Tawny Grammar

I am struck, again, at how we encounter the same phrases over and over in this world and in our reading… just days ago I read Land of Love and Drowning, in which certain scenes are set to the song, “Rum and Coca Cola” – generally credited to the Andrews Sisters but originally by Lord Invader. Here it is in the opening pages of Snyder’s essay “Tawny Grammar,” in which he makes the point that music and dance belong to time and place. One time-and-place’s song or dance may be popular in other times and places, but will never belong to them the way – for example – Snyder has formed a memory of dancing with a girl for the first time to this song in 1943. His next point is that, as we established in “The Place, the Region, and the Commons” that we no longer belong to place, “we are not quite sure what our home music is.”

He then takes his reader on a trip to a remote Alaskan village, where he muses with local teacher friends on the question of what it is reasonable, realistic, helpful to teach the children there.

So these children should prepare to be mining engineers? The company will bring its own experts with it. Heavy equipment operator? Maybe. Computers? Computers are in all the schools of the Far North, along with video cameras. There may be more computer literacy in the schools of northwest Alaska than in those of Los Angeles. Even so, there is no guarantee that any school anywhere in the whole world can give a child an education which will be of practical use in twenty yeras. So much is changing so fast – except, perhaps, caribou migrations and the berry ripening.

Good gosh, he wrote this in what year? Still true… my profession, librarianship, has been talking for decades about CHANGE and how we will adapt (the need to be more than people who stamp due dates in books), but this problem is not unique to us. The world is indeed changing so fast; and while I love the idea that caribou migrations and berry ripening may be our constants, and that’s partly true, it’s also true that mass extinctions and climate change have begun to prove him wrong.

He writes about the Inupiaq values posted in the village classroom, and the contradictions we teach our kids: in this case, tribal values vs. external Western societal ones, “one for getting what’s yours, another for being decent.” I am strongly reminded of another few lines – I can’t for the life of me remember who wrote them; was it Doug Peacock? – something to the effect that war is traumatic for our youth because we teach them from the beginning that killing is wrong, right up to the moment we send them out to kill, and then expect them to come home and readjust.

More discussion of our interrelatedness, the importance of social constructs, perspectives, and recognizing the nonhuman world too:

American society… operates under the delusion that we are each a kind of “solitary knower” – that we exist as rootless intelligences without layers of localized contexts. Just a “self” and the “world.” In this there is no real recognition that grandparents, place, grammar, pets, friends, lovers, children, tools, the poems and songs we remember, are what we think with.

He goes on to tell us what he means by grammar, and the importance of language in our interactions with the world, and muse on what language really means. Under the subheading “Nature’s Writing”:

The stratigraphy of rocks, layers of pollen in a swamp, the outward expanding circles in the trunk of a tree, can be seen as texts. The calligraphy of rivers winding back and forth over the land leaving layer upon layer of traces of previous riverbeds is texts.

While this makes for a lovely metaphor, I think he means it – and I understand it – far more literally. “A text is information stored through time.”

I was tempted to play with his Whorfian challenge:

“Is there any experience whatsoever that is not mediated by language?” I banged my heavy beer mug sharply on the table and half a dozen people jumped and looked at us. We had to give up and laugh at this point, since it always seems to come back to an ordinary mystery.

Isn’t that an example of just such a one? Or in other words, if a tree falls in the forest, etc. If we have an experience – a shared but wordless experience – have we experienced it, or shared it, any the less for not discussing it in language?

As much as I enjoyed this essay, which was intelligent, thoughtful, musing, informed, and seasoned by references to the classics and mythologies from around the world (I love this), I found myself wondering if there was a point coming down the line. Of course, there rather was, but it was typically cerebral and conceptual in nature, so I needed Snyder to help me wrap it up. He does so in his conversation with a linguist friend, about whether language is biology, and whether it follows evolutionary lines (sort of, in its own way, but not in the way biology does); and finally by quoting Thoreau and Dōgen. The end point, as I take it, is this: language should not be a weapon, considered as belonging to humans alone and used to differentiate ourselves from the world, but should be considered one of the many ways in which we live in and with rather than above.

I close by asking a question. Do we agree with Snyder in the following suspicion?

Nonhuman nature, I cannot help feeling, is well inclined toward humanity and only wishes modern people were more reciprocal, not so bloody.


Up next, essay 4: “Good, Wild, Sacred.”

Alley Theatre presents Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

vanya

Husband was kind enough to accompany me to the theatre again, our second play at the Alley this year. (See Fool from a few months back.)

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike references Chekhov; but no familiarity with his work is required to enjoy this one. Vanya and Sonia are aging siblings – she’s adopted, they will remind you a few times – still living together in the family home, mostly bickering with one another and dissatisfied with their lives (particularly Sonia, who is casually mentioned as being bi-polar). Their sister Masha is a successful actor – less so on the stage, more so in the movies, particularly sexy slasher flicks; but she is aging, too, and feeling less secure about her sex appeal and professional future. When Masha comes to visit this time, she brings Spike: a much younger aspiring actor and a hot piece of male flesh inclined towards taking his clothes off. This habit is the source of some laughs, as everyone onstage is entranced by his beauty (Vanya as well as his sisters is attracted to men); but as Nina points out late in the play (I paraphrase): Spike is beautiful; it’s a shame about his personality.

Oh yes, Nina. The cast of six is rounded out by a beautiful young neighbor girl, Nina, also an aspiring actor and a huge fan of Masha’s; and the housekeeper, Cassandra. Cassandra is a real hit: like her Greek namesake, she is cursed to make predictions that are… often right, more or less; but that are disregarded. She is a strong personality and a great stage presence, and provides still more comic relief. The play is not short on laughs, in fact, despite some heavy subject matter: depression and late-life regrets; family dynamics; climate change and politics; a rapidly changing and-not-always-for-the-better world. I was struck by a line (again I paraphrase) about how there are now 900 (or some such number) television channels available, and you can always find a news channel that tells you what you already believe. Late in the final act we are treated to that classic, the play-within-a-play, written by Vanya and performed by Nina, which takes place in the post-climate-change-apocalypse, when humans are extinct.

It got a little long-winded here and there, I confess; I think Husband appreciated the fart jokes and lighter, always-accessible humor of Fool better than this one. There were some tangents. But I appreciated every one! I highly recommend this mashup of serious topics, comic relief, and plentiful references to literature and the arts. The actors were strong, too. I heard a few missed lines – just a few, just barely – but was still very impressed by the personalities. Cassandra and Sonia were real standouts; I was especially struck by the arc achieved by Sonia, from dumpy house-bound depressive through an exhilarating costume party to actually making plans to go out on a date. I cheered her on. And Spike’s portrayal in the near-nude was both hilarious and, yes, attractive.


Rating: 8 molecules.

The Reef: A Passionate History: The Great Barrier Reef from Captain Cook to Climate Change by Iain McCalman

The Great Barrier Reef is both easily understood and awe-inspiring in this history of its discovery, exploitation and beauty.

reef

With The Reef, Iain McCalman (Darwin’s Armada) has composed “a passionate history” of the Great Barrier Reef, opening with his own long-awaited voyage (part of a reenactment of Captain Cook’s original trip). Following the prologue, he withdraws to the role of historian rather than participant, and chronicles the Great Barrier Reef as known to Western society over the last few centuries.

The Reef is divided into three parts. Beginning in 1770 with Captain Cook and proceeding through later explorers who helped chart the reefs in the 1800s, “Terror” emphasizes the threat the reef posed to ships and their navigators, and the fear of cannibals and others thought to inhabit the area. In Part II, “Nurture,” the reef begins to offer refuge for those seeking to escape civilization or make a fresh start. Europeans are taken in by native islanders, or discover island paradise; naturalists arrive, captivated by the biodiversity and beauty of the area while beginning to realize that coral is a resource that can be exploited. “Wonder” sees the scientific community take an interest, disagreeing about the origins and biology of the reef. Ecology emerges as a new field of study, its proponents seeking to place the reef in the larger context of other natural environments, to study relationships and cause and effect. Individual activists work to defend the unusual and changing ecosystem from mining, oil spills, overfishing and the rough use of tourism.

At the end, we are introduced to nature-loving scientist J.E.N. Veron, nicknamed “Charlie” after Charles Darwin, an engaging character who communicates the final dire message of the Great Barrier Reef’s looming extinction. Returning to the personal nature of his prologue, McCalman’s epilogue speaks to the grim consequences of climate change but holds forth hope as well.

The few images in The Reef include portraits of the personalities involved but not the corals themselves (although McCalman refers his reader to books that offer the latter). This work’s strengths include a coherent structure, friendly narrative style and a reasoned culminating call to action that does not disrupt its primary role as a comprehensive history. Plentiful notes indicate strong research, but McCalman’s writing is accessible to any reader interested in the intersection of science, nature and history. From perceived threat to resource to paradise destination to climate-change indicator–Charlie Veron calls corals “the canaries of climate change”–the Great Barrier Reef is fully explored in this engaging study.


This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the May 6, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 dives.

John Muir and the Ice that Started a Fire by Kim Heacox

The carefully researched and engaging story of John Muir, Alaska’s glaciers and the movement they built together.

muir ice

John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire is neither a straightforward biography of Muir nor a simple study of the global significance Alaska’s glaciers. Rather, Kim Heacox (The Only Kayak) is concerned with the relationship between Muir and the glaciers that rivaled Yosemite in his affections, and the impact that pairing had.

From a humble background in Scotland and Wisconsin, and between stints as a surprisingly apt businessman, Muir lived as a self-described tramp, ardent nature lover and student of flowers, trees, mountains and–upon finally reaching Alaska–glaciers. His famed role as author and activist came late in life, and not easily: he found writing hard work and political activism distasteful, though necessary. However, Muir made perhaps the greatest impact on conservation of any individual in United States history.

Heacox meticulously researched and lovingly describes Alaska’s rivers of ice and Muir’s path toward them, his emergence as writer and preservationist, and his far-ranging influence in legislation, literary legacy and new traditions–including the birth of the conservation movement as we know it. Though often descriptive rather than persuasive, Heacox lends his own voice to the cause in his final chapters: “To debate [climate change] is to give credibility to an argument that shouldn’t exist.” He closes by adding the arguments of Aldo Leopold, Bill McKibben and Derrick Jensen to Muir’s, in the interest of preserving our wild spaces–thereby continuing Muir’s work.


This review originally ran in the April 11, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 little dogs.

book beginnings on Friday: The Reef: A Passionate History: The Great Barrier Reef from Captain Cook to Climate Change by Iain McCalman

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

reef

A passionate history of explorers and climate change (and thus, one expects, necessarily of climate politics as well)? You have me sold, sir. Here is the opening paragraph of chapter 1:

James Cook did not know, on Sunday May 20, 1770, two weeks after leaving Botany Bay on the east coast of New Holland, the western portion of the continent, named by the Dutch captain Abel Tasman in 1644, that the HMS Endeavor was sailing into the southwest entrance of a vast lagoon where reef-growing corals began their work. It was a channel that later navigators would call the Great Barrier Reef inner passage. Cook didn’t realize that then, and he never would.

I am going to pick these first sentences apart a little here; bear with me. The concept McCalman opens with is a compelling one, and one he’ll return to: Cook was ignorant of what he discovered, and history in hindsight often makes the mistake of giving to discoverers credit for intention that they never had. Also, I think it’s a powerful image, this captain’s ship entering a dangerous and unknown area, and not even realizing it. In other words, I think McCalman chose a good opening subject; but golly, look at that first sentence! All the clauses: “he didn’t know, on the day, in the place, which was such a place, where this happened… that he didn’t know.” I dare McCalman to diagram that sentence; it might lead him to reconsider. And please do note that this is a pre-publication galley copy; he may still change it (or his editor might), so give the published look a glance and see when it comes out in late May. I am recommending the book despite a clause-heavy opener. Stay tuned.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

the best of scientific fiction, from Pops

Not to be confused with traditional science fiction (although I have something for you on that topic, as well) – today’s is a quasi-guest post from Pops, who is excited to share about a recent author talk event he attended. The presenter was Kirk Smith, speaking on Lab Lit: Putting Real Science Into Fiction. Pops’s report:

I attended the Lab Lit program tonight. And I signed you up to review a book. Well, sorta. We should talk.

So, to review: Kirk Smith is an old-guy Seattle author with a passion for fiction about “realistic scientists doing realistic science” – ideally where the science is the central story, not ancillary. He has high standards for credibility and likes writers who can really “get inside the head” of scientist-protagonists. Eventually he became frustrated that satisfying examples were so rare, and resolved to write his own version.

This is sort of a special interest of my father’s. He’s been interested in several scientific issues over the last few years, and often disappointed in their presentation by the finest minds in the field – scientific minds being, unfortunately, often unable to communicate what they know clearly to the rest of us. The big exception being Bill McKibben (who I reviewed recently: Oil and Honey). This is a paraphrase of my father – hope I got that about right, Pops.

It was interesting; simply an avid, insightful reader sharing a niche passion; nothing topical like climate change & how to communicate science, though I would have enjoyed that too.

He spent 45 minutes talking knowledgeably about all the books on the attached handout [see below], and 15 minutes reading from & talking about his book (an ode to Einstein, with a female character). He lauded Isaacson’s Einstein, the only overlap I detect with your reviews (you get credit for enjoying a “challenging read!”). He recommends Einstein in Love.

Not true, Pops! I reviewed not only Einstein but also Flight Behavior, which I loved.

[His passion for this niche reminds me of my own for running fiction; of course he reads other forms! I get it.]

You are onto something here. As you said in your first paragraph, Smith “likes writers who can really ‘get inside the head’ of scientist-protagonists,” and I think that’s exactly what you like about running books: sharing an experience with the protagonist, recognizing the unique and awesome thing that is being a runner – or a scientist. Or (to digress), I suspect that Susan Vreeland gets accurately inside the head of an artist, in her Clara and Mr. Tiffany or The Forest Lover, both of which I loved. However, not being much of an artist, I can’t entirely attest.

You’ll see he covered non-fiction and biographies as well as other forms; he also has his own web site where he blogs & reviews, and recommends the LabLit site (by one of the authors) that inspired the terminology. He has corresponded with several of the authors on the list.

I came home with a free UK-only-available copy of The Falling Sky by Pippa Goldschmidt. One of us is committed to reviewing it by Feb 15, before its spring USA release. Call me.

Of course by the time I called, he had already started reading this book, which is fine because I have plenty of deadlines in the next two weeks without this one (!), which would require cross-country shipping to get to me, too! But I’m next in line for it when he’s done (so I have a more relaxed schedule to read it on), and his review will be cross-posted here when complete. Hooray! Guest reviews!

And for those who are curious about Smith’s reading list – I know I was! I’m sharing here the handout he shared at this book event, with Pops’s annotations on it (how lucky we are), and hoping that the wise and magnanimous Kirk Smith will not consider this a copyright violation too egregious. :-/ Seriously, thank you Kirk for the info; and readers, do check out his website here.

(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)


An addendum from Pops:

First, I noticed his top three fictions are all by female authors with female protagonists; then he eventually acknowledged the fact himself, in passing; then his reading (of his own novel) revealed the female protagonist in his own novel; and in response to a question explained (superficially I thought) why she is his stand-in for a fictional Einstein; and with a follow up question, finally spoke briefly but incisively about the challenge for girls & women in math & science fields to gain grudging credibility & respect.

So, one wonders: are the women appearing in his list (authors & characters both) a factor of his own selection, or if one did an “objective” survey of the landscape, would we see the same? An outbreak of women expressing a new voice? (In literature, or science, or both?)

Such fodder for future expression!

Such fodder indeed! I have no idea how to answer your questions, of course – possibly Smith could speak to these? (It would have been a great line of questioning to pursue on the spot with the audience! It sounds like he wasn’t anxious to head in this direction – of social commentary – on his own. But I understand how it took a day or two to get these thoughts, and thus this line of questioning, straightened out in your own head.) The pessimist (or realist?) in me doubts that there is a general and widespread trend toward a women’s majority in science & literature! Although for the most part we are increasingly represented, hm? That’s just a guess from me, though.

Oil and Honey by Bill McKibben

Highly literate and expert musings on climate change, from home to the global theatre.

oil
Oil and Honey centers partly on climate change, a subject on which Bill McKibben (The End of Nature; Eaarth; founder of 350.org) is expert; but it is also personal in nature, a dualism reflected by the title. McKibben is concerned simultaneously with oil–representing fossil fuel industry practices and climate change–and honey. Having entered into a land-share agreement with his friend, beekeeper Kirk Webster, McKibben finds his home and Webster’s apiaries exerting a gravitational pull just as his political activism draws him far and wide. These two sides of his life–personal and political, local and global, analog and digital–are the focus of this combination memoir and call to action.

The subtitle refers to his journey from writer to activist, by way of 350.org and the Keystone Pipeline–a trip he did not intend but found obligatory. Activist though he may be, McKibben remains a fine writer, evocative, articulate, clever and humble in examining his mistakes. In piercing prose, McKibben unites his longstanding authority on climate change with his novice stature in the world of beekeeping. He muses on the small-scale and private implications of our changing world, which incline him to work with his family and Kirk’s bees in his beloved local community in Vermont; and likewise on the necessity for global action to combat the continuing quest for fossil fuels. Oil and Honey travels the world but always cycles back, like the seasons, to McKibben’s Vermont home, likening global systems to beehives in a manner both profound and lyrical–and important.


This review originally ran in the – issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 degrees.

remarkable bits from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Correct: we are still not done with Annie Dillard. I may have to make her a tag as I have done for Abbey and Hemingway. (…Haven Kimmel, Norman Maclean…)

EDIT: here we are.

On top of my reviews, I felt the need to share some of my favorite lines and passages with just a few notes. Enjoy.

There are seven or eight categories of phenomena in the world that are worth talking about, and one of them is the weather.

One wonders very much what else would make her list!!

I want to think about trees. Trees have a curious relationship to the subject of the present moment. There are many created things in the universe that outlive us, that outlive the sun, even, but I can’t think about them. I live with trees. There are creatures under our feet, creatures that live over our heads, but trees live quite convincingly in the same filament of air we inhabit, and in addition, they extend impressively in both directions, up and down, shearing rock and fanning air, doing their real business just out of reach. A blind man’s idea of hugeness is a tree. They have their sturdy bodies and special skills; they garner fresh water; they abide. This sycamore above me, below me, by Tinker Creek, is a case in point; the sight of it crowds my brain with an assortment of diverting thoughts, all as present to me as these slivers of pressure from grass on my elbow’s skin.

I loved this because I, too, love trees; and this is a well-articulated (but still rather charmingly airy, too) explanation why. Also, I enjoy Dillard’s use of the semi-colon, my personal favorite punctuation mark. (Yes. I’m a librarian and a reader and writer. I have a favorite punctuation mark.)

My God, I look at the creek. It is the answer to Merton’s prayer, “Give us time!” It never stops. If I seek the senses and skill of children, the information of a thousand books, the innocence of puppies, even the insights of my own city past, I do so only, solely, and entirely that I might look well at the creek.

“It never stops.” Golly, I hope she’s right. Climate change has us receiving too much rain here and not enough rain there; the forests are burning; the glaciers are melting; I fear the creeks are stopping (and starting up elsewhere). But in 1974, I can understand this thinking.

I suspect that the real moral thinkers end up, wherever they may start, in botany.

This, too, is charming: a nerdy confirmation of the power of trees and other green things (and non-green things as well).

John Cowper Powys said, “We have no reason for denying to the world of plants a certain slow, dim, vague, large, leisurely semi-consciousness.” He may not be right, but I like his adjectives. The patch of bluets in the grass may not be long on brains, but they might be, at least in a very small way, awake.

Who is Dillard to say that he may not be right? Goodness, with all the time travel and metaphoric “patting the puppy” she gushes and coos, why not let trees have a certain semi-consciousness? And those complaints aside, does anyone else hear the Ents walking through those lines? Lovely.

All the green in the planted world consists of these whole, rounded chloroplasts wending their ways in water. If you analyze a molecule of chlorophyll itself, what you get is one hundred thirty-six atoms of hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen arranged in an exact and complex relationship around a central ring. At the ring’s center is a single atom of magnesium. Now: If you remove the atom of magnesium and in its exact place put an atom of iron, you get a molecule of hemoglobin. The iron atom combines with all the other atoms to make red blood, the streaming red dots in the goldfish’s tail.

And that blows my mind: a scientific, tiny-scale, real-life confirmation, like a metaphor but grounded in reality on the molecular level, of our intricate connection as living, breathing, animal things to living, breathing green things. I love that.

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