essay


If you’re reading this, you’ve heard of Yellowstone. America’s first and most iconic National Park, home of the geysers, the bison, the majestic elk. If you’re like me, you’ve probably read about it in all manner of books, seen it in all manner of nature programs. You’ve thought about the bison as symbols and the geysers as abstractions. As you can imagine, I was excited to see the real deal.

Unfortunately, our entrance into Yellowstone was not auspicious. We’d spent the day driving across the entire state of Wyoming, which is much longer than it looks, because it goes up and down so much. We’d stopped to refuel both the car and ourselves in Cody, where the copious meandering tourists agitated the living shit out of the Inimitable Todd (thus proving that our IT is a New York City Boy at heart, as if there was ever any doubt) and didn’t exactly relax me. We’d debated the location of our next bed and breakfast, and after an unsuccessful attempt to look it up on the phone, debated whose fault not knowing about it was. Now evening was imminent, still had no cell phone signal, and we were being charged more than twenty American dollars to enter a park that we would now have to jet straight through if we wished to find ourselves a place to sleep for the night.

Jetting was a bit of an ambitious verb, though,what with the circuitous route that we’d have to take, and the construction that the map warned us of (“expect delays of up to 30 minutes!” I read with some trepidation, and the IT groaned) and of course ALL. THE. FREAKIN’. RVS.

Now, I don’t like to judge other people’s lifestyles… oh, who am I kidding. RVs are an abomination. I’m sure they have their place, perhaps for the very infirm, or maybe at the bottom of the ocean serving as artificial reefs. They should really not be found in vast herds, rumbling up narrow, twisty mountain roads, or down narrow, twisty mountain roads, or coming to a dead stop in the middle of narrow, twisty mountain roads so that the occupant can get yet another picture of some bison.

I have to admit, I was not expecting to be impressed by the bison. In my mind I had them filed under “wild cows”, and I already know more than I ever wanted to about cows. So I also knew more than I wanted to about bison.

This was a misapprehension on my part. I realized it as soon as we came to the front of a line of stopped traffic and discovered that it was stopped because of a bison meandering down the middle of the road, forcing cars (and RVs) to go around him. This was a huge, obviously powerful animal, but it wasn’t just that. I’d seen huger, more powerful creatures in zoos. It honestly was the wildness, the fact that despite the record-breaking number of tourists, despite the brutal history of near-extinction the bison had overcome, despite the fact that it was confined to the park at the pain of hazing or death, here was an individual animal going about its own business. An individual very freaking large animal.

That was the highlight of the day; most of the rest of the evening was consumed with navigating around construction, getting lost, and similar unhappiness. We arrived at our lodge in Idaho well after dark, had a picnic in our room, and fell asleep.

The next day we went back, still on a deadline but with more time to spare. We were determined to actually stop the car and look at things this time. Things of our own choosing, not just whatever wandered up onto the road.

The RVs didn’t make it easy, mind you. They stopped for damn near everything – elk across a river, bison on a distant meadow, a bear minding its own business at the bottom of a precarious cliff that we were all driving a narrow paved strip on the side of. I can’t fault the urge to take a picture – humans have always invented tools to aid and shore up memory, and I would be profoundly ungrateful if I knocked the urge that led us to develop books. But like so many things, from peeing in a river to cutting down a tree, what was acceptable, nearly harmless behavior in individuals became completely overwhelming and a giant pain in the ass in the aggregate.

After observing this, and checking the time tables, we came to a mutual agreement to skip Old Faithful and visit some of the other, less famous geysers instead. This meant instead of insanely crowded, the boardwalks we walked and the viewing areas where we stopped were merely very crowded.

I tried to blank it all out. Not just the tourists, but the boardwalks and protective fences, the sound of cars and goddamn RVs in the distance, the photos and videos I’d seen, the books I’d read, the knowledge of geological processes that informed me about exactly what was going on under my feet. I tried to put myself into the position of a person who had, perhaps, heard rumors, but was seeing this with fresh eyes, with genuine awe in the old sense of the word, in real danger and probably in even more imagined danger, believing that there might be literal demons responsible for this process that resulted in steam and peculiarly cobalt water oozing up from the crusted earth.

I couldn’t do it, of course – the observer always affects the experiment – and moreover, I got the impression that if I’d succeeded it would have been very unpleasant (potential for a fatal scalding in the absence of those boardwalks aside.) But somewhere in the middle ground, between terrified ignorance and jaded familiarity, I caught a glimpse of what the science fiction crowd calls ‘sense of wonder’ (and so abuses in trying to recapture it that it’s now been tattered down to sensawunda, the continued absence of which explains why we’re not on Mars.)

I wasn’t expecting that.

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The ecology of fear is the idea that predators impact the ecosystem by impacting the behavior of prey. The classic example involves ungulates, a mountain lion or two, and a riverbank covered in tasty grass. The ungulates would like to eat the grass, but they are afraid to spend too much time too far from cover because of the lions, so they don’t eat it all and the bank remains stabilized by grassroots. Remove the lions, and the ungulates chow down at the river’s edge with impunity, resulting in denuded banks and erosion (this is distinct from, albeit often happening in concert with, generalized environmental damage caused by the prey population explosion that likely also accompanied the removal of the lions.)

Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster by Mike Davis applies this concept to the human ecology of the City of Los Angeles and surrounding suburbs. Humans – particularly, as Davis is at pains to point out, wealthy white politically-connected humans – fancy ourselves the apexiest of apex predators (largely accurately) while still retaining a species memory of the fact that we are soft and made of tasty meat. In the catastrophic landscape of Southern California, where coping strategies suited to more gradual landscapes of the eastern U.S. and Great Britain often fail, triumphant industrial capitalists have reacted to the removal of normal constraint by figuratively grazing right down to the water’s edge. They build collapsibly on faults and floodplains, flammably in chaparral. They strew their children and pets promiscuously in the paths of returning mountain lions and coyotes. At the same time, they re-imagine events that are par for the Californian course as apocalypses (a self-fulfilling prophecy when failure to plan makes the inevitable earthquake or wildfire worse). And they treat the masses as a new predatory force, seemingly prepared to use the same principals of “vermin control” that they once applied to grizzly bears on any unruly element of the urban populations they exploit.

Though this book is now more than a decade old, it’s still remarkably applicable. And, judging by the online reviews, remarkably misunderstood. Some of this is to be expected; when a Malibu real-estate baron feels the need to attack you under a pseudonym, you know you’ve hit a nerve. But many of the positive reviews are also sort of point-missing. Notably, in one of the odder cases of Truffaut Effect that I’ve encountered, many readers seem to have approached the book as exactly the sort of pop disaster lit* that Davis is among other things actually analyzing, leading to criticisms that his coverage of killer bees and tornadoes is ludicrous rather than being, as it were, a vision of the ludicrosity inherent in LA itself.

But while not every landscape is as over-the-top as The Village of Our Lady, the Queen of the Angels of the River of Porziuncola, the ecology of fear plays a role everywhere. The perceived possibility of predation has changed our airports and schools, the way we celebrate holidays, where we live, how we mate. And it impacts how we bird.

One of the fatal mountain lion attacks discussed by Davis was on a birder. Other birders have been killed by tigers, by heat and lack of water, by mountains and trees. But the stories we remember are often of attacks by our fellow humans.

I suspect that one considers this slightly more when one is (or presents as) a woman. People helpfully point out which parks I shouldn’t go to and when, remind me to be paranoid about the rides I accept (or the rides I forgo and the areas I walk through as a result), etc., etc., and this is constant and lifelong. It comes on both a personal and a societal level. It does get into one’s head. And it does, therefore, change one’s behavior. You do think twice before going down to the water’s edge.

On one level this is terrible. Not only does it make life more limited and less pleasant, but there’s something very un-humanist about taking your fellow humans as predators (let alone thinking of yourself as prey). And so very many aspects of the current human ecology of fear are ludicrously counterproductive, only serving to increase the general level of hostility and suspicion in a vicious spiral. And there’s always the temptation to victim-blame, to take the advantage of hindsight and turn it into an argument that the deceased was an idiot to take this or that previously-acceptable risk.

But neither is it useful to imagine ourselves invincible and immune, by virtue of our charming nerdish hobby, from the travails of the world. Like all ecologies, the ecology of our fear requires balance.

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*in full fairness, when I bought it that’s what I thought it was as well. But I managed to get past that impression in the interregnum between buying the book and writing about it by, you know, reading the damn thing.

San Clemente Island Goat

San Clemente Island Goat

I am not the only Laben undertaking new life stages lately. One of my sisters and her husband, aggrieved with city life, have signed a contract on a New Homestead. Though they must toil in the urban salt mines a bit longer, they’re starting to plan what they will raise on their farm. No monoculturists they! They want a blend of crops and critters adapted to the landscape, able to thrive with a minimum of artificial inputs, and generally healthier than a vast swath of cloned corn or a barn full of turkeys that can’t even reproduce without human input.

I, being incurably inclined to nosiness and procrastination, decided to get in on the act. So I bopped by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy site to see what was up. I ended up zeroing in on the Chantecler, a critically endangered type of Canadian chicken specially adapted for wintry climates. But along the way, I stumbled on the San Clemente Island Goat.

Astute birders of the Western U.S. may well have noted the first part of that name and deduced what’s coming next. I flashed back to my weekend reading on avian extinction in the U.S.

San Clemente Island. One of the Channel Islands, the southernmost. There was a subspecies of Bewick’s Wren there, a lively brown bird that thrived in the scrubby, rocky, dry climate of the windswept island. And then there wasn’t.

Because of the goats. (And sheep, and possibly pigs, but the goats are usually cited as the chief villains). Feral animals, they ate the Wren out of house and home; a bird that a 1908 (when the goats had been there only a few decades) article in The Condor described as “very common on all parts of the island” was gone by the 1940s, due primarily to habitat destruction. The habitat had gone into the stomachs of the goats.

In 1934, the Navy acquired the island for a firing range and landing strip. They ignored the goats until 1972, when someone pointed out to them that being the Federal Government and all, they needed to protect the remaining indigenous creatures of the island (which still include a distinct subspecies of Loggerhead Shrike and several other genetically unique plants and animals). The Navy acted in classic American fashion – after assessing the situation, they sold the goats they could profitably catch and shot the ones they couldn’t.

This went on for some years, the Navy busily reducing the goat population while the goats reacted by busily increasing the goat population – and by growing warier, thriftier, and harder to catch or shoot. Then, in 1979, the Fund for Animals stepped in, objecting to the killing of the goats.

Now comes the vigorous rolling of birder eyes, right? So-called animal lovers are about to sacrifice precious ecosystems in defense of cute and cuddly domestic destruction machines.

Only that’s not what happened. The courts cut a middle path; they allowed the Fund for Animals to round up and remove unprofitable goats, while recognizing that the Navy ultimately had a right to do what was necessary to protect the island. Suits and injunctions continued to occur throughout the early 80s; ultimately, about 6,000 more goats were removed alive from the island, and the remainder were killed off. In 1991, the island was goat-free.

On the mainland, many of the goats that had been adopted out succumbed to unfamiliar diseases, or were neutered or never bred; at one point the population dropped to 250. There are now roughly 400 San Clemente Island Goats in the world. And they, too, as it turns out, are a genetically distinct population; they can’t be linked to the populations of Spanish goats they were assumed to descend from. Left on San Clemente long enough to experience the genetic drift and selective pressures of island life, they’d become small, thrifty, and weather-hardy. They’d also developed excellent mothering skills and a relatively unaggressive disposition. These are genetic traits that could be useful to goats – and thus goat-herders – in many other situations. Now it’s the goats that need preserving.

So the goats are destruction machines and scrappy underdogs, heroes and villains. Which only shows how foolish it often is to project those categories, as powerful as they are, onto animals in the first place.

As an aside, this account indicates that the goats brought a species of ear mite unknown to science with them when they were removed from the island; no word on whether anyone has troubled to preserve that.

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Photo:

Painted Redstarts, American Museum of Natural History

Painted Redstarts, American Museum of Natural History

The Dovkie’s head flopped loosely as Paul showed it around the room, asking if anyone knew what it was. I’d already volunteered the “auk” part, and was trying to maintain the discipline of letting someone else have a chance, especially since there were a lot of kids on this tour. They seemed kind of overwhelmed, though. Maybe it was the hog-tied, half-mummified Jabiru on the table, waiting to be sent to the dermestid beetles. Maybe it was the fluorescent light. But I held my peace and gave them their chance.

Oh, who am I kidding. I wasn’t totally sure it wasn’t some obscure Murrelet from the west coast, or for that matter the world’s weirdest example of convergent evolution, an auk-alike that actually lives in the slow-flowing rivers of southern China or something. This was the AMNH. Anything, from anywhere, was possible. I mean, I was pretty sure that there was no such thing as the Cantonese Fresh-water Perching Penguin. But I haven’t memorized all 10,000 avian species. And stranger birds have happened.

I studied the CFPP carefully. Its stubby beak faded into the dark facial feathers, making it look even smaller. The plumage was pristine, and almost cuddly-looking. The eyes were slightly sunken, a little oozy, but that was the only gruesome note.

Paul eventually gave up trying to prompt the word Little out of us, and went on to explain the origin of the specimen. “I got a phone call from a guy in Jersey,” he said, with that casual NYC confidence that we would all understand he was talking about over-the-Hudson, not over-the-Atlantic. “He said he had a penguin running around in his living room. I knew right away what it was.” Not a penguin, freshwater, perching, or otherwise. Like many a pelagic bird before it, the Little Auk had been storm-swept into the unforgiving land, starved until it was too weak to flee human contact, and perished. Now it would be processed into immortality in this windowless basement room.

Like all the skinning-and-stuffing sorts I’ve known, Paul was a keenly enthusiastic man with a sense of humor that occasionally lost people. “They’re alcoholic specimens,” he said, gesturing at a pair of large mason jars. Each jar contained a liquid the color of old, cheap paper and a Tufted Puffin in a contorted head-down pose. “Some people call them spirit specimens, but all the specimens here are spirits.” He paused a beat. The kids looked at him, po-faced. “Because they’re dead.” Another beat. “Ok, moving on.”

I really liked this guy.

But then, I liked everything about this evening, from our cliff-hanger arrival at the museum just in time to catch the last members-only tour after overstaying at happy hour, to the ancient elevators – complete with operators! – that conveyed us first up to the research collections and then down to the subterranean den of preservation, to the smell. Call me ghoulish, but the preservative smell of a venerable museum has always triggered intense feelings in me. It’s too joyful to be properly described as Proustian, because instead of representing something lost forever, this smell stands for something that will continue long after I’m gone. It’s the smell, to me, of knowledge.

I inhaled deeply as we started the tour, and was inclined to linger among the infinite rows of sheet-metal cabinets. (The guide probably thought I was taking it easy on The Inimitable Todd, who was walking with a cane after a marathon-related mishap.) Our first meeting was with Peter, who pulled out drawers of Painted Redstarts and Hawaiian Honeycreepers, not-quite-perfect rows of party colors, black and red, yellow and green, each skin carefully stuffed with cotton and fitted with a tag that, in cramped curlicues of ink, transfigured a dead bird into a valuable cache of data. I wanted desperately to touch, but restrained myself.

He described collecting expeditions classic and contemporary, particularly his own work in the Solomon Islands. Correlated birds (green-and-purple pigeons, small falcons) to maps and field guides, catching each one neatly in a web that, if it was but a pale faded mimeograph of the mesh that holds an ecosystem together, at least offered the consolation of being comprehensible to the human mind.

And then he took questions.

“Do you have an Ivory-billed Woodpecker?” It wasn’t me. And in fact, I was a little irritated, because now I would look silly asking about Great Auks.

“Yes – in fact, you’ll be seeing one later in the tour.” All irritation vanished. And the crowd went wild – in a subdued, respectful way appropriate to dues-paying members of the Museum.

Our next stop was a book-lined office where Tom had set up a projector screen. Tom was the man in charge of the effort to get the ornithology collection electronically databased and online. A Powerpoint was in the offing. My heart quailed. But, sensitive to the potential pitfalls of his material, Tom managed to rally interest with a bit of slightly scandalous history – recounting some of the events surrounding the AMNH’s acquisition of Lord Rothschild’s collection – before launching into a cogent explanation of how his project was making it possible for researchers around the world to use the museum’s resources without ever setting foot in New York. Photos of specimens – only a few, since funding seemed always to be a roadblock – scans of documents, all sorts of things were making their way into the ether by way of this desk.
Like the next slide that appeared on the screen; a black-and-white photo. Two men sitting in a boat against a background of tangled vegetation. One staring somewhere off stage right, holding a gun. And the other, a slender man in a hat and an enormous beard, staring right at the camera as if to say, “Yeah? And what are you gonna do about it?” And well he might, for over his knee he holds a limp Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

The man is with the woodpecker was William M. Brewster; the man with the gun was Frank M. Chapman, who had just shot the woodpecker and would shortly bring it back to the museum. To be turned into a cache of data. An uncomfortable chill went through me.

But then, if you’re going to go, ending up a cache of data was at least no worse than being Christmas dinner or a kitten’s dinner, or beaten to death as a a witch…

Oh, who am I kidding? Granted, at the time the Ivory-bill was not yet the ornithological Elvis. Still, it was known to be in decline. And it’s one thing to point out that a healthy population should be able to sustain the loss of a few individuals, another to inflict the loss knowing that the population is not healthy. Even in a place that smells like heaven, there’s always the nagging little worm of contradiction.

But it’s not like that stopped me from leaning over schoolkids and even abandoning The Limping Inimitable Todd to get a front-row view of the Ivory-bill, the selfsame one that appeared in the photo, when we reached the basement. It looked small, its skeleton (including the iconic bill) having been removed and prepared separately. Chapman had read that there was no skeleton preparation of the Ivory-bill, and he’d set out to repair that lack. Now the skeleton was disarticulated and stored in a cardboard box. Its tail had also been removed, and its remaining skin folded rather haphazardly and dried. Not exactly a proud presentation of the Lord God Bird.

But when Paul started talking, the melancholy passed. The sad skin, he explained, had been used to prepare an extended wing specimen to compare with the alleged Ivory-bill photos and tapes trickling out of Arkansas and Florida. It didn’t excuse, but at least it wasn’t wasted. And here were some Sage Grouse study skins, plump with cotton. A Bufflehead pinned out neatly to dry. And here was a black-and-white bird that hadn’t been prepared yet. Did anyone know what it was?

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NB: For anyone who was wondering about the Hempstead Thick-billed Murre, I asked Paul, who confirmed that it had been received and processed.

“Yet even with these clearer design cues, customers will have to be taught to think about the destination of every throwaway if the zero-waste philosophy is to prevail, environmental officials say…”

That’s the thing, isn’t it? You have to think all the time. Think when you buy. Think when you discard. Know about stuff that has been hidden from view, often quite purposefully, often because we don’t want to know and never have (Not in MY backyard…)

And I find… I’m not saying this to be cruel, or accuse people of being “sheeple” or some similar horrid term, but it is my observation that a lot of people find thinking tiring. This is merely funny when they’re accusing you of spoiling their favorite book by having the temerity to analyze it, but a bit more serious when they refuse to separate their garbage or buy the non-disposable option.

I suspect a lot of it is the particular form that capitalism has taken, especially in the U.S. Our employers do more and more to eat our leisure time, commutes (besides being environmental nightmares in themselves where the public transit is weak) get longer, and the only compensation we’re offered in return is the promise that the things we buy will make our non-work hours a lotus-filled haven of contentment. We’re not free long enough to get bored and actually want to do something, which I (incurable optimist) am convinced that even the most putatively sheep-like person will do eventually when offered a surfeit of leisure. Not that a hearty dose of socialism by itself is going to cure our environmental woes, but a person working two jobs, caring for their children and home in between, may well decide that a special trip down to the recycling center is a corner that can be cut, just like home-cooked meals or exercise or any of the other long-term desirable things that the more fortunate scold us for not doing often enough.

And speaking of that home, those children… who is taking care of them? If it’s disproportionately a woman (as, statistically, it often is even when both parents work) then giving up the Swiffer, mucking through the trash bin picking out carelessly discarded bottles, rinsing and reusing plastic baggies, are all likely to fall disproportionately on her as well. As is the work of reminding (read: get criticized for nagging) the partner to do what he needs to do (mulch the lawn clippings, not throw the bottle in the trash to begin with). Again, hard to fault someone who already is burdened for looking for short cuts. Hard to blame someone who already has a lot on their mind for being a “sheeple” when they balk at adding something else.

Again, the successful conclusion of the gender revolution is not going to magically solve our environmental problems (not even if we all start praying to Mother Earth or what have you.) But it’s increasingly apparent that a whole lot of our culture is going to have to change, and change in sync, to pull our fat out of the fire. And since rapid social change is generally pretty wrenching (to say nothing of hard to steer) we’d best get on it now and give ourselves as much time as possible to work it out.

Because it is going to have to be worked out. This (warning: graphic photos) is one reason why.

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As the boat rocked gently on the vast, prolific, pulsating ocean, I lay in my bunk and tried to do some reading. I’d brought along Seven Tenths by James Hamilton-Paterson, a lyrical (though sometimes a tiny bit precious) elegy for the abused and demystified oceans of the world.

I couldn’t help but think of the whales. I knew, of course, intellectually, that whales are big, and so is the ocean. But actually experiencing the difference in scale between these creatures, this environment, and my puny little self…. Consider. Some whales can live to be 200 years old, maybe older, we don’t know. They have complex social structures. And at their respective nadirs, there were only an estimated 5,000 Humpbacks and less than 2,000 Blue Whales in the world.

So some of those whales we met, might very well have had friends and relatives killed by humans. Yes, this is shameless anthropomorphism. But in the case of these long-lived cetaceans, as with other highly social animals, it hardly seems out of place to think that they could have such bonds in their own right, not just as a way of being honorary humans. Certainly, they can learn. Certainly, they can remember. Yet very few whales have ever offered violence to humans even when they could have got clean away with it.

And they could have. The other thing that struck me as I lay in my bunk was how very not-solid the water was, how things could sink in it, how very much irreversible it was if one were to lose a book or a pair of glasses or an Inimitable Todd or a self overboard in a moment of carelessness. Or even a boat if it were to sink. The Pacific Ocean, for those of you who have not seen it, is a whole lot of water.

The rocking of the boat did not change. It was still gentle, still steady. It was just, suddenly, less soothing.

The whales think I should be less angsty

The whales think I should be less angsty

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International Vulture Awareness Day 2009

International Vulture Awareness Day 2009

The great broad wings tilt slowly, spilling the sun-warmed air, sacrificing lift, then they tilt to the other side, and again, again. The vultures spiral, drain out of the sky.
Just so, they’ve drained out of nearly the whole subcontinent, felled by cheap drugs for cows, of all things – drugs that were banned in your country long ago – banned to use but not to make.

So begins a short science fiction story* set in India and Nepal. The decline of the vultures, unfortunately, is not the SF-nal part.

And this is not a problem that American birders can regard smugly as far away and Third World. We’ve done pretty much the same thing to our own most magnificent vulture (no relation) with both DDT and lead. Even though you wouldn’t know it by their numbers today, the Turkey Vulture once suffered from DDT poisoning too – and from the benighted blasts of gunners who thought that the “buzzards” were a threat to chickens or game birds or just their sensibilities.

There’s a tendency, I think, to cast judgment on endangered species; the same Just World fallacy that allows so many people, particularly Americans, to sit back and try to figure out what a crime victim or a person in poverty did ‘wrong’ also leads us to think of lost and at-risk species as finicky narrow-niched things that brought their distress on themselves because they just couldn’t cope with the rough-and-tumble human-dominated world. Of course, this is pretty rich coming from the humans that invaded a continent and in short order wiped out the most common bird and the swarmingest insect (along with most of the humans who were already there, most of the apex predators, most of the vast herds of large herbivores, etc., etc.)

If that weren’t enough to give us a hint, the plight of the vultures proves that it’s just not a few fringe weaklings at risk. So much of what we think of as ‘normal’ in the modern world is built on a foundation of poison; so few of our systems are set up to take into account all the real costs of our actions to our fellow beings. Vultures, the opposite of finicky, pay the price when they try to perform the valuable service of cleaning up after us.

Only with active awareness can we hope to set right what has gone wrong.

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*which I hope to finish any day now

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