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Essay

THE LORD GOD BIRD fled its home on the Singer Tract in the bayou of Louisiana in 1944 and hasn’t been conclusively seen or heard from since. Its official name is the ivory-billed woodpecker. Campephilus principalis. The bird was the largest woodpecker in America until its purported demise. Great God, people were known to say. Lord God, look at that bird. For decades, the consensus was that the ivorybill died a remote, fugitive death at the hands of the industrial gods, that deforestation evicted it from its habitat and left it open to lesser threats—predation or poaching by rare bird collectors—that finished it off. In April of 1944, the artist Don Eckleberry spent two weeks in a Louisiana swamp sketching an ivorybill that was holed up on the edge of a decimated forest. This was the last definitive sighting of the creature, and a half-century later ornithologists and amateur birdwatchers and people from the Audubon Society had given up hope there would ever be another one. But lately rumor has it this bird is not as dead as everyone thought, and for the better part of seven years, ornithologists and birdwatchers and Audubon Society people, those who thought they would have to rely on ancient photographs and sketches by artists like Eckleberry to preserve the creature’s memory, have canvassed forests of the American Southeast, hiking through bog water and resurrection fern to prove it.

The ivorybill stood twenty inches tall, with a thirty-one-inch wingspan. Males had a shock of red plumage that stuck straight up on their skulls. In April 2004, sixty years after Eckleberry’s solitary encounters, a team of Cornell researchers obtained a video sequence, only four seconds long, of a large woodpecker, jet black with ivory feathers, winging among trees along Arkansas’s Cache River. This four-second video, known as the Luneau video, was analyzed for fourteen months before being touted as proof that the Lord God bird had survived lo these many years. Yet despite exhaustive efforts by experts and amateurs alike, the last seven years have not yielded a single still photograph to validate this claim—when everyone agrees one photo would do the trick.

 

     1. Exaltabo Te, Domine

 

Systematically, then sporadically. Earnestly. Distractedly. Half-heartedly. For five years, I have prayed the Psalms.

This May morning, I open the Book of Common Prayer to day six. Barefoot in the kitchen, I wait for water to boil and whisper Psalm 30 so my housemate, Aaron, doesn’t overhear. I will exalt you, O Lord, because you have lifted me up and have not let my enemies triumph over me…. I cried out to you, and you restored me to health.

Prayer is technology, writes the scholar Eugene Peterson. Prayers are tools. A mechanistic conception of a mystical thing, but I am too tired to think differently. I have undergraduate writing exercises to grade, a class to teach, my own writing to do. With the Psalms I lever the day into place. Hear, O Lord, and have mercy upon me; O Lord, be my helper.

Israel prayed the Psalms, their prophets and kings. Exiled in Babylon the people prayed Restore us, and in the wake of their homecoming, Bless the Lord. Centuries before Jesus, fathers taught these words to their children, gathered in tents. The Psalms were dispatches from a nation of dependents, transmissions of praise and yearning, of yielding, of people plying the divine to remember, to act, to see. And to be seen. Come out, come out, wherever you are, the psalmists often implore. The Psalms were, in part, a literature of pursuit. They were texts born of the belief that God responds to language, can be flushed out into the open, by those humble enough, or perhaps lonely enough, to pray.

Here, the ancients tell us, pray like this: each psalm in sequence or out of order; one per day for 150 days or all of them in a month; on the subway or the bus or waiting for the light to change; in the bathroom; in a closet to war against distraction; pray evenings; pray during lunch; it doesn’t matter what you feel or if you comprehend every line or if the words correspond to your real-time experience; keep moving your lips; whisper, chant, sing; if the word is Hallelujah, say Hallelujah; if fear, say fear; you are an amateur; obey the words on the page; no need to improvise; pray by yourself, and if you can, with other people; we prayed these prayers with other people; once a boy killed a giant with a stone and when he grew up he became a poet-king and he was famous like Elvis and people said David, he knows God, but if he knew anything he knew how to be honest, and many of these prayers were written by him; you are still learning to be honest; with God and with yourself; does this offend you? Pray the Psalms anyway; recite them like a new language; you are learning a new language, one God and humans share.

So I pray the Psalms. Why? Because I think God is not extinct, but only hidden. Concealed in the blur of daily life. Camouflaged, always, but on rare occasions identifiable. And because I am not humble, but I’m often lonely—overworked, anxious, withdrawn but wanting company, lonely for God, lonely enough. From isolation, I pray toward communion. And I hold these poems in my hands. For if anyone knew God in ages past, it seems to me the psalmists did: Knew God personally, in ways I do not. Knew God in ways I do not, and want to.

Incline your ear to me, I say, standing in the kitchen, waiting for water to boil.

§

In the past, those who glimpsed an ivorybill were sometimes so awestruck they wept. Dr. Geoff Hill, professor at Auburn, believes himself one of the lucky ones. Hill is short and muscular, with brown hair and wire-rim glasses. He studies bird conservation and ecology. He’s also one of the foremost experts on the coloration of birds—author of the National Geographic guide to the subject.

Hill began leading a search for the ivorybill in the Florida Panhandle in 2005. Predawn on January 5, 2006, he was paddling a kayak down the Choctawhatchee River in the half-dark when a bird caught him looking. The time was 0638…not exactly like anything I’ve seen before…Wingbeats…rather stiff and shallow…not an anhinga, not a cormorant, not a heron. Then, later in January: Naked eye view. Bird flushed from about 30 feet (10m) as I was moving noisily through a flooded tupelo/cypress stand…Flight was strong and fast…It made no sound….

Even with a camera at his side, he couldn’t get a shot. Likewise for the handful of his colleagues who have claimed similar sightings—fourteen in all. Notebooks swell with their efforts to apprehend what they’ve seen. Their records, like many of the Psalms, are a literature of pursuit.

 

Field Notes

Sighting / long & loon-like / head, back, rump, tail, and neck…all black / pale ivory bill / Estimated Flight Path / no doubt / dark-colored dabbling duck / underwing linings / American Crow / yelled “Look to your right” / too late / Sighting / finished filming / I realize I’m not an artist / prothonotary warbler / beat his wings twice / continued gliding / Sighting / I didn’t hear or see anything / double knocks / fresh excavation / binoculars / 5 wing beats / Sighting / canoeing / flying / rising / large fat duck / not a hawk, heron, ibis, anhinga, owl, wood duck, cormorant, kite / peripheral vision / changed pitch and revealed / I am rather confident / Sighting / Could not positively ID.

—from sight records made by Geoff Hill, Tyler Hicks, and Brian Rolek

As a kid growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas, I knew a Cornell-trained ornithologist. He was apparently world-renowned. My parents would arrange for me to go bird watching with this man early on Saturday mornings, when I wanted nothing more than to watch television.

They meant to give me a love for nature, I imagine, or to keep me busy on the Saturdays without soccer matches or baseball games, the days following my parents’ separation, when Mom worked at a health food store called Sun Harvest and Dad came over to spend time with my little brother and me, the three of us sprawled on the living room carpet in front of our three-channel TV, watching sports in the afternoon and in the evening shows like McGyver, Airwolf, Tour of Duty. Maybe my parents had agreed I should spend more time outside. Maybe they wanted to supplement my home-school curriculum.

Or maybe this was just about birds. I had a coloring book full of them, age seven or eight, a blank canvas of birds—crests, wings, underwings—their coloration patterns waiting to be filled in. I leaned over the kitchen table after lunch, using colored pencils sharpened to a fine point. I was meticulous, shading the crest of a kingfisher, the throat of a barn swallow gliding past a brown roof, tail split like a tuning fork. Blue was my favorite color—barn swallow-blue, blue like an indigo bunting. I memorized birds’ features. And I liked birds, sure, but not enough to skip cartoons.

The bird expert and I would drive to some Gulf Coast wetland or botanical garden and hike, sometimes for hours, with binoculars around our necks. This was south Texas; it was always hot. I was easily bored. I don’t remember what, if anything, we ever found.

What I remember is holding binoculars to my face, twisting the dial to find the focus. I remember the field guide to North American birds that was my avian Bible, and the large aviary, big as a convenience store, attached to the back of that man’s house.

 

     2. De Profundis

 

I bought the Book of Common Prayer—its full title The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church—in the fall of 2006, carried it with me on a ten-day driving tour of England. Each morning and evening, I opened to the designated place and recorded where I was. Gatwick to VictoriaWigram House, Westminster…the British Library…Leicester Square. Now the BCP goes with me wherever I travel.

Praying the Psalms, I feel at home in strange places, less transient or unmoored. Less alone. The prayers and some of their Latin subtitles are familiar to me when my environment is not.

And there are small convergences. The day I leave for England, I buy a pair of ill-fitting Chuck Taylors, shoes that hurt my flat feet so much that by day two of the trip, I can hardly walk. Limping to Costa Coffee on London’s Victoria Street, I open the BCP to the right day and find myself praying: Truly, I am on the verge of falling, and my pain is always with me.

The psalmists speak of pain, physical and otherwise, with a rare fluency. They are versed in the language of discomfort. Yesterday was perfect, they say, quiet, carefree—and now this: This heartbreak, homesickness, uncommon cold, this spiritual lassitude, this confusion, isolation, old age, shame—You know my reproach. These friends/backstabbers with their demonizing rhetoric. All these ridiculous, multiplying troubles.

They are complainers, the psalmists, shrill with no pretension of being different. They are people you admire for their intensity and avoid for the same reason. Only God could suffer all of them at once.

Yet in their shrillness, their anger and despondency, they teach. Pray what you feel, they say, almost hysterically. You have permission. Calvin called the Psalms an anatomy of the soul presumably for this reason—their ability to cover the gamut of human emotion.

And I remember later on, I detoured to Edinburgh and sat on a bench outside New College’s divinity school, sat and looked out over the city center after a strong rain, and when the drabness of the stone buildings felt oppressive, and the sky seemed not washed clean but just empty, I wished I was traveling with someone else, a friend or spouse, someone with whom I could share not only memories of this journey but the direct, unmediated experience, and though it had been a decent year, for a couple hours I felt stranded, sick of my life, of being in my late twenties, contemplating grad school, romantically unattached and losing my hair, of having too many friends who had already built the scaffolding of a life—marriage, kids, career—while I was still laying the foundations. And I spent some time, then, asking the old question of whether something was wrong with me or whether I had chosen poorly somewhere in the past, while realizing that over several years I’d frequently made a point of not choosing anything or anyone, because I have always been afraid to choose stability, to experience a job or a girlfriend or a city as more than a place I am passing through, since after I have them I can’t trust my fickle heart to want them anymore. And my feeling occasionally adrift has been the natural result.

Then it angered me to think that I was on vacation and feeling desolate, and I announced partly to God and partly to myself that though I desire God’s company, there are certain days when it is plainly insufficient, when God’s presence seems immaterial to the problem of me. It is what I felt, and it was good to acknowledge that truth, and to pray, begrudgingly, Blessed be God, who has not rejected my prayer, nor withheld his love from me.

But what about the days when I am not sure what I feel? For I am someone who understands himself mostly in reverse, the man recalling the boy, tomorrow’s self recalling today’s, someone whose present angst is usually an alchemy of other emotions still undiscovered—discouragement, jealousy, alienation, fatigue.

By offering language imbued with deep emotion, by enfolding me within the inclusive we, the psalmists often diagnose my condition for me. Their prayers of distress, of hope, create a spark of recognition: I, too, feel this way. Somewhere beneath the surface, I am this way. Though I cannot match a psalm’s joyful pitch, I am shown that a part of me, a small part, remains joyful. Though I draw back at the psalmists’ hostility toward their enemies, those venomous petitions—Give them continual trembling in their loins…. Let them be wiped out of the book of the living—though I flinch at the words, I’m reminded that deep down, I am also hostile, that I carry resentments from one day to the next. And what I learn, finally, from reciting lines like these is that anything offered to God, anything at all—my worst days, my worst selves—can be material for meeting.

So I pray, wondering how I will ever identify with a line like Indeed, for your sake we are killed all the day long. Wondering, that is, until I recall my mother’s breast cancer a few years back—when she comes to my apartment after work, sits on the couch and grows quiet, tells me she’s sick. My dad remarried long ago, but she never has. I put my arm around her and our eyes well up and though she insists more than once that everything is fine, that stage IIA carcinoma means a good chance of survival—though she will, in fact, survive—for now her words only sound like warnings, and I’m thinking something like, Shit.

Shit. Shit. Shit.

It is one of those days mortality becomes real to me—hers and by extension my own. Fable metastasizes into small, dense fact. Weeks later, I go to the clinic for her first day of chemotherapy and she’s holding a giant syringe-like tube of neon red liquid against her side, a syrup that drains into her body with each press of a plunger, poisoning her by degrees.

Indeed, we are killed—I had forgotten—all of us and all the day long, cancer or not. But for your sake? What do you, God, have to do with it? Spare me the rationalizations. I will never understand. And when I pray Do something! and What are you thinking? remember, I was taught to pray this way.

§

You can find the Luneau video on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, watch the footage again and again. Here’s what I see: Scores of tree trunks jutting up out of a swamp; a boat rising/falling relative to water; motionless forest; a man’s left hand resting on his right calf; the yellow handle of an oar. Then—

A bird in flight. Banking left. Escaping through trees.

(Replay) Black body? White wings?

(Replay) Straight-line flight—came off a tupelo to the left of the screen.

(Replay) Flash of white at take-off.

(Replay) A perched blur…One-one-thousand…two-one-thousand…three-one-thousand…four-one-thousand…gone.

It’s been called an ornithological Zapruder film. When analyzing the video, the Cornell Lab considered several factors: under and upperwing patterns; wing shape and beat frequency; comparisons with the flight patterns of other birds—especially that of the pileated woodpecker, the bird most likely to be mistaken for an ivorybill. They scrutinized fifty-six video clips of pileated woodpeckers in flight, adding blur when necessary to approximate the image in question. Then they constructed life-sized models of both birds, pileated and ivorybill, using a series of strings and elastic bands to flap the wings. They reenacted the four-second scene, filming the bird-models over and over, with the same canoe and camera under similarly overcast skies. They crunched the data, then proclaimed their faith in an article for Science:

At 15:42 Central Daylight Time on 25 April 2004, M. D. Luneau secured a brief but crucial video of a very large woodpecker perched on the trunk of a water tupelo (Nyssa aquatica), then fleeing from the approaching canoe…. Even at its closest point, the woodpecker occupies only a small fraction of the video. Its images are blurred and pixilated owing to rapid motion…. Despite these imperfections, crucial field marks are evident…. At least five diagnostic features allow us to identify the subject as an ivory-billed woodpecker.

§

I remember that man’s aviary because it’s where I caught a zebra finch the summer I was ten. I wanted a pet bird; the man offered one of his. Zebra finches I liked for their charcoal feathers, their orange beaks and rouged cheeks, so while my mother talked with the bird expert in his living room, I opened the sliding door to the aviary and put a mound of birdseed in a large cage on the ground. Then I sat motionless, within arm’s reach of the cage, for twenty minutes at least, until the bird grew brave enough to fly down for a closer look. Cocking its head, the bird watched me, not sure what to make of the lifelike statue I had become. Then it hopped, tentatively, over the cage’s threshold. I held my breath, and when the bird started picking at the seed, I waited a few more seconds, then lunged for the cage door.

A year later, I was changing my finch’s water, a daily ritual. It was late morning. The cage was on the back patio to give the bird fresh air, and when I opened it to replace the water trough, the bird flew through the gap between my hand and the door, flew straight and didn’t look back, flew past my mother’s bedroom window, past the wooden fort in our backyard, over the fence, between two houses, and away.

 

Field Notes

O Hope of all the ends of the earth and of the seas that are far away.

—Psalm 65:5

I have grown weary with my crying; my throat is inflamed; my eyes have failed from looking for my God.

—Psalm 69:4

O God, why have you utterly cast us off?

—Psalm 74:1

 

The Cornell announcement split the birding community into believers and skeptics. Three rebuttals were published in 2006 wherein respected ornithologists argued that the bird in the video was nothing more than a regular pileated woodpecker, or that the video evidence was inconclusive. Cornell then published counter-rebuttals in each of the journals that published the first rebuttals.

 

     3. Expectans, Expectavi

 

At a coffee shop near my apartment in Columbus, Ohio, I overhear two people—a language tutor and her student—reciting simple English sentences.

Do you want me to read them for you? the tutor asks. I’ll read them and then you repeat after me.

She’s in her thirties, pale, with shoulder-length blonde hair. Her student, an Asian man of similar age, wears a button-down shirt, sleeves rolled up to his elbows. He is concentrating.

Joe, Joe, Joe, hello? The woman speaks, the man repeats. Joe, what’s the problem? they ask. Don’t go to sleep now, Joe. Come look at the snow.

Their voices are one voice thrown down a well and echoing back. They hold pens in their hands. They pause as the man studies the manual, then resume.

Go out, they say. Go out. (Do you hear the W in that?) Go out.

When pronouncing a difficult word the man’s head bobs, like he’s swallowing something big.

Be sure to put the W in there. Otherwise it sounds like, Is the windooopen.

The man is tired. He doesn’t understand what to say. Dutifully he repeats, Is the windooopen.

You see, the woman says. That’s not correct.

I have been skipping the selahs, pauses built into the Psalms like musical rests. For some reason, my version of the BCP doesn’t have them, and when I pray the Psalms, I often pray straight through, quickly, without pausing to reflect. This is not correct. If I want to learn from these people, I should pray by their rules. So today, day twelve, after lunch, I go find another version of the Psalms, a translation based on the Masoretic Hebrew. With my bedroom door closed, I sit on my small couch, back to the window. Opening to Psalm 62, I pray until the selah and close my eyes. Then I wait, listening, to the cars passing on Fourth Street, sparrows in the tree out back.

The pursuit has led me here, to the solitude of this bedroom with this couch and this wood floor, to this canopy of stillness, where I have come to chase God down as people chase the rarest birds, trying to believe that something’s out there, that others’ experiences have been authentic, that if I find what I seek, the finding will actually be worth the search. I think of the minor tractate of the Talmud that lists appearances of the Shekinah, the glory of the Lord. Ten descents did the Shekinah make to the world: Once in the Garden of Eden…. Once in the generation of the Tower of Babel…. Once in Sodom…. Once on the Red Sea. In the old days, God came down, say the rabbis. Something beautiful or disquieting swept through the air, floated or flew. I want to ask: What were its features, coming, going? Its colors? And could you recognize its sound? And—dear teachers, keepers of divine peregrinations—did people mistake it for anything else?

I sit on my couch, unmoving, trying to concentrate. But I am impatient. This takes such effort. Who has time for this? After a couple minutes, I open my eyes and read the next line:

Truly, wait quietly for God, O my soul.

If God and people ever confer, it is on God’s terms. This is not news to me. God alone picks times and places, picks the people—a shepherd or social worker—and the medium. What is news to me, what is always news because I always forget, is that I do not want to know God. Not really. Not the way I want my writing published or a person to share all these days. Not the way I want sex, or cigarettes. I do not want God, not viscerally, not even urgently, as God deserves to be wanted—not right now, and sometimes not for months. (I am learning to be honest.) I do not want; I only want to want. Which for me is reason enough to keep praying.

§

For six months in 2005 and 2006, Cornell deployed fifteen field biologists and over one hundred trained volunteers to scour the Arkansas Big Woods. The next year they established a four-person mobile team to interface with other search parties in the region and placed sixty automated cameras in the Arkansas delta. The cameras snapped a picture every four seconds or whenever they sensed motion. In Florida, Geoff Hill and his team vacuumed possible nest cavities looking for traces of ivorybill DNA. And they installed newer cameras. Their old ones had faulty sensors, too often tripped by shadows or wind. The new ones had seismic sensors and would only be triggered by something hammering on a tree.

Sixteen remote listening stations were set up in the forests along the Choctawhatchee River, each station equipped with an omni-directional microphone and solid-state digital recorder. A sound analysis team parsed thousands of hours of recordings hoping to distinguish the bird’s acoustic signatures. From the 11,419 hours of noise collected in 2006, 309 sounds were isolated as possible matches. Two hundred ten were potential ivorybill kent calls—sounds like that of a toy trumpet. The other ninety-nine were double-knocks—evidence of an ivorybill or nature’s idea of a joke.

But acoustic signatures were not enough, and without better proof, research funding grew scarcer each year. We need the picture, said Hill in 2007. The big question is, how unlucky can you be, and for how long, before you give up?

Cornell’s search team returned from the field in 2008 with no new evidence, and after an eight-day exploration of a Florida preserve in the spring of 2009, the Cornell lab suspended research, holding to their original claim that at least one ivorybill did exist in Arkansas in 2004.

Meanwhile, recovery efforts continue, and Geoff Hill has not given up. Though exploration sites in Florida have yielded nothing promising since 2008, he hopes the ivorybill has only migrated. Absent personnel and grant money, Hill now relies mostly on automated cameras, while helping other witnesses find equipment to verify their claims.

Everybody’s pretty much just waiting, Hill says.

§

I got the bird back. I can hardly believe it, but I did. After running inside to tell my mom it was gone, after crying and despairing and wishing I had been more careful, I went back outside and heard a finch call, a faint beep, in the distance. I traced the sound, climbed neighbors’ fences, cut through backyards to the next block, and within ten minutes, found my finch in a tree I knew I could climb, if the bird would just stay put.

I tried not to scrape my shoes on the bark or shake the less sturdy branches. I climbed quickly, praying under my breath that nothing would send the bird flying. The finch just watched as I inched my way out onto the tree limb, feigning nonchalance, and when I got close enough, I grabbed as fast and gentle as I could.

My hand wrapped around charcoal feathers. I climbed from the tree and leaped from the last branch to the ground. And I ran home ecstatic, jumping every few steps, stunned by my dumb luck.

§

God, God, God, hello? God, what’s the problem? Don’t go to sleep now. If you want me to, I will wait—wait quietly in my room, on the couch, eyes closed; on the bus; in a closet to war against distraction. I have asked for more than others’ memories of you. I believe I am not too late. And I draw these outlines, though I am fickle, this picture you alone can fill in. Don’t leave me stranded. I will say these prayers again, and for another five years. If you want me to, then I want to. Exaltabo te, Domine—I will exalt you, O Lord—in whatever language you like.

But show yourself.

 

 

 

Note

Quotations, inspirations, and many particulars were drawn from the following sources: “The Lord God Bird,” New York Times, April 30, 2005; “Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) Persists in Continental North America,” Science, June 3, 2005; “The Best-Kept Secret,” Audubon, July, 2005; “Ivory-Billed Woodpecker: Ornithology’s Holy Grail,” Harvard University Gazette, October 13, 2005; “Rare Bird is ‘Seen’ in Florida,” Gulf Times Newspaper, September 29, 2006; “A Bird Worthy of Melville,” St. Petersburg Times, March 3, 2007; “The Great Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Debate: Perceptions of the Evidence,” Birding Magazine, March/April, 2007; “A True Believer,” Harvard Magazine, March/April, 2007; “The Search for the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker,” Cornell Lab of Ornithology website; “History of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker,” US Fish and Wildlife Service website; Geoffrey E. Hill’s Ivorybill Hunters: The Search for Proof in a Flooded Wilderness (Oxford University Press); Geoff Hill’s website, Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers in the Florida Panhandle; Field notes of sight records from Florida by Geoff Hill, Tyler Hicks, and Brian Rolek; Dan Mennill’s webpage, The Search for the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (University of Windsor); “Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Search Ends,” Discovery News online, April 15, 2010; “An Interview with Ivory-Bill Hunter,” Birder’s World Magazine, April 19, 2010; the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Recovery Plan for the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis); Sufjan Stevens’s “The Lord God Bird” (New Jerusalem Music); Eugene Peterson’s Answering God (HarperCollins); Walter Brueggemann’s The Message of the Psalms (Ausburg); The Book of Psalms (The Jerusalem Publication Society); Judah Goldin’s translation of The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan (Yale University Press); The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church.

 


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

  • I enjoyed this piece for two reasons. The first is that I published an article about the Lord God Bird in the magazine I write for, In the Field Magazine. Secondly, because your descriptions on the Psalms were dead on. I pray that you will continue to wait for God and seek Him because He will reveal Himself to you.

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