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Learn Your Land

with Adam Harrington

July 2023

IG: @learnyourland


Cina: Adam, thank you so much for doing this. I’d love to dive right in and learn more about what you do!


Adam: Well, I'm the founder of an organization called “Learn Your Land.” It's a media channel where I teach people how to connect to nature through species identification, which can then lead you through all these different avenues. Foraging could be one of them, or using things for utilitarian purposes. 


It doesn't necessarily have to be for food. It could be medicine and a whole host of other things. I believe that one of the first steps before doing all this stuff is to recognize things and then be able to put a name on them. But it's not the end game for all of this stuff, it’s just an easy way to connect with nature. And of course, I film lots of videos. I think that's probably how you found my work, and I like doing that stuff. I think it's an easy way to reach people, especially if you're going to talk about nature. Nature's very photogenic. There are a lot of beautiful organisms out there.


I've been doing this for about eight years now and I'm going to continue doing it for quite some time. It's a very lean operation. There aren't too many people working behind the scenes. I do most of the work myself, but I enjoy it because I love spending time outdoors, and I love sharing what I see and what I learn with other people. 


I also have a couple of online courses. So, in addition to the free content that I have on YouTube, I have a mushroom foraging course that teaches people how to forage wild mushrooms. It's geared towards beginners, but even people at the intermediate level, I think, would learn some things in that course. Then, I have a tree identification course, which teaches people how to identify over 100 trees that grow in eastern North America. It is a lot, but it's not meant to be taken in a weekend. This is a 20+ hour online course, but once you have it, you have access to it for a very long time. So you can kind of go at your own pace. And I also do live events as well. So, that's basically who I am and what I do.


Cina: That is a lot. Let's back up just a bit. How did you get into this? What's your background?


Adam: Music. But I got the transition from music to nature through health. While I was performing music and while I was traveling, I got super interested in taking care of my body. If you're on the road a lot, you're probably not making the best lifestyle choices because you're not eating the best foods, you're not being hydrated constantly, you're not sleeping very well. And that was my lifestyle in my late teens and early 20s. And my body wasn't enjoying that kind of lifestyle. So, I naturally fell into taking care of my body and reading stuff on best practices for diet, best practices for medicine, best practices for sleep, and all of that. Whenever it came to food and medicine, some of the teachers early were foragers themselves. I just got super lucky. It was like winning the lottery that the people that I was most attracted to, who were teaching these things about health and nutrition, also had a foraging slant to them. 


I also spent time in nature. I didn't know that most nutritionists don't talk about that. I didn't learn that until later, until I went to school for nutrition and realized that they don't talk about nature very much, but that was my introduction into nature. It was basically through health and through nutrition and foraging, eating foods not just to feel satiated, but to feel healthy and medicated in a good way, medicated by nature.


Cina: Oh, like that - medicated by nature. So, what kind of music were you doing? What took you traveling?


Adam: I was trained classically on many different instruments piano, trumpet and a baritone instrument called a euphonium. I played euphonium a lot. I played it in high school and at the university level as well. 


Cina: What sparked your interest in the euphonium? 


Adam: Um, kind of a funny story. I used to play trumpet, and I guess I was pretty good at trumpet, or at least people thought I was good at it. So, they put me as first trumpet, first chair, and I just buckled under the pressure. I didn't like playing solos. I didn't like being at the front of wherever you hear a first trumpet. There's a lot of solos involved with it and the audience can see you and hear you. And as a teenager, I was very uncomfortable with that. So, I thought, I could easily take these skills and play another baritone instrument. If you play one, you can play others. It's not easy to switch back and forth because of something called the armature, which is the way your lips touch the mouthpiece. But I decided to switch to euphonium because you're in the background a lot more and people don't notice you as much. And it's not like I recommend that for teenagers, to just stay in the background and hang out in the background, but I was an insecure teenager and so I wanted to switch to euphonium. Also, the competition was much less because there's a lot fewer euphonium players, and because I was already a good trumpet player. 


Cina: I think it would be interesting to explore music in nature, to go deep into the layers of vibrations that correlate with how people feel in the woods. Given the idea that everything is vibrating because our atoms are in constant motion, it makes sense that our bodies can pick up on, even if not consciously, vibrations from plants, just as they would from sounds of nature or instruments. 


Adam: Oh for sure. There are a lot of people doing research on that kind of stuff, and hooking up fancy electrodes to mushrooms and hearing the kind of music that they play. It sounds wonky, but fungi produce music as well. It's interesting because sometimes there's a lack of music in nature, or we perceive a lack of music in nature and we perceive silence. That's great too, because things can be quite noisy in the city or in the suburbs or at home. But going into nature can be like a rest from all of that. It's much quieter, much more subtle and there's music in that too, because music isn't just constant sound. There are gaps, even in the most beautiful pieces by Bach, Mozart, or Chopin. There are pauses here and there, and that's what brings it all together.


Cina: What started you on the path of wanting to teach? Was it just a progression in your learning process and you naturally wanted to share with others? Did you get into this with the intention of being a teacher?


Adam: It’s kind of interesting because when I was playing with a heavy metal band, I was in the background because I was the drummer, so I didn't get noticed as much. You're not the frontman and you're not at the front of the stage. Most people don't even know you're there. They can hear you, of course, and you do provide the foundation for the band, but you get overlooked a lot. When I switched to nutrition, when I was studying health again, the people that I gravitated towards, these teachers, these mentors, they were so enthusiastic and so infectious in their teaching. I knew instantly when I first saw them, “I want to do what they're doing.” 


It seems so impressive to talk about something like cinnamon or basil or green tea or raw cacao, and they were just so enthusiastic about it. That was the first time in my life that I remember seeing somebody doing something that I really wanted to do as well as seeing it as an adult. I thought, "I can see myself doing that."


I didn’t know how I'd be able to do it, but I knew I loved what they're doing. I loved what they were teaching, and I just wanted to do it. So, I just copied them. to the point where, even now, I think I'm copying them. I'm not going to tell you their names, but sometimes people comment on my videos and they're like, oh, you sound just like this person, or you sound just like that person. I'm like, yeah, I can't help it because they were so influential in my life. 


Isn't that how you start any craft? I mean, you start as an apprentice, you learn the techniques of your master, and then you move on and you find your own voice, your own style, whatever it is after that. You do that in art class, you study the masters, you copy them, and then you go on and figure out your own style. 


I recommend that for people who might be stuck in life or don't know what they want to do or what path they want to pursue - find inspiring people. Who do you gravitate towards? Who seems like a legit person who's doing the real thing, who's doing something not just for money, but because they absolutely love it and they want to do it. Mimic them. Do what they're doing. You'll never be able to get there, exactly. But you can approximate it, and it might lift you up and then send you forward.

Cina: Is nutrition what inspired you to start "Learn Your Land?" Was it just to learn the medicinals? Or, how did that come into being?


Adam: So, from nutrition, the people that I was studying were also foragers. That inspired me. I started learning about mushrooms. Fortunately, where I live, there's a huge mushroom club. I'm in a geographically strategic location. If I was in the middle of Iowa, or if I were in the middle of Texas or somewhere else, there might not be a club like the Western Pennsylvania Mushroom Club. They are so generous and have so many wonderful people that are willing to teach others. 


I thought, “I don't want to do this on my own. I don't think I can do it on my own. I have to find the people that are teaching this information. I have to find the community.” Nowadays, a lot of people just do it online. I think that's fine, but I don't think it's a perfect replica of what you can get with in-person teaching. I always recommend people try to find in-person communities.


As for "Learning Your Land," I remember walking through the woods with a camera, taking pictures, and thinking to myself, “I wish other people could be here experiencing this with me. I wish I could show people what I'm seeing right now.” I would take some very raw, crude footage of mushrooms and stuff and try to piece it together. It wasn't that good, but it started with that, me just wanting to share with other people what I was seeing. "Learn Your Land" is literally my number one goal in life, right now, to learn the land that I live on. So, the business is just my motto for life. 


My main goal for "Learn Your Land" isn't to make money, it's to learn the land and then teach what I have learned to other people so that they learn as well. That's how it got started and then it progressed, of course, to plants and trees and all this other stuff.


I always wanted to learn trees, though. I mean, that was one of the first things I wanted to learn. But there's not a tree club. So, I kind of had to piece things together from the mushroom club who were kind of talking about trees, and the Botanical Society, who occasionally mentioned trees. But I found that there was a gap in learning trees, and that's why I decided to focus on it for the past couple of years and put a course together on the trees.


Cina: I love what you said about not just having a business. You really want to inspire others to go out and learn and essentially better their own lives and their own pursuits. Do you remember your first foraging experience?


Adam: Yeah I do. I remember the first of a lot of these walks that I did, but it was a plant walk, and I believe it was in 2006. It was in the city of Pittsburgh of all places. This was so early on, I was so into heavy metal at the time, I was so into city living. I was finally independent because I moved out of my parent's house and feeling like, “This is what freedom really is.” 


I was also slowly getting into health and nutrition and there was a group on meetup.com. It was a raw food meetup group. So, I thought, "Okay, I'll start with raw food because raw food was big at the time." Now it's keto, before that it was paleo and primal, before that it was vegetarian, veganism and raw food. I went through all of those progressions.


In 2006, here in Pittsburgh, that movement was really, really big. And one of the hosted walks was a wild food foraging walk in the city. I'll never forget it because it basically made me start to recognize things that weren't just concrete or buildings or people or animals. I had never recognized plants or trees in the city. They just weren't a thing. I could not see them, at all. And here was this lady pointing out stuff. Even if I didn't remember what it was, at least I recognized it. And I just thought, “Wow, there's a plant growing out of that parking meter, and it's edible.” Of course, we didn't eat it because you never know what kind of stuff could accumulate around that parking meter. But not only was I amazed that the plant was edible, I was amazed that there was food in the city.


I was also amazed that plants could grow literally out of sidewalks. That opened up my eyes and it started to open up for me what people call “the wall of green.” I started seeing not just plants but that some of those things were edible, some of those things were medicinal, some of those things you wouldn't want to eat, some of those things you can't eat, but you can use them for other purposes. I’d see a tree over there and notice it was different from another tree. I didn’t know what the names were, but at least they started to look a little different to me. 


I didn't recognize all of this at the time. It wasn't conscious, but looking back on it, I can see that it really did open up my eyes and I'll forever be grateful for that. A walk like that was one of the most memorable experiences of my life, and it only lasted an hour and a half. But to this day, I'm still friends with the people that led that walk.

Cina: Amazing. Just a small shift in perception and suddenly your world opens. Which I'm guessing is what you offer to people in your courses. Do you do any exploration in the city and introduce people to trees in the city, or is it only out in the woods?


Adam: A lot of the trees in the course do grow in the city. We cover some invasive trees like Norway maple and Ailanthus or Tree of heaven, which grows in the city. But there are a lot of other native trees that grow in the city as well. I mean, in Pittsburgh, red maple is a very common street tree. Honey locust is a very common street tree. Box elder grows up through the railroad tracks. I did film a couple of those videos in the city limits and some of the city parks, but because it's so noisy, I don't like to capture all that excess noise and the excess footage of people walking through the shots. That's why I try to go into more wild settings. But I do mention when trees would be growing in a certain city environment or in a suburban environment. 


If a tree has been growing for quite some time in a city lot that people forgot about, they can get giant. We've got some city parks in Pittsburgh where there are trees over 100 years old. I know that's not old growth, but that's pretty good for being in the city. I mean, even if you go out to like Allegheny National Forest, which is not too far away from where I live, there are younger trees there than some of the trees that you will find in a city park. You never know what you'll find in the city. It's a good place to start. I learned a lot of plant identification just on walks to and from school.


Cina: Now that you’re eight years into your project, what else is on your radar? What are you inspired by? What do you want to add to your education offerings?


Adam: I'm broadening the way I perceive nature these days, and I'm incorporating more of that into my teaching. With the mushroom course, you just learn how to identify mushrooms and eat them. With the tree course, you're learning trees, but when you learn trees, you're kind of broadening your perspective of nature because trees tell you a whole lot about ecology. I personally believe that trees tell you much more than mushrooms will ever teach you. If mushrooms teach you something about land, it usually comes back to a plant association. If somebody finds, let's say, Russula mushrooms which are a genus of ectomycorrhizal fungi, they think there's probably a lot of oaks in the area. But if there's northern red oak, for example, if it's growing with northern red oak, then the area will be mesic which means moderate moisture, not too dry, not super wet. Northern red oak typically likes a mesic area or a mesic forest. But people don't make that connection just with the Russula mushroom. Even if they're not thinking about the tree, they're discovering the mesic nature of the area because of the tree association. I'm finding that the more that I learn about nature, the more that it comes back to trees because they're always there. They're perennial. They're very tall. So you see them. I mean, you could see them even while driving. With mushrooms, sometimes you can see them, but oftentimes you have to pull over in order to find a lot of fungi.


Trees are just great sentinels for clues that nature can reveal to you if you pay attention. Right now, I'm working on another online course on ecosystems, mostly in central and eastern North America. So again, I'm taking a step back.


I'm teaching people that it's not just important to be able to identify organisms, but to identify ecosystems as well because ecosystems are an entity in and of themselves. Just like we think of a tree as one entity, an ecosystem is an entity. A bog is its own entity. Of course, there are a lot of things that make up the bog, but there are a lot of things that make up a mushroom. There are a lot of things that make up a tree. There are a lot of things that make up you and me.

You're an ecosystem, you know? You're not just human, you're bacterial, your fungal, your viral. There's a lot of things on you and in you and it's a great thing. 


When we see things in nature, we tend to think it's just one individual thing. It makes more sense when we perceive an ecosystem and that many things comprise it. I've been finding more and more that I'm so excited to be able to read landscapes from like a 30,000 foot view and not so much like, “Well, what is this particular species of little moss that's growing over here, when did the name change, when was it first identified, how long are the little hairs on this leaf?” That stuff's interesting, but it’s for somebody else, right now. 


There aren't too many people teaching ecosystem-level education and why these things matter. If you're interested in finding a certain organism, if you want to find morel mushrooms, or if you want to find a specific orchid, or find cranberries, or highbush blueberries, you can learn which ecosystems they grow in and figure out where those ecosystems are. You can figure out what makes them unique. Like, why is a bog different than a fen? And why is a fen different than a swamp? And how is a swamp different than a marsh? And what do they all have in common?


I know that we like human definitions, that we like to apply categories to things, and there are some pretty clear-cut definitions between all of those. It's beautiful. It's really amazing. And it's something that I feel like is another hole in nature education online because everybody likes to talk about, you know, the plants, the mushrooms, the trees, foraging, birds, mammals, but they forget to tie it all together. They're all connected. Through this course, I'm trying to bring it all together and to teach it in a very entertaining yet educational way.


Cina: That's your next big online education. Will you continue to develop more courses from there, or will you just nurture the courses you’ve already put out? 


Adam: So, when I released the mushroom course, I said, “I'm never doing one again,” because it was so much work. But then I thought, "I want to do a tree course because I would have loved to have a tree course when I was learning this stuff. So, I did the tree course. I knew the work that was going to be involved, so it didn't catch me off guard. Although it was literally twice the amount of work as the first one, I was prepared for it, so it didn't burn me out. After doing that, I always told myself I would like to do three to have a trio of courses. This will be the third one. I don't have plans to do a fourth online course currently.


Cina: I get it. I've been in media production all of my career. O.k., I'm not going to keep you much longer, I just want to wrap up with your perspective on something I think about a lot - us, humans, as nature, not separate from nature. How do you think about and approach that idea?


Adam: I think about that question a lot as well. All you have to do is think about the language that people use and the language that I use often. It seems to place me separate from nature, even though I spend a lot of time out there. Even though people would think, “Oh, he definitely feels like he's one with nature, and he is nature,” I can tell you that many times when I'm talking, I'll say things like, “I'm going to go into nature.” If you are already it, why would you have to go there? How do we frame it? I wish I could tell you that I feel like, yes, we are all nature, but my language tells me otherwise. I think that's something I need to work on. I don't know where it went awry in the history of human civilization. I mean, there's many things that we can look back upon that seem to have split us apart from all of this.


I think it's why I tend to use the word land instead of nature because nature is very abstract and I don't think I am land. I interact with the land. I take care of the land. I teach people about land, but I tend to use the word land more than I use nature. It seems to be more concrete and it's something that I can actually picture in my head. I know when people picture nature, they have a place where they go to. But with land, I can feel it, I can smell it, I can touch it. It's there. That's why it's "Learn Your Land" and not "Learn Your Nature."


But as far as humans being nature or apart from nature, I don't know. I need to think about it. I just know that my language puts me separate from it for some reason. I don't know if that's something to work on or if that's something to understand. Maybe I am separate from it and it's something that I have to come to terms with. I don't fully believe that's true, but I wonder if it is.


Cina: Yes, that's exactly what I've been thinking about, the language that surrounds our connection, or lack thereof, to nature. We obviously impact our environments, like weather impacts the land, or just like weather impacts trees. I also am part of that impact. What are the ways in which I impact nature, which is essentially impacting me and my fellow humans? How am I a part of it? Do I need to make sure that I consider myself separate so that I'm more cognizant of my impact? If I just think I'm a part of it, then I'm like, “Well, my impact is just part of nature because I'm nature.” 


Adam: Yeah, it's interesting because I think a good question is, “How do we define nature?” Obviously, if you go into an old-growth forest, you're like, “Yeah, that's nature.” If you go into the mountains, that's nature. Even a suburban park with woods, you might be like, “Yeah, that's nature.” But what about the abandoned lot in the city of Pittsburgh that has a lot of plants coming up in the concrete, and that gets frequented by animals at night when people aren't around, and that one day could be reclaimed and turned back into an old growth forest if humans leave it alone for long enough? Is that nature, too? I think it is.


You wonder, is everything nature, or is nature something that's completely different from what is civilized? But if you look at ancient civilizations, they lived in what we would call nature, and that's a civilization. So is the city of Pittsburgh or Chicago nature as well? I don't know. I think it just comes down to how we perceive nature and how we define it. There are wild organisms everywhere. Even in the most extreme environments there are organisms called extremophiles, like bacteria and fungi that can exist in thermal vents or even in the polar ice caps. But even on bare concrete, there are bacteria. There could be some lichens that are starting to colonize that area, or some very hardy mosses that are gaining a foothold on there. That's wild. But nature, wilderness, land, I'm not sure if these are all the same thing. I’m not sure if we just use different words for the same thing, or if they are all separate things. I know I just tend to use the word land and think about nature as land first, rather than just nature.


Cina: What's the picture that pops up in your head when you hear the word nature?


Adam: The first thing that comes to mind is an old-growth forest, because we have one north of here called Cook Forest. It's one of my favorite spots to be in. The first time I was there was one of the most magical nature experiences I've ever had. So, I tend to think of nature as that. But what's been so interesting working on this ecosystems course, is that I'm realizing I'm falling in love with more open habitats now, ones that are treeless or have very few trees.


I was hanging out with one of my friends a couple of years ago, and I took him to Cook Forest. He's a forager and he commented that there wasn’t a lot of food there. I thought, “You're right. There's not a lot of plant diversity in an old-growth forest because it's so dark.” There were a lot of trees, a lot of wonderful trees, an amazing experience to be there, and there were a lot of mushrooms because they form symbiotic associations with the trees. But you start to see the most diversity at the edges of the forest where there's more sunlight, or where a tree falls down and more sunlight is hitting the forest floor. But if you go to a savanna, or a prairie, or if you go to a more open habitat like a meadow or a field, then you start to see a lot of plant diversity and a lot of edible plants.


So, from a foraging perspective, an old-growth forest really doesn't provide you that much in the form of calories. It can if it's like oak trees, hickory trees and chestnuts, but a conifer old-growth forest, maybe not so much. When I'm starting to picture ideal land, I'm starting to realize I'm falling in love with more open habitats where there's so many different wildflowers, so many different birds and insects and animals, and it's just more open. I'm not used to that because here in western Pennsylvania, most of our nature preserves are forested habitats. There's a push to make everything forested again. But I don't think that's always a good thing. There is beauty and there's necessity in open habitats as well. 


So, my picture of nature is starting to shift a bit because I'm working on this ecosystems course.


Cina: That's great commentary on how shifts of perspective and perception can come from learning. You can gain new appreciation. That’s our hope with Wild Arts Learning, that by helping young people, or anyone for that matter, see a little differently there will be new appreciation and therefore new care about what happens in the environment around them. When someone has a connection to something, they’re more likely to care for it. Let’s end with whether or not you've had any experiences with kids, what those have been and what your ideas are of getting kids connected to nature.


Adam: I used to teach a lot of kids when I was starting "Learn Your Land." I did a lot of in-person events while I was building the online courses. I just remember them having so much energy and you have to meet them at their energy and then go beyond it in order to hold their attention. If you don't, you're going to lose them instantly and they're not going to care, especially if you're talking about plants and mushrooms, because those things don't move. They want to see snakes. They want to see something moving, something that could probably hurt them. They want to touch those things. When it comes to plants and mushrooms, it's a little harder. You just have to have great stories about these things, not just tell them the facts, but tell them stories about how these things might apply to their lives.


If you want kids to spend time in nature, kind of like what I said earlier about the people that got me spending time in nature because they were so enthusiastic and I latched onto that enthusiasm, you have to do the same. It’s so contagious. Those are the people that need to be taking kids outside to inspire them. People that love it so much and aren’t just doing it for a job, but truly love being out there and love what they're doing. If we can get kids involved with people who absolutely love it out there and absolutely can't contain that kind of energy, the kids can't help but fall in love with nature as well. If you've not already, you've got to read that book, "Last Child in the Woods," by Richard Louv.


It's the most cliche thing to say, but they are the future. If kids don't appreciate nature, and they are our future, they won't care when some bill is being proposed to turn a forest into another parking lot. If they have no attachment to that area as being valuable for anything, not just for themselves, but for wildlife, they won’t care. Too often, we think, “Well, if I can't use it, or if a human can't use it, it's worthless, so we might as well develop it into something.” The premise of that book is basically that, if the kids don't understand or appreciate anything in the wilderness, what's going to stop them from saying, “Yeah, go ahead. We can develop it because it holds no value for me. It holds no value for anybody.” 


Of course, there will be some people who will have been raised in nature and that will fight on behalf of the wilderness, but there won't be many of them left if these kids aren't outside. There's so many opportunities for kids to get outside.


I like to put nature connection into many different hierarchies. First, there's experiencing which is just getting out there. Then there's noticing things. Then there's learning things, then integrating and then reciprocating.

If you're just being outside, you're experiencing nature. If you're just hiking through the woods, you're experiencing. But then, you can take it to another level while you're out there and notice some things. Notice the trees. Notice the plants. Notice the colors. Notice the birdsong. And then you can start to learn who's singing that song. What tree is that? Why is it changing to this color? What ecosystem am I in? Then, you can integrate yourself into the ecology, meaning you have an influence on it. Now that's very intentional. You can plant things. You can pull things that you might perceive as not being valuable to that ecosystem. You can forage, you can hunt, you can fish. And then, the last stage is reciprocating, which is giving back for all that you've been given from the land. 


Cina: Absolutely! And we're one of those organizations, doing those things through the “nature-based arts” connection. But I've also been grappling with the ethics of how do we do those things while also being mindful that we're not entitled to just use nature for our own purposes simply because we want to. I mean, with food, we can talk about the cycle of life. But when you're in the arts, there’s more responsibility to understand what it means to use nature simply for our own, personal, creative expressions. We have to really think through that reciprocity piece. 


Adam: Yeah, that's interesting when you talk about using things. It can start in your yard. I mean, if you have space, you could plant and grow the things that you want to “use.” If you want to eat milkweed and you're worried about the monarch butterflies, plant a lot of milkweed and then harvest something that you're growing, knowing that they're going to send up runners and you're going to have more milkweed. You're going to plant more milkweed. If there are certain things that you want to use for dyes, see if you can grow some of those plants so you're not stripping it from maybe a nature preserve where it's illegal. Also, in some places, you don't want to do it even if you are allowed. I don't think a completely hands-off approach works where you just walk through nature and treat it like a museum. But I don't think the other extreme is useful either, where you take everything and it's all free and it could all be yours. We see where that has led us in human history. There definitely is a balance. Teaching kids young about that balance and about the questions we should all have is important, and that there are no easy answers. I think it's valuable to bring up that conversation earlier rather than later.


Cina: Yeah, sparking that curiosity that inspires them to wonder about these things, teaching them to be critical thinkers, it’s so important. Okay, I keep saying I'm going to let you go, so I'm really going to let you go. Adam, thank you so much for this time. I really appreciate and enjoyed this conversation.


Adam: You're welcome. It was great chatting with you. Let me know if you need anything from me.


Cina: I look forward to getting people connected to all of your courses!


 

To learn more from Adam and find all of his courses, visit learnyourland.com.


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