Environmental Humanities and Ecosemiotics


My new edited collection, Re-Imagining Nature: Environmental Humanities and Ecosemiotics, is now out in print from Bucknell University Press. Thanks to all the great contributors and to many others behind the scenes who made this ensemble effort possible. Below are the opening pages from the Introduction, beginning with the epigraphs (photo courtesy of Katie Faull)

Song, Tree, and Spring: Environmental Meaning and Environmental Humanities

This universe is perfused with signs.

—-Charles Saunders Peirce

Language is everything, since it is the voice of no one, since it is the very voice of the things, the waves, and the forests.

—Paul Valéry, glossed by Maurice Merleau-Ponty

The countless Umwelts [meaningful environments] represent the keyboard upon which nature plays its symphony of meaning . . . not constrained by space and time. In our lifetime and in our Umwelt we are given the task of constructing a key in nature’s keyboard, over which an invisible hand glides.

—Jakob von Uexküll

All living things are critics . . . living organisms interpret many of the signs about them [but] the experimental, speculative technique made available by speech would seem to single out the human species as the only one possessing an equip- ment for going beyond the criticism of experience to a criticism of criticism.

—Kenneth Burke

The body proper embraces a philosophy of the flesh as the visibility of the invisible . . . a lexicon of corporeality . . . a system of equivalences between the inside and the outside which prescribes from one to the other its fulfillment . . . the human body as a natural symbolism.

—Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Tadodaho Sid Hill, spiritual leader of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy, shocked a group of Euroamerican academics recently when he diagnosed for them the root of U.S. environmental problems with one short phrase: “The separation of church and state.”1

He told us this in the traditional wood-raftered longhouse of the Six Nations in the Onondaga Nation’s lands in upstate New York. The structure melds cosmic and social meaning in traditions stretching back to before the arrival of European set- tlers. A white pine on its grounds evokes the ancient Tree of Peace nearby at Lake Onondaga, “real symbol” of an interconnected life that should include care for the “seventh generation” yet to come. A lacrosse field visible through the windows calls to mind “medicine” aspects of that sport in Haudenosaunee traditions of the earth across generations.

As Tadodaho of the Iroquois, Hill’s spiritual role in the Haudenosaunee Confed- eracy very roughly parallels that of the Dalai Lama in Tibetan Buddhism. In keeping with that office, at the start of our meeting, he had recited to us from the Iroquois “thanksgiving address,” the traditional opening to seasonal ceremonies of song and dance or other gatherings. It is called in Native languages the ohen:ton karihwatehk- wen, or “the words that come before all else,” a name with a meaning of cosmological performance, reminiscent in some ways of the biblical “In the beginning was the Word.” Indeed, environmental meaning of both Native and biblical traditions will be explored in sections of this collection. The ohen:ton karihwatehkwen recited by the Tadodaho, in translation, includes these verses:

We give thanks to all the Waters of the world for quenching our thirst and providing us with strength. Water is life. We know its power in many forms—waterfalls and rain, mists and streams, rivers and oceans. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to the spirit of Water. . . .

We now turn our thoughts to the Trees. The Earth has many families of Trees who have their own instructions and uses. Some provide us with shelter and shade, others with fruit, beauty, and other useful things. Many peoples of the world use a Tree as a symbol of peace and strength. With one mind, we greet and thank the Tree life. . . .

We put our minds together as one and thank all the Birds who move and fly about over our heads. The Creator gave them beautiful songs. Each day they remind us to enjoy and appreciate life. The Eagle was chosen to be their leader. To all the Birds—from the smallest to the largest—we send our joyful greetings and thanks. . . .

Now we turn our thoughts to the Creator, or Great Spirit, and send greetings and thanks for all the gifts of Creation. Everything we need to live a good life is here on this Mother Earth. For all the love that is still around us, we gather our minds together as one and send our choicest words of greetings and thanks to the Creator. . . .2

He followed that recitation by telling us of his people’s efforts to clean up Onondaga Lake, famed from the “Hiawatha” tradition. Now no longer Indian territory but a toxic Superfund site, the lake according to tradition witnessed on its banks long ago the birth of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, a prototype for the U.S. Constitution’s federal system of separation of powers and checks-and-balances.3 He described his people’s current legal efforts to reclaim the lake and other areas in upstate New York for ecological restoration.

Then he summarized American environmental problems with that phrase, “separation of church and state.” He explained this as a problem in terms of the absence of a communal, intergenerational sense of ecology as meaningful; that is, a lack of integrating communication and personal relationships with the environment through shared stories and ritual. But his wording partly recalled Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Romantic vision of an English “clerisy,” an integrated network of educators, writers, and spiritual teachers, sustaining a culture of the English land across generations.4 That vision, too, by the author of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, was in many ways about meaningful landscape.

Nor is the Tadodaho alone today in his concern about the lack of transmission of meaningful narrative traditions of nature in the world. The concern ranges across secular and religious thinkers in the environmental humanities. The award-winning American writer Walker Percy spoke in his famous Jefferson Lecture of the “San Andreas fault in the modern mind,” the chasm between matter and meaning that threatens to swallow global consumer culture.5 The Greek scholar Christos Yannaras has articulated theologically how modern West societies separate metaphysical mean- ing from existential function, thus undermining the sense of the meaningfulness of everyday life needed for an environmentally sustainable culture.6 Ecosemiotician Timo Maran points out (in this collection) how finding such meaning involves contextualization, which draws on recursive symbolic memory to integrate with one’s environment. The agrarian American essayist Wendell Berry describes how separating economy from ecology in modern American life brings a loss of personal meaning.7 Michael Schellenberger and Ted Nordhaus gesture to the problem as well in their famous Death of Environmentalism polemic: “environmentalists need to tap into the creative worlds of myth-making, even religion, not to better sell narrow and technical policy proposals, but rather to figure out who we are and who we need to be.”8 And the biosemiotics scholar Wendy Wheeler similarly points up how ignoring the “immaterial” or communicative side of nature fosters environmental dysfunction on a global scale.9

This collection shows how burgeoning fields of environmental humanities, and in particular ecosemiotics, can address such concerns from a spectrum of secular disciplinary backgrounds, along with indigenous traditions. The Tadodaho’s words challenge an emphasis on materialistic quantitative systems and policy in conven- tional Western environmental studies. Yet they don’t lay claim to any romanticized and anachronistic role of Native Americans as age-old environmentalists, keepers of a lost “enchanted” nature.10 Instead, his comments suggest how purely materialistic approaches to nature miss the crucial “immaterial” essence of life as communica- tion and meaning-making, which is highlighted today by a range of disciplines, including environmental phenomenology and semiotics. Rather than a nostalgic desire for “re-enchantment,” his is more an embodied “radical hope,” adapted to drastic environmental and cultural change, as found by philosopher Jonathan Lear in the history of the Crow Nation’s encounter with modern life on the Northern Plains. This involves nurturing an inner meaningfulness to life, in a community that preserves personal relationships amid life’s continual dynamic changes, in the face of oppressive environmental materialism.11


The Tadodaho’s message suggests a crucial potential role for environmental humani- ties in the academy today: Highlighting alternative epistemologies to point up what philosopher Bruce Foltz calls the “other side” of nature, or its fundamental subjectiv- ity.12 The Anthropocene era in Western environmental studies progresses now from “deep ecology” to a “dark ecology” that embraces the entwinement of nature and culture.13 But environmental studies still often do not deeply engage the ecological wisdom of non-modern cultures and “immaterial” epistemologies. Even as they may romanticize earlier ecological traditions, moderns in a practical way tend to dismiss them for primitively destroying their environments, yet engage in denial about the immensely larger global scale of environmental destruction today by supposedly more sophisticated technocracies.

Ironically environmentalists often seek antidotes based on technologically cen- tered assumptions. But such assumptions can support the very technological mindset that still fosters the root problem: An objectifying division of “culture” and “nature,” “economy” and “ecology,” “meaning” and “function.” Even environmental sciences still draw on systems-centered approaches and conceptualized models. These cannot value the immateriality of experiential communications and relationships. In doing so, the sciences continue to marginalize fields in the humanities that could offer alternative epistemologies to address those binaries, but which instead often remain lost in self-designed obscurity, when not seemingly consigned to the role of what Walker Percy called minstrels to tired scientists at day’s end.

Tadodaho Hill’s words instead inspire the purpose of this collection, which is at once both epistemological and poetic. Re-Imagining Nature seeks to illustrate, through a showcase of varied disciplines in the environmental humanities engag- ing marginalized traditions, how humans realize life as ecological creatures through overlapping bubbles of meaningful physical environments. Addressing the often un-examined relationship of environmental sustainability to meaningfully daily life, this collection coins a term for such regions of overlapping human and natural meaningfulness: ecosemiosphere. An ecosemiosphere literally means an ecologicial bubble of meaning (borrowing the term “semiosphere” from semiotics). It involves not a “re-enchantment” of nature, but recognition of nature as a meld of physical and cultural communication, which can be considered spiritual as well as material.

Examples include the Eastern Woodlands of the Iroquois, and the North Woods and prairie savannah of the Ojibway around the Great Lakes. Surviving only in degraded ecological remnants, and under severe cultural pressure, such ecosemiospheres none- theless remain powerful cultural homes, which help to inspire ecological restoration efforts today. By means of such ecologically entwined bubbles of meaning, semio- spheres closely entwined in ecological regions, we as humans can realize our societies as ecological communities.

This collection highlights such narrative and poetic ecosemiospheres, from Middle Eastern deserts to the western islands and northern forests of Europe, ex- ploring the cosmology of Genesis applied to the early Christians Mediterranean oikoumene and the ocean archipelago of early medieval Ireland. It includes studies of Indian landscape tradition on the Great Plains of North America, in Alaska, and north from the Boundary Waters in contemporary Native American literature; and of Latin American cultural borderlands interacting with European conquest in semi- permeable membranes of environmental meaning. In all these varied treks through the environmental humanities, it was the pioneering Estonian biosemiotician Jakob von Uexküll who left the cryptic theoretical signposts (a bit like the fictional Arne Saknussemm in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth) with his mixed meta- phors for ecological life of soap bubbles and musical symphony.

For von Uexküll, each organism lives in a meaningful environment or Umwelt. He used the example of the way in which a tick interprets its environment through the lens of zeroing in on its prey, in an organism-surrounding environment of meaning that he compared to a soap bubble. For a flower and a bird, or a spider and a fly, their overlapping Umwelts form duets, establishing identities in relationship. The spider spins a web in such a way that a fly cannot perceive it, and thus lives fly-like, while the fly becomes spider-like in being able to be caught within it. Life for von Uexküll thus also becomes an incredibly complicated musical “symphony,” of overlapping and semipermeable Umwelts, as detailed in his poetic manifesto in 1934, recently translated into English as part of the resurgence of interest in his work, A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans, with a Theory of Meaning.14 For von Uexküll, the meaningfulness of this symphony of Umwelts involves a pattern beyond any reduc- tionist sense of natural selection. It anticipates the arguments of atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel for an ecologically centered sense of intelligent design.15

Today’s emerging field of ecosemiotics focuses on the engagement of culture and nature through signs. It seeks to describe how von Uexküll’s interface of bubbles and symphony includes human narratives, engaging with non-human worlds of meaning in ecopoetics. Timo Maran defines that confluence as a “nature-text,” a process that will be discussed below and in his contribution to the collection.16 The “nature-text” exemplifies how human narratives, and landscape-narratives or landscape-texts, can become in a region the type of musical symphony that von Uexküll describes. For ex- ample, a garden becomes for Maran a physically expressed type of nature-text, which inter-weaves human symbolism, physical environment, and cultural narratives. “The gardener’s activities inevitably influence and shape the entire semiotic community in the garden,” he writes. “At the same time, the garden becomes an important part of the gardener’s Umwelt and any changes there also influence the person’s percep- tual and operational relations and sense of self. Therefore, gardening may offer the possibility for the person to become semiotically rooted into the surrounding envi- ronment and semiosphere.”17 The discussions of meaningful landscapes in various cultures in this volume will highlight similar dynamic and adaptive “symphonies” of meaningful communication, which interweave culture and nature in landscape.

The bubble-symphony of Maran’s ecosemiotic garden parallels the formula for identity as relationship developed by von Uexküll’s contemporary neighbor, the Russian polymath and religious martyr Pavel Florensky. Florensky’s work emerged in the milieu of pre-revolutionary Russian Silver Age philosophy, which not coinci- dentally included naturalists who, like von Uexküll from the Russian Baltic, found in marshes, forests, and beehives an organic unity spanning earth and cosmos.18 Florensky’s work in theology also helped inspire the Moscow School of Mathematics, which in its exploration of set theory would help lay the groundwork for string theory and multiverse theories in physics, which relate to the ecosemiotic perception of nature as composed of information-energy rather than atomistic matter.19

In his 1914 masterwork on theodicy and cosmic philosophy, The Pillar and the Ground of Truth, 20 Florensky summed up a law of deep identity in his formula A=Not- A, which is similar to von Uexküll’s biological notion of defining identity in rela- tionship. Although earlier German idealism had influenced Florensky’s philosophical theology, as it had von Uexküll’s biology, his explication drew on pre-modern Eastern Christian theology of the Incarnation and traditions of agrarian community. Explicating his formula of deep identity, Florensky argued that we realize ourselves in our engagement with another. That relationship itself becomes the crucial “third element” in his formula of cosmic community, beside I and Thou. Similarly, a contemporary Iroquois elder teaches, “I am you, and you are me.”21

The sense of an identity as realized environmentally in communication explains the other primary source for ecosemiotics, in the work of the American Pragmatist Charles Peirce. Peirce’s nineteenth-century system of semiotics argued that thought semiotically manifests self environmentally: “When we think, then, we our selves, as we are at that moment, appear as a sign.” For Peirce, any conclusion we have from the connection between a sign or feeling about the environment becomes “a phenomenal manifestation of ourselves . . . just as a rainbow is at once a manifestation both of the sun and of the rain”: in short, a nature-text.22 For Peirce and subsequently for ecose- miotics, the self is the sign relation, as our feeling in experience of life lacks meaning unless interpreted as sign of an object.23 Ultimately identity is environmental. Yet it is also immaterial, semiotic. And some nature-texts express this communicative side of the environment more than others in relation to physical region. In the terminology of this collection, they become ecosemiospheres, or regional landscapes of cultures interacting with nature. The essays that follow include a variety of different examples of ecosemiospheres, and varied disciplinary approaches to them.


The insight that we live, move, and die as humans in ecosemiospheres forms the heart of the developing new field of ecosemiotics. It also provides a theoretical model for interdisciplinary work in environmental humanities surveyed by this collection, represented in this volume by essays on philosophy, literature, culture, history, and animal studies. This model defines life itself as information exchange and communi- cation. They form that “immaterial” “other side of nature,” which ultimately cannot be reduced through objectification. The rediscovery of this “other side” of nature in the modern West parallels the new definition in physics of the building blocks of life as energy-information.24 That paradigm shift challenges nineteenth-century sociobiological models, and lends support to the subjective turn of the environ- mental humanities now informed by ecosemiotics. The latter trend has emerged interdisciplinarily in the decades since Peirce and von Uexküll’s work, from diverse thinkers such as cybernetician Gregory Bateson; philosophers Erazim Kohák, Edward Casey, Bruce Foltz, Thomas Nagel, and Evan Thompson; ecocritics Lawrence Buell and Louise Westling; theological writers John Chryssavgis, Ellen Davis, and John Zizoulas; social anthropologist Tim Ingold; biologist Lynn Margulis; medievalist Jeffrey Cohen; and biosemioticians and ecosemioticians Jesper Hoffmeyer, Kalevi Küll, Timo Maran, Winfried Nöth, and Wendy Wheeler; among many others. Relevant works surveying this trend can be found in the suggested readings section at the end of this volume. This emerging body of work has built bridges from the late twentieth century to the present, and between postmodern and non-modern cultural perspectives on nature, as illustrated in this collection’s three sections of essays, on ecosemiotic theory, pre-modern European cultures, and Native American traditions. This volume’s cross-cultural sampling also illustrates the promise of the environmental humanities for overcoming ethnocentric bias in environmental stud- ies. For example, the Anglophone New Atheism movement’s technological solutions to global environmental crisis—including space colonization and “the singularity” as a type of high-tech individual immortality—suggest the cultural and economic limi- tations of lingering Eurocentric bias in scientific responses to environmental crises.25

This collection’s interdisciplinary examination of the environmental humanities grew from intensive “focus years” of visiting lecturers at Bucknell University, in 2006-2007 and 2008-2009, inaugurating an organized program of interdisciplin- ary projects in environmental humanities at Bucknell’s Environmental Center (now the Center’s Place Studies Initiative), as well as in the collection editor’s 2009 sabbatical trip to Estonia with support from Bucknell, and a 2010–2011 Scadden Research Fellowship, together with the environmental humanities focus of the Luce Foundation-sponsored “Bucknell on the Susquehanna” program in 2011 with my colleague Katherine Faull, a special panel on ecosemiotics at the summer 2011 As- sociation for the Study of Literature and the Environment conference organized by

Louise Westling, and the “ecologies” roundtable at the 2012 International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo, organized by Jeffrey Cohen, a contributor to this volume. The resulting articles highlight the confluence, in environmental humanities, of non-modern traditions with postmodern emphases on intersubjectivity, all explor- ing the immaterial “other side” of nature in epistemologies that together suggest a powerful alternative to conventional environmental studies.


The collection also emerges at a time of growing recognition of ecosemiotics as an approach to environmental studies and practice. Ecosemiotics in focusing on information-exchange connects secular environmental humanities with traditional spiritual practices and with the sciences, beyond closed input-output ecological models. It describes how humans live “in” their thoughts, in the sense of thoughts that are signs and are environmental, rather than “having” thoughts in the sense of modern capitalist anthropology. As C.S. Lewis said of reading Symbolist texts, our subjectivity thus itself becomes metaphoric of our physical and spiritual ecologies: “We are the allegory.”26

The opening essays in the collection explain ecosemiotics as a field of study ex- amining the intersection of the “natural world” and human culture on “immaterial” levels of information exchange. The remainder of the essays explore the interdis- ciplinary effects of this intersection, and examine exchanges of meaning through symbolism between human communities and physical environments in landscape, viewed by different humanities disciplines concerned with environmental studies. Together, these writings exemplify an ongoing interdisciplinary re-imagination of ecology (and hence of nature), back to the Greek roots of the term as the λογι′α of οι′κος, or “the story of home,” an alternative meaning beyond its usual etymological definition as “study of the house.”

Ecosemiotics grew from roots in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Ameri- can Pragmatism and biological studies in Europe’s eastern Baltic region. Its godfathers were Peirce and von Uexküll. But Native American cultural values indirectly helped to shape Peirce’s Pragmatism, in tandem with both biblical traditions and science.27 Von Ueküll’s science (and that of later Estonian and Danish scholars who picked it up) reflected in part the experience of small-scale Baltic folk cultures with centuries-old symbiotic landscapes.28 From von Uexküll’s work, later generations of scholars, especially at the University of Tartu (where biologist Kalevi Kull heads its famous semiotics program), and also at Copenhagen University, developed the notion of a semiosphere as a larger “bubble of meaning,” encompassing multiple Umwelts. This made possible examination of the relation between Umwelts and hu- man culture, through Maran’s model of the nature-text, which encompasses a landscape of four contexts: Environment, Text-Sign, Author, Reader. When entwined with a physical region and a cultural community of place, a nature-text becomes an ecosemiosphere. Particular ecosemiospheres highlighted in this volume include the landscape of Estonian wooded meadows, constituted by interactions of village communities and physical environments across centuries, and the imaginary “Oth- erworld” or “green world” of Celtic and English landscape traditions in the British Isles. The nature-text model thus adds immaterial layers and contexts of information and meaning to landscape studies.

That emphasis on meaningfulness also addresses long-simmering dissatisfaction in Anglophone environmentalism with a too dogmatic emphasis on random struggle in approaches to nature, based in Darwinist and Neo-Darwinist science. Thinkers such as Gregory Bateson and Lynn Margulis have advocated for a more symbiotic empha- sis in ecological philosophy and activism, forming a basis for environmental humanities. Bateson in the formative days of environmentalism cited the need for shifting the West’s scientific paradigm away from a sense of the organism struggling against its environment, to one of the “organism plus environment,” with relationships of meaning-making as basic “unit of survival” rather than the individual. To Bateson, too much focus by Darwin’s followers on adaptation as “fitness” of the individual organism unintentionally had helped to justify widespread modern environmental destruction. “The impact of every simplified biological or social dogma upon our society has contained the seeds of disaster—natural selection, economic determinism, territorial imperative, laissez faire, autocracy, democracy, individualism, oper- ant conditioning, Lamarckian inheritance, the racial and genetic determination of character, and so on—every major theme of the life sciences proposes a path towards nightmares,” he wrote.29 Margulis, in award-winning work on symbiogenesis, highlighted how symbiosis, fusion, and merger effect new complexities in life forms. She also supported the Gaia hypothesis, which views earth itself as a process of ecopoiesis beyond organismic autopoiesis, in the ultimate ecosemiosphere.30 Similarly, social anthropologist Tim Ingold, whose work engages ecosemiotics, more recently has called for synthesizing developmental biology and ecological psychology with an anthropological sense of nature as performative and reciprocal practice, into a “single focus of inquiry [on] the living organism-person in its environment.”31 And Thomas Nagel, as noted, has from a perspective of atheist philosophy raised the prospect of an ecologically centered idea of intelligent design.

This emphasis on meaningfulness in environmental humanities today also offers a potential resolution fora conflict in postmodern environmental thinking between transcendent and immanent approaches to nature. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari famously criticized Western science, deriving from the nineteenth century, as too transcendently oriented toward vertical classifications, or what they termed “arboreal” or tree-like views of life, reflecting the colonialist backgrounds of scientists. This criticism extended to a focus on vertical rather than lateral gene transfers in Darwin’s metaphor of the “tree of life.”32 Concern today in the environmental

humanities with definitions of life as information exchange, and with meaningful landscape, evident in essays in this collection, approximate in many ways what Deleuze and Guattari praised as a rhizomic or weed-like image of nature. Peirce’s Pragmatism, with its Native American connections, and von Uexküll’s ecological field studies, express more the Deleuzean idea of immanent “minor science” than transcendent “royal science” of past eras. Yet, ecosemiotics also relates to the image of the cosmic tree found in many traditional cultures like the Haudenosaunee’s, which symbolizes ecological connections between many different worlds of mean- ing, and the interaction of web-like communicative “harmonies” (von Uexküll’s symphony) overflowing as if in sacred waters often associated with such mythic trees. An ecosemiotic outlook thus potentially can meld aspects of rhizomic and arboreal perspectives on life, the immanent and the transcendent, the biological and what Wheeler calls “immaterial” meaning-making or the communicative “sparkle” of Creation in theological terms.33

Meanwhile, however, the emergence of global cyberspace as a network of con- sumer semiospheres pushes alternative traditions of nature further away from memory and the Earth today. It creates what cyber-scholar Paul Edwards has called an expanding “closed system” of culture, which he contrasts with traditional “green worlds.”34 Yet Tadodaho Hill argues passionately for the urgent relevance of non- modern intersections of cosmic music, trees, and sacred waters in Haudenosaunee tradition, found also in early biblical interpretations discussed in this volume’s first essay. He argues that human society today desperately needs richly layered and shared realities of meaningful communion with nature to move toward shared action on the environment. The lived Haudenosaunee metaphor of harmonies in the cosmic tree, watering the earth, indeed has afforded a helpful focus for re- imagining the environmental function of storytelling in the overlapping regions of the old Eastern American Woodlands known historically as Iroquoia and the Susquehanna Country. This is seen in the work of scholars interpreting the newly designated Susquehanna national corridor of the Chesapeake historic water trail system, including Bucknell University’s Stories of the Susquehanna Valley project. Ecosemiotic theory provided the basic model for that effort, inspiring work that contributed to National Park Service designation of the Susquehanna corridor, and an assembly of partnered academic institutions. These projects involve reimagining the watershed as an ecosemiosphere, in tandem with ecological restoration efforts there.

This collection as a whole seeks to extend that process. It moves from ecosemiotic theory engaged with environmental humanities (including related work in animal studies) to interdisciplinary case studies of meaningful landscapes as environmental narratives in medieval and Native American cultures. First, though, the remainder of this introduction will offer a basic explanation of ecosemiotics through shorter examples, while further contextualizing its roots in indigenous, pre-modern, and Romantic approaches to the nature-human relationship.


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