Thursday, October 25, 2007

Climbing the Bird Cliffs

Hornbjarg, climbers on the cliffs



Sunday Paper of the Althydublad (newspaper). August 15, 1937

A Day on the Birdcliff


Dagleid á fjallinu
By Áskell Löve

The following article about the harvesting of birds’ eggs during the spring at Hornbjarg (northwestern Iceland) won the Golden Pen Award at Reykjavík College this spring. The Fund of the Golden Pen was established by contributions from those who graduated from the "Learned School" of Reykjavík in 1896 and survived to the present at the 25 year jubilee of these students in June of 1921. The prize, 200 Icelandic krónur and a ‘golden pen’, is awarded for the best essay about a self-selected subject or a short story written by a pupil of the senior class of Reykjavík College (Mentaskólinn). The judges are the main teacher of Icelandic, the main professor of Icelandic literature at the University of Iceland and those surviving or the offspring of the original founders, chosen each year by the Rector of the College. Áskell Löve graduated this spring (1937).



HORNSTRANDIR IN THE SPRING
The most beautiful portion of the country at the most beautiful time of the year. Farthest north on the Hornstrandir, the king of the mountains, Hornbjarg, towers above all the neighboring peaks and reigns over the seabirds who intend to lay their eggs and hatch them there if nothing untoward happens to them. But then disaster strikes for some of them because of people from Hornstrandir descend onto the shelves of the bird cliff, suspended just like giant spiders by endlessly long ropes. And these giant Hornstrandir spiders rob the birds of their eggs, take them away and return up again without the slightest thought to the grieving mothers and fathers left behind. – But, let us instead look at the same enterprise from the point of view of the people descending from the edge of the bird cliff.


The Preparations

It is usually at the end of May when the "sig", the descent by means of ropes, begins. The last half month people have occasionally gone up to the birdcliff to "check up on the egg-laying." At last the descent can start on a sunny Monday, or is it perhaps on a dull Saturday with hardly any win? The people ascent the mountain very early in the morning, carrying chests and a rope [festi], a sling [auga], a bag [hvippa], gloves and food hampers, a wheel to be secured to the edge [brundahjól] and steel helmets. All are dressed in thick clothes because it is often cold and windy on the mountain in the spring.

Up on the edge with a wide view both to the east and to the west, but perhaps a fog bank in t he south and some icebergs to the north, the gear for securing the rope is made ready and the sling carefully inspected for the last time. The food hampers and the chests are stowed away under a boulder in a hollow and the wheel for the rope to run over is secured to the man seated at the very edge of the cliff with all the others in a row behind him. The man who will descend puts on the bag, secures the rope carefully to the sling, dons his helmet, grabs his hook and steps in front of the men on the edge, the "brúnamenn." Another man climbs out onto the nearest projecting spit to be "on watch." He is called the "gaegjamaður" [the look-out]. Then the descent can start.


The Descent

The descent starts by that the man going down takes a first step over the edge, but there he stops, removes his helmet, says a prayer and crosses himself. Some of the men on the edge also cross themselves and the rest stop talking, because now they stand face to face with the reality of acute danger for the first time this spring – perhaps even for the last time. Who knows? On the mountain only some small thing needs to go wrong in order that somebody shall come home torn to pieces or not return at all but continue to hang until doomsday on a projecting cliff deep down below. That is far from impossible. While the prayers are being said, we shall briefly look at the equipment and the tools used for the descent.

The man descending must first put on the bag [hvippa], which is a garment made of sackcloth. It is wide and tied around the waist so that it does not bulge up and is open in front so that it can be filled with eggs, because that is its purpose. It usually holds about two hundred eggs. Then he steps into the sling [auga], which is a kind of shorts made of braided material like that used for the trawler bags and lined with wool (Editorial comment: a breeches buoy, perhaps?). He is securely fastened to the sling which in turn is attached to the rope [festi]. The latter usually consists of a tarred dual strand cable, about an inch thick, and most frequently 80 to 100 but occasionally up to 120 fathoms [ca. 750 feet long), which is the farthest a descent can reach. Previously the ropes were much shorter and made of strips of the skin of oxen, which were stretched very long and braided side by side. Now the rope is coiled behind the man farthest back on the edge. There are usually ten men to a rope and it runs through the hands of all of them and over the wheel on the edge, which prevents it from being torn and makes pulling it easier. It ends, as stated above, in the sling into which the man descending has climbed.

Now, after finishing his prayer – it is the "Lord’s Prayer" and maybe some words in addition – he again dons his helmet, which can be one from the English army but sometimes is a German steel helmet, rather clumsy. But it protects the head and shoulders of the man descending from being hit by the small pieces of rock which frequently rain down over him from the cliffs. Then he takes his hook, which looks like the kind for catching fish off a line and is about 3 feet long (one meter), but here it is used to pick out and flign away any loose material in the rock on the way down. Otherwise the rope could lodge around it and throw it down on the man descending later on. Now the rope runs slowly but securely on its way and the man disappears gradually below the edge. The descent has started in earnest.

The Way Down

The look-out checks now that the man descending runs slowly down the steep cliff and kicks himself away from it on his way down, holding his hook by the left hand hile with the right hand he picks eggs off small sills as he passes them. Occasionally he stops to remove loose stones and throw them out of his way. Far down the slope they may hit a sill, bounce up, but fall back with a splash into the sea. The birds roosting farthest down fly up in fright. But the man descending continues on.

Some 30 fathoms (180 ft) below the edge there is a red, very narrow shelf with innumerable birds sitting in a row on it. There the man descending intends to stop. Just as he reaches the row of birds, one of them discovers the monster approaching from above, turns around in a hurry and throws itself out from the shelf with all the other birds following suit, one more frightened than the other. Here and there, some of them tear their eggs along with them in their hurry to get away.

When the man descending comse down onto the shelf, he shouts "stop" at the top of his lungs. The look-out echoes it automatically. The men on the edge take a firm hold on the rope and stop feeding it, but a moment later they feel a slight but distinct tug in the rope. That is a sign from the man below demanding more slack in the rope. The look-out repeats: "Give slack!"

The man down below drags the rope down as far as he can reach with his hands, reaches up for more over and over again until he has enough of it, and then he coils it around the arm farthest from the cliff in order that small tugs won’t throw him off unexpectedly. Then he walks half bent along the shelf and collects egg after egg into large heaps, because that is more practical than picking them up one by one.

The View from the Mountain

Well, at last we can take time to look around ourselves, because the gathering of the eggs will last quite a while. As long as it is going on, everyone does not need to hold on to the rope but some can walk up to the next peak and ake a quick glance over the landscape.

The place from which the descent takes place in this case, is on the eastern part of Hornbjarg, where it slopes in three directions: in toward Innstadal at Hornvík, eastward toward Látravík and out over the edge of the birdcliff. In many places there is a considerable distance of sloping ground down to the very rim of the cliff.

The edge is very uneven; clefts and projecting ridges alternate in addition to small spits which disappear in the grass. When seen from above, they often project somewhat out beyond the rim. All of the slope as well as the edge of the cliff are covered by tussocks of thick grass, nourished by bird droppings.

The mountain itself is here about 300 meters (ca. 980 ft) high above sea level but just a little to the north it reaches an altitude of 500 meters (ca. 1650 ft), even 534 meters (1750 ft) at the highest of the three Kálfatindar peaks. The birds lay their eggs all the way to the uppermost peak; every sill is full of seabirds of all kinds, which make noise and squawk, one louder than the other; it is not a pleasant song. If you look over the edge, it seems that the cliff leads almost straight down to the sea. But here and there large avalanches have cut the faces of the cliff and it is evident that the cliff-belts are separated by the red sills and broad grassy ledges so that the total slope of the mountainside amounts to some 50-60 degrees.

In many places the grass has slid off these sills and that is where the red interfaces of the mountain are the broadest. The rock of these red tiers consists of burnt basalt or basaltic ash. The people of Hornstrandir call this "kólor" {from English "color"?). The sites where the grass has disappeared from the colored shelves are named "svaða" [slippery spots] because these are very slippery parts to cross over. Where there has not been an avalanche recently, there are lichens beautifully adorning the cliff walls, especially flat species belonging to the Gyrophorae group. In hollows and cracks thick moss, grass and scurvywort, and antiscorbutic herb (Cochleariopsis maritima) grow together with a stonecrop called "roseroot" (Rhodiola roseum) or dandelions. Often edible angelica (Angelica archaengelica) and mountain sorrels (Oxyria digyna) stand out on shelves or at the mouths of caves or grow side by side with buttercups (Ranunculus species) and luxuriant ferns.

Just like all the mountains of the western fjords, Hornbjarg is a basaltic mountain, formed by numerous, differently thick rock layers, separated by very thin layers of ash, usually red ones. Originally there was, of course, one continuous mountain, but at Húnaflóa it split up and turned into bird cliffs. The slope of the layers indicates this without any doubt. Most of the belts were originally formed during volcanic eruptions along fissures, which can be distinctively seen because of the many ridges that dissect the mountain in various ways. Furthest down in the mountain there are a lot of hollows filled, for instance, with Icelandic spar or calceolite and quartz of various kinds, even zeoliths.

The sea below the cliff is fairly shallow close to the land but becomes very deep a short distance from it. The foot of the cliff indicates the ability of Aegir [the god of the sea] to shape it since he sings his old working song there every day of the year, except perhaps during the middle of the summer. Then he occasionally takes a rest as if to celebrate the mild weather. But every year he sweeps a lot of material off the roots of the mountain and crushes it into small grains. This can best be seen in the bays and inlets of the region, which every year are moved farther and farther inland.

Hornbjarg is not the only bird cliff on the "jaw" of the western fjords, but on almost every cape and major height east of Geiroldsgnúpur, where the sea is very deep, and just like on most of the capes on the western side of Ísafjarðardjúp, all the way down to Látrabjarg, the "svartfugl" ("the black backed birds" – a special species of seabirds) do not lay their eggs, because they are very discriminating in regards to their breeding grounds. Instead of them, kittywakes (Rissa tridactyla) and fulmars (Fulmarus glaciali) breed there. They do not care; they actually prefer their breeding places to be overgrown with vegetation and at a lower altitude.

You can see very far from the mountain when the weather is clear. Then you can see all the coastline toward Geirólfgnúpur and Vatnsnes very clearly just like that eastward on Skagastrandir. Sometimes the tops of the Fljótafjöll can be indistinctly glimpsed as well as mirages of the mountains along Siglufjörður. But, unfortunately, there are ony few really clear days there in spite of all these wide views from the mountain, because the foggy days at Hornastrandir number considerably more than 200 a year. The spring fog, so well known to the sailors and so dense during the calm early days of summer, amounts often to nothing but a bank just above sea level reaching barely 300 feet up. It extends only a short distance from land but blankets all the valleys facing the sea. From the top of the mountain the view is as wide as always but much more beautiful since nearby all the peaks jut up over the silvery clouds, on which the rays of the sun dances around. To the east, the Húnaflóa looks like a mirror outside the fog bank and in the distance you can see the Fljótafjöll and Skagastrandir, perhaps even the peaks along Siglufjörður just like on the brightest of days.

The weather along Strandir is not good and it is difficult to make hay because of the wet climate. But the cattle thrive and can stay outdoors most of the year, at least east of the mountain where little snow accumulates because of the easterly and northeasterly winds from the sea. Because there, Aegir sings his most enticing songs on the outermost sea – but also his grimmest ones, which is worse.

Icebergs sometimes pay a visit to the mighty mountain, expecially in February and March. The ice floes can then be thrown up against the beaches with mighty crashes, just as if they intended to run ashore but the bergs themselves run aground far away at a depth up to 100 meters. There they remain far into the spring. But then they suddenly succumb to the warm winds and melt away. Only a few remain into the summer. In May or June they overturn daily and gradually break up and dissolve completely. But the brightness over the rim of sea ice at the horizon can still be glimpsed far to the north of the mountain.

Perhaps we should also take a look at the birds themselves, which are being robbed of their eggs? No, there is no time for that now, because the man below has finished heaping up the eggs and has filled his bag. He tugs on the rope to indicate that those above can now prepare to haul him up. The men on the edge pull in the slack but then they wait for further signals. These do not come until the man below has prepared himself for being drawn up again. Then the toil starts.

The Way Up

Now the rope feels heavier than when the man went down and it becomes evident why, when the bag is brought up filled with some 200 eggs. The man carrying them climbs up over the edge and kneels on the ground, pouring out the contents of the bag in a small hollow. Some of them break. Those that are halfway hatched or have been sat on for too long are thrown away, and some of the freshest onces are consumed. Then the man goes down again to fetch the next 200 eggs, returns with them and goes down still once more since about 600 birds sat on their eggs on this shelf.

When all the eggs are brought up above the rim, it is well past noon, so that the man who as ascended can step out of his sling. He and all the men on the edge fetch their food hampers and start eating. Somebody lights a Primus stove and boils some of the eggs for all of them.

After the meal, they move the rope slightly farther east and the "sigmaður" makes a few more descents over the edge and fills his bag from the small sills. The mountain echoes alternately: "Stop!" "Give slack!" " and "Pull up!" according to whether the man intends to stop and gather eggs along a sill, continue down or return up again. But after a pause for coffee at about three o’clock, he decides to go don deeper than before to a ledge where usually about 2000 birds are breeding.

The look-out places himself on a spit far out in order to be able to follow every movement of the descending man, who must now pass a large "loft" (clear space) – that is, where the cliff leans inward, so that he has no contact with it – just before he reaches down onto the ledge. When the man has reached down to where the open space begins, the look-out shouts: "Loft!" and the men on the edge "gefa liðugt" (feed the rope liberally) in order to shorten the stay in the air as much as possible because the suspended man can begin to spin with increasing speed althought he tries to prevent it by extending his arms and kicking with his feet as well as he can.

On a sill above the ledge, some birds fly up and all the others follow suit. The man descending lands slightly dizzy about 3 feet from the rim of the ledge and pulls a lot of the rope into a coil, steps out of the sling and puts some heavy boulders on the coil in order not to lose it down the slope. And then he goes "berserk" around the ledge, sweeping up heaps of eggs.

If such a ledge is large enough, the gathering can require a couple of hours and the men on the ledge use that time to rest up in face of the heavy pulling to follow. Some take a nap, others remain at the rope, staying awake, because there are old tales about how once all the men on the edge were asleep when the man below tugged on the rope, so it ran off the edge and pulled him with it off he ledge where he was standing. No doubt, there is some truth to this. But it is prudent to stay alert.

We shall use this time to do other things than sleep. Perhaps now we can take a look at the birds themselves, the main characters in this play about the struggle for life, and contemplate some of their lives and behavior.

The "Svartfugl"

The "svartfugl," [the little black-backed birds] do actually not belong to a single species but to many. Normally it is a question of three kinds: "langvia" or guillemots (Uria aalge), "stuttnefja" or short-beaked guillemots (Uria lomvia) and razor-bills or auks (Alca torda); sometimes there are three more: "hafyrdill" or the little auk (Plautus alle), "lundi" of puffin (Fratercula arctica) and "teista" or black guillemots (Cepphus grylle). The Great Auk belonged here as well, but it became extinct more than a century ago (in 1844). The little auk breeds in this country almost exclusively on Grímsey but has at very rare occasions also been seen on Hornbjarg. The puffin burrows into grassy knolls and island and lays its two small eggs in the hollow. This bird does not come into question when gathering eggs because of the difficulty associated with reaching them – the eggs are deposited too far in. Therefore we shall disregard it here just like the little auk, which does not really belong on the bird cliff but lays its eggs in hollows and fissures in the rock at barely 150 feet above sea level.

Therefore we shall concentrate on the three, first mentioned, which all have in common that they are bad fliers but are instead excellent swimmers and divers. And all have the shape for this: a long body, short and stiff wings, a short and wide tail and feet positioned far back as well as thick, well-oiled feathers. All of them have black backs and white breasts and three toes with very tough webs between them.

On a small sill just below the edge, a small auk sits on her green egg with black and brown spots. Frightened, she looks up at us with her questioning, dark brown eyes, so beautiful that any girl on the Suðurland should envy them. She is so tense that you believe that at any moment she will fly off her egg down to the safety of the sea. But, then she decides to stay, calms down by and by and stops looking around herself. Actually, it is not without danger to leave the egg alone with a monstrous man in the vicinity. Who knows, it could suddenly disappear above the edge of the cliff to become food for that monster? And, therefore she now gives us adequate opportunity to look at her when she turns the beak to the side so that it can be distinctly seen that it is thin and high with a white streak along the side. It is similar in shape to the beak of a gull. The nostrils are on the sides and the neck is short but flexible and beautifully supple when it moves. The wings are short and narrow – swordshaped, actually. The tail, too, is short and consists of only twelve narrow and stiff feathers. During the breeding season, he white streak of the beak reaches to the eye and there is a decorative white rim at the end of the flight feathers of the second row on the wings, and the breast is white and the back black. During winter, the wings and the neck are also white, but on the immature birds, the feathers of the back and the breast are dusky, either dark or light gray.

She is always curious, this little auk, just like all her relatives. But we, ourselves, are even more curious. We want to study the nest of this bird thoroughly, to know how she cares for her egg and what she uses to make the nest. Therefore, we use every trick thinkable to make her stand up and at last it succeeds by throwing a tuft of grass toward her. However, our disappointment is great, because the nest we had hoped to see is nowhere, there is only bare rock and on top of the egg there are thick crusts of dirt and bird droppings so that a lot of the heat for the hatching could be lost. But she tries to prevent this by plucking herself where the egg touches her body and by covering it with the other feathers. Because, although the housing is bad, the breast of the mother has to provide a warm room. The auk cares for her egg better than any of the other birds on the cliff and prefers to have it close to her breast all the time, just like all the birds related to her.

The auk is hardly as big as a wild duck and far more slender. The short-beaked guillemot, the "Stuttnefja," is of a similar size but has a medium large and stronger beak, while that of the common guillemot is a little longer and narrower.

All these birds live exclusively on the northern hemisphere and are most common in the cold countries, where they lay their eggs on the steep bird cliffs facing the northern seas. They spend the winters out on the ocean or fly to the shores of Europe or America and as far south as the Bay of Biscayne and Florida.

Along the western fjords, these black backed birds nourish themselves almost exclusively on cod spawn while they are hatching and raising their young ones and the sea has an abundant supply of this at that time. On days with good weather, when the immature birds sit by the tens of thousands on spits and skerries, their white breasts facing the still and calm sea, and there are hordes of thousands of birds on the waves, it is great fun to be in a dory in front of the cliff. If there has been no shooting in the vicinity for a couple of days, the birds are so tame that you can come close enough to watch them when they hunt for small fishes.

The common guillemot dives quickly, almost s soon as she spots a group of small fishes, approaches it from the side and grips a fish around the middle, swallows it and catches the next ones, one after another. At last it comes up with the last one in its beak. This one is either devoured on the spot or she flies in the direction of the cliff if the hatchling has left the egg.

The short-beaked guillemot, on the other hand, dives deeper down so that it is harder to observe it when fishing. But, when it comes up to the surface, it always holds the catch in the same manner as the first one, the common guillemot.

The auk dives like the other two, but frequently holds two or more small fish in the beak at the same time and in such a manner that the heads turn down and the abdominal parts in the other direction. The fishes up front are often larger than those farthest in.

All these birds lay a single, large egg on the bare rock. It is dark green in color and has variously dense black spots or streaks. It tapers strongly toward one end. If the egg is taken from the bird, it lays another one in 12 to 14 days later. The latter gathering of eggs builds on this fact. It starts about half a month later than the first one and ordinarily takes place just before the middle of June. Then the eggs are usually of better quality but not as many and during that time it is often possible to snare the birds themselves as well.

The noose used for this purpose consists of a loop of flexible willow wood, tied to a bamboo rod. This one is held out over the edge of the cliff in the direction of a bird while it sits firmly on its egg. If the latter escaped the first gathering of eggs, the time for the chick to break the shell is now fast approaching. The loop is held just above the head of the bird and carefully moved closer to it. The bird starts to look straight into the loop but quickly tries to fly away from it when the noose tightens around its neck. But the snare grows ever tighter and tighter, and thus, it becomes possible to pull the bird up over the edge and kill it.

This is an inhuman manner of hunting that is quickly being abandoned now. But in its stead comes the shotgun and it kills on the sea at the foot of the mountain.

All the time when the birds are present on the bird cliff there is a steady commotion at all hours round the clock during the time from April until into August. And, indeed, musical people derive little pleasure from listening to the noise for long because, unfortunately, these birds are certainly not any songbirds. In spite of that, you can distinguish between different sounds and different voices because every bird has its own voice and its own characteristic sound, just like people. In this deafening chorus you can distinguish deep basses and shrill tenors, the laughing call of the common guillemot and he guttural one of the short-beaked one and the scratchy hissing and cries of the auks. Through all this noise you can hear the piercing voices of the young birds and the calls of the puffin, who seems to enjoy enormously the disorganized song of those who do not have melodious voices.

While we are busy trying to distinguish minor and major keys among this overpowering melody of nature, an almost inaudible call can be heard from the man below. He has finished gathering the eggs and filled his bag and now he wants to be pulled up again. But, when the call is unanswered - the look-out heard it so indistinctly that he did not dare to repeat it – he tugs at the rope like before and then the slack is hauled in and at last he himself as well.

Difficult Hauling and the Final Ascent

Now the man feels much heavier than ever before in the day but he is much farther down and, besides, there is that big open space, where he cannot help by kicking against the cliff while being hauled up.

Just as stated above, the men pull as fast and hard as they can in order to shorten the stay in the "gap." Then the heaving suddenly becomes easier: the man has come up above the "gap" and hs now started to "walk" on the cliff wall. Involuntarily the men on the edge slow down and try to rest a little after the big effort. The man ascending is gradually nearing, becomes lighter to pull up as he proceeds and finally he comes up above the edge. That trip has ended.

As before, he empties his bag and utters a few words, perhaps a joke about the cliff or something about a previous descent, and returns then laughing to fetch more eggs from the heaps on the ledge. This is repeated four more times because that is one of largest ledges to the east of the cliff, where well over two thousand birds hatch in one big congregation.

When he returns from the fifth descent, it is even more difficult for the men to pull him up because now they are tired. And the man himself is even more tired than any of the others because now it is late in the evening. It is almost 9 p.m. He removes his bag and steps out of the sling, coils the rope and stores the tools under a stone. In the meantime others have gone to fetch the eggs first gathered and carry them over to those heaped up here.

Division into Lots

When the eggs from all the descents have been gathered together, the division into lots can start. All that was amassed is divided into equal lots: one for each man, one lot "for the rope" and one "for the danger." Every participant gets his lot. Often this amounts to over two hundred eggs per man and day, sometimes more, sometimes less. But the lot "for the danger" is given to the man descending in addition to his own lot and as a reward for subjecting himself to the hazardous descents. The one "for the rope" is taken by the owner of the rope, but that is often just the man who made the descents.

When the allotment is finished, - it often takes more than an hour to count and divide it all – each takes care of his own eggs and packs them into the chests intended for this purpose. This is a high, oblong and narrow box, open above and carried on the back in a large rope-sling attached to two loops on one side of the waist. The chests can hold up to three hundred eggs so that most often the entire lot of a man can be accommodated in it. When all is finished, the men bid each other farewell and start homeward, most in the direction of Horn or Höfn in Hornvík, but some of us walk eastward to Látravík.

The burden is not very heavy, but you have to step gingerly across hollows and brooks and – especially – if necessary "fall carefully," though rather not at all. However, in spite of being so careful with the chests, hardly anybody returns home without having broken quite a few of their eggs.

Later the eggs are held up against a light source (candled – or "Skyggnd") and those that are fertile are selected out and used for pancakes or in other kinds of food. The rest are sent to Ísafjörður or Reykjavík where each egg can fetch up to 25 to 30 aurar from those who want to buy them. But this sale only takes place when the first gathering is halfway over or fully completed, so we do not need to bother with that now.


- - - - - -

The midnight sun shows its orange pate just above the bird cliff about the time we finish picking the eggs out of the chests, so that is best for us to go to bed and rest so that we can again ascend the mountains early next morning.

But in the bird cliff, thousands of birds are looking in vain for their offspring in the soft light of the midnight sun. They sing senselessly their dirges without melody in the summer night because the merciless and monstrous "Hornstrandir spider" is a robber who never returns his loot. Beautiful bird, perhaps you should try to lay another egg in the same place in the hope that the same "spider" hs no more errand down onto the peaceful sill of yours, - perhaps you should? But, please, remember that when the human spider robs you also of your second egg, he is only taking it to feed himself and his children, just like you do when you pluck the small fishes out of the sea. Just like your "fishing", it is his struggle for existence and without you the poor farmers on the mountain would have little to eat and to burn most of the year. Because, little bird, it is YOU who keep the crafty farmers alive on the little farms in the far north at Hornstrandir, the most beautiful part of the Icelandic landscape during the spring.

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