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We talk with an ethno-ornithologist about the importance of knowing the names of the living creatures around us as we walk through an ancient hay meadow


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We talk with an ethno-ornithologist about the importance of knowing the names of the living creatures around us as we walk through an ancient hay meadow

Description

Andy Gosler is an ethno-ornithologist, studying the relationships between people and birds. We talk about what that means and the importance of knowing the names of the living creatures around us as we walk through an ancient haymeadow on a gray day in Oxfordshire, UK. 

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Transcript

Hoogerwerf:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Colin Hoogerwerf. 

Andy Gosler is our guest in today’s episode. Andy is a professor of ethno-ornithology at the University of Oxford. We’ll talk about what that means exactly in the episode, but you can guess that it has something to do with both people and birds. And we wanted to talk to him in a place where there were birds, so Jim and I met up with him on the outskirts of the University of Oxford where he walked us through an ancient hay meadow, thought to be around 800 years old and which has never had any intensive agriculture. We did hear birds, and saw a few, and we talked about why it’s important to know the names of birds and the other creatures that surround us in God’s creation. Andy tells his own story of coming to faith and talks about the curious fact that our sacred places tend to be places of high biodiversity. 

Let’s get to the conversation. 

Interview Part One

Hoogerwerf:

Andy Gosler. Thank you for being on the podcast. 

Gosler:

Pleasure. 

Hoogerwerf:

So let’s start, If you could tell us a little bit about, so you’re an ethno-biologist. I think our listeners will want to know what that is. Tell us what that is and then how one becomes— 

Gosler:

Well if I focus a little bit more, I mean, my specific title now is professor of ethno-ornithology. The only one in the world and therefore an endangered species. [laughter] And possibly the title will go extinct after. Anyway. Whatever. Ethno-biology is the study of relationships between people and the rest of nature. I don’t like to say people and nature because we are part of it. And that’s part of the problem. So if we just say, people and, you know, the rest of creation, in sort of Christian terms, then you can see it’s pretty broad. And so to narrow the focus a bit, most ethno-biologists—one of my colleagues is an ethno-ecologist and that’s about as broad as you could be—but I focus on birds because my background is in ornithology. And so, yeah, ethno-ornithology is about the relationships between people and birds. And anything about human relationships with nature is automatically concerned with conservation. And, you know, maintaining a sustainable relationship.

Hoogerwerf:

So we’ll get back to birds. But BioLogos is a faith and science organization. So, could you tell us a little bit about your spiritual background, and I understand you have a somewhat unusual story of coming to faith, which came about through Richard Dawkins?

Gosler:

Well he played a part. I wouldn’t want to give him all the credit. [laughs] I mean looking back over 64 years, I would say I was always searching. I was always open to finding God. Because what you come to realize is, it’s not about you finding God, it’s about allowing God to find you. If I say how the, sort of, Dawkins connection comes into the story, I was interested in evolution and birds and all the rest of it from a very early age, I remember a dinosaur coloring book when I was four, and then discovered birds, and then later on, discovered that birds were the descendants of dinosaurs. So I’ve been consistent to my first love through my life. And my—I’m of Jewish descent and went to Sunday school. And my sort of early life was a bit of a confusion of, you know, religiously, always felt slightly drawn to the New Testament. Because at school, I went to a school that I liked, and recently discovered had a Christian foundation actually, up to the age of 13. I mean, me up to the age of 13. And so was introduced to the Lord’s Prayer and a few parables. And the parable that always captured me as a kid was the Good Samaritan. And I thought, yeah, I know where you’re coming from. Now, my father, much later in life, well, when I told him I was going to be baptized, he said, “well, you know, I’m a card carrying atheist,” which kind of explained some of my confusion as a child, because went to synagogue and Sunday school and that sort of thing. But he used to talk about religious hypocrisy of any kind. And so when I started reading about Jesus and the Pharisees, I thought, well, I know where you’re coming from, mate, because you sound like my father. [laughs] When you tell people Jesus sounded to me, like my atheist father, then you start to realize he really is nonconformist. I mean, you know. And so that’s, that’s an attraction. 

So Richard Dawkins comes into the mix much later on. I went up as an undergraduate, not here to Oxford, but Aberystwyth in Wales, in 1976, which was the year The Selfish Gene was published. And everyone was talking about this book. And I got to read it. By the time I graduated in ‘79 and thought yeah, there’s a bit of a philosophical problem at the end of The Selfish Gene, because he writes this great story of genetic determinism. And then right at the end says, but it doesn’t have to be like this. We can choose to be nice to each other. Well, I don’t think you need to be much of a philosopher to realize that It is inconsistent. If the rest of your book is true, then where does this desire to be nice to each other come from? And it’s painfully untrue that we can choose. You suddenly said we can choose to defy what our genes are telling us. Oh, so it’s not all about genes. Okay, so it kind of undermines—it starts to undermine its own argument right at the end. 

We now know of course, that the whole thing is,  scientifically, is a fantasy. Genes can’t do anything without cells. So you know that’s all just yeah, whatever. But it was when I started, after I came to Oxford and was reading more of his stuff, because of course, he was here, and the Blind Watchmaker and River out of Eden and whatever, Unweaving the Rainbow or whatever it’s called. And there was this constant drip feed of sort of anti-Christian sentiment and saying, well don’t believe what these people believe. And that just got to irritate me because, I said, “well actually, mate, I didn’t ask to believe, you know, I wasn’t really believing anything.” But I kind of got to a point where I mean, I wouldn’t have rationalized it like this at the time, but you know, with hindsight, rationalized it. Well, you so want me not to know about Jesus? But I kind of want to, you know? Oe of the things in my life that’s important to me is I’m a horse rider. And if you can’t get a horse to do something that you really want it to do, tell it not to do it. If you’re leading a horse, and it just supplants itself, push it back, and it will walk forwards, right? So turn that thing around. And that’s basically what Richard Dawkins did to me, he told me not to do something that I didn’t want to do. So then I kind of thought oh, that’s interesting. So I started reading books at the interface between Christianity and science. And that all made a lot of sense. 

I was taught as a child in Liberal Ealing, liberal and progressive synagogue, that Genesis was allegory, that it carried meaning, but it wasn’t literally true. It was the meaning of the text that was important. And the meaning of the text is massively important in a modern environmental context. But then, it kind of came as a shock to me, and you’ll understand this coming from the States that—it came as a shock to me through reading Richard Dawkins to discover that there were Christians who believed that it was literally true, and therefore weren’t trying to explore its meaning. If you’re given, you know, the telephone directory and told, “this is literally true,” you can dial that number, and you’ll get through to have a—wow, you won’t explore whether it might carry some greater meaning. I haven’t really explored what the greater meaning of the telephone directory might be, but it must be something about, you know, a desire to give people the opportunity to communicate with each other over great distances. Okay, so. And the Bible is about meaning, you know. Some of it is historical facts, some of it is historical, you know, don’t know quite. But the Jewish tradition is you have these texts, and you argue about them, you know, and there isn’t a simple answer to anything. So, Dawkins was kind of a wake up call to, both to exploring faith for myself, but also, in wanting to help people who had faith to understand that faith and science do not have to be in conflict. In fact, they’re not in conflict, they cannot be in conflict. If the science that you are exploring is true. And that’s another matter, the whole Darwinian thing and the Neo-Darwinian thing, which we now know, wasn’t true. It doesn’t mean evolution doesn’t happen. It means it doesn’t happen like that. 

Stump:

Do you remember what some of those books were, you mentioned, at the interface of science and Christianity that you were reading at the time?\

Gosler:

Well, the first book I read actually, it was, there was a secondhand bookshop, Thornton’s, in Oxford, that I will walk past fairly often. And when I was starting, and it was while I was reading one of Richard Dawkins’s books and thinking, you know, I really want to know more about this. And I was walking past Thornton’s, and it was a rather nice tie in the window that I went in to look at and actually bought that. While I was in there, I thought let’s have a look at the theology books. And I found a book by a Dominican, I think he’s Dominican, Gareth Morris, called Belief in God. And it was about 250 pages, no pictures, dense text. And I read the preface, I thought this is the most rational thing I’ve ever read. 75 P. Yes, I think I can stretch to that. I mean, secondhand books, that’s great. And I devoured that really and wanted to know more. So, Alister McGrath was already writing by then. Read some of his books. Sam Berry, was very influential. And Sam, this the late R.J. Berry, because he was heavily involved with Christians in science, and I met him, the first time I actually met him he seemed to know a lot about me. I don’t know if he’d read any of my ecological papers. But met him at a Christians in Science conference in Edinburgh. And he invited me to write a chapter for a book called Real Scientists Real Faith.

Stump:

Oh, I have that book. 

Gosler:

Which has been reproduced as True Scientists True Faith. So I wrote a chapter about my coming to faith and which was called surprise and the value of life. And there’s a strong influence of Dawkins in that, because what always struck me about the sort of genetic determinism argument or The Selfish Gene argument, was that it undermined the value of life. If everything’s just about promoting genes, then what about all this? Everything else is just a sort of, kind of fantasy, it’s just about genes. Because the problem with that argument is, the genes we have now are not the genes we had or our ancestors had a billion years ago. And so if the object was just to promote copies of the same thing, it’s not done very well is it?. I mean, I might be 90% banana, 10% banana. But, you know, I’m not only banana. And so what Richard Dawkins did that was of great value was to tell biologists to look at genes. And then, of course, when he wrote that in ‘76, nobody had ever mapped a genome, you know, they couldn’t sequence DNA. Now, they can, you know, sequence a genome in about 20 minutes. And so, and the whole new science of genomics, you know, is about that. And, of course, what they’ve discovered is basically, well thanks very much for telling us to look at this because it’s really interesting, but it’s not remotely how we thought, right? And that then undermines quite a bit of Darwin. But more the Neo-Darwinists than Darwin himself, who was just kind of, well, he was a naturalist.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hey Language of God listeners. If you enjoy the conversations you hear on the podcast, we just wanted to let you know about our website, biologos.org, which has articles, videos, personal stories, and curated resources for pastors, students, and educators. And we’ve recently launched a new animated video series called insights. These short videos tell stories and explore many of the questions at the heart of the faith and science conversation. You can find them at biologos.org/insights or there’s a link in the shownotes. All right, back to the show!

Interview Part Two

Hoogerwerf:

So, I read your paper nature of knowledge, knowledge of nature. And found it really interesting. Interesting enough that we decided to give this survey to our staff at biologos, mostly for fun But so the paper, essentially, you give the survey to a bunch of UK biology students. Colleg level?

Gosler:

Yeah, it was all of our first year biology students in two years.

Hoogerwerf:

Okay. And you’re asking them to name five birds…

Gosler:

Five British birds, five British trees, five British butterflies, five British mammals and five British wildflowers other than trees. So five of each of those groups that are living wild in the UK. And also to say, and they should try and name them to species level if possible. And also to say whether they knew whether it was native or introduced.

Hoogerwerf: 

So what did you expect to find, first and then maybe tell us about what you did find.

Gosler:

Well to be honest. What I did discover was not very far from what I suspected, which was half of our students—and in the paper, although this was given to all the students, in the paper, I restricted the analysis to UK born students, so resident students. Not so much because it would be unfair to expect overseas students to know this stuff. Because what I actually discovered was the overseas students were often better. Which kind of makes sense. Because if you’re interested in natural history, and you’re going to do a degree in another country, you’re going to brush up on that. So I restricted it to the UK born. And basically half of our native students couldn’t name five British birds to species level. 90% of them could give five names, but not to species level. So they’re saying things like, duck or  sea gull, or you know, which any three year old— 

Stump:

You’re not requiring them to know the Latin names, necessarily.

Gosler:

No, no no. And not asking them to identify things from, you know, which is what a lot of these kinds of studies have done in the past, because they show people pictures of things and say, “do you know what this is?” And the problem with that is you constrain them to knowing what you think they should know. Whereas if you give people a free choice, and it’s only five names, you know, it’s not—

Hoogerwerf:

Yeah. So I want to talk about what this means that people know less names of the things, even the things that they do see, they’re not noticing. 

Gosler:

Yes, yes. Yes.

Hoogerwerf:

So yeah, should we feel bad about that? What do we need to change about our educational system, perhaps?

Gosler:

Going back to the first question, I mean, kind of, should we feel bad about that? In other words, does it matter in that, you know, if we’re thinking about people allowing God to find them, it’s very clear that a very significant way to find God is through nature. Just sitting and contemplating something that’s— 

Stump:

What’s that guy that landed on the fence post right there?

Gosler:

Robin Oh, no. Yes.

Stump:

That looks different than our Robin.

Gosler:

Oh, it is totally different from your Robin. Yeah. Yeah. That’s That’s our European Robin.

Stump:

Just flew away. 

Gosler:

Yeah. So you’re Robin is is basically a red breasted Blackbird. So it’s a Turdus migratorias, the American Robin.

Stump:

Back to your paper about students knowing the names of things. Yeah, what’s so important about knowing the names of things do you think?

Gosler:

I think, so, were standing next to an ancient meadow, and you could just see, and it’s surrounded by dense hedges. These hedges are actually over 1000 years old. And we know that partly from historical records, but as much from the species of trees that are growing in there. So for example, if we went down that hedge, which sadly was can’t do, but we’d probably find, Midland Hawthorn, Crataegus laevigata, which is an ancient woodland indicator, and when you find it in a hedge, it’s a pretty sure sign of it being what they called an assart hedge, which was cut straight from the Wildwood. So knowing about individual species in the landscape, connects you with the history of that landscape, and a connection with the land where you are, the place where you are, understanding how it works, how you depend on it, and it depends on you, is part of that understanding of your historical place in the landscape. And that’s kind of a massive biblical theme, as well, you know? I mean, that’s what the book of Lamentations is really about. Displaced people are disconnected from the land they understand, they deeply understand because they’ve had 1000 generations there. You know, whatever. They understand how it works, how to get the best from it, how to encourage it, how to affirm it, how to nurture it.

Is that a reasonable answer? 

Stump:

So we’re getting there, and having names for things, somehow elevating my consciousness, when I see these things, as opposed—

Gosler:

It’s not just green. 

Stump:

Yeah.

Gosler:

It’s not just a green blob, it’s, every green blob, every tree is an individual, with a history with connections to other organisms in that place. And what it is in species terms, giving a name to it, kind of constrains our understanding of its potential. Our name for it doesn’t constrain the beastie at all, but it guides our understanding of what its potential is and what it might be doing and, you know, what have you. And so often in human history, because we haven’t understood the land that we’ve come into, we’ve ended up just damaging it and moving on.

Hoogerwerf:

Is there a kind of knowing that doesn’t require a name? I’ve sometimes wondered whether you could know something differently if the name wasn’t in the way?

Gosler:

Yeah. I’d buy that.

Stump:

So here’s an example of this. So later philosophers by the time you get to say Frederick Nietzsche, he wants to talk about language and say that names, when we group a bunch of individuals together and give them a name, it does violence to them as individuals to subsume them under one category. Now, it would be very difficult for us to talk about all of the trees here if we didn’t have this common noun tree, and we had to name each of them individually, right? So of course, we’re going to categorize things. But then I think Colin’s question is, when we start categorizing things, does that preclude us from recognizing individuality? Sometimes we If we lump things into a category and just assume well, everything must be like this in that category.

Gosler:

I think there’s a constant tension. And that tension is there in biology. With the simple question of what is the species anyway? And yeah, the moment we say, well, this is a species, this is the category, then we impose boundaries that may not be there. So there’s always the problem that what we recognize as different taxa, whether it’s species or genera or whatever, is based on our own perceptions, our own salience, you know, what we find salient. What is exciting in biology today, I think, is that people are saying, well, yeah, that’s great and we kind of need that and conservation needs that, you know, we talk about endangered species, we have to know what it is we’re talking about as a species. But I think biologists are getting, now, more interested in the relationships between individual organisms and other organisms. If I can think about Darwin a little bit, he wrestled with the issue of species because of his theory. If he asked the question, at what point in something’s evolution are the kids not the same species as the parents? And clearly, the kids will always be the same species as the parents.

Stump:

But the kids to the grandparents, kids to the great grandparents. How far removed do you have to be?

Gosler:

Exactly, exactly. If there is some movement. What really makes the difference is when they can no longer interbreed with others, or they don’t recognize each other as the same species. So if they’re suddenly singing a different song, and you know, then you’ve got the possibility for things to evolve in different directions. But it was a problem for his sort of gradualist model of evolution, you know, that there would be this gradual change over millions and millions of years. Well, at what point would you say the kids are not the same species as the parents? Well, they, you know, that kind of doesn’t work. But there is a bigger tension within the origin of species. And it’s the real flaw, I think, in the book, which is that he describes what you might call pattern and process. So in terms of pattern, he talks a lot about biogeography. And the fact that you get different species on different islands and so evolution demonstrates adaptation to a local, to a place, which kind of connects with what he was saying about place, and that groundedness that’s the pattern that he describes. So the pattern is all about local adaptation. But the process that he describes is something driven by competition. Now you can’t compete with something that’s not in the same place as you. And so, in more modern terms, I mean, these are old terms in biology, the idea of allopatric and sympatric speciation. Allopatric speciation are isolated populations that evolve their own way because they’re becoming better locally adapted. That’s allopatric speciation. Sympatric speciation is something like what Darwin describes. The problem is, as Darwin demonstrated, most species originate through allopatric speciation, it’s local adaptation, it’s not driven by competition. Because there are benefits in terms of nutrient use and energy and etc, etc, etc. There are benefits in being adapted to the place where you live. But that tree can’t compete with a tree three miles away, might communicate with it in some way, but it can’t, you know, it’s not its roots don’t, it’s not competing. So he described pattern and process and I think biologists realized quite early on, although they never said explicitly that there was a problem in the Origin of Species because that would be kind of iconoclastic. But that actually the pattern and the process don’t fit. And it’s kind of been there as the elephant in the room for 150 years. [laughs] 160 years. What modern biology is discovering more and more is that rather than being driven by conflict and competition, nature is, an underlying principle is mutual dependency.

Stump:

Cooperation. 

Gosler:

Cooperation, that tree, as it’s an oak actually, which supports more species than any other tree species in the UK, hundreds of invertebrate species, and we’ve met the Jay that disperses its acorns. So it’s quite dependent on the jay and the jay is quite dependent on the oaks and when, when the oak crop fails, we get thousands of jays into the UK from the continent, because they’ll erupt, as they say. But the roots of that tree are utterly dependent on mycorrhizal fungi, which are mutually dependent in the majority of angiosperms, you know, flowering plants, are dependent on that mutual relationship. They don’t compete with fungi. Yes, sometimes there are problems with fungi, but usually, it’s because of us. We introduced ash die back and Dutch elm disease, and stuff, you know. These were all things perfectly happily living— And, you know, you find where you get viruses and things suddenly going haywire in the world, it’s because of something we’ve done, because the local populations, you know, organisms are adapted to their local viruses.

Hoogerwerf: 

So this relates back to what we’re talking about, too, but it strikes me that most of us do not have deep roots in the places where we are. And so we don’t have that historical knowledge that’s been passed down probably by oral tradition, like those in Lamentations had, right? So we are out of place, and we don’t even know it. And this probably goes to the fact of why our knowledge of names is going down. Yes, people like Robert McFarlane, talk about the loss of words to describe natural places. So what is the solution to that? It could take 1000 years for us to— 

Gosler:

Well, most of us, you know, even if we don’t live in the place where our ancestors lived. I mean, all I know about my ancestors is my great grandfather came from the Netherlands in about 1870, on my father’s side. On my mother’s side, similar kind of time. Genetically, I’m a bit Hispanic, a bit Syrian, a bit this, a bit that, so you know, that’s all irrelevant. I was born and live here. And most of us, irrespective of where we were born, of course, were in a global refugee crisis because of injustice in the world. But nevertheless, most of us were born in a particular place and live fairly close to that. And so there is nothing to stop us putting down roots in those places. 

Gosler:

You hear that peeping? That’s a kingfisher. That’s up the river. That’s rather nice. 

Hoogerwerf:

You’ve recently become ordained now too?

Gosler:

I was ordained deacon in 2018, and priest in 2019. 

Stump:

Church of England?

Gosler:

Yes, Church of England. And I’ll be licensed—I finished my curacy earlier this year, and I’ll be licensed actually to the same parish where I serve my curacy in Marston, which is an ancient—the church is 1120 AD is was founded. So not that old. It’s Norman. We have Saxon churches in Oxford. Yeah, that’s deep center. And I think actually, you were talking about the importance of place. These churches have that sense. I like to take people to medieval churches and say, and stand outside and say, “try and imagine what the countryside was like here, what would the view have been from this church yard when this church was built 800 years ago?” And it’s quite sort of sobering. And the lives of people. And, you know, when you worship in a place that’s had continuous worship for 800, 900, 1000 years, more than 1000 years? We have a church in Oxford, 640 AD. You know, there is something really deep about being part of that kind of that river of life, tapestry of life, whatever, you know, sense of connection. And I think, you know, going back to your earlier question about place and people being displaced, I think you can find connection, if you like, through the common cause of worship in a place.

Hoogerwerf:

Which has happened in all places.

Gosler:

Which happens in all places. There’s a, I think, a slightly malicious myth that—so we know a lot of the original churches, maybe all of them, I don’t know, original churches in this country were founded on former sacred sites, sacred groves. And I think the image of the Green Man that you find in a number of churches is kind of a sense of connection with that, the oldest sacred grove. Now, the malicious myth is that when the Christians came they imposed their church on that sacred grove to, you know, do away with paganism. But the history of Christianity in this country is rather different. You know, the Saint Alban and people, they were martyred, you know, they didn’t impose anything, you know, they were killed for suggesting, even suggesting that things might be done slightly differently. Like, you might find, it’s quite nice to be kind to each other and stop sacrificing bulls and virgins, maybe, you know, a lot of blood, very messy. 

So my take on what actually happened with the sacred sites and the church is that when a community adopted Christianity, they said, right, well, this is our sacred site. It’s the most natural thing in the world to put our church here. And that connects—the sense of the sacred does not stop and end with the founding of the church. The land itself is sacred, the connection to the place is sacred. And so you found a church on the place that you’ve always considered most sacred. There’s a lot of excitement in conservation biology world at the moment about discovering that sacred sites around the world of whatever faith tradition tend to be highly biodiverse. And, you know, sacred sites tend to be biodiverse sites. And you can very often explain that in terms of the conduct of people in those places. So well, you don’t hunt in the sacred site, you have to be quiet. But I think there’s something else. I think you can reverse that narrative. And say, did the people recognize places of high biodiversity as sacred? You know, it’s not just biodiverse because in this place, people don’t do the usual awful things that they kind of do. I think there’s something deeper in the human psyche that says actually biodiverse places are sacred. So, I wouldn’t say I’m spearheading something. But I want to suggest that actually, in our nature reserves and our national parks, that we try to come to them with a deeper sense of them as sacred places, and that the way we behave in them should be consistent with the way we would expect to behave in a sacred place. You know, if we can engender that sense of respect for others of whatever life form in the sacred place, and then take that out into the world.

Hoogerwerf:

Well, thank you so much for walking with us and showing us around and talking to us. 

Gosler:

Pleasure

Stump:

Appreciate it.

Credits

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the Fetzer Institute, the John Templeton Foundation, and by individual donors who contribute to BioLogos. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Nate Mulder is our assistant producer. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. 

BioLogos offices are located in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the Grand River watershed. If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum or visit our website, biologos.org, where you will find articles, videos and other resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening. 


Featured guest

Andy Gosler

Andy Gosler

Andy Gosler holds joint position between the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology and the Institute of Human Sciences (School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography). His research falls at the intersection between Ornithology and Anthropology (ethno-ornithology: the study of birds, and the study of human engagement with birds). He is a contributor to the Religion and Conservation Research Collaborative (RCRC) of the Religion and Conservation Biology Working Group (RCBWG) of the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB), a trustee of A RochaUK, co-convenor of Oxpeace – the Oxford University Network for Peace Studies and a Vice-President of the Oxford Ornithological Society having formerly served as President (1994-2015). He was ordained Deacon in the Church of England in 2018, and Priest in 2019.


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