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September 2020 Issue [Letter from Tor House]

Bright Power, Dark Peace

Robinson Jeffers and the hope of human extinction
Source photograph: Robinson Jeffers, 1948 © Nat Farbman/LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Embroidered photographs by Adriene Hughes for Harper’s Magazine © The artist. Source photograph: Robinson Jeffers, 1948 © Nat Farbman/LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

[Letter from Tor House]

Bright Power, Dark Peace

Robinson Jeffers and the hope of human extinction

On a clear October day, I walked to the continent’s edge. I had arrived in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, encased in metal, first in a plane that brought me across the country, then in a rental car that transported me through Silicon Valley and its canyons of mirrored glass. Now I was bipedal again, and making my way along a narrow trail to a granite promontory called Point Lobos. I passed under a grove of ancient cedars, their twisted, wind-haunted limbs rising into an emerald canopy that seemed to float in the sky. A kingfisher darted through the understory as I emerged from the trees onto the jagged precipice of the point. Huge masses of conglomerate rock jutted out down below. Pelicans, cormorants, and gulls swirled around this harsh coast while the kelp-filled surf crashed against the shore, turning from gray to white to green as the water drifted into shallow tide pools.

In his poem “De Rerum Virtute,” the poet Robinson Jeffers described standing where I stood and watching these same rocks, “with foam flying at their flanks, and the long sea-lions / Couching on them.” He called the scene an “intrinsic glory” that “means the world is sound, / Whatever the sick microbe does.” What exactly is the “sick microbe”? It is us. And Jeffers didn’t stop there. In other poems, the human race is a “civil war on two legs,” a “walking farce,” a “denatured ape, this—citizen.”

To consider the poetry of Robinson Jeffers, one must go to a dark place, which is to say, one must look in the mirror. I’ve made passing glances at that glass for the past thirty years. On hiking trips, I have often kept a copy of Jeffers’s slim Selected Poems in my back pocket. I’ve loved what he has to say about hawks and rivers and mountains. But in the end, Jeffers’s darkness, his contempt for his own century and his own kind, always scared me off, sent me back to that more sanguine American poet, Walt Whitman. Since the election of Donald Trump, however, I’ve turned away from Whitman and have begun to take Jeffers’s grave warnings more seriously.

Whitman imagined setting off from Long Island, the “fish-shape Paumanok,” and striding across the country in the name of brotherly love, equality, and democracy. When the Democratic Review editor John L. O’Sullivan coined the term “manifest destiny” in 1845, he conceived of a huge blank canvas on which “the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government” would play out. The country was making progress, and promise lay in the West. For Whitman, the transcontinental railroad signified a spiritual advancement that would ultimately unify the West and the East. Peace in our time.

Jeffers didn’t quite see it that way. By the time he settled near Point Lobos at the beginning of the First World War, Jeffers had appointed himself the poet-prophet of the American West. He had come to Northern California’s ragged coast to turn his back on the country. He had come here to play Cassandra and warn his tribe of its dismal future, though “truly men hate the truth.”

I had come here to see whether he was right.

Source photograph: Carmel-by-the-Sea, California © Bridgeman Images

In 1932, when Jeffers appeared on the cover of Time magazine looking like a windswept Robert Mitchum, he was among the nation’s most celebrated poets. But over the next two decades, modernism largely pushed his more formal verse aside. “Why does such deep silence surround the name of Robinson Jeffers?” the critic Horace Gregory asked in 1953. When I was an English major in the Eighties, you could still find a handful of Jeffers’s poems in the Norton Anthology of American Literature, but even that’s no longer the case.

Jeffers was born in 1887 in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. His father, a Presbyterian minister and a professor of biblical literature and ancient languages, dispatched the family to Switzerland so his son would be spared a mediocre American education. By age twelve, Jeffers was fluent in five languages, including Greek and Latin. The family moved back to the United States in 1902; three years later, Jeffers graduated from Occidental College at age eighteen. After that, he began to flounder. He tried graduate work in Romance languages at the University of Southern California, then medical school, then forestry school. Nothing stuck. “If he had a little less cleverness and a little better capacity for work,” his exasperated mother wrote to a friend, “his future would look brighter.”

Jeffers was drinking heavily and had fallen in love with a married woman. He’d met Una Kuster back at Southern Cal in a German literature course. She was the wife of Edward “Teddie” Kuster, a powerful Los Angeles lawyer who came from money. In an attempt to flee her husband’s gilded social circle, Una had gone back to school, where she soon found herself having long, extracurricular conversations about Faust with the young Jeffers. When Una told Teddie that she was leaving him, the story made the Los Angeles Times under the headline, two points of the eternal triangle. Teddie lashed out at the “vile poetaster,” but Jeffers and Una were married in 1913, the day after Teddie granted her a divorce.

With a modest inheritance from Jeffers’s parents, the couple planned to move to a town on the English coast. But the beginning of war in Europe scuttled that idea, and a friend suggested they visit Carmel-by-the-Sea, because its shoreline resembled that of Cornwall. Traveling by stagecoach, Jeffers was amazed at what he found: “For the first time in my life I could see people living—amid magnificent unspoiled scenery—essentially as they did in the Idyls or the Sagas, or in Homer’s Ithaca.”

He and Una had twin sons, Garth and Donnan, and rented a cabin in Carmel. At Una’s urging, and under no financial pressure to find a job, Jeffers became serious about writing and publishing poetry, but the poems were derivative and he knew it. In 1919, he bought a tract of land at Carmel Point and hired stonemasons to build a house based on a Tudor barn Una had seen in England. They called the structure Tor House because it sat up on a rocky peak—a tor in Gaelic. Jeffers decided to apprentice himself to the masons and soon found, as he wrote in a poem named for the house, that “my fingers had the art / To make stone love stone.” With that recognition, said Una, Jeffers “became aware of strengths in himself unknown before.” His poetry suddenly changed as well, shedding its gentle, Georgian sentimentality to become grounded, austere, stonelike.

His view of the human condition also hardened. In “Shine, Perishing Republic,” a poem he wrote shortly after moving into Tor House, Jeffers averred that “America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire.” He asked that his sons “keep their distance from the thickening center,” because while “cities lie at the monster’s feet there are left the mountains.” Specifically, the Santa Lucia Range that stretches like a spine down the Central Coast. Addressing Garth and Donnan directly at the end of the poem, Jeffers wrote, “Boys, be in nothing so moderate as in love of man, a clever servant, insufferable master.”

By then, Jeffers had lived through one world war and was about to live through another. To him, words like “civilization” and “progress” were poor cover for the “stark violence [that] is still the sire of all the world’s values,” as he wrote in “The Bloody Sire.” Modern men were anthill-dwelling, enervated creatures who, he wrote elsewhere, “have choked / Their natures until the souls die in them.”

Shortly after I arrived in Carmel, I went looking for Tor House. When I found myself winding through a neighborhood of densely spaced, magazine-ready bungalows, I assumed the GPS had misled me, but suddenly there it was. In all of the old pictures I had seen, Tor House stood alone on a barren bluff. Now it almost disappears behind multi-million-dollar vacation homes, and I thought of Jeffers’s line, “This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban houses.”

Waiting at the garden gate was Elliot Ruchowitz-Roberts, a local poet who had agreed to show me around. He explained that after Jeffers died in 1962, the family had to sell off much of the surrounding land to cover the inheritance taxes. During the forty years Jeffers lived here, he planted more than two thousand cypress and eucalyptus trees. Now they tower over the surrounding homes, and I wonder how many of the inhabitants have any idea who set them here as saplings.

Source photograph: Robinson and Una Jeffers in Hawk Tower, 1948 © Nat Farbman/LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

We walked through the garden along a stone wall inlaid with fossils, pieces of local obsidian and jade, and a shard of stone from Thoor Ballylee, the tower William Butler Yeats built in County Galway, Ireland. Gesturing toward the sea that crashed beyond the wall, Elliot quoted Jeffers: “We had come without knowing it to our inevitable place.” For decades here, Jeffers wrote poetry in the morning, set stone and planted trees in the afternoon, and read to his family at night by the fireplace.

With an ancient iron key, Elliot let us inside. Tor House was smaller than I expected, just three rooms downstairs and one bedroom upstairs, where the whole family slept. At one end of the main living room was a small nook furnished with a sea captain’s table where Una sat during the day and carried on a voluminous correspondence. Elliot pointed to some markings on the redwood ceiling above her chair. “Robinson’s writing desk was on the second floor right above hers,” he explained. “He measured out his long poetic lines by walking back and forth, and if Una didn’t hear him pacing, she rapped on the ceiling with a broom.” Elliot, a retired college professor with an Abe Lincoln beard and long dark hair pulled back with a clip, grinned broadly.

At the other end of the room stood Una’s 1904 Steinway grand piano. George Gershwin—an acquaintance of the family—played some of his final songs at it. Above the piano hung a portrait of Jeffers’s granddaughter Una, about whom he wrote one of his last poems. Elliot (who, I had begun to realize, knows reams of Jeffers’s poetry by heart) quoted it in full. “I hope she will find her natural elements,” the poem concludes, “The beauty of things—the beauty of transhuman things, / Without which we are all lost.”

In essence, that line presented Jeffers’s alternative to the horrors of human civilization. Our great sin as a race, he believed, was detachment, a self-imposed exile from the natural world that led to ugliness and demented violence. The only antidote was to turn away from the detritus, back toward something larger and more sublime. “One light is left us: the beauty of things, not men,” he wrote in “De Rerum Virtute.” So Jeffers invented the anti-anthropocentric philosophy that he provocatively called inhumanism. The coinage was probably intentionally misleading. From Jeffers’s point of view, to be “inhuman” wasn’t to be sadistic or even indifferent, but simply to develop an ethos that reached beyond man as the measure of all things. Inhumanism entailed “the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence.”

Elliot mentioned a late poem, unpublished in Jeffers’s lifetime, in which the poet begins by describing melting polar ice caps and mountain glaciers, and then imagines a future in which “little fish will flicker in and out of the windows” of Tor House. This poem was written sixty years ago, long before anyone except a few paleoclimatologists were talking about global warming. And yet Jeffers could see it coming. In 1958, when much of American poetry had dissolved into self-absorption, Jeffers was foretelling a climate crisis.

Source photograph: Robinson Jeffers at the top of Hawk Tower, 1926 © Bettmann/Getty Images

From where Elliot and I stood, we could see and hear the promontory that became the site and the title of Jeffers’s best-known poem, “Carmel Point,” at the end of which he wrote,

We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.

By coming to the continent’s end, Jeffers had made the long journey back to our evolutionary home—the sea. Unlike the hawks and other birds, his species had abandoned the sea and was now paying the price for self-consciousness, for ego, for hubris. Gazing seaward, Jeffers rejected the historical time that so preoccupied Ezra Pound and the modernists, and he pondered instead what geologists call “deep time.” In recognizing that “the tides are in our veins,” that “we still mirror the stars,” Jeffers crossed over the great schism that divided the human mind from the world and from itself.

Elliot grabbed another key and led me back outside toward what I had really come to see: Hawk Tower. Set across the flower garden from Tor House, the tower is constructed with what Jeffers called “heavy sea-orphaned stone,” and stands forty feet tall. Jeffers built it himself, rolling rocks (some weighing four hundred pounds) up from the coast. “I hung / Stones in the sky,” he wrote, and he did, first using ramps, later hoisting them into place with block and tackle. We tend to think of poets as effete, tweedy, impractical. But Jeffers, a former wrestler, designed one of the West Coast’s great architectural eccentricities, then spent five years building it. “My back hurts just looking at it,” Elliot said as we looked up from the tower’s base.

Hawk Tower was supposedly named for a lone raptor that supervised Jeffers’s work from above. In the poem “Rock and Hawk,” Jeffers gazes out at a falcon and thinks,

Here is your emblem
To hang in the future sky;
Not the cross, not the hive,
But this; bright power, dark peace.

Jeffers rejected both the cross of Christianity and the bustling hive of modernity for what he called a “mysticism of stone.” It was this hard, cold religion that he adopted for himself.

In Jeffers’s lexicon, another word for inhumanism was pantheism. When Sister Mary James Power, a nun from the School Sisters of Notre Dame, wrote Jeffers about his religious beliefs, he replied in a kind letter that is such a powerful distillation of his theology it is worth quoting at length:

I believe that the universe is one being, all its parts are different expressions of the same energy, and they are all in communication with each other, influencing each other, therefore parts of one organic whole. . . . This whole is in all its parts so beautiful, and is felt by me to be so intensely in earnest, that I am compelled to love it, and to think of it as divine. It seems to me that this whole alone is worthy of the deeper sort of love; and that here is peace, freedom, I might say a kind of salvation, in turning one’s affection outward toward this one God, rather than inward on one’s self, or on humanity. . . . I think that it is our privilege and felicity to love God for his beauty, without claiming or expecting love from him. We are not important to him, but he is to us.

Jeffers’s God seems very close to the deity of another great pantheist, Baruch Spinoza, who wrote of Deus sive Natura: God, or nature. For Spinoza and Jeffers, there is no distinction between the Creator and the creation. But for Jeffers, thinking of the Creator as an entity that interferes in human history, then demands love and obedience, is a colossal failure of the imagination, the worst kind of fear-based anthropomorphism. So Jeffers invented a much freakier, “self-hanged God.” This deity believed that peace is dull oblivion; so instead it said, in “At the Birth of an Age,” “I have chosen / Being. . . . I torture myself / To discover myself.”

With Hawk Tower, Jeffers reached beyond the story of human history to a primordial, expansive mysticism. When Jeffers rewrote “The Oresteia” for the modern stage, he called it The Tower Beyond Tragedy, because the tower represented for him the place Orestes turned after he abandoned the epic violence of his family. “Orestes has ‘fallen in love outward,’ ” Jeffers wrote, “not with a human creature, nor a limited cause, but with the universal God.” Or with nature.

As one might expect, the tower is a bit cramped inside. It has a secret staircase built into the front wall that reminded me of a narrow passage of Mammoth Cave called Fat Man’s Misery. Halfway up the stairs, I regretted my decision.

On the lower floor sits a chair and desk at which Jeffers worked (though probably never here in the tower). According to Elliot, the chair was one hundred and fifty years old and had been carved from the timber of a nearby Carmelite mission.

A less daunting staircase wraps around the tower. The second-story room, paneled in mahogany, was designed as a sitting room for Una. On one wall hangs a portrait of Jeffers taken by Edward Weston. As Weston and others have remarked, the poet had granite features, a face that looked as if it had been chiseled by the wind and waves. Yet there was also a tenderness in Jeffers’s eyes. It reminded me of Weston’s defense of his friend: “Despite his writing I cannot feel him misanthropic: his is the bitterness of despair over humanity he really loves.”

The stairs lead up to a marble-floor battlement, and then Hawk Tower resolves into an open turret. Into one corner, Jeffers set a flat stone that functioned as a small bench. Once the family was in bed, Elliot told me, Jeffers would perch here with a cigarette and a glass of wine, stargazing and listening to the endless beat of the ocean.

Jeffers’s poetry is as relentless as the sea. What he heard the waves saying over and over was: You are nothing. Your cities are nothing. Your history is nothing.

I thanked Elliot for his generosity and headed south along the Pacific Coast Highway. The sky was as blue as the sea was green. And the cliffs seemed to be diving back down into the waters from which they rose. You could almost hear the tectonic plates crashing into the jagged upthrust of its conglomerate rock. I understood immediately why this is one of the most famous stretches of highway in the world, hugging mountains and leaping over gorges. With every glimpse of the sea and its granite headlands, I wanted to pull over and have a look. And when I did, what I kept thinking about was my smallness. I felt like a tiny figure surrounded by sheer, vaulting precipices in an ancient Chinese painting. Jeffers must have felt this, too.

It is, of course, on some level absurd for me to think about Highway 1 as the end of the American dream. It looks more like the apotheosis, a full flowering. But when I pulled off the road to hike in Andrew Molera State Park, I found that almost all the trails had been closed because of recent fires. And as Jeffers would tell us, we have no one to blame but ourselves. The writer Guy Davenport once described the car as a “bionic roach,” and here we all were, eating our way through a state where everyone drives everywhere and where all of that driving has lit a climate fire that is now blazing out of control.

I headed back north to Soberanes Point, the site of a classic Jeffers poem, “The Place for No Story.” Parking on the side of the road, I pocketed the Selected Poems and followed Soberanes Creek down a trail that led to a narrow wooden bridge and a deep gorge of falling water. White succulents bloomed on the rock walls, and steeper parts of the cliff face had eroded into gnomic spires and buttresses. The creek, pouring out of the mountains, had carved a narrow trough into the pale granite, depositing at its mouth rounded stones like the ones Jeffers used to build his tower. It’s a harsh, crushing kind of beauty. Jeffers wrote that “the gray air [is] haunted with hawks,” and for the first time since coming here, I spotted a red-tailed hawk, hovering just above me, wings tilted against the wind, waiting to dive. But finding no prey in the sedge, it swept away in a swift, regal glide. That was the spirit of Robinson Jeffers, I told myself, and I didn’t feel mawkish thinking it.

I pulled the poems from my pocket. “This place is the noblest thing I have ever seen,” wrote Jeffers at the end of “The Place for No Story”:

No imaginable

Human presence here could do anything
But dilute the lonely self-watchful passion.

Here was Jeffers’s metaphysic of transhuman beauty. It was, I think, the beauty of this coast that in many ways informed Jeffers’s darkness. The human race was “a spreading fungus,” he wrote, “my own coast’s obscene future.” And here we all were, still spreading, still belching fossil fuels, still drying out the forest floors and extending the fire season. Indeed, I was beginning to feel that nowhere do Jeffers’s predictions about the demise of mankind seem more prescient than in this ravaged state.

In the agonizing poem “Hurt Hawks,” Jeffers wrote of a raptor that dragged its broken wing for weeks around Carmel Point until, with a “lead gift,” Jeffers put the hawk out of its misery. “I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk,” he wrote. For a long time, I’d thought of Jeffers’s fatalism about humanity as a kind of callousness. But now I think it was his sensitivity to all life—the injured hawks, the lab animals he witnessed “cowering in cages”—that fueled his anger at his own species, his feeling that the world would be better off without us.

It’s a sentiment to which I have become deeply sympathetic. Not long ago, I read about the case of a man who tied a pit bull to the fender of his truck and dragged the dog for two blocks before bystanders forced him to stop. I would just as soon turn off that man’s light as I would a light in my own house. Which is another way of saying that it wouldn’t bother me in the least if the entire human race vanished from the face of the earth, along with its architecture and literature and military gunships. Good riddance to us all.

The other ten million species on the planet would be relieved to see us go. But still the going would be tragic. Tragic in the Greek sense of hubris—that we would deserve it—but also tragic in that it would be accompanied by appalling human suffering: water wars, famines, heat death, refugees turned away from closed borders. But that is the future toward which our species is hurtling, unable as we are to “uncenter our minds from ourselves.”

In 1941, near the height of Jeffers’s popularity, the Library of Congress invited him to Washington to give the inaugural address at a conference called “The Poet in a Democracy.” The audience included Supreme Court justices and Cabinet officials, and was so large that loudspeakers were installed for those crowded outside the auditorium. In his speech, Jeffers offered a new way to read his poems. “I have heard myself called a pessimist,” he said, “and perhaps I have written some words of ill omen in my books of verses . . . but they are not words of despair.” He said a poetry that fixates on death is also a poetry that dreams of resurrection: “If we conjecture the decline and fall of this civilization, it is because we hope for a better one.” At first I was drawn to Jeffers’s notion of rising from the ashes. But the more I thought about it, the more disingenuous his speech felt. Perhaps he was trying to soften his vision for the D.C. luminaries, but it flew in the face of his oeuvre. After all, didn’t he write in “De Rerum Virtute,” “One light is left us: the beauty of things, not men; / The immense beauty of the world, not the human world”? Jeffers was, as he wanted to be, our Cassandra. He predicted that rapacity and ego would lead us to our demise, to the brink of extinction, and here we are.

What’s more, I believe that the fatuous notion of hope must itself go extinct. There is nothing left to hope for. No better human civilization is going to gracefully rise from our mistakes. It’s simply too late in the grind of the capitalist machine for that. We will not voluntarily do what we should: abandon industrial agriculture, move to small-scale economies, and power self-reliant, Jeffersonian cantons with clean energy.

If we do, as a species, survive the coming catastrophe, I suspect it will only be as the small bands of resourceful, food-sharing generalists that Paul Shepard described in his classic plea, Coming Home to the Pleistocene. Heat-absorbing concrete and heat-induced violence will make densely crowded cities unlivable, and the desk-based skills of urban dwellers will prove useless. Instead, we will return to the way we lived for half a million years before agriculture brought on the modern world and all of its maladies. That will be the resurrection of human civilization that Jeffers imagined—a return to our true place in the matrix of life.

On my last day in California, I headed away from the water, down through Carmel Valley and the center of the Coastal Range. I traveled several shaky miles on dirt switchbacks before the road opened up to reveal jagged ridgelines and canyons filled with live oaks, ponderosa pines, and the rare Santa Lucia fir.

Under an eight-hundred-year-old oak, I pulled up alongside Greg Sherman, an octogenarian sporting an impressive handlebar mustache and a felt fedora. A former Marine, jewelry maker, and leader of vision quests, Greg has lived in these mountains for almost forty years. He offered to guide me to the place that had inspired one of my favorite Jeffers poems, “Hands.” In it, he visits a remote cave and finds hundreds of native petroglyphs, all drawings of hands.

Greg drove over the ridgeline in his old pickup, and I followed. Boulders and pine cones the size of footballs filled the one-lane dirt road, which was badly washed out. We crept carefully down into a canyon somewhere in the Ventana Wilderness. Trees along the road were charred from recent fires. We came to an old homestead built beside a beautiful trout stream called Church Creek.

“When I was younger,” Greg said, selecting two walking sticks from his truck, “I used to fish down this creek from here to the hot springs at Tassajara.” Greg had bad knees, but he told me he wanted to see the place one more time. We crossed the creek and started a steep climb through a meadow of madrones and manzanita. Jeffers and Una had wandered here sometime in the late Twenties, following the same path. When we reached the base of a cliff, Greg said he wanted to offer a prayer to those he called “the Grandfathers.” His invocation ended, “We are the fruit of all those generations that went before us. Ike! Ike! It is good!”

Those generations included members of the small Esselen tribe, a migratory people who are believed to have spent summers fishing on the coast and winters grinding acorns in these canyons. About one hundred feet above us, a number of rock shelters lined the sandstone outcrops. Slowly, Greg and I found footholds and crevices that led us up to the cave Jeffers had explored and that archaeologists estimate was inhabited by the Esselen for 3,400 years. There, they painted on the black, soot-stained wall pictographs of nearly 250 hands—white, skeletal, and highly stylized. They looked like something out of a German Expressionist painting. What did they mean? Archaeologist don’t know. And even today, who knows why humans make art? The answer eludes us. But we do know this: of all the primates, only Homo sapiens have the complex hand structure and fine motor skills needed to make art. It seems fitting, then, that one of the first images we as a species created was a hand.

Greg told me a theory about these petroglyphs: “The Esselen believed that if you see a handprint in a sacred place, and you touch that print, you will come into connection with the sacred place.” Greg paused, then added, “I believe that.”

“What happened to them?” I asked rather obtusely.

“The white man happened to them!” he shot back.

They were enslaved by the Spanish to build missions. They were ravaged by disease. An old Spanish rancher told the anthropologist John Coulter that he remembered, as a boy in the mid-1800s, seeing Esselen corpses hanging in the trees of what is now Indian Valley. In the end, the tribe may have remained so long in these rock shelters simply to escape genocide.

Greg argued that the Esselen had no words for “war” or “killing,” and that they thought everything had a spirit. That certainly would have appealed to Jeffers, who called them a “shy quiet people.” But at the end of “Hands,” Jeffers gave his own interpretation of the petroglyphs. The images announced:

Look: we also were human; we had hands, not paws. All hail
You people with the cleverer hands, our supplanters
In the beautiful country; enjoy her a season, her beauty, and come down
And be supplanted; for you also are human.

The Esselen, it seemed to me, represent not only our past but our future—a future in which we have gone extinct, or exist only in small, radically deindustrialized, egalitarian communities. Neither possibility troubled me. I stepped toward the wall and pressed my palm against one of those ancient, vanquished hands.

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