This blog is about contemplative inquiry


Highly recommended for anyone interested in Brighid, Celtic spirituality and the evolving culture of modern Paganism. In The Torch of Brighid, Erin Aurelia eloquently describes her flame tending path as a devotee of the Goddess Brighid. For her, this is a path of celebration, contemplation, creativity and deep personal change. Her book shares the fruits of a remarkable journey.

The author makes clear that she is not reconstructing a past Pagan practice. No such practice is known. She references a Christian history dating from 480 CE, where nuns maintained a sacred flame at Kildare in Ireland. This was documented as still in place in the later 12th century CE by Gerald of Wales in his History and Topography of Ireland but was repressed by the English King Henry VIII – who also ruled Ireland – as part of his violent religious revolution of the 1530s and 40s. On 1 February 1993, flame tending was revived both by Catholic Brigantine sisters in Kildare by the neo-Pagan Daughters of the Flame in Vancouver, BC. Both groups were influenced by Gerald of Wales’ description.

Erin Aurelia has been a flame tender for 20 years. She began in the Daughters of the Flame and then founded her own Order, the Nigheanan Brigde Flametending Order, going on to lead it for eight years. The original model involved moving through cycles of twenty days, in which nineteen flame tenders take a day each to tend the flame, leaving the Goddess to take care of the twentieth. Erin found that she wanted an intensified practice and a closer fellowship with other Brighid devotees. During those years, she writes: “Brighid inspired me to develop guided meditations to use during vigils, seasonal feasts, and lunar phases”. Later came “the template for a whole new way to practice flame tending: the way that the flame tending cycle matches with the twenty letters of the traditional Irish tree ogham alphabet, in which each alphabet letter is denoted by a tree and infused with esoteric meaning”. She describes herself as “enthralled and excited” by this discovery, which lead on to daily communing with Brighid and a fuller development of her work.

She found the process transformative, and learned that “growth is not only made through obtaining wisdom, but by implementing it. And Brighid showed me that I can effectively implement it by embodying her own skills as Shaper, Healer, Seer, and Transformer. Through embodying her skills, I became empowered”. In the narrative of her own journey, Erin shows her willingness to innovate, take initiatives, lead when called to do so, and also step back from leadership. Her relationship with ancient culture is to be inspired by it without being bound by it. I see her as modelling the best of modern Pagan practice in these respects.

Erin provides extensive information on her flame tending vigils, and how to set them up. She shares prayers, meditations and path workings. She includes her unique approach to ogham work, and also her own way of working energetically with the traditional three cauldrons’ (of warming, vocation and knowledge). She shares her ways of working through the four Irish fire festivals from Imbolc (1 Feb.) to Bealtaine (1 May} to Lughnasadh (1 Aug.) to Samhain (1 Nov.). She has an Imbolc advent practice centred around the four Sundays prior to Imbolc – because it starts the year in this tradition and is specifically dedicated to Brighid. Her book is a powerful addition to the growing literature about Brighid as a much loved Goddess.


The wood thrush has a complex throat that allows it to sing two notes at the same time and harmonize with its own voice.

“Ancient poets in Sumer composed in more than one dialect, and the dialects were gendered. … For example, in Inanna’s Descent when a god or the (male) narrator speaks they use one dialect; when a goddess speaks, her words are in another mode. Noticing the difference between their tongues was a breakthrough that led to the decipherment of broken clay tablets that had long laid separated in museums across the world. I wonder how the artists performed the voices when poetry was sung.

“The score of musical Sumerian speech expands still further. ‘Wood’ had its own symbol in Sumerian, distinguishing it from the other raw materials or swaying trees. Signs expressed the difference between what is animate, inanimate, and intensely animate, in other words, divine.

“Intensively alive clay tablets on museum shelves burrow between Mesopotamian stone seals and terra cotta plaques, bearing nature symbols everywhere. We find compassion, delight, and danger in them: sea-Nammu, storm-Enlil, date palm-Inanna. Bird men on trial before bull-helmeted gods. Feather-skirted goddesses brandishing clusters of heavy fruit. Out of their shoulders leap lightning, grain, sunrays, and fishy streams.

“Humbaba* radiates melam, the vigor of being intensely alive, and Inanna radiates date palm blossoms, arrows, or bolts of energy from her shoulders. The symbol for divinity looked like a star. It radiated the vigor of uniquely dynamic forms of life.

“Look deep into life forms and see shimmering, pulsating cell membranes, the ceremonial fringed dancing-capes of being. Long before we saw a cell shimmer under a microscope, we saw life shimmer in myth”.

Dianna Rhyan Staff of Laurel, Staff of Ash: Sacred Landscapes in Ancient Nature Myth Winchester, UK & Washington, USA: Moon Books, 2023 (I plan to write a review of this book when I have had more time to digest it.)

*Humbaba is a ‘monstrous, though anthropomorphic, guardian of the Cedar Forest in Lebanon, equipped with superhuman powers in the form of 7 ‘auras’ (or ‘terrors’). In the Epic of Gilgamesh He is defeated (in some versions through trickery) by Gilgamesh and his companion Enkidu, who go on to cut down the forest. The domain of the ‘intensely animate’ is thereby shrunken as heroic ‘civilisation’ marches arrogantly on. Gilgamesh will learn lessons later in the epic.

See: The Epic of Gilgamesh: The Babylonian Epic Poem and Other Texts in Akkadian and Sumerian translated by Andrew George Penguin Random House UK, 2020 (2nd ed. First ed. 1999)


Where I live, the hawthorn is losing its blossom. It looks like a kind of death, but is in fact just another phase in the life cycle of this plant. Its goal is to bear fruit. For many years, as part of my regular Druid practice, I worked with a wheel of the year mandala involving sixteen plants (mostly trees, many of these being ogham trees (1,2). Hawthorn covered the period from 1-23 May. In a previous post I have also looked at the special case of the Glastonbury thorn, with which I felt a strong personal relationship before it was vandalised (3).

In his The Underworld Initiation (4), R. J. Stewart suggests that we see all members of the rose family as sharing the same symbolism – showing in nature a sequence of promise, pain and fulfilment: blossom, thorn and fruit. (For me it seems that the apparent dying back to bear fruit is the ‘pain’, if that’s the right word, rather than the slightly extraneous thorns. Maybe that’s too literal, or maybe I’m identifying too much with the plant as subject).

I notice that my own tree mandala, developing from a kind of dream time, includes three members of the family: blackthorn (8-30 April), hawthorn (1-23 May) and apple (1-23 August). Indeed my original version had the wild rose for midsummer (16 June – 8 July), before I replaced it with the more conventional oak. Yet in my heart’s imagination, the rose is my solarised midsummer and midday plant. More widely, this plant family, both naturally and imaginally, has been vividly important to me over the years.

R. J. Stewart was inspired by Scottish Border ballads, especially Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin. I like what he says about working with traditional sources. “One of the most damaging attacks that can be made upon a tradition is to ‘restore’ it, or to ‘prove’ an original model … restoration implies the withdrawal of the vivifying spirit into another world, leaving only a shadow behind … such a restoration can only be made within ourselves, by bringing our imaginations alive with the traditional symbols” and developing them in the way our inspiration prompts. Here and now, I can begin to let go of May 2023, and allow the peak of the light time to come in. The rose family is still there, as companion and teacher.

(1) (A note at the end of the post explains the whole mandala)

(2) (Explains the contemplative context of my tree mandala work)


(4) R. J. Stewart The Underworld Initiation: A Journey Towards Psychic Transformation Wellingborough: The Aquarian Press, 1985


This post is a continuation of the last (1). During his experimental year of radical wilderness solitude in Patagonia, Robert Kull maintained a journal. The complete journal was 900 pages long, and he had not only to review it but also to write an edited version. Both the original writing and the editing involved a careful process of selection. Even the original entries told only “one among many possible tales”. Kull says: “I have, though, both in the original journal entries and in the editing process, tried to tell my truth as I lived it”. He is very conscious of the way in which “the magic of words”, and cultural expectations about narratives, including the motif of the ‘hero’s journey’, can come between the experience and the record. These considerations influence what he brings back from his year, and what we can learn from it. I feel moved by, and respectful of, the way he works through these concerns.

“In the journal, a saga of physical adventure and spiritual transformation runs parallel to and weaves through the drifting account of daily life – the autobiographical quest of the hero. This is a recognized, even expected, storytelling mode for someone spending a year alone in the wilderness, and I could have enhanced the heroic saga during editing. But instead I’ve allowed that tidy narrative to remain interrupted over and over by the unruly wildness of the ‘hero’s’ soul.

“In the messier story, the hero’s cultural ideals of personal success, social progress, and free will are questioned in view of the cyclic storms of depression, rage, fear, and doubt about his place in society and a felt lack of spiritual development. Despite differences in theology, moral orientation and self-discipline, the man in that pedestrian tale may have more in common with St. Augustine and his surrender of personal agency to Divine Will than with the stereotypical self-oriented striving of modern culture’s secular hero.

“My goal in the wilderness was not to conquer either the external world or my own inner nature, but to give up the illusion of ownership and control and to experience myself as part of the ebb and flow of something greater than the individual ego. But the goal of attaining enlightenment was elusive – except when it was not. Through a shift in consciousness, my quest came to an end as I realized there was nowhere to go and nothing to get. The notion of a holy grail out there – or even within – was illusory, and what I was seeking I always already had: I was not a special hero, but simply a speck of life like all other specks – unless I was not. Personal agency always reasserted itself, and these two aspects of my being struggled and then tentatively began to dance together.

“Stories of spiritual seekers or solitaries in the wilderness are often portrayals of heroic adventure. It’s difficult not to slip into this mode, but I’ve tried. We already have enough of such writing, and in its most blatant form it’s little better than checkout-counter publications flaunting the amazing lives of superhuman ‘stars’. When I read such stories and compare them to my own actual life, I feel diminished. ‘That’s not how my life is. What’s wrong with me?’ I’m also pulled out of my own life and into vicariously living the imaginary life of another. What I offer instead is a more human account so perhaps we can wander the spaces and silences of wilderness solitude together.” (1)


(2) Robert Kull Solitude: Seeking Wisdom in Extremes – A Year Alone in the Patagonian Wilderness Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008


‘Perhaps the most useful aspect of my year alone in the wilderness was to come to accept that my inner world has its own inherent weather patterns, as does the external world. The recognition that I’m not in control and that grey days do not mean I’ve done something wrong, That all the ups and downs, lights and darks, are part of who I am; who we are’ (1).

This post is a second story from Stephen Batchelor’s The Art of Solitude (1,2) – this time not about him. On 5 February 2001, Robert Kull, then aged 54, spent a year alone on a remote island off the southern coast of Patagonia. The nearest humans were at Puerto Natales, sixty miles away across impassible mountains and fjords. No boats ever passed by. Kull wanted to explore extended solitude as a self-challenging inquiry. He had already experienced three months of solitude in northern BC, Canada, which he found strange, powerful and ‘potentially frightening’ especially ‘without other people to help me maintain my identity’. This had led to a breakdown, as the ‘facade of autonomous self-sufficiency started to crumble’, and then to a breakthrough – an ecstatic experience of mystical union with nature that lasted several weeks.

Wishing for a truly radical solitude off the Patagonian coast, Kull even questioned his own journal writing on the grounds that ‘daily writing feels like breaking solitude’, since ‘as soon as the solitary begins to speak, even if by writing to an imagined reader, he (or she) is no longer truly alone’. For when he writes, or thinks about writing, ‘I’m not really here in solitude, but in an imaginary future where someone else is reading my descriptions’. But he also finds that when he considers not writing, ‘I’m hit with a wave of isolation and loneliness’. Self-compassionately, and out of loyalty to his project, he continues with his journal.

In the early weeks Kull is busy with the construction and maintenance of his cabin (built of material brought with him on a Chilean Navy ship). He is also equipped with a wind generator, solar panels, a wood-burning stove, and a small boat with outboard motors. He has concerns about fresh water, firewood, blackflies and shoulder pains. Once set up, he records his observations of condors, eagles, ducks, dolphins, seals and limpets. He fishes, he reads, and he writes about the books he is reading. He settles into a routine of meditation, philosophical introspection, writing poems, and taking photographs.

Batchelor does not mention that Kull’s sojourn was tied in to a PhD. project for The University of British Columbia at Royal Roads, Vancouver Island. Kull’s research question was: What are the physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual effects of deep wilderness solitude? (3) Kull summarises his methodology: “I develop an innovative methodology of vigilant mindfulness combined with radically honest journal keeping and narrative writing to examine and document my own lived experience in solitude. I extend interdisciplinarity and integrate spiritual practice with academic study, and I share my work with the non-academic community”. This seems to me an important piece of context, which makes the project clearly pre-meditated and planned with a community of peers and an accountability to them. It holds the individual quest within a collective endeavour and, in my view, adds to its meaning.

Unsurprisingly, Kull shows dedication, deep thought and meticulous planning in organising his experiment. He shows courage, honesty and rigour in carrying it out. He finds, and reports, that he does not repeat an earlier ‘enlightenment’ experience. Complex subjective experience is simply too tricky in that respect. It is to Kull’s credit that he can accept a new and different outcome. One lesson I draw from his experiment is that solitude cannot be absolute. It is always relative, always negotiated, and will involve different costs and outcomes depending on who is being solitary and what their arrangements are. Kull’s was a well-resourced collective project, though it may not always have felt like it alone on the island.

I will return to Robert Kull’s wilderness solitude project when I have read his own book. I am grateful to him for putting himself on the line in this remarkable experiment. His willingness to share his personal experience in the setting of an academic project, and to explore the issues that it raises, is a gift to us all.

(1) Stephen Batchelor The Art of Solitude: A Meditation on Being Alone with Others in This World New Haven, CT & London, England: Yale University Press, 2020

(2) See also:

(3) Robert Kull’s book for the public, Solitude, Seeking Wisdom in Extremes – A Year Alone in the Patagonia Wilderness, is referenced on this site, with a link to Amazon. See also:

* Often transliterated as Chuang Tzu


Two pictures taken 12 hours apart in neighbouring locations. 7.30 am above and 7.30 pm below. The wheel of the day following its course in the light time of the year. Dawn is well past regardless of mist, and sunset yet to come even if shadows are lengthening.

Delighting in these experiences. No further narrative.


The Irish name for May is Bealtaine. Linguistically at least, the May Day festival sets the scene for a calendar month. As I experience the wheel of the year in my own life, this feels right. May, the merry month, has always been special to me. Born towards the end of the month in 1949, I continue to feel newer and fresher in May, with a heightened sense of life. Changes happening around me, in the rest of nature, feed that sense. I’m part of something bigger.

The demarcation of time might be a product of human counting and naming, but it doesn’t feel arbitrary to me. Counting and naming have a powerful magic of their own. On 14 May 2023 I went on a morning walk, reaching a small wooded area at about 7.45 am. It was a time of dispersing mists and strengthening light. A time of warming up. I enjoyed it from the start, but there came a moment when my experience of the walk changed radically.

I see the wood. I stand at its edge. Hawthorn invites me in, decked in the green and white of the May season. I understand this as a moment for slowing down and shifting into a softer, more intuitive connection with the realm I am entering. I am moving into a kind of sacrament – a communion with nature in a unique time and place. I feel a joyful kind of reverence here, free of solemnity and unction. As I continue slowly on the path, sunlight, striking a slender tree trunk, illuminates my way.

Then comes a tanglewood immersion. Variations in wood. Variations in green. Variations in light – especially light. This place could be dark and dank. At times, no doubt, it appropriately is. But it is May now, and wonderfully backlit. There’s a yellowing of green that points to new light and growth rather than their decay. I have a strong sense of participating in a living world. My own vitality is boosted.

I am now drawn towards water. Again, some foliage is shaded. Other foliage is vividly lit up. On the water, the mist is still clearing. It is still fairly early in the day. It is at times like this that I feel most Druidic, very at home and blessed in this quiet connectedness.

A little later, I crouch at the water margin’s edge. Whereas the previous scene had a spacious serenity, this has intimations of activity, a small but crowded world of its own, with thriving plants and and a thriving sub aquatic realm beside them. Even in this small space, life is complex and abundant. The same holds, on a somewhat expanded scale, to this vulnerable scrap of woodland as a whole. I emerge from my sacrament refreshed and renewed, with the imprint of Bealtaine 2023 upon me.


When Buddhas don’t appear

And their followers are gone,

The wisdom of awakening

Bursts forth by itself.

Stephen Batchelor Verses from the Center: A Buddhist Vision of the Sublime New York, NY: The Berkley Publishing Group, 2000

In the verse above, Batchelor is translating the first century CE Buddhist philosopher and poet Nagarjuna. In the preface to his book, Batchelor declares an intention to locate “Nagarjuna’s central and much misunderstood idea of ’emptiness’ in the wider context of Buddhist, Taoist and Western traditions” and to offer “a contemporary interpretation of Nagarjuna’s vision”. For a fuller exploration of Nagarjuna’s ’emptiness’ (sunyata in Sanskrit), see:

In the later Middle Ages, Llanthony Secunda was the richest Priory in Gloucester and its largest landlord. When the priory was dissolved by Henry VIII, all of its land and wealth were confiscated by the crown. Now, on a part of its once extensive lands, we have a garden bearing its name.


“Three months after becoming a monk, I took off to the Himalayan foothills behind Dharamsala. I was 21 years old. My backpack contained a sleeping bag, groundsheet, towel, kettle, bowl, mug, two books, some apples, dried food and a 5-liter container of water. Monsoon had just ended: the sky was crystalline, the air cleansed, the foliage luxuriant. After 3 or 4 hours, I left the well-trodden footpath and followed animal trails up the steep, sparsely forested slope until I reached the grassy ledge hidden by boulders and sheltered by branches that I had identified earlier on an earlier foray.

“Inspired by stories of Indian and Tibetan hermits, I wanted to know what it would be like to be cut off from all human contact, alone and unprotected. I would stay here as long as my meager supply of food and water permitted. No one knew where I was. If I fell and broke my leg, was bitten by a cobra or mauled by a bear, I was unlikely to be found. High in this aerie, I could still hear the distant horn blasts and grinding gears of buses and trucks below, which I regarded as an affront.

“I would wake with my sleeping covered in dew. After peeing and meditating, I would light a fire, boil water, make tea, then mix it with roasted barley flour and milk powder to form a lump of dough. This was breakfast and lunch – following the monastic rule, I did not eat in the evening.

“My meditations included the sadhanas into which I had been initiated, where I visualised myself either as the furious bull-headed, priapic Yamantaka or the naked, menstruating red goddess Vajrayogini. I alternated these tantric practices with an hour of mindfully ‘sweeping’ my body from head to foot, noticing with precision the transient sensations and feelings that suffused it. When not eating or meditating, I intoned a translation of Santideva’s Compendium of Training, an 8th century Sanskrit anthology of Mahyana Buddhist discourses, which I had vowed to recite in its entirety while up there.


“What remains of that solitude now is my memory of the sweeping panorama of the plains of the Punjab, the immense arc of the heavens, and the embrace of the mountains that harbored this fragile dot of self-awareness. Once, a fabulous multi-colored bird that launched itself from the cliff beneath, floated for an instant in the air, then disappeared from view. A herdsman and his goats came close to discovering me one afternoon. I peeked at them through a lattice of leaves as the animals grazed and the wiry, sun-blackened man in a coarse wool tunic lay on a rock.

“Supplies exhausted and text recited, I trekked back to my room in McLeod-ganj below. During my five days on the mountain I had acquired a taste for solitude that has been with me ever since.”

Stephen Batchelor The Art of Solitude: A Meditation on Being Alone with Others in This World New Haven, CT & London, England: Yale University Press, 2020


Professor Ronald Hutton’s fifth lecture in the Gresham College series on early Pagan history in Britain (1) is called Finding Lost Gods in Wales. Hutton’s main focus is on medieval Welsh literature. This language is a 5th/6th century CE mutation of the Brythonic speech once used throughout Britain, further developed for literary purposes by court bards in the 6/7th century. Hutton describes it as “made for poetry” because of the concentration of meaning in the words. He gives as an example in a literal English translation:

‘Colour light waves spread boiling billows

‘Flood-tide river mouth on sea where nothing waits.’

He contrasts this with an English translation for English ears, demanding more words whilst sacrificing impact and immediacy.

‘Bright as the light that falls on the waves, where the boiling billows spread

That flashes a moment from the meeting of river flood and sea.’

This language was the public voice of a consciously dispossessed people, creating a new sense of Welsh Celtic nationhood in the 9th and 10th centuries, when the English, Scottish Gaels and Vikings had reduced their territory to less that 10% of Britain. It led to a flowering of Bardic culture throughout the medieval period.

Taliesin was celebrated as Wales’ greatest Bard. There is no certainty that he existed, though poems surviving from the 6th century have been attributed to him. There are no recorded statements of his pre-eminence before the 10th century. Later poets inspired by him continued to write in his name for a further 300 years. However his link with Awen as the source of inspiration reveals the mystical roots of the whole Bardic tradition. But for instances or echoes of specifically Pagan motifs we are largely reliant on a small group of texts from the 11th -13th centuries: The Black Book of Carmarthen, The White Book of Rhydderch, the Red Book of Hergest, the Book of Taliesin and the Mabinogion, a collection of prose stories. (The full prose Hanes Taliesin is from a much later date.)

In contrast to Irish medieval literature, we do not find Goddesses, Gods or explicitly Pagan characters in these Welsh texts, even in the four branches of the Mabinogi, though these do seem to be set in Pagan times. Several characters have superhuman abilities, without being presented as Gods. However, we do have Annwn, an otherworldly realm of human-like beings who interact with ordinary humans. We also find shape-shifting abilities – people change into animal forms and back again; humans change their appearance; objects change their form.

There is certainly magic and magical poetry, as in the Preiddeu Annwn (The Lute of the Otherworld). This poem, though hostile to monks and their pretensions to scholarship, is overtly Christian. According to Hutton, poems of this kind delight in being difficult, allusive and packed with metaphor, references and wordplay. No one now can say with any certainty what they were originally intended to mean. But this, suggests Hutton, is a gift and invitation to the poets, story tellers and artists of later generations including our own.

On the specific question of deity, Hutton discusses Rhiannon, Cerridwen, Gwyn ap Nudd, and Arianrhod. None is described in this literature as divine and, according to Hutton, we do not find them in that role in Celtic antiquity.

Rhiannon is superhuman and comes from an enchanted world to find a husband of her own choosing. She stays the course despite horrible experiences. She has been thought of as a horse goddess, but this is not suggested in the Mabinogion and there is no indication of a horse Goddess in the archaeology of Iron Age Britain or in Romano-British inscriptions. She has also been seen as a Goddess of Sovereignty, but she does not confer sovereignty on either of her husbands, and there is no record of any sovereignty Goddess in Europe outside Ireland.

Cerridwen begins as a mother skilled in sorcery trying to empower her son but actually empowering a lowly servant boy instead. By the 13th century she has, through her association with Awen, become the muse of the Bards, giver of power and the laws of poetry. In 1809 the scholar Edward Davies made her the great Goddess of ancient Britain and many people have Iolo seen her in that light ever since.

In 11th and 12th century texts Gwyn ap Nudd was one of King Arthur’s warriors, imbued with a degree of magic power. By the 14th century, poets are making him a mighty power of darkness, enchantment and deception. In the 1880’s the scholar Sir John Rhys made him the Celtic God of the dead and leader of the Wild Hunt. This is largely how he is seen today.

In the fourth branch of the Mabinogi, Arianrhod is a powerful, beautiful and selfish enchantress with the capacity to make unbreakable curses. By the 13th and 14th centuries her magical powers are much increased. She can cast a rainbow about a court, and the Corona Borealis is called the Fortress or Arianrhod. In the 20th century she began to be seen as a Star Goddess.

Professor Hutton’s lecture includes a discussion of the Welsh Bardic revival at the end of the eighteenth century, inspired largely by Iolo Morgannwg, here presented as a mixed blessing given his willingness to forge ‘ancient’ documents to advance his cause. Hutton ends with a section on the legend placing Glastonbury as the site of King Arthur’s final refuge and eventual burial, and also the place in which the Holy Grail was buried. Both of these were concocted by the later medieval monks of Glastonbury Abbey as a potential source of patronage and a pilgrimage income. At the same time, post holes linked to a neolithic structure have recently been found near Chalice Well – which may well be a numinous site of great antiquity. Artefacts have also been recently found in the area, including the Abbey itself, from the early post-Roman period in which Arthur’s career has been set. We weave our stories from a mixture of fact, fiction, speculation and deep intuition. Being conscious of this circumstance may make them all the richer.


See also: for my review of Cerridwen Celtic Goddess of Inspiration by Kristoffer Hughes as an in-depth account of the Goddess and her evolution. He also discusses the Welsh Bardic tradition and the later work of Iolo Morgannwg


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