Tag Archive 'civilization'

Oct 27 2017

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The Roots of Humanity

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For quite some time now I have been pondering what it means to be human, and what exactly our relationship to wild nature is. Recently I read books by E. O. Wilson, Joseph Campbell, Jared Diamond, Steven Pinker and other thinkers on the subject, and I’m still going strong. But it’s a book called The Cave Painters that really got me going. In it I learned that the Chauvet cave of southern France has figurative drawings on the walls that date back over 30,000 years. That rocks my world.

When we think about Cro-Magnons, or other cave-dwelling people living during the Ice Age, we naturally assume that they were inferior to us moderns in every way. But the art they left behind tells a different story.

The more I look into cave art, the more I question the word “civilization” and everything that we associate with it. Did we suddenly become more human when we settled down into towns, domesticated plants and animals? I think not.

There are distinct advantages to being civilized, no doubt. Food security is at the top of the list. Still I can’t help but wonder what was lost in the process. “Progress” is the byword of those who always want things new and improved. But experience teaches us that there’s usually a trade off whenever one way of doing things is exchanged for another.

Civilization – the first agriculturally based towns – came into existence about 10,000 years ago. Before that the lives of human beings were inextricably entwined with the natural world. The cave art left behind is proof of that. The big question is: how far back in time does our humanity go?

Some say Homo sapiens took a great leap forward 50,000 years ago. That’s when we started seriously outpacing our more thickheaded cousins, the Neanderthals. Others say that we have been anatomically human well beyond that, putting the roots of our species back over 100,000 years. Our distant ancestors, not even human by our standards, captured fire and used it half a million years ago.

Where should we draw the line between what is human and what is wild?  Does such a difference exist apart from our preconceptions about ourselves? Whenever I go for a long walk alone into deep woods, I begin to wonder. Cave art makes me wonder even more.

 

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Jan 30 2012

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World Weary

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Thanks to my tech savvy wife, I now get my morning news from an electronic device. Now I can read newspapers from any point on the globe, and keep up with the latest developments everywhere. Talk about information overload! I have to limit myself to half an hour of browsing otherwise I’d be at it all day. There’s really no end to the images and words that are available. With a good internet connection, the world is indeed a small place.

Yeah, now I can read about local, national and international events until I am truly sick at heart. Better than sticking my head in the sand and ignoring it all, I suppose. All the same, I can’t help but wonder what good all this information does me.

Am I better off keeping up with the massacres in Africa, the latest court rulings on crumbling nuclear power plants, or the circus that we call the presidential primaries? How much more do I need to know about the lurid sex lives of the rich and powerful, or the horrific crimes committed by supposedly decent folk? I’m partial to scientific surveys, but the one I read tomorrow will contradict the one I read today. Is eating dark chocolate and drinking red wine good for me or not? I know how they taste. That’s all I can say for sure.

I am world weary. 99% of the so-called information I encounter during the course of a day is tainted with propaganda, and quite frankly, I am tired of sorting through it. I call myself a philosopher because I have an insatiable hunger for meaning, but such a desire is meaningless in the Age of Misinformation. Media buzz trumps reality. And the wider the gap grows between the average person and wild nature, the more this becomes true.

A day in the woods provides temporary relief, but a week or two off the grid only makes it harder to come back.  In the summer of ’92, I went into the Alaskan bush hoping to resolve this matter. I haven’t been the same since. I have directly experienced What-is and know, beyond any reasonable doubt, that it vanishes the moment I step out of a wild forest. So now I turn on an electronic device, searching for more information, substituting that for wisdom. Then I get dressed and go to work on a keyboard, either at home or elsewhere, wondering why I feel so empty inside.

I should be happy. I have my health, a great marriage, my literary work, family and friends, and so much more.  But I am weary in a way that Kierkegaard, Nietzsche or any other existentialist would understand all too well. The gap between the wild and the civilized is wide indeed. And the world we live in doesn’t make much sense.

 

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May 27 2011

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Cutting Grass

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Most people like the look of a well-manicured lawn.  Not me.  The green rugs surrounding homes strike me as the ultimate expression of human hubris – a patently absurd attempt to control nature.  We cut the grass, it grows back.  We cut the grass, it grows back.  Our mastery over this simple plant is temporary at best.

When my wife and I bought our home a decade ago, my main objection to the place was the grass around it.  From May through October, I walk back and forth in my yard once a week at least, pushing a noisy, carbon-emitting machine that turns grass into stubble.  The rain comes, the grass grows, then I do it all over again.  I am Sisyphus with a lawn mower, trapped in social convention.  Even if my immediate neighbors didn’t object, I wouldn’t dare let my yard grow wild.  The value of my property would plummet.

If I had the resources, I’d transform my yard into a lush garden.  But no, to be honest, I’d never put the time into it.  A friend of mine has done just that, but he spends half his life in his yard.  I’d rather be doing other things, like wandering around the woods.

I could always do what the affluent do and simply hire someone to cut my grass.  That is, after all, what the European kings did back in the day when they invented the lawn.  But no, that misses the point.  It matters little who cuts the grass.  The pertinent question is: why cut it at all?

The concept of high civilization is at the heart of any discussion about green space.   It isn’t enough to cultivate fields, thus providing ample food.  We must cultivate everything else in sight, keeping the wild at bay.  After all, it’s either us or them, where “them” is everything living that isn’t under our thumb.  Or so most people think.  But I don’t agree.

To justify mowing I tell myself that the lawn is good place for my wife to lounge, my dog to run, and my visiting grandchildren to play.  But down deep I seethe with rage.  Despite all talk about property rights, I have little control over my own yard.  Social convention.  I am bound by it.  So I dream of a cabin in the woods even while cutting my grass.   And maybe someday, if I win the literary lottery, I’ll make that dream come true.

 

 

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Feb 24 2010

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The Madness of Civilization

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Civilization is indoor plumbing, a dependable food supply, health care, waste management and the social contract among other things, not to mention a host of amenities. Civilization is good for so many reasons that I am reluctant to speak ill of it, even when I’m feeling the wildest of urges.  Then comes tax time and suddenly I’m face-to-face with the absolute madness of it.  Those of you who do your own taxes and can’t use the EZ form know exactly what I’m talking about.  There are 101 ways that civil society can drive one to distraction, but none quite as effectively tax preparation.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not against paying income taxes.  I leave that complaint to those who think they can fund a well-oiled government by other means.  I’m against the madness of the tax code in general, that has turned tax preparation into a cottage industry in this country.  But an inordinately complex and downright absurd tax code is exactly what you get when you let a bunch of lawyers and other congressmen fight over the rules of it for a hundred years.  Good thing I studied advanced mathematics back in college.  Unfortunately, I studied logic as well.

The madness of civilization isn’t limited to tax code.  Far from it.  There is also airport security, civil litigation, lobbying, insurance, plea bargaining, internet fraud, financial derivatives, bundled mortgages, gridlock, an emergency-room health care system and the war on terror, whatever that means.  I could go on but there’s no need.  You know what I’m talking about.  The madness of civilization are all those vexing aspects of modern living that we’ve simply come to accept. . . until they affect us personally.  Then we tear our hair out.

Emerson, Thoreau and those other Romantic thinkers of the 19th Century turned to wild nature for escape from the hustle and bustle of industrializing society, but that seems like a rather quaint notion to those of us living today.  We are buried in corporate and governmental bureaucracy, menaced constantly by false advertisements, mind-numbing paperwork, irrational rules, conflicting facts and doublespeak.  Nowadays, we turn to the wild out of sheer desperation.  Without it, there is no way to achieve balance – no way to know what is real and what is not.

When I was on the Appalachian Trail last summer, I noticed a direct correlation between the overall well being of those I encountered and how long they had been in the woods.  The long-distance hikers were the happiest.  What’s wrong with this picture?  What is it about modern living that makes torrential downpours, blood-sucking insects, mud, sweat and the many other miseries of wilderness travel look good?  All nature-lovers marvel at the beauty and wonder of wildness, but it’s what they don’t say that gets my attention.  Clearly, the madness affects us all.

An aerodynamics expert once told me that the best airplane designs are the most elegant ones, meaning that truly advanced technologies are marked by their simple beauty.  Systems grow more and more cumbersome until finally a quantum leap occurs and suddenly they’re user-friendly.  Computer software design in the 80s and 90s is a good example of this.  The same can be said about social systems, I think.  And with this in mind, we ought rightly to turn to wild nature for guidance.  Otherwise humankind is doomed to live out the rest of its days in a rat maze entirely of its own making.

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Dec 28 2009

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World Without Wildness

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I found a field mouse in the basement the other day – an uninvited guest.  Its sudden appearance inside my home, the ultimate expression of domestication, is proof positive that the wild cannot be completely eradicated.  I find no small consolation in this.  I absolutely dread the possibility of living in a world without wildness, so I’d like to let that mouse stay.   But I’ll be putting out traps soon.   After all, I have to protect my investment.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between humankind and nature, about the difference between what is wild and what is not.  We use the terms “wild” and “civilized” as if they were opposites, as if one cancels out the other, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true.  Our relationship to the wild is much more complicated than that.  I believe that a part of the wild rests deep within us all, and that the wildness within cannot be completely eradicated any more than the weeds in our yard or the pests creeping into our houses.  All the same, it can be pushed back to the point where any discussion regarding it is moot.

When all that’s left of the wild is the occasional intruder in the basement, we will be living in a world without wildness.  When all nature is under our thumb, one way or other, then the wild won’t be worth thinking about.  When what we call nature is reduced to gardens, woodlots and preserves, and we have the means to genetically alter everything at will, then the wildness within us will be lost as well.  Then wilderness will be a theme park – a mere caricature of what it once was – and we will be only shells of our former selves.

I find it impossible to adequately define concepts like “wild” and “civilization” no matter how much I try.  These are terms fraught with ambiguities.  But this much I do know:  without a place to roam freely, we are merely cogs in a grand, meaningless, self-perpetuating system.  Aldo Leopold got right to the heart of the matter when he said:  “Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”   In an era of flying drones, GPS navigation, infrared cameras, and electronic tracking devices, this question is hardly an academic one.  Computer chips are showing up everywhere.  Soon it will be impossible to completely disappear into the wild no matter how hard we try.  Good news for fighting terrorism or finding lost hikers, but bad news for preserving the wildness essential to us all.

I fear the scientist with his radio collar more than the greedy developer with his bulldozer.  It doesn’t require a great deal of creativity to imagine a team of technicians descending upon a woods wanderer and tagging him or her like any other wild animal.  And why not?  The wild cannot be properly managed if there are gaping holes in the database.  So yeah, I’ll trap that mouse in my basement, but not without deep reservation.  Some part of the wild must be cultivated within me.  Some part of the wild must be allowed even in my own home.  Otherwise, civilization is all for nothing.

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Sep 30 2009

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Alienation and the Wild

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A month after hiking the 100 Mile Wilderness, I still feel the tug of the wild.  This wouldn’t be a problem if society weren’t pulling me in a different direction.  Oh sure, I have my circle of friends who know and love the wild as much as I do, but society at large seems to be disconnected from it.  And that puts every woods wanderer in a tight spot.

How can one maintain a connection to both society and the wild?  It’s tricky, to say the least.  I didn’t invent this conundrum.  Thoreau wrestled with it a hundred and fifty years ago, as did every other 19th Century woods wanderer.  Entire communities have arisen to address this problem.  Maybe I should join one.  But no, beneath every such community lurks a religious, social or political agenda of some sort.  And the one thing the wild teaches you is to go your own way.

A wild animal is, by definition, one that isn’t caged.  Same goes for a man or woman.  I ran wild for a couple weeks in the Maine Woods.  Now here I am, hustling to make a buck, promoting my so-called literary career, and trying my best to treat others decently in the process.  I get up every morning and read the newspaper.  My wife and I discuss the state of affairs over coffee and breakfast, then we set to work on one thing or another.  I’m rarely bored by society at large.  All the same, I can’t quite relate to it.

The health care fight and other congressional debacles; pirates, scam artists, ad men and drug traffickers; rogue nations with big missiles they call dongs; lawyers and lies; broke desperadoes living in motels; angry demonstrators raising their fists for peace and love – the list goes on.  Homo sapiens is, above all else, a patently absurd creature.  Am I any different?  Of course not, but at least I know what a fool I am.  Most people take themselves way too seriously.

Perhaps the word “alienation” is too strong.  It’s more of an inner tension, really, between conflicting interests and realities.  Don’t get me wrong.  I like being clean, dry and warm.  I like waking up next to my wife in a soft bed, making myself a cup of coffee with the mere push of a button, and eating whatever I feel like eating.  This cushy, utterly civilized life has its amenities, no doubt.  But there are times when my gut reacts violently to it.  There are times when I read something and feel an overwhelming desire to throw up.

Maybe it’s just the printer’s ink.  Maybe it’s those perfumed swatches inserted in newspapers and magazines that are making me sick.  Maybe I should stop reading altogether, go crawl into a hole and stay there.  But no, denial won’t resolve this matter.  Somehow, someway, I’ve got to bring the wild home and keep it there.  Somehow I have to bring society and the wild together.  Good luck with that!  Thoreau couldn’t do it.  What makes me think I can?

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Jun 08 2009

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Wild Things

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I read in the paper the other day that Alaskan state officials have cracked down on a guy named Charlie Vandergaw for feeding the bears.  Evidently, he’s been doing this for quite some time now.  Vandergaw lives by himself in a remote cabin and has befriended large, wild browns to the point where he can pet them. He’s been featured on a cable television network called Animal Planet.  No doubt he has plenty of fans.  But officials at Alaska Fish and Game can’t abide by it, so he’s been charged with illegally feeding game and could face a $10,000 fine or a year in jail for it.

Anyone who has a bird feeder in the back yard or who has tossed a nut to a chipmunk creeping into camp can relate to Vandergaw, I’m sure.  We all know we’re not supposed to make wild animals dependent upon us for food, but it’s hard to resist feeding them.  They’re so cute.  Besides, there’s something about the tentative approach of a cautious creature that urges us to share our abundance.  But a bear once fed will look again to humans for a free meal.  What happens if an unsuspecting picnicker doesn’t comply?  Everything is all very warm and fuzzy on Animal Planet, but sometimes our furry buddies get ugly off camera.  That’s what the Alaskan officials are thinking about, anyhow.

Cockeyed libertarians look at the situation and see the government oppressing a gentle, old man who’s not hurting anyone.  Calloused Alaskans believe the grizzlies will eventually turn on Vandergaw.  Still others see this as a strange form of profiteering.  After all, someone had to pay for the ton and a half of dog food that our TV grizzly man has provided.  All this misses the point, I think.  My question is this:  When does the wild cease being the wild?

We’re all guilty of it.  Nature lovers have their preserves.  Scientists have their tranquilizing guns and radio collars.  Hunters want the wild managed to optimize conditions for their prey.  Urban planners have their green spaces.  Even materialistic, money-mad developers, who clearly don’t give a damn about wild nature, still like manicured gardens and golf courses.  We all want a piece of the wild under our thumb.  It’s hard to leave it alone.  And why should we?

Heaven on earth is often depicted as a place where the lion lies down with the lamb.  This biblical notion has infected all of us more than we realize.  One could argue that it’s written into the very definition of civilization.  “Peace on earth” and “dog eat dog” are mutually exclusive concepts, aren’t they?  Why not turn the entire planet into a garden and make all creatures our pets?

I don’t want to belabor this point.  I’m sure that you can see quite clearly where I’m going with all this.  I read about some guy chumming up to Alaskan browns and a part of me, having been exposed to them once, wants to do the same.  Then it occurs to me how easy it is to love something to death.  Truth is, in order for something to be truly wild it has to remain beyond our control.  And that’s a concept we all find difficult to accept.

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Mar 10 2009

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Malthusian Economics

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When ecologists speak of the limits of growth, conservative businessmen everywhere cringe.  It’s as if the tree-huggers were uttering blasphemy – as if the very tenets of capitalism were being dragged through the streets then nailed to a cross.  Ecology is just a cover for socialism, these conservatives say, and it will ultimately undermine all economic progress.  This attitude amazes me.  What amazes me even more is that so many ecologists also believe that capitalism and ecology are mutually exclusive belief systems.  Doesn’t anyone read Thomas Malthus anymore?

In 1798, the political economist Thomas Malthus published The First Essay on Population in which he stated quite clearly that population, when unchecked, increases geometrically, while the food subsistence increases only arithmetically.  This line of reasoning is ironclad, and it doesn’t take a math whiz to see where it leads.  Planet Earth is a finite quantity.  Eventually, given enough people gobbling away at it, we’ll use up all the resources here.  It’s only a matter of when.  The key phrase is “when unchecked.”  But that, of course, implies limits to population growth, either man-made or natural.

Malthusian economics isn’t so much a doomsday scenario as it is a way of quantifying human misery.  The prospect of starvation cuts right to the heart of the matter, but human misery can manifest itself in many other ways.  War, disease, famine, wholesale death – when the Four Horsemen ride, there is plenty of human misery to go around.  The real question is: why should the rich care?

Some rich people believe that their property rights are sacrosanct, yet there is nothing written in nature that prevents one life form from seizing the resources held by another. How easily we forget this as we go about our affairs in the complex web of relations that we call civilization.  The struggle for existence dominates all of nature.  In the wild, any anything goes.  It is only when we, as humans, think, plan ahead and make rules that the game changes.  So what will it be then?  What rules best promote the well being of all parties involved?  I think this is the point that Malthus was trying to make.

Green economics are coming hard and fast.  Why?  Because it’s in the best of interest of the vast majority of people on this planet to slow population growth, optimize natural resources, convert to renewable energy, preserve what’s left of wild nature, and create a world where our kind can be happy and healthy for hundreds of years to come, maybe even thousands.  The alternative to this, as Malthus was trying to show us, is wholesale misery and death.

We’re the ones in the driver’s seat.  We’re the ones with the big brains, thinking ahead, making plans, dreaming up new rules and living accordingly.  So what will it be then?  Green economics or Malthusian?  Civilization is a human construct.  The choice is ours.

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Jan 23 2009

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A Phony Woodsman

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Yesterday was chock full of electronic frustrations.  I began the day in the rat maze that Bowker calls a web site, managing those ISBNs sacred to every book publisher, and finished with a phone call to my tech savvy stepson, Matt, regarding coming changes to my email account.  Plenty of other frustrations between those two: altered passwords, new online fees, and assorted glitches.  By mid-morning, I was ready to toss my computer in a snow bank and go live in a cabin in the woods, completely off grid.  By mid-afternoon, I was slogging through calf-deep snow in nearby woods, trying to sweat out my frustrations.  That helped a little.

The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that I’m a phony woodsman.  Most of my troubles stem from the fact that I have a foot in two entirely different worlds.  On one foot, I’m a writer and small-scale publisher, deeply engaged in high civilization.  On the other I’m a woods wanderer, tramping around roadless areas like a wild animal.  In other words, I keep a line of communication open to society therefore I’m a phony.  If I were a real woodsman, I’d step into the forest and never be heard from again.

I often catch myself fantasizing about disappearing.  My greatest reservation is that I’d lose my wife in the process, along with cherished ties to family and friends.  Then there’s the whole matter of where and how to live, along with the money necessary to set myself up, so the fantasy doesn’t last long.  Making a complete break with society isn’t easy.  Even mountain men had to trap beaver and sell pelts to traders in order to supply themselves with essentials.  Truth is, any retreat into the forest is only a half measure, unless one is utterly misanthropic and independently wealthy.

“No one lives in the woods,” the rather caustic French philosopher Alain once wrote, “Life in the woods is a fiction; the man of the woods is a fugitive.”  When I first read this, I wanted to sling his book across the room.  “Bullshit!” was my gut response.  Then I thought it through and tempered my judgment.  When I’m deep in a wilderness for days on end, I am very much a man of the woods.  In such circumstances, the wild defines me.  But I start missing my family and friends.  Eventually, time and food run out.  Then I return to the world of words, dollars and other abstractions.  Yeah, I’m a phony.  Alain called it.

Yet nothing Alain or any other cafe philosopher says can change what I feel in my heart.  My connection to the wild is profound.  I can’t imagine going too long without a good dose of it.  If ever the day comes when dropping off the grid isn’t possible, then woods wanderers like me will no longer exist.  Yeah, I may be a phony when I call myself a woodsman, but I still must have my regular infusion of the wild, if only for a day or two here and there.  This utterly electronic world can’t sustain me.

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Nov 06 2008

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A Seismic Shift

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Like most people living in America these days, I am deeply concerned about the state of the economy and have been closely following the presidential election as a consequence.  A seismic shift in the political landscape occurred two days ago – there’s no doubt about that.  But it remains to be seen whether or not this shift signals a real change in the way we do things in this country.  Maybe it’s just another swing of the pendulum.

Partisan fighting has been the standard operating procedure in Washington for as long as I can remember.  I worry about terrorism, war, climate change, the mass extinction of plants and animals, a failing social net, and economic collapse, but what I fear most is the kind of left/right squabbling that has paralyzed our country for decades.  If we do not snap out of it soon, we are doomed as a civilization.  I sincerely hope that the current regime change will lead to a major shift in the way we do business.

The whole world is watching.  It begs for leadership worthy of the name.  It hopes that we can overcome our self-righteous, self-absorbed, bullying tendencies and get the global economy moving in the right direction again while addressing planetary matters that touch us all.  There will always be terrorists and tyrants among us, but they can’t get very far until all hell breaks loose.  It is up to us to minimize their impact by making both our country and the world a place where every man, woman and child has a chance, at least, to live a long, happy and healthy life.

I am just a woods wanderer.  I amble about the forests and fields while pondering the human condition, then sit down at this desk to verbalize my take on things.  I am not a voice from the wilderness, a religious or political leader, or an expert of any kind.  But this much I do know:  Either we go to the bargaining table with our foes and work up some kind of deal acceptable to all parties involved, or we fight them to the bitter end.  So what will it be then – conflict or cooperation?  I suspect that more can be accomplished by the latter than the former.  But not everyone shares this view.  Time will tell what those in our new government think.

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