Essay: Ecological and Spatial Approaches to the History of Colonial New England: A Review (2015)

Samuel A. Coren (January 24, 2015)

Works Cited:

William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983).

Brian Donahue, The Great Meadow: Farmers and the Land in Colonial Concord (New Haven: Yale, 2005).

Carolyn Merchant, Ecological Revolutions: Nature, Gender, and Science in New England (Chapel Hill: University of Carolina Press, 1989).

Andrew Sluyter, “Colonialism and Landscape in the Americas: Material/Conceptual Transformations and Continuing Consequences,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 91, 2 (June, 2001), pp. 410-428.

Richard White, Land Use, Environment, and Social Change: The Shaping of Island County, Washington (Seattle: University of Washington, 1980).

From Changes in the Land to the Great Meadow:

Ecological and Spatial Approaches to the History of Colonial New England

By relating society back to ecology, spatial history reveals the material foundations of human systems, and the countless material contingencies behind human choices.  It avoids the narrow attribution of historical change to purely social dynamics, instead recognizing the environment itself as a dynamic catalyst of social transformations.  From the effects of diet on the body to the influence of climate on food-production systems —spatial history extends effective agency to the biophysical network upon which everything human depends.  Conversely and no less importantly, it accounts for the profound effects of portable human cultural systems on the rest of nature.

In the historiography of colonial New England, one can arguably see the theoretical foundations of spatial history in several late-twentieth-century “environmental” or “ecological” studies of the region.   Studies that try to account for what Andrew Sluyter calls “the material and conceptual transformations” of colonial society.  I will discuss these as well as another, extra-regional study—Richard White’s Land Use, Environment, and Social Change: The Shaping of Island County, Washington (1980).  Though earlier than the New England studies, White’s book is widely cited by others concerned with the environmental and spatial history of America.  Also considered is Andrew Sluyter’s essay proposing a “comprehensive theory of geography and landscape,” and his insightful summary of past debates in colonial studies surrounding the relationship between humans and nature.

Richard White’s Land Use, Environment, and Social Change examined the human-directed transformation of Whidbey Island, a thirty-eight-mile-long land form and part of the Camano Islands in the Puget Sound.  White spans from the time of original native occupancy to the nineteenth-century influx of novice white farmers to the twentieth-century reinvention of the area as a regional tourist destination.  With the arrival of white settlers in the 1850s, a radically simplified, human-centered agricultural regime replaced native land management practices (29).  Under this imported cultural system, native plants became ‘weeds’ and ‘brush,’ and the forests of Island County, though carefully managed for centuries, were suddenly ‘unimproved’ (41).  In the process, Salish layman’s knowledge of the landscape became the esoteric domain of botanists and other specialists (41).

Human occupancy of Whidbey Island began between ten and twelve-thousand years ago following glacial retreat.  It was then that the basic features of the modern forest appeared, including the resident tree species of Douglas fir, hemlock and red cedar.

The long-resident Salish Indians carefully managed, and were managed by, the island’s ecology.  Salish organized their lives around seasonal events, included a prolific September salmon run.  Conversely, they engaged in frequent burning of forest to promote the growth of essential resources including nettle, bracken, camas and several species of wild game.

Over the centuries, the island’s ecology was slowly but dramatically reshaped to meet human needs (23-5).  On the island’s former abundance of camas and bracken, White writes that “Rather than being major food sources because they dominated the prairies, camas and bracken more likely dominated the prairies because they were major Indian food sources” (21).

White settlement followed quickly from the Donation Land Law of 1850, which awarded three-hundred-and-twenty acres to each male settler in Washington.  Over the course of three short years, one-hundred-and-ninety-five settlers from the mid-Atlantic states and New York carved up the island into private homesteads. White does not present this as an ecologically value-neutral event, arguing that “farmers composed the vanguard of the ecological invasion of North America,” which was “cataclysmic” to the fragile balance of precolonial systems (35-38).

Cultural differences between Salish and white settlers had material consequences.  Among these, White gives some detail to the imported technology of the boundary fence.  The fence, he writes, also marked the boundary between two kinds of perception: if Salish perception was based on the relational space of a common homeland, settlers’ perception was based on the absolute space of property lines.  Thus, “inside the fence the farmer observed closely; he was inquisitive and experimental.  But outside the fence the farmer’s perception narrowed…”(41).

White argues that many of the nineteenth-century ecological transformations on Whidbey Island were driven by capital.  External markets determined what white residents attempted to produce, whether potatoes, oats, wheat, wool, or rentable summer cabins (44).  Markets likewise imposed an ecologically-destructive push for short-term gains.  White describes how “Island County agriculture swung from plantings of a regular annual crop to rapid shifts from one crop to another.”  “The extremes dominated,” he argues, to the long-term detriment of island ecology (69).  Salish natives struggled to adapt to these diminished circumstances, but many ended up on reservations.  Younger people were more likely to stay, and many intermarried with white settlers (71-2).

The island itself pushed back against maladapted human practices in the late-nineteenth century.  Already by 1875, farmers’ yields were fast diminishing, and cultivated land was “washing away” (70).  Some landowners rented to Chinese immigrants at speculative prices, and subsequently blamed their tenants for the island’s catastrophic loss of fertility (70).

As farming declined, the market turned to the island’s immense timber, which itself was a result of traditional native burning practices.  The Timber and Stone Act of 1878 awarded “land unfit for farming” to settlers for $2.50 per acre, with no improvements required (79, 83).  The ensuing logging operations left behind a tangle of stumps and debris, and slash fires destroyed most of the remaining biomass, leading in turn to the succession of fir by hemlock and alder (106, 91).  By 1911, out of 1690 acres burned in the nineteenth century, only fifty experienced any second growth at all (107).  On cutover land, temperatures were twenty-five degrees hotter than elsewhere, and the seeds of most native trees could not survive for long enough to take hold (108).  Under these conditions, the old relationship between fire and forest was “totally reversed” (112).

The later chapters of White’s study detail twentieth-century transformations on Whidbey Island, including the influx of immigrants, mostly Scandinavian.  Tragically, “the basic physical limits of their land rendered production for a competitive market nearly hopeless,” and most of these novice farmers experienced chronic poverty (129).  Island boosters finally turned to the burgeoning tourist industry in the early 1900s, especially with the construction of new bridges and roads in the twenties and thirties (144-6).  Summer homes attracted urban vacationers, and preservationists campaigned “to save elements of the island environment that seemed on the point of vanishing” (148).  Conservation efforts brought mixed results, however, since the touristic discovery of natural beauty went hand in hand with newly positive “judgments of its economic usefulness.” (157)   Capital, in effect, remained the blind driver of human-induced changes to the island’s ecology.

In his 2001 essay “Colonialism and Landscape in the Americas: Material/Conceptual Transformations and Continuing Consequences,” Andrew Sluyter proposes a comprehensive theory of “colonialism and landscape,” relevant to the work of historians, geographers and others seeking to understand the colonial ecological world.

The material and conceptual transformations brought about by colonial encounters, he argues, were driven by three mutually affecting forces: natives, non-natives and the landscape itself.  Colonial studies go astray, he argues, when they fail to apply “the same epistemological standards to each element and to each side.”   Most often, colonizers are accorded greater powers of agency than either natives or the landscape itself.  Indeed, Sluyter argues that the latter two forces were categorically “lumped together” by official geographies and histories for most of the twentieth century.

This Western epistemological bias invited “specious determinisms” in the work of past historians and geographers.  Nineteenth-and-early-twentieth-century histories presented a natural (and teleological) progression of Western dominance over material and conceptual realms.[1]   Sluyter cites the example of I. Bowman’s 1931 essay “The pioneer fringe,” which among other works served as a pseudo-scientific expression of manifest destiny.  Sluyter argues that within this genre, “The establishment of plantations in the tropics was a natural consequence of their climate just as the dispossession and suffering of natives was a natural consequence of their being native, a categorical condition rather than a relationship.”  In challenging this view, romanticists mourned the loss of a “pristine” precolonial landscape.[2]  Whether they thought of it as Edenic or degenerate, however, both camps assumed the precolonial world to be essentially static.

Scholarship failed across the ideological spectrum to account for biophysical processes in the colonial world.  Following Turner’s frontier thesis, colonial studies focused on the “internal dynamics” of colonizing societies, seeing them as the driving force of colonial transformations.  Supposedly external elements were seen as passive and static, including native societies and the landscape itself.

However, Carl Sauer early challenged this static-and-pristine contra dynamic-and-civilized dichotomy by recognizing “the importance of respecting local ecological knowledge” and learning from native practices.[3]   Unfortunately, Sauer was virtually alone in this until the 1970s, when works including Limits to Growth (Meadows, Meadows, and Randers, 1972) belatedly warned that the Western model of progress was running human and ecological systems against a proverbial wall.

By the 1950s, a new generation of geographers and historians was building evidence that the precolonial landscape was “profoundly modified” by human interventions.   Necessarily, natives “became distinct elements” from the landscape upon which they acted (and were acted upon).  Sluyter argues however that this emergent “ethnohistoricism” was no less structured by Western teleology than the notion of progress, because “the intrinsic nature of the colonizer remains the ultimate determinant” of transformations.

Postcolonial studies such as Cole Harris’ essay collection The Resetttlement of Bristish Columbia (1997) did accord full and “potentially equal” agency to natives.  However, postcolonial studies remained challenged by a lack of native self-representation in archival records.  Without recourse to these traditional sources, historians and geographers are still learning to decipher “relict landscape morphologies and artifacts,” often in consultation with other fields of knowledge.

In the 1990s, a body of scholarship formed to demonstrate the sustainability of native land and social systems, works including Denevan (1992a), McCann (1999), Wilken (1987), and Berkes (1999).   Likewise, the rise of appreciation for sustainable models both historic and developing led to subtler extensions of the term “native.”  Not an ethnic designation per se, “native” for these scholars came to encompass any community or person with an “intimate familiarity with a system of production and consumption rooted in the dynamic realities of a particular place.”[4]

This conceptual renaissance little affected material conditions, however.  Sluyter argues that this is because the “economics, politics, and culture of Westernization became mutually reinforcing.  And myths of emptiness, such as the pristine myth, became so indurated as to resist erosion by the accumulation of much contrary evidence.”  Meanwhile, native thought systems and practices are widely threatened by the hegemony of standardized Western models.

Sluyter believes that landscape studies could learn from discourse analysis.  Not because space can be read like a book, but because “landscape patterns are both material and conceptual, constitute both physical infrastructure and symbolic communication, and simultaneously result from and influence transformative processes such as human labor and categorization.”

Sluyter suggests that the goals of a “comprehensive theory of geography and landscape” would recognize that colonial transformations were “seminal” to present conditions, making the importance of colonial studies self-evident.  However, such studies must be broadened to include social as well as “biophysical” processes, and address the material and conceptual “feedbacks” that “naturalize and obscure” landscape transformations.  Needless to say, accounting for material processes requires sustained collaboration across multiple disciplines, because the subject matter exceeds the boundaries of any specialized system of knowledge.

By whatever name it is called, the spatial history of colonial New England must also assume “reciprocal and potentially equal interactions” among natives, nonnatives, and the landscape itself.  Otherwise, by attributing dominance of agency to any single element categorically, historians are likely to miss the larger causal connections among discrete elements.


William Cronon’s 1983 book Changes in the Land presented the landscape of colonial New England not as background to human affairs but as a determining force upon them.  This “ecological history” of New England assumed a dialectical relationship between environment and culture.  Likewise, it broadly accounted for the material, biophysical registers of human-driven and human-driving change.  Environment, Cronon writes:

may initially shape the range of choices available to people at a given moment, but then culture reshapes environment in responding to those choices.  The reshaped environment presents a new set of possibilities for cultural reproduction, thus setting up a new cycle of mutual determination (13).

Cronon ranges from the land-use practices of precolonial native societies to the early nineteenth-century landscape of ‘fields and fences’ chronicled by Thoreau.  In the time between, native patterns of seasonal migration were replaced by a landscape of private, fixed and bounded human settlements.  Materially and conceptually, this transformation involved an increasingly rigid separation between humans and other life forms over the course of three centuries, “with important ecological consequences.”  Cronon writes that:

English fixity sought to replace Indian mobility; here was the central conflict in the ways Indians and colonists interacted with their environments.  The struggle was over two ways of living and using the seasons of the year, and it expressed itself in how two peoples conceived of property, wealth, and boundaries on the landscape”  (53).

Drawing from archeological evidence, travelogues, and colonial town and court records, Cronon demonstrates that contrary to common mythology, natives drastically transformed the environment to serve their needs.  Broadly speaking, native societies were agricultural south of Maine, while native societies to the north were organized around hunting and later fur trading.  Along the coasts, forests were not primeval, but “parklike” due to native burning cycles.

This changed when disease epidemics killed vast numbers of native people in advance of English settlement, and formerly-managed forests were left to grow wild.  Their resultant overgrown state reified the English perception of New England as primal wilderness unaffected by generations of “lazy” natives.

Conceptual differences between natives and colonists were inseparable from material ones—especially surrounding the issue of property.  To colonists, the land occupied by natives was “spacious and void” because lacking in permanent, bounded settlements.  The English did not comprehend the extent of native stewardship, let alone recognizing that stewardship as a form of dominion.  Indeed, colonists likened native mobility to poverty since their possessions were few and their shelters temporary.

Place-naming customs were another point of cultural difference.  English places were often named for their owners, settlers, or “discoverers”; but native place names were descriptive of ecology.  As Cronon writes, these native names often told:

…where plants could be gathered, shellfish collected, mammals hunted, and fish caught.  Abessah, in Bar Harbor, Maine, was the ‘clam bake place.’  Wabaquasset, in Providence, Rhode Island, was where Indian women could find ‘flags or rushes for making mats.’  Azoiquoneset, also in the Narragansett Bay area, was the ‘small island where we get pitch,’ used to make torches for hunting sturgeon at night.  The purpose of such names was to turn the landscape into a map which, if studied carefully, literally gave a village’s inhabitants the information they needed to sustain themselves (65).

Mental maps such as these facilitated movement through relational space.  Property boundaries and the English fence, by contrast, were designed to keep each thing in its assigned place.  Cronon writes that the fence “marked off not only the map of a settlement’s property rights, but its economic activities and ecological relationships as well” (138).  Left with little choice, natives soon adapted the practice of fencing as well, often in response to the problem of white neighbors’ foraging pigs and roving cattle (131, 2).

Cronon is careful to avoid monolithic characterizations of either colonists or natives.  He describes how each English village had its own “idiosyncratic” property customs slightly or even profoundly different from the next.   But what these diverse towns shared in common,  he argues, was their deepening ties to the Atlantic market and its operative logic of symbolic exchange.  “It was capital–,” he argues, “the ability to store wealth in the expectation that one could increase its quantity—that set European societies apart from precolonial Indian ones”  (78).

Capital eroded the “formerly limited social definition of need,” with results that included overhunting, deforestation, and soil erosion throughout the New England region.  Whether intentional or not, these events led to other human and ecological adaptations that further obscured centuries of native stewardship and justified ever-more-drastic human interventions.


Carolyn Merchant’s 1989 Ecological Revolutions is an environmental history of New England spanning broadly from the period of first encounters between Europeans and natives (1600-1775) to the rise of industrial capitalism in the early nineteenth century (1775-1860).  She calls these two events the colonial and capitalist ecological revolutions respectively.

Merchant adopts Marx’s base-superstructure theory to account for change in New England.  She writes:

The course of the colonial and capitalist ecological revolutions in New England may be understood through a description of each society’s ecology, production, reproduction, and forms of consciousness; the processes by which they broke down; and an analysis of the new relations between the emergent colonial or capitalist society and nonhuman nature” (3).

Merchant agrees with Cronon that the “colonial ecological revolution” led to multiple transformations of human society and its relationship to the environment in turn.  Conceptually, the “total participatory consciousness” of New England natives, drawing no absolute boundaries between humans and nonhuman nature gave way to an English model of the world which, though itself in flux, conceived of humans as lords over an existentially alien nature.

In connection with this, Merchant provides a description of New England native society that is necessarily broad but informative nonetheless.  She discusses the “three sisters” cultivation system (corn, beans, and squash) of southern New England natives, and the synergistic nutrients that the three plants provided.

In Southern New England, natives derived more than half of their caloric intake from corn alone.  Since the adoption of horticulture in southern New England about a thousand years ago, the vegetable world guided seasonal native rituals, and precolonial native mythology centered on corn and the corn mother deity.  Merchant also discusses natives’ gendered division of labor, which being the reverse of English customs assigned farming duties to women.  (69, 70)

Early generations of English settlers imported a cultural system that was different, but not diametrically opposed to that of natives:

Like the consciousness of the Indians, the consciousness of most rural farmers was participatory and mimetic.  But unlike that of Indians, it was…dominated by vision.  The [English] oral culture of folk traditions was reinforced by a mix of astrological and alchemic symbols conveyed by elites through the world of print. (112)

Merchant stops short of calling colonial farming practices ecologically sustainable, but she does attribute a more benign system of land use to rural farmers, who worked in step with seasonal cycles and natural limits more so than their market-oriented successors.

In the eighteenth century, continental writers including Netwon, Descartes and Bacon put forth models of nature as a machine, one that could be put into the service of human civilization.  Enlightenment philosophy spread among New England’s elite, and laid the conceptual groundwork for the “capitalist ecological revolution” that followed.

Merchant is highly attentive to the conceptual dimensions of the capitalist transformation.  For example, she points out how farmer’s almanacs’ often-sensual descriptions of husbandry later gave way to the cold scrutiny of eighteenth-century improvers like M.B. Bartlett, who instructed farmers to “Force the earth to yield to you her hidden wealth” (204).  She also details New England farmers’ adoption of chemical fertilizers, artificial phosphates, and mineral manures in the late-eighteenth-and-early-nineteenth centuries (203-211).   Capital—with its extractive, enumerative logic—was the primary engine of change in this period, and class determined the beneficiaries.  “Through the new societies and journals,” she writes, “the gentlemanly classes transmitted entrepreneurial values to ordinary farmers and brought them under the hegemony of the market” (213).

In his 2005 book The Great Meadow, Brian Donahue, an experienced Concord farmer turned professor, challenges the widely-held assumption that extensive farming by inexperienced settlers exhausted New England soils within a few generations and forced a westward migration.  Quite to the contrary, Donahue suggests that farming in colonial Concord was “an ecologically sustainable adaptation of English mixed husbandry to a new, challenging environment.”  As such, it was very unlike the soil-depleting methods of some frontier and trade-dependent regions, though the history of such places is often made to account for the decline of New England farming generally (xv).

Concord farmers practiced a form of mixed husbandry that centered on meadow land.  They set livestock to graze on meadow hay, then used the animals’ manure to keep tilled fields fertile, thus creating an intensive loop of organic nutrients. The mixed husbandry practiced in Concord aimed for centuries of tenure, and if not for external pressures, writes Donahue, it “could have gone on supporting the community for a long, long time”  (xv-xvi).

So what did cause the decline of New England farming?  In common with Cronon and Merchant, Donahue points to the regional shift from “stable, diversified production” to production for profit as the primary cause of ecological degradation.  He writes that “the extensive approach to the land that was once seen as the mark of crude subsistence agriculture is precisely ascribed to the market itself” (21).

The Great Meadow begins with glaciers, and the slow process of glacial retreat that determined the topography and composition of Concord’s twelve-thousand-year-old forest.   From the start of the present Holocene period (a temporary glacial truce), humans have made deep inroads as well.  Because of overhunting, big game all but disappeared from the area some ten-thousand years ago.  For another eight-thousand years, native forest-burning practices radically altered the ecological balance, as did native horticulture for the three-thousand years prior to English settlement.   It was however only during the present warm spell (since roughly AD 1000) that natives adopted corn, beans and squash as their main cultivars.

Glaciers determined the variety and spread of soil types in Concord.  As in much of New England, glacial melt left rocky soil known as till across the town’s higher elevations.  (Till fields proved ideal for orchards, but the largest stones impeded cultivation.  English farmers dealt with the stones by rolling them to field edges and making boundary walls, many of which still remain.)  The rest of Concord consisted of former lake shores, known for sandy soils, and former lake beds, where the most fertile soils developed after glacial retreat.  Donahue writes that “knolls of coarse gravel and pockets of fine silt are sometimes marbled across the same field” (30).

Donahue aptly but briefly surveys native land use in Concord prior to English settlement.  Natives practiced a forest fallow system that involved low-temperature burning and required about one-thousand acres of land per five-hundred people.  He suggests that native practices were inherently sustainable “as a matter of direction and degree.” (43, 52).

The greater part of the book concerns colonial farmers’ adaptation of the English mixed-husbandry system to the Concord environment.  It was a system driven by nutrient cycles through the human-managed elements of “plowland, orchard, meadow, pasture and woodland” (xv).  Manure served as a vehicle of organic nutrients, which though in constant transit, were “indefinitely” conserved by experienced farmers.

Donahue like other colonial historians makes a distinction between the seventeenth-to-eighteenth century period of subsistence-oriented farming and the eighteenth-to-nineteenth century rise of market-oriented production.  He points out that “emigration to New England occurred during the first half of the seventeenth century, before the final push into convertible husbandry and commercial farming [in England] took place.”  Concord’s founders thus had little acquaintance with the later English landscape of enclosure and commercial farming.  Instead, Donahue writes, “many of the original proprietors of towns like Concord were deeply involved with the traditions of village agriculture. (73)

Donahue surveys the colonial ecological history of Concord in vivid, panoramic, and multivalent detail, but it is only within the scope of this review to mention a few points of interest.  In part because of naturally-irregular nutrient distribution, farming in Concord was “a collaborative undertaking,” even after the abandonment of the formal commons system in the late colonial period (156).   Donahue writes that “a man’s plowlands, meadows and woodlots frequently lay mingled with those of his neighbors—with whom he often changed work as well” (155).  Also for reasons of ecology, “Concord’s agriculture was oriented, to a much greater extent than in England, around the preservation of meadows.”[5]

New England’s climate was not friendly to the English dietary staples of wheat and barley.  But colonists quickly learned early to embrace corn and rye, and to supplement their diets with fish from migrating stocks which continued to travel Concord’s streams until the end of the eighteenth century.  Dependent as it was on common streams, the town “continually” brought matters pertaining to water” to the state legislature throughout the colonial period.  (191).

By 1749, writes Donahue, Concord reached the highest number of people that it could sustain, and its system of husbandry was “fully elaborated” (195). Given these limits, fathers passed their holdings to only one son, while most other children left for the frontier (197-8).  Private enclosed farms came to replace the commons, and an artisan economy developed in the absence of heritable land (197-8, 201-2).

All of this paralleled the dawn of what Donahue calls “the consumer revolution,” which drew Concord and the rest of New England deeper into the Altantic economy (as well as the emerging inland economy).  Pressured by tax burdens and for other external pressures, many farmers shifted to production for profit.  By the 1770s. Concord was putting more acres to plow despite the upset to fragile nutrient cycles.  Hay production declined, cows produced less dung, and grain production stagnated.  The town in this troubled state gave credence to the adage “no grass, no cattle; no cattle, no manure; no manure, no crops.” (210)

Was Concord’s system of mixed husbandry sustainable?  Donahue concludes that that it was, for a limited number of people, for whom it could have provided “the desired level of natural products and services” for generations longer, if not for pressures external to the town’s ecological system (23).




If spatial history is in part the recognition of mutual determinism between the material and the conceptual in human societies, then it is far from controversial, but institutional historiography strains to account for material processes.  Why is this the case?  In part because so much of the human-environment relationship is encoded in physical registers—whether bones, tree rings, or mineral deposits—and “history is vouchsafed to the few who, like Donahue, can read this palimpsest.”[6]  Even greater collaboration across disciplines seems necessary, as well as the wider adoption of data-visualization tools like GIS mapping, which help to reveal patterns across time and space that would otherwise remain occluded.  All the while, it is important to keep in mind that deeper structural knowledge of the past is only that.  But understanding—to the extent that it is even possible—remains an intuitive, creative, and embodied process.

[1] E.g., as a late expression: Price, The Western Invasions of the Pacific and Its Continents: A Study of Moving Frontiers and Changing Landscapes (1963).

[2] E.g., Sale, 1990.

[3] E.g., “Destructive exploitation in modern colonial expansion” (1938), and others.  Sauer also worked as advisor to the Rockefeller Foundation in the 1940s.

[4] Sluyter, 412.  Sluyter cites the works of Hecht and Cockburn (1989), Jackson (1994), Atran et. Al. (1999), Smith (1987), Browder (1989), and himself (1994).

[5] Quoting a review by Winifred Barr Rothenberg, Department of Economics, Tufts University, Published 2005 by EH.Net: (Accessed 1/22/2015).

[6] Ibid.


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