Introduction: Uses and Abuses of Thoreau

In: Thoreau in an Age of Crisis
Kristen Case
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Rochelle L. Johnson
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Henrik Otterberg
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During the spring of Thoreau’s bicentennial year of 2017, a small group of colleagues affiliated with the Department of Literature, History of Ideas, and Religion (LIR) at the University of Gothenburg gathered to discuss the possibilities of hosting an international symposium on Thoreau. The two-hundredth year following his birth seemed the right time both to take stock of the voluminous scholarship and reception of Thoreau, and to explore his relevance to the present and future. The resulting symposium, held at the tail end of the anniversary year, in May 2018, at the Wallenberg Center in Gothenburg, Sweden, was titled “Uses and Abuses of Thoreau at 200.” Over the course of symposium, thirty-one speakers representing three continents and eight nations presented their new research and perspectives on Thoreau.

While neither the seminar theme nor an intentional emphasis, one topic pervaded the presentations: crisis. Jarred by recent political tensions, rising climate concern, and general social violence, many presenters focused on the relevance of Thoreau’s engagements in social reform, political issues, and the practice of science in relation to pressing concerns of our own time.

In retrospect, perhaps crisis did inform the seminar title. Eager to highlight new theoretical “uses” of Thoreau—particularly those associated with race and gender studies, as well as the environmental humanities—the organizers had also pointedly included “abuses” in the symposium title. This choice followed the detonation of Kathryn Schulz’s ad hominem attack on Thoreau, under the title of “Pond Scum,” published in the New Yorker magazine in 2015, which itself initiated a crisis of sorts among scholars of Thoreau. Here Schulz reiterated several old chestnuts of anti-Thoreau scholarship, some bandied about ever since Robert Louis Stevenson’s memorable diatribe in the late-nineteenth century.1 In these renditions, Thoreau variably emerges as narcissistic, fanatical, parochial, egotistical, brooding, disingenuous, arrogant, racist, sanctimonious, hypocritical and—to borrow Schulz’s wickedly punning summation—a “thoroughgoing misanthrope.” The symposium became, among other things, a chance for Thoreau scholars to reflect on and respond to this oversimplifying “abuse” of a significant figure in the histories of literature, science, and environmental thought.

If Schulz’s sweeping dismissal of Thoreau is one face of what we might explore as “abuse,” another is the opposite tendency: a cultural canonization that promotes an idolized and decontextualized Thoreau as embodying the right answers to all contemporary cultural and environmental questions. (This mode of abuse is glanced at in our inclusion of the word icon in the volume’s subtitle). If to demonize Thoreau is miss out on the wealth of literary, philosophical, and scientific value we believe his work offers our time, to idolize him is to risk erasing the profound differences between our time and his, and to elide the ways in which his writing perpetuates the mythologies, injustices, and exclusions of his century. Recent work by Joshua David Bellin, who interrogates what he identifies as Thoreau’s persistent savagism, and Joshua Kotin, who critiques Thoreau’s Walden Pond project as inherently exclusionary, are recent examples of positive critical “use” that we see as revitalizing Thoreau scholarship.2

Hoping to build on these sorts of exciting new approaches to Thoreau in developing work toward this anthology, we asked our contributors: Of what significance is Thoreau’s writing to our own complex and troubled world?

One aspect of this significance is surely related to Thoreau’s complicated relation to science. Today we appreciate Thoreau’s proto-ecological thoughts, attention to diminishing biodiversity, and tables of natural-historical observations informing recent climate studies. We also admire the many ways in which Thoreau’s political views cross-pollinated with his studies in the field. Further, we relate to his feelings of stress and disorientation at comprehensive technological and societal changes to our lives. And as the essays in this volume demonstrate, Thoreau remains significant as a model for integrating environmental and social-justice thinking: in addition to being a critic of nationalism and then-rapidly expanding industrial capitalism, he was a staunch abolitionist, a facilitator of the Underground Railroad, and a defender of John Brown. Recognizing nature as a creative, interdependent plenum rather than a static and hierarchical order reflecting the dwindling great-chain-of-being conviction, he could also identify the arbitrary distinctions of race, culture, and social station for what they were: entrenched social constructions and traditions. However, Thoreau absorbed and reiterated many of the nineteenth-century’s damaging views and assumptions. As the essays included in this volume demonstrate, his writing at times dehumanized and romanticized Native Americans, and his canonization has contributed to a cultural picture of environmental writing as the exclusive province of able-bodied and privileged white masculinity defining its self-reliance against the backdrop of nature.

The persistence of one Thoreauvian image—the self-reliant hermit of Walden Pond—is in large part a product of Thoreau’s reception in the twentieth century. As we take stock of that reception today, another element of Thoreau’s work that makes it relevant for our time is its deep engagement with experiences of grief and loss. Thoreau lived during an age ripe with political strife, environmental degradations, and social inequalities. He knew hardship and sorrow, first losing his beloved brother and soulmate John Jr., later his sister and confidante Helen. He early on lost his students, many of whom adored him; endured Ellen Sewall’s declining his hand in marriage; and later saw the formative friendship with his mentor Emerson calcify into formality, cemented by nagging distrust and resentment. And he had to accept that he carried a latent disease that would likely kill him. Through all this, Thoreau kept rising early to take his long daily walks, faithfully observing and charting natural phenomena as well as his own internal weather in his journal and other notebooks. As we navigate our own period of instability, crisis, and loss, Thoreau’s singular record of living with and through grief offers consolation and insight.

The themes reflected above—grief, science, the more-than-human, race, and Thoreau’s reception—formed the central threads of our three-day conversation in Gothenburg. The selection presented here elaborates these themes. The opening and closing essays, by Rochelle L. Johnson and Kristen Case, are developed versions of the keynote lectures that opened and closed our Gothenburg seminar. Here, they bookend the volume with extended reflections on the value of Thoreau’s expressions of grief and vulnerability to our own age of crisis. Within these bookends, twelve essays are divided into four sections: Thoreau’s science; Thoreau and the more-than-human; Thoreau and race; and Thoreau’s reception.

Thoreau and Grief, Part I

Inaugurating our volume, Rochelle L. Johnson’s “Grieving with the Kingfisher: Thoreau’s Mourning Work in an Age of Political and Environmental Violence” asks what use we might make of Thoreau in an age of geopolitical strife and climate crisis. She begins by citing Emerson’s 1862 eulogy for Thoreau, which contends of Thoreau that “the meaning of Nature was never attempted to be defined by him”; instead, he stayed tenaciously with the facts, inviting them only to make an “impression or effect” on his mind.3 Challenging Emerson’s analysis, Johnson points to Thoreau’s receptivity as itself part of an attempt to make meaning. In exploring how Thoreau’s receptivity enables meaning, Johnson mines his published books and essays, substantial Journal, and manuscript materials, tracing how Thoreau apprehends a single bird—the kingfisher. As Johnson reveals, Thoreau remains alert to kingfishers even as he encounters scenes of destruction in Cape Cod; rages over repressions in “Slavery in Massachusetts”; and mourns the human developments destroying habitats along his local Concord River. She also uncovers Thoreau’s interest in the mythology associated with the kingfisher, whose Latin name of Alcedo recalls halcyon days. Via Johnson’s reading, we are made aware of how the kingfisher’s ancient connotation of nurturing presence informs Thoreau’s multifaceted concepts of both “the west” and “the wild,” as well as the need for conditions and spaces of restoration and resilience that our age, no less than his, requires.

Thoreau’s Science

The two essays in this section investigate Thoreau’s science as it has informed his reception and as it influenced his own experience of nature through sound.

Robert Sattelmeyer’s “The Evolutions of Thoreau’s Science” takes on the considerable body of scholarship surrounding Thoreau as a scientist. Sattelmeyer offers a valuable overview of the gradual evolution of critical and scholarly appreciation for Thoreau’s scientific work, particularly as this developed during the last decade of his life. Sattelmeyer also argues that another vast but unfinished Thoreauvian project, collected in the so-called Indian Notebooks, had its lapse with the recognition of a fundamental impasse: “to attempt to understand the precontact culture of indigenous people by reading books by post-contact European explorers and missionaries is, at best, a tautology.” Thoreau’s broader interest, Sattelmeyer continues, lay “in the issue of how North America was populated, by its human as well as its plant and animal communities.” Sattelmeyer then treats Thoreau’s hydrological study of the Musquetaquid watershed and Thoreau’s vast Kalendar project as defining his legitimate legacy as a scientist in his own right.4

Sonoric expert Dennis Noson follows with “Thoreau’s Wild Acoustics: (Re)sounding in the Concord Landscape,” an essay showcasing Thoreau’s sensitivities both corporeal and literary to the soundscapes offered him in his local tracts. While literary scholars have touched on this topic from aesthetic and philosophical vantages, few have to date brought a formal acoustic competence to bear on the subject.5 While he was denied today’s technology, whereby sounds can be digitally recorded, unpacked, and analyzed for their component parts, Thoreau over time developed an ever more sophisticated ear. He learned, in Noson’s telling, how helpfully to differentiate sound from noise. The latter had its random “acoustic energy smeared across the spectrum,” while the pitches and tones and modulations of sound each caused a meaningfully different sensation in Thoreau’s attentive ear, combining—in the case of birdsong, say—to form musical elements. Noson’s work highlights an altogether new way in which Thoreau’s work was scientific: through his attention to the physics of sound.

Thoreau and the More-than-Human

The three essays comprising this section explore Thoreau’s engagement with the more-than-human through the sublime, the nature of time, and the legacy of landscape. In “Thoreau’s Extra-vagant Sublime and the Milder Majesty of Nature,” Ronald Wesley Hoag revisits, broadens, and deepens insights first presented in his landmark 1982 essay on Thoreau’s peak experience on the high tablelands of Mount Ktaadn.6 Thoreau’s Ktaadn epiphany remains a Gordian knot to many scholars and readers. Here Hoag’s intent is to contextualize Thoreau’s understanding of the sublime in wider arcs, to include not only rugged mountain plateaus but also cultural and pastoral landscapes such as those of Thoreau’s native Concord. Marshalling evidence from the full spectrum of Thoreau’s writings, including his correspondence, college essays, and Journal, Hoag argues that Thoreau’s evocations of a harsher and unsettling sublime were always tempered by milder understandings of the concept—that, to Thoreau, not only distant peaks but familiar gardens, when properly perceived, generate awe and astonishment.

In “Thoreau and the Desynchronization of Time,” Mark Luccarelli considers Thoreau’s engagements with various configurations of time. Luccarelli shows how Thoreau early on resisted what he calls a synchronization of time, whereby a “progressive, evolutionary understanding of history and nature” imposed a “temporal subordination of all places and peoples to a larger global pattern.” Giving his first examples from A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Luccarelli identifies Thoreau’s essential problem with modernity: it created, to his view, a crisis of national character, bolstered as this was by vaunted means toward unimproved ends. Yet at the same time, Thoreau was not immune to the dominant discourses of the day and allowed that some of the aspects of progress they promoted were worthy (exploration, bravery, diligence). Perhaps above all, Thoreau’s becoming aware of industrial development and other human activities in his beloved Maine wilderness left him ambivalent. In Luccarelli’s provocative telling, Thoreau “was caught among colliding time scales: the crushing inevitability of modernization, the longing for a past vivid in memory, the hope for a future in correspondence to the organic principle of earthly renewal.” With this conundrum, Luccarelli closes, Thoreau can be recognized as our contemporary, as we continue to struggle to understand temporality as well as ourselves as beings in the complex continuum that we experience as time.

Following Luccarelli’s discussion of the ideological and theoretical underpinnings of temporality, James S. Finley’s “Henry David Thoreau and the Creation of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument” concerns itself with local specifics: how protection of land parcels in Maine has played out in recent decades. Finley begins by showing how Thoreau’s famous plea in “Chesuncook” (1858 & 1864) for federal land preservation has been either deftly foregrounded or silently downplayed by political actors arguing for local and regional land protections in present-day Maine. Finley’s close reading of the August 2016 Presidential Proclamation in particular, which provided permanent protection to the Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument, furnishes a credible framework for understanding why Thoreau is not cited among the conservationist luminaries of pertinence to the area. Cordoning the area off as a national park would not only preclude any use at all of its resources, but also bar present residents from continuing to live there. Finley points out that the eventual proclamation of the Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument was a success, precisely because it was not undertaken in the classic preservationist mode but, rather, according to a mixed-use model, which, he argues, is both more practical and more inclusive of local interests.

Thoreau and Race

The essays featured in this section treat the question of Thoreau and race, with the first two focusing on his engagement with Native Americans and two others focusing, respectively, on his presence in college reading lists sensitive to issues of race and representation, and on his influence on a later Black writer. With “Thoreau’s Indian Problem: Savagism, Indigeneity, and the Politics of Place,” John J. Kucich tackles an often thorny knot: reconciling what many of Thoreau’s friends and compatriots called his “Indian wisdom” with his conspicuous silence concerning the large-scale dispossession and disenfranchisement of indigenous peoples across the United States.7 It remains an uncomfortable fact, Kucich argues, that despite Thoreau’s spending many unforgettable days with his Penobscot guides Joe Attean and Joe Polis, these experiences “did not lift him out of the orbit of savagism,” nor did they move him to call his nation and neighbors to account on indigenous people’s behalf, as he did with those who were enslaved. Yet all this notwithstanding, Kucich suggests that Thoreau’s larger project of becoming indigenous to place centered on “realizing the interconnectedness and reciprocity that extends to all members of the human world, and far beyond it.” In this sense, Thoreau did learn much from his Maine Woods guides, as well as from his extensive readings in Native American history. Kucich argues that ultimately, however, Thoreau’s project was a personal one; he was less interested in bringing “Native peoples into nineteenth-century American society” than in using “their cultural difference as a way to [personally] counter what he saw as its stultifying and damaging norms.”

Brent Ranalli follows Kucich’s essay with a detailed consideration of “Henry David Thoreau’s Lifelong Indian Play.”8 Ranalli proposes that, beginning in his childhood, Thoreau sought to cultivate “an interlinked set of personal qualities that he and his nineteenth-century audience recognized as stereotypically ‘Indian’ virtues.” Thoreau would indeed continue throughout his life “to imaginatively enter the world of the Indian, or to view the world through ersatz Indian eyes,” Ranalli argues. This quest would eventually coalesce around the virtue at the core of Thoreau’s mature philosophy. In Ranalli’s reading, many of the most important virtues Thoreau sought to cultivate were recognizably “Indian” traits. Ranalli refers to Scottish common-sense philosopher Dugald Stewart and his Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind (1822) to explain the connection between imaginative play (such as Indian role-play) and character education that Thoreau and his nineteenth-century audience evidently implicitly shared.

In “The Whiteness of Walden: Reading Thoreau with Attention to Black Lives,” Rebecca Kneale Gould asks that a stark truth be recognized: that “citizens of the United States live daily with the plain fact that our nation was founded on stolen land and made ‘independent’ by the labor of stolen people.” She further asks whether we should continue reading Thoreau—and how, if we do so, while acknowledging his whiteness and privilege. Gould shares her classroom practice of asking her (primarily white and affluent) students to reflect on their inherent privilege in various natural settings, particularly as they read accounts by contemporary Black authors. By juxtaposing these more recent narratives against some of the more serene passages in Walden, Gould invites readers into the tensions between race, access, and natural landscapes in the United States. She also shares provocative analyses of well-known passages from Thoreau’s corpus that, she argues, must be read while attending to Thoreau’s own apprehension of to racial injustice.

Mark Gallagher’s “Live Deliberately, Stay Woke: Thoreau’s Influence on William Melvin Kelley” discusses the work of a twentieth-century Black writer who is only now gaining the recognition he deserves. Gallagher conveys how Kelley’s novel A Different Drummer (1962) engages Thoreauvian themes, in partly unexpected but consistently powerful ways. As a graduate student at Harvard, Kelley became conversant with the overwhelmingly white American literary canon, including the critical discourses enveloping it, while fully aware of their limitations and blinkers when it came to the experiences and perspectives of people of color. In A Different Drummer, the eponymous Thoreau quotation is printed on a frontispiece page, but so also—above this—is the one from Walden clarifying that the better part of what Thoreau’s neighbors call good, he believes to be bad. Gallagher proposes that Kelley reappropriates Thoreau as he is found in R.W.B. Lewis’s classic of the myth-and-symbol school of criticism, The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (1955), in devising his at-once reticent and proud protagonist. Kelley’s identification with Thoreau in A Different Drummer betokens an ironic and iconoclastic refashioning of the myth of American individualism in the African-American literary imagination.

Thoreau’s Reception

This section contains three essays treating different aspects of Thoreau’s reception—in the literature of utopia, in Icelandic literature, and in our own troubled political times. Michelle C. Neely’s “Walden’s Utopian Legacies” initially observes that critics who have lately mined Thoreau’s book for its utopian prospects have tended to dismiss it as concerned with private life tout court, with little or nothing to offer public policy. Neely points out that Walden will indeed fail to pass muster if “utopia” is narrowly conceived as a necessarily blueprinted model of form and content, and argues that Thoreau’s “refusal to commit to a specific, static, and replicable vision of the ideal society is precisely what makes [him] valuable as a utopian thinker for the twenty-first century.” Neely conducts an extended comparison between Walden and B.F. Skinner’s 1948 Walden Two, highlighting their shared experimental orientation but distinct conceptions of utopia. While we are familiar with Thoreau’s bent in Walden of personally trying and evaluating things at every turn, Walden Two’s Frazier—Skinner’s godlike community engineer—sees the evolving design of a basic social structure to suit everyone as a legitimate and desirable goal. Ultimately Neely invokes utopian theorist Ruth Levitas in order to emphasize that Thoreau’s open-ended and heuristic approaches to ideal outcomes present a quite viable form of utopianism.

Bergur Þorgeirsson’s “Notes on Thoreau, Carlyle, and Nordic Echoes” demonstrates how Thoreau’s youthful enthusiasm over personal heroics eventually found further inspiration in the Icelandic writer Snorri Sturlusson’s (1179-1241 CE) works from the thirteenth century. Þorgeirsson contextualizes why Old Norse literature and history held such sway over the likes of Emerson, Thoreau, and Carlyle: they offered captivating accounts from what until recently had been the periphery of the known world. Leif Eriksson’s landing in Vinland also provided somewhat of a quasi-Protestant counterpoint to the later Columbus landing, widely celebrated by Catholics as preceding the Puritan exodus out of England. More generally, Old Norse literature and especially the works of Snorri offered accounts of the virtues of freedom-loving, self-reliant, courageous and roaming characters, in many ways reflecting how Thoreau and many of his Transcendentalist friends wished to see themselves.

Andrew McMurry’s personal essay “Standing Up to Trump, with Thoreau” next offers a creative and defiant response to our uniquely troubled time. Serving us humor and self-deprecating confessions by turns, McMurry juxtaposes the joys of his newly embraced hobby (stand-up paddle boarding) and the endurance of Thoreauvian virtues as set against the moral morass and corrupting influences of the then-reigning American power. While it would spoil the fun to outline the essay’s progression here, we can safely impart that McMurry begins by describing his two novel obsessions during the summer of 2016: “the traveling medicine show that was the Donald Trump presidential campaign, and stand-up paddle boarding.” Paddling on like a scribe diligently dipping his pen in ink and putting it to its designated line, McMurry at length attests to the liberating power of bearing witness and of shedding his professorial garbs in favor of keeping to as frank and honest a journal as he can, akin to Thoreau, the better to keep inner and outer forces in balance while he focuses on a viable horizon.

Thoreau and Grief, Part II

Kristen Case closes our anthology with “Thoreau’s Vulnerable Resistance.” Case’s project moves well beyond the traditional cynosure of a mesomorph Thoreau in attending to the physical fragilities and emotional grief evinced by his work—traits seldom highlighted in the scholarship.9 Case reasons that the early canonization of Walden and “Civil Disobedience” first made for the myth of the pioneering, unswerving Thoreau, focused on his ideals of awakening to higher pursuits in natural settings to the exclusion of all else. Insofar as this conforms to R.W.B. Lewis’ ideas of the “American Adam,” ensconced in a workable Eden of the New World, one might venture to say that Case refashions and democratizes Lewis’ patriarchal-colonial ideal in her feminist reading of Thoreau, much like William Melvin Kelley strove to modify it in collectively emancipating fashion in his A Different Drummer. Offering a different view of the American icon, Case movingly reveals that Horace Mann and Ellery Channing loyally logged natural facts sought by Thoreau while he lay bedridden with his terminal illness. Case uses our understanding of the now-disabled and dependent Thoreau to begin reading Walden and “Civil Disobedience” in novel light. What emerges through Case’s revisionist essay is a mature Thoreau imbued by humility and fragility—one perhaps more relevant to our own encounters with loss and crisis.

Since the symposium that inspired this volume, the levels of crisis in our world seem only to deepen. As we assembled this collection, a virus of heretofore unknown global impact took its devastating toll on our communities and transformed our daily lives, introducing new barriers to contact of all kinds, particularly the kind of gathering that made this book possible. In the midst of the pandemic, massive protests against white supremacist violence and police brutality swept the United States and much of the globe. Re-reading these essays as we experienced both new forms of isolation and new forms of solidarity, we were struck by the continued relevance of Thoreau’s perennial questioning of the conditions of both individual and collective life.

As this volume demonstrates, Thoreau studies remain vital, deeply engaged in the most pressing concerns of our time. Seizing the moment and standing up to its challenges was always Thoreau’s inclination. A similar ethos pervades these new quests to understand and make use of his thoughts and actions. Delay and procrastination no longer seem prudent or admissible: “As if you could kill time,” Thoreau writes in Walden, “without injuring eternity.”10


See Stevenson, Robert Louis. “Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions.” Rpt. in Walter Harding (ed.), Thoreau: A Century of Criticism, Southern Methodist UP, 1954, pp. 59-83; also includes Stevenson’s recantation of 1886 on pp. 84-86; Edel, Leon. Henry D. Thoreau. U of Minnesota P, 1970; and Bridgman, Richard. Dark Thoreau. U of Nebraska P, 1982.


See: Bellin, Joshua. “In the Company of Savagists: Thoreau’s Indian Books and Antebellum Ethnology.” The Concord Saunterer: A Journal of Thoreau Studies, new series, vol. 16 (2008), pp. 1-32, and “Thoreau in Pittsburgh: Reflections on Domestic Terrorism.” ESQ, vol. 65, no. 3, 2019, pp. 552-558; and Kotin, Joshua. Utopias of One. Princeton UP, 2018, especially “Learning from Walden,” pp. 17-32.


Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Thoreau.” The Portable Emerson, edited by Carl Bode, Penguin, 1981, pp. 573-93, p. 585.


E.g., see: Primack, Richard B. Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods. U of Chicago P, 2014; and Stager, Curt. Still Waters: The Secret World of Lakes. W. W. Norton & Company, 2018, especially the chapter “Walden,” pp. 1-29.


For a recent article in this vein, see Katopodis, Christina. “Vibrational Epistemology in the Nineteenth-Century American Soundscape: Music and Noise in Thoreau’s Walden.ESQ, vol. 65, no. 3, 2019, pp. 382-423.


See Hoag, Ronald. “The Mark on the Wilderness: Thoreau’s Contact with Ktaadn.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 24, no. 1, Spring 1982, pp. 23-46.


Kucich has recently edited a wide-ranging and well-receieved anthology on Thoreau’s Maine from the writer’s time to our own: see Kucich, John J., editor, Rediscovering the Maine Woods: Thoreau’s Legacy in an Unsettled Land. U of Massachusetts P, 2019.


Ranalli’s title consciously echoes Philip J. Deloria’s by-now classic account Playing Indian, Yale UP, 1998, which details how white Colonial culture has appropriated Native American culture over time.


Two recent monographs emphasize grief through exploring the impact on Thoreau of his brother John Jr’s death: Branka Arsić, Bird Relics: Grief and Vitalism in Thoreau. Harvard UP, 2016; and Audrey Raden, When I Came to Die: Process and Prophecy in Thoreau’s Vision of Dying. U of Massachusetts P, 2017.


Thoreau, Henry D. Walden. Edited by J. Lyndon Shanley, Princeton UP, 1971, p. 8.

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