Larry Stone's Iowa Listening to the Land

January 1, 2019

Happy 2019

Filed under: Uncategorized — lstone @ 10:36 am

Happy SNOWY New Year!

At least here in Clayton County . . .

Nearly all December we waited.

Where is the snow?

The few skiffs we had weren’t enough to appease the kids who wanted to sled, the sentimentalists who’d hoped for a white Christmas, or the deer hunters who needed white ground for better tracking.

Oak leaf

Finally, as the days ticked away, came just enough of a dusting to turn the woods from a dreary gray to a crisp black-and-white. That thin layer was just enough to betray the wanderings of a host of woodland critters whose movements had heretofore gone almost unnoticed.

A white-tailed deer snooped around the yard until it found a small patch of still-succulent birdsfoot trefoil. Then the plucky deer pawed away the white frosting and nibbled the nutritious legume.


Trefoil treat for deer

With the weather still relatively warm for late December, the squirrels scampered through the woods on almost constant forays for walnuts and acorns. But they often chose aerial routes – perhaps to keep from getting ice between their toes. A heavily used trail between two walnut trees could have passed for a deer trail, had it not begun and ended at the tree trunks.

Mouse house

Mazes of white-footed mouse tracks connected small brush piles where the little rodents foraged, slept, and hid. And they’d better hide well, given the line of coyote tracks leading down the road. The song-dog apparently paused long enough to leave a fresh pile of scat – which was filled with enough undigested hair to confirm that breakfast could have been an unlucky mouse or vole.

Coyote was here

Over the river bluff, a pair of bald eagles soared majestically, yet screeched and cackled noisily in voices not at all fitting a national symbol.

Luckily for those of us who LIKE winter, a real snowstorm followed the somewhat tentative initial flurries. Huge flakes, swirling in the breeze, obscured the horizon, and blurred even the nearby trees. Goldfinches and juncos crowded onto the feeder to fuel up on sunflower seeds. A hardy bluebird found a welcome drink from our heated bird bath.

Hungry goldfinches

The wet flakes clung to trees and prairie grasses – and to our hats and coats, as we ventured out for a hike. The woods road beckoned us into a quiet wonderland, where the only sounds were the soft swish of the falling snow and the muffled squish of our boots.

Hardy bluebird

We’ll savor that peace and solitude as long as possible, until we decide it’s time to rejoin the bustle of society and fire up the tractor to blade off the driveway and road. In the meantime, we’ll welcome Iowa winter – and a New Year!



July 7, 2018


Filed under: Uncategorized — lstone @ 8:37 pm

The prairie in bloom


Too busy to write, with summer duties of prairie photography, watching white-tail fawns, enjoying fireworks, fishing with grandkids, cruising on the Mississippi, gardening, star-gazing . . . . you get the idea!

So here’s a sample of what my camera and I have been doing these past weeks!

Doe on alert as hungry fawn nurses just outside our window

RATTLESNAKE . . . master

Liatrus – blazing star

Bees love purple prairie clover

Storm’s a-brewin’

Mississippi River shanty boat

Black-eyed Susan surrounded by partridge pea

Garnavillo parade – a July 4th tradition

Celebrate our natural world!

April 9, 2018

I thought it was APRIL!

Filed under: Uncategorized — lstone @ 9:39 pm


Plucky robin

The turkey vultures and killdeers arrived weeks ago.
The Canada goose already is on her nest on the island in the pond.
Song sparrows have been singing cheerily for days.

Waterfowl – ducks, geese, pelicans, coots – are funneling north along the Mississippi.

Pelicans galore

Many goldfinches have turned mostly gold again, shedding their drab-green winter plumage.

Getting golder

So what’s with the record cold and several inches of snow when we’re more than a week into April?

This morning, a trio of bewildered buzzards soared over a landscape turned white from last night’s snow squalls, perhaps wondering, “What’s for breakfast?”

A flock of a dozen plucky robins gathered under the bird feeder, poking in the sunflower seed hulls for leftover tidbits, or perhaps insects or worms attracted to the spilled seeds.


In the garden, brave, red-and-green sprouts of rhubarb poked through the snow, risking frostbite.

But the mourning doves – perhaps used to the chill from their wintery visits a few months ago – still sing their plaintive “coo-coo-coo.”

Mourning dove

Nothing plaintive about the turkeys, though. They’ve been strutting and gobbling for almost a month – and they keep up their courtship antics even as the snow flies.

Hardy cardinal

Likewise, the cardinal tries to brighten the day with his optimistic “Cheer, cheer, cheer.)

The deer still have their winter coats, so the snow and cold shouldn’t bother them. But snow cover probably makes them a bit more wary, with the realization that their grey-brown hair doesn’t camouflage them nearly so well when their woodland home turns white.

Adaptable deer

OK, OK. So we live in Iowa, is the standard mantra from friends we meet in town. Just wait an hour or two and the weather will change.

The TV meteorologist predicts 70 degrees before week’s end.
But he ruefully mentions the distinct possibility of more cold and snow before the month is out! Ah, APRIL!

Hooded merganser

March 5, 2018


Filed under: Uncategorized — lstone @ 10:04 pm



Waves of geese


With the temperature soaring into the 60s, wave after wave of snow, blue, and white-fronted geese streamed north and northwest during the last couple of days in February, paying no heed to the human calendar.

“One swallow does not make a summer,” wrote Burlington native Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac, “but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of a March thaw, is the spring.”

Fortunately, geese are hardy critters, so they’re ready to withstand a fickle Iowa March. And maybe it’s a good thing that thousands of the birds elected to linger at DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge and other resting spots. To continue too far north too fast might have taken them into the path of even colder and more snowy weather than has buffeted parts of Iowa these last few days.


Resident songbirds, along with a few winter visitors, mostly hunkered down to wait out the rain/sleet/snow/wind. Goldfinches, juncos, cardinals, downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, chickadees, and titmice clambered for a place at our feeder filled with sunflower hearts. A bossy blue jay crash-landed on the dinner table, gobbled all he could, then flapped off into the wind with a full beak.


Snowy supper

Even a bluebird, which has survived by learning to eat seeds instead of its typical diet of worms, stopped by for a quick snack.

In sympathy with the birds, I trudged out into the wet, stinging storm for a hike up the driveway to the mailbox. No wonder the birds’ feathers looked so scruffy! The 30-mph wind drove sleet and snowflakes into my beard, under my glasses, and down my neck. I heaved a sigh of relief when I finally returned to my chair by the fire in the wood stove.

Chickadee snack

The TV meteorologist assured me that the storm is abating, and it will warm up again in a few days. It IS March, after all. We’ve already seen the first killdeers, robins, and north-bound mergansers, goldeneyes, scaup, and canvasbacks. And our diary says the crocuses and daffodils should be emerging.

I’ll try to remember that when I’m chipping ice and shoveling 4 inches of wet snow in the morning!

Post script:

Turned out we had to shovel SIX inches, not four! The sticky stuff gilded trees and matted down the prairie grasses.

The weather forced the birds to work even harder for food. In sympathy, we topped off our feeders with sunflower hearts and black oil sunflower seeds.

female cardinal

The male cardinal resumed his spring song – albeit from a snowy treetop. And the early-arriving song sparrows did not beat a hasty retreat. Rather, they just puffed up their feathers against the chill.

Song sparrow on compassplant

We still believe our phenology diary, which says that woodcock and turkey vultures should return before long, the chipmunks are about to emerge, and the turkeys will be gobbling at sunrise.

And I’m planning a peek at the secret woodland where SNOW trilliums first bloom.

Keep the faith!





September 25, 2017

Back to the Boundary Waters!

Filed under: Uncategorized — lstone @ 11:50 am


Majestic pines. Pristine lakes. Rugged portages. Eagles and loons and ravens and gray jays and red-breasted nuthatches. Billion-years-old bedrock and cliffs and boulders. The satisfaction of traveling under your own power, staying dry and comfortable in a tent you pitched yourself, and eating around a campfire.


A recent canoe trip to Minnesota’s 1.1-million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) reminded Margaret and me of just how much we love that “canoe country,” and how much it has shaped our lives.

Supper under the tarp

We first explored the Boundary Waters as students at a Coe College field station on Basswood Lake in the mid-1960s. It was there that I met Sigurd Olson, well-known writer and wilderness advocate whose work helped inspire me to choose a career in conservation journalism. Coincidentally, it was at the field station that I discovered “A Sand County Almanac,” that classic work by Iowa native Aldo Leopold, whose timeless writing and philosophy remain a foundation of the environmental movement.

Soggy sunset

But the BWCAW did not fade from our lives, unlike advanced calculus and some other college classes. Margaret and I honeymooned there, and have returned regularly – either by ourselves or with friends – for half a century.


In graduate school, and later as a journalist, I researched and wrote about the turbulent history of the BWCAW, and the many controversies that shaped it: road-building, logging, prohibitions on float planes, wilderness designation, snowmobiles, the protection of wolves, outboard motors, resorts, a ban on bottles and cans, limits on the number of visitors. I also was lucky enough to have a few more encounters with Sigurd Olson, who continued to advocate for wilderness and the canoe country throughout his life.


A fascination with the region also led Margaret and me on a 109-day adventure in 1971. We retraced part of the route of the voyageurs and fur traders, who traveled the historic water routes in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

Our children could not escape our fondness for the Boundary Waters. A couple of family vacations included stays on the fringe of the wilderness area; canoe country art adorned the walls of our home; and our shelves were lined with books about the north country.

Herring gull


As a Boy Scout leader, I helped guide a dozen young men on trips into the BWCAW. Several – including our son, Andy, have returned on their own.

Chef Emily

But the passion for wilderness and the BWCAW especially caught fire with our daughter, Emily. After an introductory trip with us and friends while she was still in high school, Emily found ways to return again and again. She’s guided college groups into the BWCAW, worked on a maintenance crew to repair campsites and portages, studied and written about canoe country geology and botany, and taught a wolf ecology class. She’s now naturalist/education director at the Cable (Wisconsin) Natural History Museum, where she has led several excursions into the BWCAW. And Emily (like her parents!) owns two canoes, which have floated in more than their share of canoe country waters.

Emily preparing to portage

It was Emily’s offer of guide service that enticed us into the BWCAW this year, along with good friends Marlene and Bruce Ehresman, of Ames, and Joann Malek, of Trego, Wis.


To be sure, we paddled Kevlar canoes, stored food in a critter-proof plastic pack, and kept warm with polypropylene long-johns. But we hiked over portages worn smooth by centuries of moose and deer hooves, wolf paws, and Ojibway or French-Canadian moccasins. We drank from and fought head winds on the same lakes the native people and European invaders have plied for generations.

Yet another portage

And we wrestled with the notion of the eternal vigilance that has been and will continue to be needed to keep the canoe country a wild place where future generations can go to restore their connection to the Earth. The BWCAW exemplifies a spirit of wilderness whose very existence can enrich our lives – even when we’re not physically on a portage, campsite, or lake. The spiritual magic shapes our bodies and our souls.

Lunch rock


Note: The BWCAW faces yet another threat in the form of a proposal to allow sulfide- ore copper mining in the watershed of the wilderness. For more information, visit

September 6, 2017

The joys of summer into fall!

Filed under: Uncategorized — lstone @ 10:02 pm



When August gives way to September, the grandkids figure summer is over.

Back to school, no more swimming or baseball.

But this 70-something Grandpa welcomes the transition.


Fruits and berries are maturing, nighthawks are migrating, insects abound, fall fungi and wildflowers decorate the woods, and wildlife numbers are at their peak following the breeding season. Some fawns still wear their spots – but a few adults have turned from summer-orange to the gray of winter. Turkey poults are nearing adult size.


And, with cooler weather, what better time for a walk in the woods?

Here are a few discoveries from some of those explorations:


Three-birds pogonia


Turkey brood


garden spider




still-spotted fawn


chicken of the woods




monarch on thistle

May 1, 2017

Thanks to the showers . . .

Filed under: Uncategorized — lstone @ 8:45 pm

Cool crab


Maybe it was those April showers that unleashed the headlong rush into the delights of spring.




Virginia creeper

Before we knew it, the early hepaticas and spring beauties gave way to toothwort and anemonella and May apples and the emerging shoots of young oaks and maples and Virginia creeper. Thickets of wild plums burst into fragrant bloom along fencerows and in woodland edges.

Plum on the edge


A few clusters of golden Alexander brightened the emerging prairie reconstruction. A gaudy cock pheasant boldly declared the habitat project a success, while his drab mate hunkered against the gray, dead grass and reserved her judgment.

Golden Alexander



With a brief window between rainstorms, we finally had a chance to plant some wildlife shrubs: ninebark, hazelnut, dogwood, and wild plum. Let’s hope that moisture gets them off to a good start.

Planting time

Late April and early May showers normally bring out the mushroom hunters – and (they hope!) the morels. But most morel gurus will admit that the favored fungi need warm temperatures, too. Only the most avid hunters have been able to find many morels during the recent stretch of cooler than normal weather.


Several dead elms have played host to polyporus fungi, however. The book says it may be edible, although it “becomes corky and tough with age.” (I think I’ll pass!)

Barred owl

You never know what you’ll find on a mushroom foray. Friends happened across a barred owl with a broken wing, which hopped up on a fallen log to study the intruders to its woodland home. Sadly, their only practical recourse was to leave the owl in the woods, on the slim chance that it still might be able to pounce on enough mice to stay alive.


Migrating birds are trickling north – but that trickle is soon to become a flood. One of the first to arrive was the towhee, announcing his presence with an emphatic “Drink your tea!”


An early yellow-rumped warbler stopped briefly to explore the garden – and may have been dismayed at the lack of insects. The goldfinch gang – who hung out around the feeders most of the winter – have become much more conspicuous in their summer-yellow garb. Even on a cloudy day, they’re a lemon-lime treat as they forage for spilled sunflower seeds in the greening grass under the feeder.

Goldfinch gang

Deer are frolicking at the edge of the woods – frisky but scruffy. Their once sleek warm winter coats are growing rough as they transition toward the orange-brown they’ll wear through the summer.

Scruffy deer

In the front yard, the flowering crab is TRYING to flower – but can only muster a few blossoms among the clusters of buds. TOO COLD, and too wet.


But the weather forecasters promise drier weather and moderating temperatures within the week. That should warm the outlook of drizzle-weary humans, perhaps bring a wave of warblers, set the crabapple abuzz with bees – and maybe even encourage a few morels to pop.


Spring on the Turkey River



April 2, 2017


Filed under: Uncategorized — lstone @ 9:37 pm

The first hepatica!

The season “officially arrived” a couple of weeks ago. And even before that, the red-winged blackbirds had tried to push winter north in late February.

Not until the first hepatica blooms will I concede that winter has passed, however.

Thus, we poked among the leaves on the north slope, enjoying the early-April warmth, hoping to see a hint of white or purple accenting the dead-brown oak and maples leaves.

Mother Nature didn’t disappoint. A clump of white hepaticas almost glowed in the afternoon sun. The hairy stems, rising from the flat, mottled, liver-colored leaves on the ground, held the blossoms erect to capture the rays.

The more we moseyed around in the woods, the more traces we saw off the new season. Most spring beauties had just begun to emerge from the cool, damp forest soil. Only their grass-like leaves hinted of the flowers to come. Some leaf axils sprouted tiny buds, however, and a few plants on a south-facing bank had opened to reveal their pink-veined, white petals.

Spring beauty

Clusters of feathery green leaves announced the coming of Dutchman’s breeches – but it may take another week or more of warm weather for the pantaloon flowers to hang themselves on the clothesline stems.

Leaves of Dutchman’s breeches

A few insects joined our woodland safari. An eastern comma butterfly – a bit ragged after over-wintering under some loose tree bark – sat quietly to soak up the sunlight.

Eastern comma

A tiny wasp lit on my fingertip and posed for several minutes, as if not wanting to leave the warmth of my skin.

Friendly wasp

We should have known that the insects had emerged, since a phoebe arrived last week to explore its traditional nest site under our house eaves.

Song sparrows returned about the same time, announcing their presence with a cheerful, chattering song. (But what would you expect from a bird whose species name is “melodia?”)

The song sparrow’s strident singing contrasts with the bluebird’s quiet chortling. And often the bluebird is content to sit silently in the tree just outside my window, where his oh-so-blue feathers are radiant in the morning sun.

Male BLUEbird

The once-noisy Canada geese have suddenly fallen silent, however, after they built their nest on the island of the neighbor’s wetland. Don’t approach the incubating goose too closely, though or the gander – whose chief duty is to stand guard – will honk vociferously and even charge menacingly at a human or animal intruder.

Canada goose

Talk about noise? Just after sunrise, the tom turkeys are having a gobble-fest. They challenge each other, the cawing of crows, and perhaps even the sun itself. Later, two old toms strut in a clearing at the edge of the woods, puffing their feathers and fanning their tails to lure an unseen hen.


OK, it really is here! SPRING!







March 3, 2017

The tragedy of lead . . .

Filed under: Uncategorized — lstone @ 2:11 pm

Dining on death?



There, grotesquely sprawled in the snow, lay our national symbol.

The adult bald eagle apparently had been dead for some time.

It had fallen near the Turkey River, hidden at the base of a bluff. A friend just happened to find it while exploring a remote valley.

How could it happen?

Surely no poacher or vandal would shoot it here, a mile or more from any road access. And there are no power lines for at least that far.

Silent symbol

Could it be lead poisoning?

But we and our neighbors have used copper deer slugs for years, and have required other hunters on our land to do the same. But eagles can and do travel miles to feed, with plenty of opportunities to pick up lead elsewhere.

How to find out?

Enter Linette Bernard and Kay Neuman, with “Saving Our Avian Resources,” (SOAR), based in Dedham, Ia. With the necessary permits to handle eagles, they agreed to take the dead bird for necropsy. The necropsy included weighing and measuring the beak to determine gender; an x-ray to look for evidence of trauma, fractures, gunshot wounds, or ingested lead; and a sample of liver tissue. The Iowa State University Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory in Ames analyzed the tissue sample.

And the conclusions were NOT pretty, Linette conceded.

The eagle, a female, was very thin, weighing only seven pounds. Neuman could find no lead fragments in her system – but her liver lead indicated she was lead poisoned.

“A bald eagle’s digestive system is so efficient that food/stuff is metabolized/digested more completely (think owls and their pellets with bones and fur, versus an eagle, (which) may only pellet fur and things like rabbit toenails),” Bernard explained. “This efficient digestion is great for utilizing all that is eaten, but not good when what was eaten also contained lead fragments.”

The eagle apparently had eaten something (a deer carcass?), somewhere, that had been contaminated with lead. That meal or meals resulted in tragic consequences.

It doesn’t take that much lead to kill an eagle, Bernard said. A fragment only the size of a grain of rice can be lethal. And lead deer slugs may leave many such pieces of “shrapnel,” throughout the gut piles or even the meat of deer shot by hunters.

lead slug shrapnel in gut pile

Sadly, poisoned eagles may suffer a lingering death. At first, lead in their system may make the birds lethargic, slow their reflexes, and make them weak and more prone to accidents, such as getting hit by cars. The birds lose control of their wings and legs and organs, have impaired vision, and may vomit, and have lime-green feces. What a horrific way to die!

The poisoning occurs because lead mimics calcium in the bodily systems, and replaces essential calcium with toxic lead. The only treatment – which is very expensive and usually succeeds only if the bird can be treated early – is chelation. This requires twice-daily injections of a medication that binds to the lead to form a compound that can be excreted by the kidneys.

SOAR annually sees up to a dozen or more bald eagles that have lead poisoning, Bernard said. They feel lucky to be able to save and release any of them. From December through February, SOAR received 14 eagles, 8 of which had high lead levels. Only one has survived, and it’s still uncertain whether she can be released.

In 2016, SOAR received 13 lead-poisoned eagles, one of which they were able to treat and release.

The answer? Phase out lead ammo – and lead fishing tackle, for that matter. We’ve known for decades that lead is a toxin. Time to stop spreading it around the environment.

Unfortunately, the Trump Administration has put a roadblock in front of that effort. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has rescinded an Obama administration rule that was intended to phase out the use of lead ammunition and fishing tackle on all lands, waters, and facilities managed by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The National Rifle Association described the January 19 Obama directive as “a last second attack on traditional ammunition and our hunting heritage.”

Calling Obama’s order “a hasty and thoughtless attack” on the hunting community, Safari Club International said “Secretary Zinke returned science and reason to federal decision-making about ammunition use.”

Science, however, tells us that lead is poison. The debate really is about whether we should continue using it for the sake of “tradition,” and whether it would cost hunters and fishermen/women too much to go nontoxic. AND, of course, what this could mean to the profits of the big sporting goods and ammunition manufacturers.

That political debate seems destined to rage on. But if you’re a hunter who cares about eagles, you can and should switch to copper slugs for deer, and to nontoxic shot for doves and other game birds. (The world did not end when we went nontoxic for waterfowl in 1991!) And if you like to fish, and you like to see loons and swans and ducks, start using non-lead jigs and weights.

Yes, I’m an old-timer who likes “tradition.” But this is the 21st century. Time to get the lead out!

How many more must die?

February 15, 2017

CWD Clouds the Future of Iowa Whitetails

Filed under: Uncategorized — lstone @ 9:35 pm

“A quiet crowd,” mused Dale Garner, pondering the nearly 400 people crowded into Johnson’s Reception Hall in Elkader

Perhaps the hunters, landowners, and others who’d come to learn more about the recent discovery of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in Clayton County were simply resigned to the fact that the deadly deer disease had arrived. With CWD in Wisconsin since at least 2002, and its 2013 documentation in Allamakee County, how long could Clayton County continue to dodge the bullet?

CWD especially affects the brain, spinal fluid, and lymph nodes of deer. Symptoms may not appear for several years, but the always-fatal disease eventually will cause the animal to virtually waste away.

Deformed proteins called “prions” cause CWD. Unlike infectious agents such as bacteria or viruses, prions don’t cause the animal to produce antibodies. The prions can be spread to other animals through direct contact, saliva, and other bodily fluids. Prions also may survive in the soil or elsewhere in the environment for years. They can only be killed by temperatures of 1600 degrees F or more.

CWD – which can affect deer, elk, moose, and reindeer – was first discovered in Colorado in 1967. It has since spread to Wyoming, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Nebraska, South Dakota, and other states.

Garner, who heads the Conservation and Recreation Division of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, tried to offer a little good news about the Clayton County situation. The afflicted deer, found northwest of Elkader during the December shotgun deer hunting season, is the first out of more than 7,000 that have been tested in Clayton County since 2002. It could be an isolated case. IF we move swiftly, we may be able to stem the spread.

                         Standing Room Only
                      (photo by Joleen Jansen)

But, in reality, it’s sobering to have to admit that CWD is here in our county’s wild deer herd, which arguably has been the best in the state. Perhaps it was just a matter of time. Hunters first shot a deer that tested positive for CWD near Harpers Ferry during the 2013 shotgun season. Sixteen more cases have been found in that area through early this year.

What’s the future? For now, DNR officials are asking hunters and landowners to use free scientific collection permits to kill about 250-300 deer from a surveillance zone in about a 5-mile radius around the site where the afflicted deer was shot. The permits will be valid Feb. 18-March 5.

DNR biologists will check collected animals and remove lymph nodes to be tested for CWD. If the test is negative, the venison may be consumed or donated to the Help Us Stop Hunger (HUSH) program. Any deer that test positive will be disposed of in a landfill.

Garner said shooting the deer in the surveillance zone would help determine if there are more animals affected, while also reducing deer populations. Lower deer numbers – below the herds of 100 or more that sometimes have been seen in that part of the county – could slow possible transmission of the disease.

Garner also discouraged the practice of feeding deer, or establishing mineral or salt licks, which unnaturally causes large concentrations of whitetails, and thus increases the likelihood of animal-to-animal contact. Hunters also should dispose of deer carcasses in heavy-duty plastic bags in landfills, rather than leaving them on the landscape.

Scientists do not believe that CWD can be transmitted to humans – but the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization warn against eating meat from infected deer. Garner recommended that hunters who dress a deer suspected of carrying CWD wear rubber gloves and disinfect their equipment with a strong bleach solution.


What a change since I shot my first Iowa white-tailed deer more than 54 years ago! Or since my son shot his first deer 25 years ago. Or even since two of my grandsons harvested deer within the last two years.

Will our family – and other Iowa families – be able to continue this tradition . . .?

CWD Surveillance Zones

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