Embracing Mystery

Embracing Mystery

To find Sean Prentiss’ house, follow Main Street past Montpelier’s gold-domed capital until the road becomes dirt somewhere around Maple Corners and the Whammy Bar in Calais. Go a little further into the thick wilderness of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom until you reach Greenwood Lake in the shadow of Woodbury Mountain. There, you’ll find Prentiss’s home, standing tall above an inlet called Turtle Cove.

As he offers a tour of the house, Prentiss pauses at the large picture windows he and his wife, Sarah, recently installed so they could admire the cove. On this February day cross-country ski tracks in the snow lead from his home to the far horizon of the lake, evidence he’s done more than just look at the lake. Prentiss says he’s trying to learn everything he can about this place he’s decided to call home.

This is no small matter for Prentiss, the desire to uncover the mysteries of Turtle Cove. These two topics—the search for home and the pleasure of seeking the unknown—are at the heart of his most recent book, Finding Abbey: The Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Grave. The book, published by University of New Mexico Press in 2015, follows Prentiss’s journey to discover the secret final resting place of the crusty environmental scribe, who has a cult following among rebels and tree-huggers alike.

The story goes that Abbey’s friends broke him out of a hospital, where he was slowly succumbing to internal bleeding, so he could die in the peace of his beloved Southwest landscape. After he died a few days later, they wrapped his body in his favorite sleeping bag and drove him to some unrevealed place in the vast desert. Only Abbey’s closest friends and family know the location where he’s buried. Among them are confidantes made famous as characters in Abbey’s most enduring work of fiction, The Monkey Wrench Gang, including Ken Sleight (Seldom Seen Smith) and Doug Peacock (George Washington Hayduke).

In the course of researching Finding Abbey, Prentiss sets out to speak to these confidantes about Abbey. Along the way, he explores his own desire to find a place in the world. Using Abbey’s words and biography as a template against which to measure his own life, Prentiss writes about what it means to find his own place to love the way Abbey loved the Southwest. A place to keep discovering.

Prentiss’ interest in exploring the outdoors began in the Poconos and the Delaware Water Gap in Pennsylvania, where he spent much of his childhood. He later bounced around the country exploring and working jobs ranging from trail-building to demolition to dish-washing. A business major in college, Prentiss earned an MFA from the University of Idaho. Along with Joe Wilkins, Prentiss is the editor of The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre: An Anthology of Explorations in Creative Nonfiction (2014) and author of the forthcoming Environmental and Nature Writing: A Writer’s Guide and Anthology. He is currently an associate professor of English at Norwich University in Norwich, Vermont.

As he looks out of his windows, Prentiss points to where loons nest, herons appear, and beavers build their lodge. Later that afternoon he and Sarah plan to hike to the top of Woodbury Mountain, from which he expects to see a vast expanse of Vermont, this place he’s coming to know well.

Gracious and enthusiastic throughout our conversation over homemade mead at his kitchen table, Prentiss discussed how he came to write Finding Abbey, how his business major has helped his writing career, and what truth means in nonfiction.

—Brett Sigurdson

 

Your book Finding Abbey is about multiple journeys at once—your journey to find Abbey’s grave and your journey to find a home for yourself. But where did your journey toward becoming a writer begin?

It began a long time ago. I was going off to college. My mom said, “Seanie, I want you to keep a journal.” My family has traveled tons, and she wanted me to keep a journal of all the interesting things I would do at college, the different lifestyles and fun experiences I’d have.

I was a business major all through college, so I was as far removed from writing as you could get. But I kept the journal, and the entries were as mundane as you could imagine. I would talk about what I did today: “I went to class, I got back a test, I went to lunch.” It was just incredibly boring stuff, but for whatever reason I was dedicated to the journal. I kept a journal until 2015. I think I have 43 total. Through those journals, I went from the world’s worst writer to the world’s second-worst writer to the world’s third-worst writer.

And then back in the early 2000s, I went on a trip to Copper Canyon in Mexico, and I wrote an entry about a crazy hike up one side of the canyon and down the other side that a friend and I did. I read the entry to a friend who told me I should try to publish it. I didn’t know that sort of thing could occur. So I sent the essay, really just a journal entry, off to a small magazine called Inside Outside Southwest, and they said, “We’ll take it and give you $350 for it.” I was shocked. That was still one of the better paydays that I’ve had. I published maybe ten or fifteen more articles with them.

My best friend Haus, who is in Finding Abbey and whose wife was getting her MFA at the University of Idaho, said, “You should go to grad school. You’ll love it because you love reading and love writing.” I was a business major who wasn’t a great student, didn’t love school, and for a year I told him he was crazy. But he just kept trying to convince me. The second year I told him I’d submit an application and essay to Idaho, and if they accepted me I’d think about it. And they let me in. They shouldn’t have, but they did. I planned on dropping out in the first two weeks because I could still get back ninety percent of my money.

Instead I found all the best friends, most of them books and ideas, I didn’t know I was looking for. So, I went from keeping a journal to somehow landing in a really good grad program and finding a community there, bulldogging my way up. I was a bad writer when I got there. I didn’t even know what an essay was or the difference between an essay and a short story. My first grad school literature class, my professor turned back my paper and said, “You don’t have a thesis in this paper.” And my response was, “What’s a thesis?” That’s how far behind I was with everything.

 

Tell me about being a business major. What did you hope to do with that training? How does that help you today as a writer, if at all?

I became a business major because I had no idea what else I wanted to do. And my dad and now my mom and my brother are all in the business world. So I just figured that’s what I would do. After college, my business degree got me into the Peace Corps in Jamaica, where I began working for a national park, the Blue and John Crows National Park, and got interested in environmental work. Then, once I left Peace Corps, I got into building trails, and from there went to grad school. Once in grad school, I connected the environment and writing and teaching. That’s how business got me here to being a writer and teacher.

In terms of how my business training shows up in my writing, it’s surprisingly practical and useful. While I was writing Finding Abbey I was thinking, “Who is this book for? Who is the audience?”—just as if I were trying to sell a car or a house or product. And who are the reviewers who might be interested in writing about the book? I thought of a business model not for writing the book, but for trying to get it out there. Finding Abbey is not super successful, but it’s sold more copies than I worried it might, and I think having a business plan helped.

I’ve found it really useful in teaching, too. That’s probably the best part for me: I realized I was a terrible businessman because I can’t sell anything unless I believe in it, and I don’t believe in selling most things. But I can sell creative nonfiction or poetry. I realized once I found my art that I’d found my product. I want all of my students to recognize that they need to be able to communicate because it is vital to them academically, professionally, socially. If I can get my students to try, to attempt, to figure out who they are, they’re going to be healthier students. So, yeah, now a businessman is selling writing.

 

You mentioned that you approached Finding Abbey with a business plan in mind. What can other writers learn from your experience?

Let’s see. It takes 50 percent hard work, 50 percent luck, another 50 percent of tenacity, a whole bunch more luck…[Laughs]. Callousness is a huge part of this industry. There’s so much rejection, and you just have to accept that certain people are your audience and certain people are not. If someone doesn’t like your work, it’s not necessarily about the writing. It doesn’t mean you don’t need to keep revising, but it might be the wrong audience is looking at your book. And then sometimes you just need good luck. Finding the University of New Mexico Press took me awhile. It wasn’t as if it was the first place I took it to, but they picked it right up. A lot of people had rejected me.

 

So you did this without an agent?

Yeah, I did this all on my own.

 

What about web sites, social media? Did those figure into your business plan?

I do very little on social media. I keep thinking about doing more, but the more I read about it, the numbers are so shockingly low for what you can sell through social media that it doesn’t seem worth it. My thought is if I have to put a lot of time and energy and money into making social media to make my book slightly more successful, why don’t I put that into the next book? Or put that into getting a chance to talk with people? These are fun, creative things—more than tweeting and Facebooking and trying to get the same group of people repeatedly interested in my book. I did build a website, and I spent a lot of time looking for reviewers to get me out as far and wide as I could. I invested a lot of time in readings in the Desert Southwest. Just trying to spread the book that way.

The other big part of it is community. I think writing can be so lonely and isolating at times because we’re each working on our own individual project for years. You have to find people who are willing to trust your words, trust your work, trust your ideas, and then promote it, not because you’re trying to make money, but because you wrote a good book and they want to share it with the rest of the world. That to me is getting more and more important—finding that community and cultivating it to help each other realize our dreams.

 

Let’s talk about Finding Abbey. When you discovered Abbey’s work, what attracted you to it?

I found Abbey as a senior in college, when Haus read Desert Solitaire for a college class. He said, “Read this book, you’ll love it.” I was blown away—his voice fit my idea of who I was trying to become. You read tons and tons of books that are wonderful and beautiful, but they don’t necessarily offer a path you want to follow, but Abbey’s did. Pretty quickly I realized: this is the voice I want to be reading. This is the life I want to be chasing after. This is the landscape I want to examine. Over the next decade I read all of his books. .

 

In that decade, did you find yourself taking on any of Abbey’s traits or lifestyle choices?

On some level, yes. When you read Abbey on the page he’s loud and belligerent. But from everything I’ve heard, for the most part, Abbey in person wasn’t like that at all. He was very quiet, reticent, and he liked to be on the edge of crowds. I’m very much like that. I love the idea of being this big, loud, belligerent asshole, but it’s not who I am for the most part. I also love the idea of doing a lot of eco-sabotage and monkey-wrenching, but I overthink it. I’ll see something I could eco-sabotage and wonder who owns it, what their life is like, what’s going to happen if I destroy their machine, and I get stuck in this ethical quandary. If I don’t do anything, I’m hurting the landscape, the environment. If I do something, maybe I’m ruining someone’s life and livelihood. I would love to say I’ve done tons of eco-sabotage, but I’ve done very little. I think the biggest way for me to sabotage the Machine is to teach others to love their landscapes.

 

What inspired you to write Finding Abbey?

There’s a pragmatic answer, and there’s what became the real answer. The pragmatic answer is as a young writer I saw my friends were writing books or finishing books or shopping their books. I had written a lot of disconnected essays in grad school, so I left grad school with nothing that could build toward a book. And I was trying to get a job as a professor, trying to be a writer, and I was thinking, “I got to write something.” My friend Steve Coughlin, a great poet, gave me the idea. So I had what I wanted to write about, but I needed the why. About a year later I moved to Grand Valley State in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I bought a house there, and I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life there. But I really struggle in cities, and I struggled to plant any roots and feel connected to the place. I realized that the search for Edward Abbey and his grave was really a chance for me to interrogate Abbey about his ideas of home. Abbey was repeatedly compelled to move to the East Coast because his wives—he had, over his life, five wives— wanted to live there. But he’d leave, each time, and go back out West. He was trying to do what was right for others while figuring out his place. So I wanted to understand: what is home? And that’s what the book became about for me.

 

Take me through the process of researching and writing this book.

I have a whole book shelf of Abbey’s books. I started by rereading them. My second project was to read all the books about Abbey, his biographies, the academic books, the memoirs that dealt with him, the interviews he did. I tried to immerse myself in the world of Abbey and his ideas. And then I started to expand it to books about the desert Southwest: Joseph Wood Krutch, Charles Bowden, Terry Tempest Williams, other environmental writers from that region. From there I thought it would be fun to start with the search for a grave and end with a search for a grave, so I started looking for Abbey’s parents’ final resting place in Home, Pennsylvania. I just tried to explore the places step by step that influenced Abbey. Each chapter focuses on Abbey in a place, and I tried to learn about how that place shaped Abbey and how Abbey shaped the place, and, in turn, what I could learn from that.

While I was doing that I started interviewing some of his best friends. I’d read their books, research them, and then sit down and talk with them, which was really great because these are men whose books I’d also read and idolized. To be sitting in a Mexican restaurant with them or in their offices, hearing their stories, was a dream come true. After these trips, I would write up rough drafts, kind of like those first journals I wrote, relatively artless and kind of boring. But then I would go back later and start adding details, layers. I had a research assistant, and she would transcribe my interviews. I would give her books and tell her to transcribe quotes. I’d then connect quotes and interviews and research, really just start layering it more and more. I very rarely had to move any major thing around. I might cut things out or expand on an idea, but I had these 25 chapters as moving blocks I could then shape.

 

I’m always interested in how people organize information and take notes for book projects. As you were interviewing people and doing research and drafting, how did you keep information organized in a way that helped you write?

I recorded all the interviews. I didn’t type anything, because I can’t do the two well. All I could do was just record our talk and go where it took us. Once I had the transcript I would sculpt the interview a bit, connecting themes and comments. In terms of the books, I highlighted all the quotes, labeled them—“wildness” or “wilderness” or “family” or “heartbreak”—and then my research assistant would put together these giant documents. I probably had 100 pages or more, single-spaced, just of quotes, all categorized with a table of contents. A page of quotes on “cactuses,” maybe ten pages of quotes on “mystery.” Those quotes were a huge help.

I also read a lot of books that I didn’t use. I read a book about Big Foot, for example, because it’s all about mystery. I don’t mention Big Foot at all (though an earlier draft did). But by reading those books I learned about what other people feel about mystery. I read a lot about Everett Ruess, though, and he did make it in. This helped me understand why I wanted to search for Abbey’s grave. Why does mystery matter? Because of curiosity. It’s like Hemingway’s iceberg theory—there’s so much that doesn’t make it in the story. If I could go back and revise the book I’d probably get rid of another twenty pages and lower that iceberg even more beneath the surface.

 

What was it like interviewing Abbey’s friends? Were they welcoming? Leery?

Each was different. Two were really easy right from the beginning, Jack Loeffler and David Petersen. Ken Sleight—he’s the basis for the character Seldom Seen Smith in The Monkey Wrench Gang—likes to be alone. My research assistant and I went to Moab to interview him, and he didn’t show up. We were supposed to be there one day. The first day, his wife, Jane, said, “Come back in the morning, and we’ll have breakfast.” We came back for breakfast, and she said, “We’re going to need to sleep in. Why don’t you go to Arches National Park and come back? We’ll do it in the afternoon.” I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to see the guy. Finally we got to see him, and we had an incredible conversation, just sitting around a table drinking beers and talking about everything.

The final one was Dough Peacock, who was very much opposed to getting interviewed. He didn’t like the idea of the book, and he made that pretty clear. If you know anything about Doug Peacock, his clarity is a very clear, tough clarity. He’s not going to sugarcoat anything. So that was that. When the book was just about done my wife said, “You have to have Doug Peacock in there. Try one more time.” I sent him a long email, told him I understood why he didn’t want to talk to me, explained my book again, and, for whatever reason, this time he was completely on board. He told me to fly to Arizona, gave me a day to arrive. I bought a plane ticket and flew there for that interview. Even up to the moment of it, I didn’t know if he’d show up. But he picked me up and drove us out to the desert with beer and wine. We talked for seven hours, and he invited me back for dinner and ice cream. I don’t know if he’d call me a friend, but the way he treated me was like a friend, so I’ll call him a friend. He gave me a stunning interview, I felt, some of my favorite parts of the book.

 

Did Abbey’s friends see the larger themes you were going for in the book? Or were they afraid you were going to reveal the closely held secret of his grave?

Well, I didn’t necessarily tell them everything about the journey, because I thought that might shut it down right away. But I also made sure not to ask anything that would take advantage of their not knowing that. I never asked them where the grave was or anything like that, but I asked them what it felt like to be there. I got beautiful answers. A mystery is only a mystery if the answer’s not readily available. Otherwise, it’s a puzzle that you piece together in order to put your flag on the map and say that’s where it is.

But they were supportive from beginning to end. Jack Loeffler was actually a reader for University of New Mexico Press, and without his help it might not have gotten published. He introduced me at a reading in Santa Fe; Abbey’s wife showed up at the Moab reading. David Petersen showed up at a reading. So people have been very supportive, for the most part, since the book came out.

 

What did you learn about Abbey, and about yourself, from writing this book?

A few things. One is that Jack Loeffler came up with this idea of conflicting absolutes. A lot of people get put off by people like Abbey. He veers toward racist ideas sometimes, misogynistic ideas. His ideas about immigration are stunted. They seem to have directly informed Donald Trump’s anger, and that’s not a compliment to Abbey or to Trump. That right there is enough to put any of these books down, and I think anyone fairly could.

But what Jack talks about is that we can have some other greatness or some other weakness. We can be both of those ideas that Jack calls absolutes, and they can be completely conflicting. And rather than finding contradiction negative, we can understand that this is what makes us human. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work to become our best selves, of course. I just like this idea that we’re not one version of ourselves. We’re a quagmire of conflicting absolutes and that is, again, the human experience. I love learning that—it frees you to accept your flaws, your problematic parts. They’re part of who we are.

Another big thing was home. I had a great job at a great university in a city that I recognized as great, but I just couldn’t find home there. By looking at how Abbey lived life, the struggles he went through, I realized that I could spend my life trying to break away from the city. So instead I quit my job and started over again. Luckily for me we landed in Vermont. This feels exactly like what home is supposed to feel like.

 

Now that you’ve found home in Vermont, which is where the book ends, do you feel like this is the place where you can stop traveling in the way that Abbey never could?

Right now it sure feels that way, yeah. All of my current writing projects except for one take place in Vermont. I grew up traveling, and I still travel a lot. But I come home every day from work and walk down my hill and look at this small cove on a lake, and I’m so thankful to be here. I’ve never wanted to stay somewhere more than I want to stay here. Maybe it’s just getting older, but my adventures are becoming smaller and smaller in terms of distance traveled but bigger in terms of knowledge about where I am. On these hills right here, my dog and I will go out skiing for hours. And each day we’ll go a different way and learn a little bit more. I’ve spent so much time learning the next new spot, and I love that, but this is the spot I want to be mine.

 

I want to talk about the other book you co-edited, The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre. How did it come together?

I was at graduate school between 2002 and 2005. It doesn’t seem that long ago, but for creative nonfiction it was generations ago. Creative nonfiction, although it’s been around for hundreds of years, has a relatively shallow recent history. It’s as if you go to the Midwest and Colorado and examine the topsoil. In Iowa it’s going to be rich and deep, but not in Colorado. Creative nonfiction is a lot like that Colorado topsoil: there’s just not a lot of research into it, not a lot of people talking about what we’re doing or how we’re doing it, or especially weren’t back then.

I remember having these great, dynamic discussions with Mary Clearman Blew and Kim Barnes, my mentors, about the ideas and theories of creative nonfiction during class, but so little was in writing, in books. Our conversations were dissipating like mist. I thought someone needed to put together a book about creative nonfiction, where it’s going, what it’s doing next. It took me quite a few years to gain the skill, the community, and the confidence to say, “If no one else has done it, someone’s got to do it.” I asked Joe Wilkins to help me with it. He’s a great poet and nonfiction writer, a brilliant guy. He said “yes,” so we looked for a bunch of writers to voice their thoughts about creative nonfiction. The most exciting thing about the project was that a number of books started popping up around the same time, looking at creative nonfiction in different ways, giving us more craft ideas, pedagogical ideas, making it a robust area of study.

 

In the book, you tackle one of the biggest issues within the creative nonfiction realm: truth. I was particularly taken by your thoughts about myth and truth in the genre.

A myth is something that a culture believes is true and those outside the culture do not believe is true. To me, that’s how creative nonfiction is: an essay or a memoir has to be completely true to the writer, but most readers recognize there will be missteps, falsely remembered things, things compressed together, and that what they’re reading is not absolute truth. Instead it’s a personal mythology.

My job as a writer is to aim for absolute truth—that means doing research, looking at photos, even looking back at the schedule of what the moon was like then or temperatures—and the reader’s job is to recognize that because of the way the brain works, because of the way memory works, absolute truth is impossible. What you’re getting is someone’s myth told on the page. I think that makes the contract a lot easier between the writer and the reader.

It’s so complex because I can sit here and tell you I want to aim for absolute truth and then before I get a paragraph into an essay, already I’ve abandoned that without wanting to. For example, I’m creating dialogue—I don’t remember what was said at the time, but I remember the mood and the gist of it. So despite saying I wanted absolute truth I created something. Or, say my wife’s parents we’re in town during the time a story takes place and I choose to leave them out. They’re not vital to the story. So I get rid of them, and now I’m lying about who was there. You can’t call it any other word—they were there and I got rid of them. All of this is to say I want to strive for absolute truth while recognizing the reality that creative nonfiction is an art.

That said, I disagree with people who call for an abandonment of truth or a melding of fiction and fact. To me that’s great, but it’s not creative nonfiction. I think nonfiction is key here; the word creative only talks about how you get to the nonfiction. The reason I say that is because if you tell me a story is true I will read it differently than if you tell me a story is invented. And it matters because I’m trying to figure out how to live a life, and I want to examine how other humans live. So I put the nonfiction as primary and then find a way to make it ornamental. Others argue the ornament is more important, but I don’t believe that, because it means you’re putting art before truth. They’re probably writing wonderful fiction or a wonderful hybrid work, but that changes the contract. I don’t trust that as a voice of truth anymore.

 

What other projects are you working on right now?

I was teaching an environmental writing class a few years ago but I couldn’t find a good textbook. It made me wonder: What is environmental writing? What is nature writing? As I started writing down notes, I started envisioning what I wanted a book to do. So Joe Wilkins and I decided to write an environmental writing textbook, and it will be coming out in November. It starts out with what nature and environmental writing is and a short history of it. Then we get into the creative writing aspect of nature and environmental writing, from image to character to narrative. But then it ends with activist writing, which I think all nature and environmental writing contains, even if in an inchoate form. So we talk about how to recognize what our message is and how to choose our stance.

This might go back to my business degree. I discover a hole, and I want to fill it..We wanted to call the book Living Maps, which I think is a beautiful name. It comes from a Scott Russell Sanders quote. The publisher, Bloomsbury, came up with Nature and Environmental Writing: A Guide and Anthology and that’s going to be the title. Going back to our discussion about business, our title is more beautiful but Bloomsbury came up with the better business title.

I’m also working on a variety of collections of small works. I used to call them poems, but I’ve stopped understanding the differences between an essay and a poem. I have one collection about building trails in the Pacific Northwest, and I have one about moving from Grand Rapids to Turtle Cove, and the third one uses science to understand the place I live now: how the trees lose their leaves or how the ice groans during the coldest temperatures. It’s going to be a collection of science poems or micro-essays. There could be four or five for each month, so 48 or more total, which allows the reader to travel through this place through the year. I’m also writing a book about learning how to be a bow hunter, which will be a standard memoir. And I have another anthology in mind.

 

Talk about writing in other genres. How does writing poetry and fiction contribute to your nonfiction?

I remember taking my first class poetry class. It forced me to reconsider everything I thought was the gold standard for an essay. I had no idea what to expect, but I learned what a poet is supposed to do. Just learning that would have been really interesting. But by far the most exciting thing was to see what the essayist could steal from the poet and what the poet could steal from the essayist. Not that it hasn’t been done before, but for me in grad school, learning I could take from that genre was a mind-blowing idea.

Then you add in fiction and what that can teach an essayist about pacing or plot or character. All the genres seem to intersect and add texture. If I were more pragmatic, and more of a business person, I would try to focus all of my writing in certain areas. I figure that would make my life a lot easier, but not as much fun.

 

A last question: Because MSR grew out of a writing workshop, I always ask writers to reflect on their worst writing workshop experience.

It was that first poetry workshop. I’d never studied any poetry anywhere. I’d never read any poetry. I was as ignorant as you can get, and the professor would write on my poems “This is not a poem.” What he meant was, these are not good poems. And he was right about that. But rather than helping me grow as a confident poet the feedback made me feel less and less secure with my poetry. It took me a long time to forget his criticism. The best way to make someone a better writer or a better anything is to get them curious about a subject. It took me a long time to get through being told I was not a good poet, that I wasn’t even a poet. That was the worst one by far.

Sean Prentiss

Sean Prentiss, 2015 winner of the National Outdoor Book Award for History/Biography, has lived in most parts of the United States–the East Coast, Florida, the Rocky Mountains, the Great Basin, the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest, and now New England. And wherever he has lived, writing and the power of stories have always been a part of his life. He is the author of Finding Abbey: A Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave, the co-editor of an anthology on the craft of creative nonfiction, entitled The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre, and the co-author of Environmental and Nature Writer: A Craft Guide and Anthology (forthcoming 2016 from Bloomsbury Press). Sean also publishes magazine articles and is the creative editor for Backcountry Magazine. When he is not writing, traveling, canoeing, mountain biking, or drinking a dark beer, Sean teaches at Norwich University. There he runs the Norwich University Writers Series and the Chameleon Literary Journal.

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