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Making Sense of Place: A Journey with Wendell Berry By William Hosley E.M. Forster said, “The only books that influence us are those for which we are ready, and which have gone a little further down our particular path than we have yet gone ourselves.” With this in mind, I am grateful for an opportunity to reflect on my 20-year journey with Wendell Berry and a 40-year passion for place. It begins with an account of how I got on the particular path that made me “ready” to embrace Wendell Berry as an influence. My work has always been about interweaving history, art, environmental studies and ideas to make sense of place and foster community. I am sure I am not alone worrying how globalism, homogenization and consumerism-run-amok will ultimately play out. But I am also sure that nothing in my formal education encouraged me to think about it. Indeed, I am sure most formal education encourages the rejection of knowledge that is local, specific and conducive to home- making. My college experience, although often joyful and animated by companions who remain lifelong friends, was an intellectual bust, at least my formal coursework. Majoring in Economics didn’t help. But it is also the academy’s polarizing tendency to divide things that belong together – putting art over here, and history over there, and literature and mathematics in their particular boxes and leaving sciences pretty much to the pre-meds, that made me uneasy. Compounding things was the loosey goosey; 60s-style curriculum that, among other things, encouraged specialization at the expensive of a diverse liberal education and sprinkled what I’d call attractive hazards throughout the course catalog.. The highlight of my formal education was a series of independent study projects. I learned nonetheless, doing what I’d always done – exploring. Travel and adventure have always been a means and a metaphor for learning. As a kid I always knew the cool stuff over the next horizon and strained persistently at my parents’ already long leash to find out what was going on around the bend. Exploring led to research and reading, led to projects, led to various kinds of performance. As early as high school, and the dominant part of my college and graduate education, were about what I now call “making sense of place.” Aside from a growing pedagogical movement extolling the virtues of “place based education,” (which you can Google) I am unaware of any institution of learning that teaches the place and uses the resources around them in the ways that, among other things, couldn’t fail to give urban youth a context for learning that respects the ground under foot and the neighbors side to side. Imagine that! Wendell Berry touches on this and suggests that, “the tendency of professional people and intellectuals to cohere in widely dispersed “networks,” often to the virtual exclusion of community ties,” is devastating to communities that need their intellectual engagement. “While specialization has increased knowledge,” Berry notes, “it has fragmented it.” Specialists “lack any ...sense of mutuality or wholeness” and “subsist on conflict with one another. The rule is never to cooperate.” Alas, “One of the most dangerous effects of the specialist system is to externalize its critics.” “Specialized professional language is . . . a cheat and a hiding place; (and) it may indeed be an ambush. At the very root of the idea of . . .professorship is the imperative to speak plainly in the common tongue.” It was in this spirit 30 years ago that I entered museum work, not to do art or history, but because it offered the possibility of helping the small and regional places I know and love defend themselves against an impending tidal wave of place-wrecking homogenization. I love America which Tom Wolfe describes as “this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, hog-stomping, Baroque” country of ours. Alas, the very diversity that makes it work now seems at risk. Evidence is overwhelming that places like Hartford, everywhere, are being or have already been transformed into colonies of bigger, larger more powerful places which take direction from corporations and government which are, lets face it, inherently beholden to no place at all. It grieves me to imagine a world in which places like Hartford loose their voice and identity. Isn’t it worth fighting to assure that the places we love are not subsumed, absorbed, subordinated or lost? This is a useful thing that museums and institutions of learning can do. They can help shape the climate of opinion and provide knowledge and inspiration so people may better know and defend the places they call home. I cannot think of a higher purpose and suppose it has been 50 years or more since bringing world art to our doors filled a comparable void. Especially since the Internet, airline deregulation and other aspects of globalism made the world so much more accessible, the mission of museums may well have flip-flopped. The need is not so much to access world culture, but to protect the fruits of an artistic and cultural heritage that is always inevitably presumed to be centered some place else than where we are. I’ll stand here! Thirty years later I still cannot quite pinpoint where this impulse came from. Was it growing up in Rochester which is inside New York but self-consciously outside the Big Apple’s economic and cultural sphere? Or was it the ten years I spent in Vermont before landing here. During the 1970s I explored all 251 Vermont towns and eventually “went native” enough to join a community where more than half the residents were farmers who traced family back generations and many were descendants of the town’s founders; a town where farming and truck driving where pretty much all there was. I learned more about architecture and history, more about people and values, and a whole lot more about the clash between agrarian and industrial America - than I’ve learned in any year since. It intensified my awareness of the vulnerability of small places and regions. My work introduced me to hundreds of farm families. Some were “going out” as they call it when business fails. There was a sense of impending doom. I spent a lot of time with people who were struggling to keep agriculture alive in Vermont against a backdrop of the inevitably unfunded government mandates that changed the rules constantly, favored big over small, and were largely incognizant of successful customs developed over generations. These were not gentlemen farmers or hobbyists. They were born to it and a few were farming land that had been in their families for 150 years or more. Heading off to the HF duPont’s Winterthur Museum for graduate studies the next year was jarring. During my year in Benson I quit smoking and took up chew - which provides the same nicotine buzz but requires spitting, incessantly, into a cup. Winterthur was the antithesis of “spitting into a cup” and couldn’t have been more unlike Benson. Most students at Winterthur were there because they loved art and antiques. I was there because I was sure old things had much to teach me about regional art and life. Generally, place is not a common denominator for Art or History at least the way it was practiced by 20th century professionals. Professional historians have defined themselves in opposition to the amateur tradition of antiquarianism that is all about place and has given us our best stewards and caretakers of local tradition and knowledge. As Professor Gene Leach at Trinity once explained to me, there is no more certain way to kill a budding academic’s chance for tenure than if their scholarship smacks of parochialism. So it is almost inevitable that if anyone on that track studies Connecticut - which they mostly do not - they will be teaching in Texas or Washington State, but rarely in Connecticut. I did well at Winterthur- mostly, I suspect, because my passion for place was confused with exuberance for old stuff - which I also have. Having spent the summer of 1976 studying in Old Deerfield and after four years of high school in the CT Valley in Vermont, when Winterthur’s application asked what we wanted to be doing in 5 years, I knew what I wanted. Old Deerfield makes a clear and compelling case for the CT Valley as a cradle of American civilization and a place second to none in richness of values, folklore, artistic expression, ingenuity and achievement. I bought it and was hell-bent on returning to the Connecticut Valley to exhibit, preserve and promote the region’s art history and material culture. I got lucky and count it a blessing to have had the chance to live and work surrounded by people, stuff and stories I believe have great value. My experience at Wadsworth Atheneum (Hartford’s art museums) was mostly joyful and sometimes bewildering. The Atheneum is, among other things, a magnet for people who believe Hartford is not cosmopolitan enough. Among other things, Wadsworth is, or was, also Hartford’s attic. It is a curious fluke that, because the Atheneum was founded not as an art museum but as a sort of tontine to house the Library and the Historical Society as well as art, it became the place to deposit the civic patrimony and, as a result and more than almost any art museum in America, has the potential to draw us together around the civic campfire to tell stories that empower us to defend, love and know this place. Culture - a word that itself has changed meaning - is not what you get when you visit a museum or attend a concert. It’s what a community is and has been and one needn’t look far - though increasingly I am afraid we must necessarily look back - to see that Connecticut was once brimming with a distinctive culture that I came here to help preserve because it is increasingly, so vulnerable. I do not wish to stop the world from changing, but to assure that rising generations will have access to and perhaps some affection for a world quickly being obliterated by globalism and homogenization, not to mention being made uglier and more vulgar, by sprawl, the super-sizing of everything, an increasingly coarse popular culture, and urban abandonment. I love Hartford and cannot imagine a civilization here that does not revolve to a large degree around an urban hub. But it won’t save itself by accident, nor, I am afraid, by the political class presently involved with it. I am quite sure we are paying plenty to people charged with making it better who are, in fact, making it worse. I was almost 20 years into my journey when I first discovered Wendell Berry, through a 1991 article in Atlantic Monthly offering “Twenty-seven propositions about global thinking and the sustainability of cities.” It sounds a little dry but sent me sprinting to the Hartford Public Library, where I took out the first of many books by an author who helped me fill in the blanks and give a little more coherence to my concerns. Finally, I was less alone in my sentiments and came to see that there might even be a way of looking at all this that would help me understand what making sense of place is all about. Wendell Berry is the prophet of place - the person whose writing most vividly challenges our ecological impertinence, our over-reliance on fossil fuels, our home- wrecking insistence on dispersal, and most of all our failure to defend the places we know and presumably love from all manner of colonization, encroachment. and befoulment. Because there is no direction forward that is not, to some degree, rooted in the past. Or, as Wendell Berry puts it so much more eloquently: “The new must come from the old, for where else would you get it?” Henry David Thoreau famously spoke of having “traveled widely in Concord.” I have traveled widely in Connecticut and recommend it. Like Thoreau and Mark Twain, Wendell Berry is a regional writer whose muse and inspiration is the Kentucky back country where, 40+ years ago, he returned to farm and write having abandoned a career as an English professor launched following a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford where he was in the same class with Ken Kesey, Ernest Gaines and Nancy Packer and a few years ahead of Larry McMurtry and Raymond Carver. “The place,” he writes, “has become the form of my work.” Wendell Barry is an ideological agrarian. When we talk about “the new agrarians” we have Wendell Berry to thank for being one of the best and first to give voice to those concerns. Keeping his chosen place safe for agriculture, may be a losing battle, but Wendell Berry has not gone quietly Berry has chosen a life, as we here in Hartford have, surrounded by perplexing antagonisms. He describes the coal fields of north central Kentucky as “a domestic Vietnam” like a “scene from the Book of Revelation” a “region impoverished and defaced” by “industrial vandalism” where the “land has been literally hacked to pieces.” The “inescapable conclusion,” he writes, “is that Kentucky has been made a colony of the coal companies, who practice here a mercantilism as heartless and greedy as any in history.” Although few have written with greater felicity and insight into the terrible defacing stain of racism in our culture, Wendell Berry observes that it is “not only racial minorities who receive our indifference or contempt, but economic or geographic minorities as well. Anyone who has been called “redneck” or “hillbilly” or “hick”...shares with racial minorities the experience of a stigmatizing social prejudice. “Imagine,” he suggests “the hick or hillbilly or redneck . . . slouching into the universe with his pistol in one hand, his prong in another, his Bible in another, his bottle in another.....(with) his plug of chewing tobacco.” “If you wish to steal farm products or coal or timber from a rural region, you will find it much less troubling to do so if you can believe that the people are too stupid and violent to deserve the things you steal from them.” As a person who invokes scripture as fluidly and gracefully as a 19th century deacon, Berry is nonetheless aware that even the church treats small places with thinly veiled contempt. Observing the practice of “using the rural ministry as a training ground for young ministers,” he asserts that “denominational hierarchies....evidently regard country places in exactly the same way as “the economy” does: as sources of economic power to be exploited for the advantage of “better” places.....In the more than fifty years that I have known my own rural community, many student ministers have been “called” to serve in its churches, but not one has ever been “called” to stay. The message that country people get from their churches, then, is the same message that they get from “the economy”: that, as country people, they do not matter much and do not deserve much consideration.” I am not old enough to say this from firsthand observation. But I know that as recently as 1940 most places in Connecticut were smaller than they’d been in 1800 and that some here still farmed with horses and that much of Connecticut was not substantially unlike the Henry County, Kentucky of Berry’s 1930s childhood, “a farming county...farmed by families who not only lived upon them, but within and from them...grew gardens, produced their own meat, milk, and eggs. ...(with) power furnished mainly by horses and mules. Thrift was still a forceful social ideal....They spent little money...had no tractors, no electricity, no refrigerators, no washing machines, no vacuum cleaners...played cards a lot...do not remember ever getting lonesome or bored.” The agricultural economy... (had) “good qualities indigenous to it that might have been cultivated and built upon. That they were not cultivated and built upon - that they were repudiated as the stuff of a hopelessly outmoded, unscientific way of life, is a tragic error... and... a work of monstrous ignorance and irresponsibility on the part of the experts and politicians, who have proscribed, encouraged and applauded the disintegration of such farming communities all over the country.” I knew an old-timer in East Windsor who insisted that there was no greater blasphemy than blanketing in asphalt Connecticut Valley farmland where, he claimed, the topsoil is, in some places, 40 feet deep and the climate extraordinarily suited to agricultural production. I have long surmised that urban farming right here in Hartford - where there is plenty of underutilized land - might kill several birds with one stone. This was once the breadbasket of the northeast and one can certainly imagine better use of our best land than the endless proliferation of sub-divisions and strip-malls. Berry talks about the rare privilege of growing up “in a community in which virtually everybody was passionately interested in the quality of a local product.” In his part of Kentucky it was tobacco. Here it has also been, at times, tobacco, precision manufacturing, insurance, paper making, stock farming, religion, commercial fishing, stone quarrying and monument making, educating men and, rather more uniquely, women, and also making antiques and fine art. Berry’s quarrels are many but presented with a softening grace that makes it as difficult to take offense as it is to remain confused about what he believes or indifferent to his message. A few excerpts: “A viable community is made up of neighbors who cherish and protect what they have in common.” “A community....exercises its power by . . . teaching its young and by preserving stories . . . that tell what works and what does not work in a given place.” “A healthy community is like an ecosystem . . .like a body . . . its members mutually support and serve one another.” “Community is a concept...that virtually no one has taken the trouble to quarrel with; even its worst enemies praise it....however... neither our economy, nor our government, nor our educational system runs on the assumption that community has a value.” And heaven knows - the question too rarely asked in a land famous for its 169 independent republics is to imagine, as Berry puts it, that “a city and its region could define themselves as one community rather than an assortment of competing interests.... simply by asking: What can we do for each other?” I loved Trinity College President Evan Dobelle’s notion - even if it was mostly symbolic - of tearing down the gates and making Hartford Trinity’s classroom. The rubber rarely hit the road in terms of curriculum. But it was a good start that cut against the grain of the prevailing fortress mentality. I suspect reconciliation between city and suburb will prove hard and I will sound very harsh if I say that feel-good sloganeering about Rising Stars may actually get in the way of projecting a more authentic image or asking the hard questions that need to asked if we care about “growing the economy.” Berry observes that "the vitality of a local economy is strikingly related to the vitality of local community. A strong local economy depends on a love of place which depends on the stories we repeat to another....When a community loses its memory, its members no longer know one another, no longer trust one another, and can hardly avoid harming one another." What we must foster, as Berry puts it, is “cooperation among small organizations: conservation groups, churches, neighborhood associations, local independent banks, and organizations of small farmers” is beginning to restore “long broken connections between towns and cities and their surrounding landscapes.” Berry champions an economics that grapples with what accountants describe as “intangibles.” He also insists on acknowledging costs that are externalized and therefore do not appear on the books. Even as we speak a national conversation is underway about the high cost of Walmart’s everyday low prices by a company that externalizes, that is, passes along to you and me, the cost of employee health insurance. “American agriculture is ...fantastically expensive,” Berry asserts, “though the costs have not yet entered into the official accounting. The costs are in the loss of soil, in loss of farms and farmers, in soil and water pollution, ... and the decay of country towns and communities.” When Berry laments that “the once plentiful small privately owned neighborhood groceries, pharmacies, restaurants, and other small shops and businesses have become an endangered species,” he takes up the theme of an intriguing film - “Independent America” - that chronicles two journalists’ 13,000 mile journey through 32 states - avoiding all interstate highways and chain franchises in search of the owner-occupied mom and pop proprietorships that once dominated American commerce. The sense of groundedness and proprietorship makes all the difference. Berry writes that “To know a place “by heart” is to live in a place and think about it and do its work and worry about it and love it and admire it every day of the year.” It is not asking too much. I submit that although there is presently no place for Hartford or Connecticut in our education curriculums, that no part of an education is more important. Barry observes that “My own experience has shown me that it is possible to live in and attentively study the same small place decade after decade, and find that it ceaselessly evades and exceeds comprehension.” I was never more inspired by a museum exhibition than in 1994 when the Atheneum borrowed a retrospective on Thomas Cole from the National Museum of American Art. Born and raised in England, Cole, regarded as the founder of the Hudson River School, migrated first to Ohio and spent most of the year 1828 living in Hartford and painting at Daniel Wadsworth’s house because, we are proud to report, Wadsworth was early to see his potential and helped get him started. My wife and I were fascinated by Cole’s patriotism and determination to show Americans the grace and wonder of their own land. We afterwards made pilgrimages to many of the locations he painted, from Schroon Lake and Portageville, NY, to Mt Holyoke and Katterskill Falls, to the site of Daniel Wadsworth’s Monte Video. Cole was a proto-environmentalist who not only sought out and painted places he regarded as proof of the divinity of nature - places “untouched since the time of Creation” - but also painted places then under siege by development pressure. He jammed his pictures into the face of the public in hopes of averting disasters. Alas, what started as a desire to inspire people to value America’s sacred places, ended in despair and his certain knowledge that the journey must be a private act of faith and devotion. The public mostly did not bite. Thomas Cole died young and couldn’t have anticipated the enduring power of his work and message. I think of him and I think of how two other giants of the American environmental movement - his student Frederic Church and Frederick Law Olmsted - are both buried in the forsaken and neglected North End of Hartford and it gives me goose bumps. I can’t get over how fated for greatness this place is, or seems or was. I’d like to conclude with a few excerpts from Berry’s writings: We have seen the emergence into power . . . of an economic elite who have invested their lives and loyalties in no locality and in no nation, whose ambitions are global, and who are so insulated by wealth and power that they feel no need to care about what happens to any place. We are waiting. For what? For the last of the old rememberers and the old memories to disappear forever? For the coming of knowledge that will make us a community again? For the catastrophe that will end everything? History provides many examples of coherent communities, but not one that we can “go back to.” We have no place to begin but where we are. It is by the place we’ve got, and our love for it and our keeping of it, that this world is joined to Heaven. Bill Hosley Enfield, CT Twilight Club, Hartford, CT 2006 Miscellaneous Writings & Quotes by Wendell Berry collected by Bill Hosley Wendell Berry What are People For (North Point Press 1990) “Writer and Region” Huckleberry Finn is about a world I know....a transfiguring regional book.... a regional genius that for 220 pages....remains untainted by regionalism....the book ....never fears for its reputation in any “center of culture.”….The great gift of Huckleberry Finn....is its ability to be regional without being provincial. The provincial is always self-conscious. It is the conscious...condescension to, or apology for, a province, ...that I earlier called regionalism. At its most acute, it is the fear of provinciality. There is....none of that in the first thirty-two chapters of Huckleberry Finn (In the final eleven...it is there in the person of Tom Sawyer...a self made provincial)....Every writer is a regional writer, even those who write about a fashionable region such as New York City..... Memory....must be a pattern upon the actually country, not a cluster of relics in a museum ....community....common experience and common effort on a common ground to which one willingly belongs....Sarah Orne Jewett’s Elmira Todd.... (is) a dispenser of intelligent talk about her kinfolk and neighbors....this (book) makes its way by conversation...Conversation’s got to have some root in the past, or else you’ve got to explain every remark you make. Misc Quotes: On Community A good community...is shaped from the inside If the word community is to mean or amount to anything, it must refer to a place The past furnishes us with many examples of coherent communities, but not one that we can Ago back to.@ We have no place to begin but where we are. A community....exercise its power by . . . teaching its young and by preserving stories A human community...must exert a. …centripetal force, holding...local memory in place On Local Ownership & Economy Some corporations …..tend to have hometowns and to count themselves as participants in the local economy and as members of the local community. Most people are now fed, clothed, and sheltered from sources toward which they feel no gratitude and exercise no responsibility. Restoring economic vitality to traditional business districts in our town and urban centers ……(depends on) locally-owned businesses that are relatively small (versus) national or supranational corporations….(which are) almost diametrically opposed On City & Country/ Hubs & Spokes The assumption that we can safely deal with parts, leaving the whole to take care of itself. ….. The local business people, farmers, foresters, conservationists, investors, bankers, and builders are not going to get along on the basis of economic determinism. The ground of their reconciliation will have to be larger than the ground of their divisions. ….The common denominator is the local community…. fully alive both in the world and in the minds of its members, can carry us beyond fragmentation, contradiction, and negativity, teaching us to preserve . . . in affirmation and affection A city and its region could define themselves as one community rather than an assortment of competing interests....can be a community simply by asking: What can we do for each other? On Localism & Place The regionalism that I adhere to ....local life aware of itself. . . . a particular knowledge of the life of the place one lives in and intends to continue to live in . If we are to protect the world’s multitude of places...then we must know them, not just conceptually but imaginatively ….with affection, by heart On Preservation & Economic Development (We) have to revive and reinvigorate the idea of context. A creature can live only in a context that favors its life. We can’t preserve historic buildings to any purpose or for very long outside the contexts of community life and local economy. Good buildings that used to house needful, useful, locally owned small businesses of all kinds are now empty or have evolved into junk stores or antique shops. But look at the houses, the churches, the commercial buildings, the courthouse, and you will see that more often than not they are comely and well made. And then go look at the corporate outskirts ….. the old town centers were built by people who were proud of their place and who realized a value in living there. The old buildings look good because they were built by people who respected themselves and wanted the respect of their neighbors. The corporate outskirts, on the contrary, were built by people who take no pride in the place, see no value in lives lived there, and recognize no neighbors. The only value they see . . . is the money that can be siphoned out of it On Provincial Anxiety & Specialists The disease of modern character is specialization....people who are elaborately and expensively trained to do one thing...they lack any ...sense of mutuality or wholeness…. The specialist . . . is a tyrant that is saved from the necessity of killing bearers of bad news because it lives at the center of a maze in which the bearers of bad news are lost before they can arrive. One of the most dangerous effects of the specialist system is to externalize its critics Rampaging professionals…. have no local allegiances….must not have a local point of view. Wendell Berry Biography (excerpted from Wikipeadia) Wendell Berry (born August 5, 1934) is an American man of letters, academic, cultural and economic critic, and farmer. He is a prolific author of novels, short stories, poems, and essays. He is an elected member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, a recipient of The National Humanities Medal, and the Jefferson Lecturer for 2012. He is also a 2013 Fellow of The American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Berry's nonfiction serves as an extended conversation about the life he values. According to him, the good life includes sustainable agriculture, appropriate technologies, healthy rural communities, connection to place, the pleasures of good food, husbandry, good work, local economics, the miracle of life, fidelity, frugality, reverence, and the interconnectedness of life. The threats Berry finds to this good simple life include: industrial farming and the industrialization of life, ignorance, hubris, greed, violence against others and against the natural world, the eroding topsoil in the United States, global economics, and environmental destruction. As a prominent defender of agrarian values, Berry's appreciation for traditional farming techniques, such as those of the Amish, grew in the 1970s, due in part to exchanges with Draft Horse Journal publisher Maurice Telleen. Berry has long been friendly to and supportive of Wes Jackson, believing that Jackson's agricultural research at The Land Institute lives out the promise of "solving for pattern" and using "nature as model." Author Rod Dreher writes that Berry's "unshakable devotion to the land, to localism, and to the dignity of traditional life makes him both a great American and, to the disgrace of our age, a prophet without honor in his native land." The concept of "Solving for pattern", coined by Berry in his essay of the same title, is the process of finding solutions that solve multiple problems, while minimizing the creation of new problems. The essay was originally published in the Rodale Press periodical The New Farm. Though Mr. Berry's use of the phrase was in direct reference to agriculture, it has since come to enjoy broader use throughout the design community. Fiction 1. Nathan Coulter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960 (revised North Point, 1985). 2. A Place on Earth. Boston: Harcourt, Brace, 1967 (revised North Point,1983; Counterpoint, 2001). 3. Remembering. San Francisco: North Point, 1988. 4. Fidelity: Five Stories. New York: Pantheon, 1992. 5. Jayber Crow. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2000. 6. Hannah Coulter. Washington, D.C.: Shoemaker & Hoard. 2004. Nonfiction • A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural & Agricultural. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1972 (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004). • The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1977; Avon Books, 1978; Sierra Club, 1986. • Home Economics: Fourteen Essays. San Francisco: North Point, 1987 (Counterpoint, 2009). • What Are People For? New York: North Point, 1990. • Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community. New York: Pantheon, 1992. • Life Is a Miracle.Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2000. • The Way of Ignorance and Other Essays. Washington, D. C.: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2005. • Imagination in Place. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2010.
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