Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants

by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Paperback, 2015


Milkweed Editions (2015), Edition: First Paperback, 408 pages


Nature. Sociology. Nonfiction. As a botanist and professor of plant ecology, Robin Wall Kimmerer has spent a career learning how to ask questions of nature using the tools of science. As a Potawatomi woman, she learned from elders, family, and history that the Potawatomi, as well as a majority of other cultures indigenous to this land, consider plants and animals to be our oldest teachers. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer brings these two lenses of knowing together to reveal what it means to see humans as "the younger brothers of creation." As she explores these themes, she circles toward a central argument: The awakening of a wider ecological consciousness requires the acknowledgement and celebration of our reciprocal relationship with the world. Once we begin to listen for the languages of other beings, we can begin to understand the innumerable life-giving gifts the world provides us and learn to offer our thanks, our care, and our own gifts in return.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member japaul22
[Braiding Sweetgrass] by [[Robin Wall Kimmerer]]

Braiding Sweetgrass is a collection of essays exploring Indigenous relationships with plants and the earth. Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and also a botanist who teaches at traditional American universities. She explores the
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differences in how her Indigenous culture and the typical American culture teaches interaction with their environments. This book flipped a lot of narrative for me; even from our earliest origin stories, our cultures have a different relationship with the world. The Christian origin story of being shut out of the garden of Eden and of having the earth provided for our comfort and use is a huge contrast with the reciprocity involved in most Indigenous origin stories. My writing of that is hugely over-simplified, so please don't take offense. There isn't any culture-bashing here, even when the author takes a hard look at choices we've made as a nation. Kimmerer takes 385 pages to provide context and examples of how we can all treat our earth better - benefitting the plants and animals here and also benefitting ourselves in a reciprocal relationship. She has many essays on specific plants and how, seemingly by design, our responsible use can benefit both the plant and the human. I learned so much about sweetgrass, maples, strawberries, leeks, and many more native plants.

I highlighted hundreds of passages in this book. Some books change your point of view and thinking for the better and this one definitely verbalized a perspective that I was ready to hear. I loved Kimmerer's sentiment that everyone is Indigenous to some land. As a nation of immigrants in the U.S. and Canada (her focus areas) we should strive to create an indigenous mindset to our current land by learning about our national landscape and how we can live in a reciprocal relationship with the mutual environment that we share with plants and animals.

Certainly, there aren't easy answers here. We are a transient population. It's hard to connect with the land when you move through multiple diverse regions. It's hard to connect with the environment when you live removed from green spaces. It's hard to connect with plants when they are endangered from our actions. I think it's best to look at this book as a way to inspire a desire to connect with our environment. By spending time in it, I think most people will naturally want to protect it. I will say that one of the few highlights of this pandemic has been the incredible amount of time I've spent in our local woods behind our house with my two young boys. We've spent countless hours hiking through barely navigable paths, splashing in our creek, scrambling over rocks, looking at mushrooms and weird bugs. And they've spent countless more hours playing - masked :-) - with a small group of friends creating a whole world back in the woods. I feel lucky that we ended up living in an area that is both incredibly suburban and beautifully wooded.

I highly recommend reading this book. It's a slow book, a challenging book, and an uncomfortable book at times, but it really challenged my perspective in a good way and the ideas will definitely now make up a part of my worldview.

Original publication date: 2015
Author’s nationality: Citizen Potawatami Nation
Original language: English
Length: 385 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars
Format/where I acquired the book: library kindle
Why I read this: came up in searching for books on Indigenous culture
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LibraryThing member Tytania
This is a spiritual nature book. I don't normally do well with nature books; and when this one devoted an entire chapter to lichen, or the different sizes of drops of water depending on their tannic content, I was glazing over. I read it for the Native American spiritual aspect, which offers some
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beautiful perspectives.

The best one of all came right in the introduction:

"Sometimes I wish I could photosynthesize so that just by being, just by shimmering at the meadow's edge or floating lazily on a pond, I could be doing the work of the world by standing silent in the sun." Such a beautiful thought! In snow-covered February in particular.

Here is another: what the earth gives to us is a gift, and consider how differently we often feel about an object when we have received it as a gift. Kimmerer tells of a dream where she walked through a vivid Andean outdoor market, and picked up a fresh bunch of cilantro. When she went to pay, she was gestured away. It turned out everything in the market was being given away as a gift. She found herself being careful not to take too much; and she found herself wondering what presents she might bring to give to the (non-)vendors the next day. We should view the earth that way.

Then there is the chapter "Learning the Grammar of Animacy". Her ancestral language, Potawatomi, uses "he/she" pronouns for almost everything, certainly all plant and animal life; the "it" pronoun is reserved for things that truly and beyond a doubt have no life, like a piece of plastic. How might we feel differently if we called the trees "he" or "she" instead of "it"? She asked how one would feel if someone referred to her grandmother as "it". "It is making soup. It has gray hair." It would be kind of funny, and definitely disrespectful. It certainly makes me feel funny just to think about it. It's wrong. She feels it is just as wrong to call a tree an "it"! Try thinking about it next time you wander and ponder outdoors. How might we be treating the earth differently if our language called the trees and plants and all growing things "he" or "she"?

The Potawatomi language is also very heavy on verbs. There's a verb for "to be red." "To be a hill." And her favorite, "To be a bay." Very frustrating to learn! But notice how it animates everything.

It may seem off topic, but things are converging to bring me closer and closer to a vegetarian lifestyle. I ponder her sentence, "I wish I could photosynthesize... doing the work of the world." Plants do the work of the world. What parasites on them the rest of us are - without plants, we are doomed! What a gift to have so many plants to eat. To eat any higher on the food chain, to eat not the plants but the things that eat the plants... seems very, I don't know, out of tune and needlessly complicated and far removed from the "work of the world."

I find myself taking this to heart, the 'gift economy' that is the bounty of the earth, the animation of all things, and I find myself nightly thinking back over the day and, silly as it sounds, saying thank you, oats and banana... thank you, apple and grapes... And with 32 days till spring equinox, I long to see the plants return and do the work of the world; I'm sure I will see them with new eyes.
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LibraryThing member lisalangford
I loved this book. I was fortunate enough to listen to it on audio, read by the author. Kimmerer is a member of the Potawatomi Nation and is a scientist. I so appreciated her melding of science and the indigenous way of seeing the world and being in the world. Listening to her read the book felt
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like poetry, hearing her say tribal words for plants (and other things) as well as Latin names of plants and animals. I wanted to soak this book in through my pores.
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LibraryThing member bell7
Robin Wall Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and botanist, reflects on our relationship with the earth, indigenous teaching about our interactions with the environment, what has broken and what might heal. In lovely prose and with astute observations, her essays challenge us to
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rethink mainstream American culture and imagine another way of treating everyone - human, animal, plant - on earth.

The subtitle "Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants" made me imagine a science-y book that explained how indigenous folklore meshed with how plants worked. That's not at all what this book is. Don't get me wrong, there is science (the essay on lichens especially taught me a lot), and perhaps because it was the antithesis of an academic paper I probably learned more than I realize. What Kimmerer does is gently challenge us to reevaluate our relationship with the natural world. In one essay, she discusses the differences in creation narratives and its effect on how we treat the earth. In another, she talks about how she cleaned out a pond, restoring an ecosystem but also making trade-offs, knowing that she was killing organisms to get there. There's a lot to mull over or discuss with a book club.
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LibraryThing member SonoranDreamer
This is an excellent book, not only about plants and indigenous wisdom, but about finding reasons and hope to participate in saving our living planet.
LibraryThing member terran
There is so much to recommend this book. The science is reliable because the author is a trained botanist. Her text is poetic as she ties her scientific knowledge to the traditional, indigenous teaching of her Potawatomi family and community. She shares teachings from the culture that have been
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almost lost which explain so many things that scientists spend years studying in the laboratories. It is very long and took me longer to read because I wanted to hear her voice and repeat sections for the observations of nature and the relationships between strawberries, pecans, cattails, salamanders, maples and of course sweetgrass. Fascinating.
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LibraryThing member Treebeard_404
This is a set of pieces that Kimmerer seems to have written over a period of 15-20 years. Individually they range from heart-tugging, to enraging, to wonder-inspiring, to thought-provoking. Collectively, they are all exceptionally well written. Once I re-read this (as I almost certainly will), I
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will change the rating to 5 stars.
[Audiobook note: Kimmerer, herself, narrates the book. This was an excellent decision on the part of the producers. Her delivery is every bit as good as her writing.]
(Second-reading note: still great. Maybe even better.)
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LibraryThing member justchris
Braiding Sweetgrass is by Robin Wall Kimmerer, who also wrote Gathering Moss, which I have not yet managed to acquire and read, though I love mosses and would love to have a moss garden. A friend told me that Robin Wall Kimmerer is being considered a modern-day Emerson. I can see why.

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Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientifc Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants is organized into five sections: planting, tending, picking, braiding, and burning sweetgrass, each representing a different aspect of the ritual relationship with this culturally significant species. The book opens with the creation story of Skywoman and exlains the traditional meaning of sweetgrass for many indigenous Americans (Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potowotami Nation). This essay is followed by many others, each illuminating the inter-relationship among ecology, traditional practices, cultural teachings, American history, and personal and family experiences. Kimmerer is an ecology professor and compares and connects her Western scientific training with her traditional ecological knowledge. This book is also a call for societal transformation to undo the damage to community (in every sense of the word) from unchecked capitalism and technological "progress" at great human and ecological cost.

The writing was very personal and personable, both accessible and engaging. And after finishing it, I had an epiphany. I live in the land where Aldo Leopold is revered, and his A Sand County Almanac introducing his land ethic is celebrated. Of course, it is exactly the same philosophy that is central to many indigenous cultures as exemplified in this book, but of course once it's been repackaged and introduced as an original concept by a white man, well then, whole different story. I guess that makes Aldo Leopold the Elvis of environmental writing. My understanding is that similarly, the founding of the democracy of the United States of America was cribbed pretty heavily from the model of the Haudenosee Confederacy, but somehow we don't acknowledge the Native American source for the great American political experiment.

This book doesn't dwell on any of that. Instead it introduces us to many key species in American ecosystems, including pecans, strawberries, asters, goldenrods, maples, witch hazel, water lilies, black ash, lichens, and of course sweetgrass, plus key species of Indian agriculture, especially the famous three sisters of corn, beans, and squash. Each essay shares something ecological and then uses it as a metaphor to explore social, historical, cultural, economic aspects of life. The book also shares various aspects of indigenous ethics.

I think what struck me most was comparing the Skywoman creation myth to the Garden of Eden creation myth. "Can they, can we all, understand the Skywoman story not as an artifact from the past but as instructions for the future? Can a nation of immigrants once again follow her example to become native, to make a home?" versus "Look at the legacy of poor Eve's exile from Eden: the land shows the bruises of an abusive relationship. It's not just the land that is broken, but more importantly, our relationship to land." That's really something to think about--how our stories both show and shape our perceptions and values and priorities. This book has a lot to teach us.
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LibraryThing member Ma_Washigeri
Wonderful and powerful. Somehow heartbreaking to surface at the end of the book and realise it was written in 2013 and the world has had 7 more wasted years. A refreshingly different perspective, both when practicing science and the viewpoint of indigenous peoples who are already in a
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post-apocalyptic situation. I shall keep this on my bookshelf and dip into it again and again.
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LibraryThing member gypsysmom
This was my book club's choice for April of 2023. And really I can't think of a more appropriate book to read as spring finally comes to the Northern Hemisphere. Of course, I don't think there could be a bad time to read this book. In any season the lessons that Dr. Kimmerer passed on would be
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Robin Wall Kimmerer has a Ph. D. in botany and teaches at Syracuse University where she is a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology, and the founder and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. She is also a mother and an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She brings all these facets to her writing in this book and thus her book is imbued with spirituality and wisdom and passion. Plants have been important in Kimmerer's life since she was a young girl picking wild strawberries in the field next to her family home. She uses Sweetgrass, that tall native grass that is picked and dried and braided to be used in ceremonies, as a metaphor for how humans should interact with the natural world. But there are other plants that are important enough to rate a chapter: pecans, maple trees, witch hazel, corn, beans and squash (known collectively as the Three Sisters), lichens. Along the way she tells us native stories and prophecies so that settlers such as myself can understand Indigenous beliefs. One of the most moving chapters for me was the one called Allegiance to Gratitude. Unlike most schoolchildren in the US, children in the Onondaga school near where Kimmerer lives recite the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address. It speaks of all the natural world and sends greetings and thanks to them. In the Indigenous beliefs animals and plants and even non-animate beings are people as important as humans. If you view them this way then surely you would take care of them.

This book was borrowed from my public library but I am going to buy my own copy because I can see this will be a book to read again and again. And if I'm talking to people about books I know this will be one I will mention. It will certainly be on my top reads list for 2023
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LibraryThing member lisapeet
Many folks who know me pretty well recommended this book to me this summer, so I was predisposed to like it, and I did. Kimmerer has a very nice touch when it comes to layering Indigenous practices and mythology with the natural sciences, and what she has to say never felt preachy or
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hyperbolic—not an easy task, I think, when it comes to talking about deeply held beliefs and the need to be better stewards of the earth and its denizens. There was a lot here, and some of the essays were slower-paced than others—I spent a while with this book—but altogether it was thought-provoking and of value, even in my urban day-to-day (which does include raccoons, possums, and skunks, so maybe that's not so far-fetched).
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LibraryThing member elenchus
We must say of the universe that it is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects. [55, quoting Thomas Berry]

This initial reading I was deliberately sensitive to affinities for Batesonian cybernetics: there were multiple points of resonance, and though RWK never mentioned Bateson by
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name, I would be surprised were she not familiar with his ideas. Certainly her blending of science and sacred knowledge is sympathetic; as is her appreciation of metaphor as epistemological project. See the essay "Asters and Goldenrod", and RWK's stated intent: "I wanted to learn about why aster and goldenrod looked so beautiful together", asking "what is the source of this pattern?" [37-39]. Nevertheless a second reading could benefit from shifting my focus, allowing me to pick up other points of emphasis, different angles of insight.

It is an odd dichotomy we have set for ourselves, between loving people and loving land. We know that loving a person has agency and power -- we know it can change everything. Yet we act as if loving the land is an internal affair that has no energy outside the confines of our head and heart. [241]

RWK raises the principles of Original Instructions, an indigenous understanding of how living things should live on Earth; of the Onandaga Thanksgiving Address [101]; of the gardening style "Three Sisters" [124]; of the Honorable Harvest [170]; of Old Growth Cultures, living alongside old growth forests [270].

Braiding Sweetgrass turns out to be one of those books I take months to read, but never give up on, and really never "tune out" from. I did not anticipate this, given what I knew of it before reading, but my unhurried passage through the various essays fits both the substance and the outlook.

I fear that a world made of gifts cannot coexist with a world made of commodities. [364]


A handsome Milkweed Edition: hardbound, with a muted design both in palette and selected line drawings.
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LibraryThing member norabelle414
(Partly listened as an audiobook narrated by the author)
As an ecologist and member of the Potawatomi Nation, Kimmerer balances the native science she has learned from her ancestors’ stories with the science she researches and teaches. This book is full of short stories and essays examining
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different plants, animals, ecosystems, etc. She focuses on Native knowledge that has been lost or ignored by non-Native people in power, but also includes personal stories about saving salamanders in vernal pools with her daughter, ethically cleaning out a pond in her yard, and taking freshman university students camping. Very philosophical overall.

This book is not a panacea, however. It has lots of big ideas that are worth consideration but provides only individual solutions to what are societal problems (climate change, human/animal conflict, poverty, etc.) I enjoyed it most when I was listening to the audiobook and could just enjoy the stories instead of scrutinizing the larger implications of every idea.
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LibraryThing member bookbrig
I listened to this, and I enjoyed it enough that I'm planning to buy it so I can reread it. It's full of fascinating science blended with beautiful stories and a thread of compassion and care that runs through everything. If you're even remotely interested in plants, I highly recommend it. The
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audio is particularly nice because it lets you hear all the pronunciations properly.
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LibraryThing member dele2451
Should be required reading in all science and cultural studies programs, but of great value to the general public as well. Kimmerer is in the relatively rare position to see how ancient indigenous traditions and practices may provide the scientific answers we need to insure the future viability of
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the human species as well as the planet. I'll never look at a cattail marsh the same way again.
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LibraryThing member 3wheeledlibrarian
I listened to this as an audiobook from NYPL. Read by author. It’s absolutely amazing. I’m still processing all the moments I really connected with what she was saying. She is an incredible writer. I really, really recommend this book.
LibraryThing member SheenaSharp
This book describes a worldview that brings our major societal issues into focus and describes an ethic that shows interrelationships and could heal them all.
LibraryThing member unclebob53703
A very strong voice for changing the way we think about, make use of and inhabit our environment. Some great stories. Her interactions with her students and her daughters are the heart of the book, and I feel those stories are the strongest because she lived them--the one about trying to "fix" the
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pond is worth the price of the book by itself. And she's not afraid to admit a mistake or misconception, such as with her southern students--that makes me trust her as a teacher. I found some of the Native American myth stories a little slow and repetitious, but I suspect that's because their origins are in oral storytelling, which proceeds at a different pace than writing and has to do things writing doesn't. This is one of those rare books that makes you see your world through different eyes.
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LibraryThing member TooBusyReading
This lovely nonfiction book is history, botany, legend, beliefs, ecology all wrapped into one fascinating story. Yes, it's anthropomorphic, but I don't have a problem with that. Perhaps if we treated other non-humans in this world as if they had the best of humanity in them, perhaps we would learn
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to be more humane to the earth and all in it.

The author read her own book, and her voice is gentle and quite effective, not something all authors can do. She is a Potawatomi woman, and brings her culture and the culture she's learned from others to the book. She is an observer and a teacher, a scientist and a poet, with all the attendant dichotomies of those combinations. Yes, this book is romanticized. Yes, it strives for the idealistic. And yes, it is a beautiful story that I recommend to anyone who cares about the earth, our indigenous people, and our future.
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LibraryThing member GailNyoka
You might call the chapters in Braiding Sweetgrass, essays. I call them stories, and stories within stories. This book is a love song to the earth. Robin Wall Kimmerer weaves together scientific research and the traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples in such a way that she reminds the reader a
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to see, touch and hear the beauty around us - in a raindrop, or the life-cycle of lichen - things we could so easily rush blindly past.

In these stories, she gently leads us to consider reciprocity, and to learn a way of thinking and being that was almost lost as the missionaries and settlers vigorously attempted to stamp out indigenous language and culture. Each of the stories here gives us a challenge, and a chance, to reconsider, to appreciate, to act and to lovingly braid the sweet-smelling hair of Skywoman.
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LibraryThing member Andjhostet
An interesting book that goes into botany, ecology, economics, anthropology, poetry, and indigenous history and practices. While it was good, and well written, I found it to be extremely long winded.

In summary:
1. Treat natural resources as a gift
2. Be thankful for all gifts
3. Don't take more
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than you need
4. Native American knew a lot more about plants and ecology than people give credit for
5. humans and nature can exist in reciprocity and be beneficial to one another
6. Capitalism is bad and unsustainable

The book is basically just saying these 6 things, over and over again, with really flowery and poetic prose, and some interesting anecdotes.
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LibraryThing member rivkat
Biologist tells the stories of plants and human relationships with them from a Native perspective, arguing that Native ways of knowing provide key insights for the appropriate relationship of gratitude for and engagement with the natural world.
LibraryThing member Aronfish
Part personal identity and discovery, part environmental teaching, part poetry, this book was my favorite read of the year. Understanding indigenous knowledge of plants and planting, incorporated with one woman's deepened journey to her Native American heritage was incredibly touching, and the
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writing is beautiful.
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LibraryThing member spinsterrevival
This was beautiful and moving and fascinating and sad, and I cried listening to many parts of it. The loss of land and place and language is incomprehensible, yet the Indigenous people who have had so much taken from them are still taking care of the earth/Earth.
LibraryThing member snash
Beautifully written using the metaphors of the stories of indigenous peoples, and the workings of nature to illustrate the error of viewing the earth as a resource rather than a gift to which we need to reciprocate. It tries to be hopeful and positive but upon reading it, it often feels too late
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and hopeless. By robbing the earth we've expanded the human population such that I fear returning to a caring approach to the earth can not sustain the population.
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Original publication date





1571313567 / 9781571313560


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