THE LAND THAT KNOWS ME: MY SPARROW FRIENDS IN NEW YORK’S CENTRAL PARK

by | Jan 24, 2018 | Animal Medicine, Article, Teaching Stories

“Nearness to nature… keeps the spirit… in touch with the unseen powers.”

– Charles Eastman, Ohiyesa

Nita with her Sparrow friends in the Ramble

 It was after I became a Pipe carrier on the Red Road (Native American spirituality) a few years ago that I slowly began to understand that I must work with the energy of the land where I resided—in my own case, New York City’s Central Park—in order to maximize my ability as a healer. It was a matter of developing a relationship with the Land where I lived—of the Land getting to know me.

It was a gradual process. As I learned to work with Tobacco in the Native way, sending my prayers up in the smoke and offering it to the Land, I began to feel a steady pull toward the Natural World, that I had not felt before. This was a bit of a problem at first because I live in an apartment in the middle of New York City, surrounded by concrete buildings and sidewalks, and asphalt roads, with heavy, fossil-fuel-burning traffic. I had, of course, for some years, spent time walking in Central Park, half a block away, collecting the feathers of multi-patterned Rock Doves (now known as Pigeons) and silky, soft-brown Canada Goose feathers; I was enchanted by the magnificent patterns of color displayed by the Rock Doves (the soft grays and whites with dark bands, the charcoals and burgundies, the blues and pinks, and the iridescent emerald and ruby ruffs) who perched on my knees, and by the subtle elegance of the Geese, with their long, curving necks and black hoods and white chin straps, looking every bit like cackling medieval scholars. Earlier, already, a mother Canada Goose at the Reservoir had revealed to me the core of my spiritual name—“Walks with Feathers”—the implications of which I only came to understand much later. But this is a story for another time. (As I would learn in time, indeed, many Indigenous peoples believe that humans first received their names from wild animals.) As much as I had bonded with certain Geese and Rock Doves in the park over the years, however, I had yet to develop an awareness that it was the Land itself—not some universal principal—that was embracing me. The other-than-human—often more-than-human—people I had befriended were integral to the Land itself, along with all the flora. Together, they formed a community—we formed a community. They were, in fact, my neighbors—my own local community—in a Place that came to know me well. Over time, with the trust that developed, the Land would begin to reveal her secrets to me. Now, as I made my offerings of Tobacco to the Land, there began to be another dimension in our relationship. It was the city’s Avian population that showed me the way. I met a man who lived in the park —I thought, at the time, by chance—who was feeding peanuts to Sparrows and Titmice who perched on his hand, and he invited me to participate with him. Armando shared his peanuts with me and, sitting next to him, when I held out my hand, to my amazement, the little birds came eagerly to accept the offering. Afterwards, when I was alone, try as I might, the Sparrows no longer paid attention to me, but I found a place in the Ramble (a wooded area in the center of the park) where, during the winter, the tufted Titmice would visit my hands regularly, graciously accepting my offering of peanuts and sunflower seeds.

Tufted Titmouse taking a seed from Nita’s hand.

Then, at some point, I injured a knee, and for several months I couldn’t walk very far, and this curtailed my long walks in Central Park to be with the Geese at the Reservoir who had revealed to me my true name, and the multi-colored Rock Doves at the Boat Lake who sat on my knees, and the tiny, blue-gray, rust and white Titmice with tufts like crowns and round black eyes, who pirouetted around the bare branches above me in the bitter cold. For most of a year I could barely make it two short blocks to a park bench just inside the entrance to the park on 76th Street, under an Oak. Little did I know at the time what a blessing this would turn out to be for my spiritual life (what mystics and shamans and medicine people would recognize as an opening into the invisible world of Spirit). The knee injury persisted, and I was confined to that same park bench for all four seasons that first year, at a crossing with heavy foot traffic, dog walkers, bicycles, and tourists. At first, I missed the Titmice and the Geese and Rock Doves, but I was just grateful to be able to sit outside under the trees, experiencing the springtime bringing back the leaves and the flowers. Slowly, however, I began to pay close attention to the chirping, singing and chattering conversations of a flock of English Sparrows who lived in the bushes behind where I sat. There was a distinct difference between their singing and chirping, and their chattering, which I came to realize was a true language that the Sparrows used for communicating. At first, they paid very little attention to me. I began offering them sunflower seeds (seeds are bearers of new life and sunshine transformed into food), and soon the Sparrows began to gather every day around my feet. Eventually, I would find them waiting next to the bench where I sat, and they would fly toward me, chirping, full of joy, when they saw me coming, and escort me to my bench. Interestingly, this was the very place where the first English Sparrows in America settled in the late 19th century—Central Park and Fifth Avenue. In Sparrow time, however, they have been here far longer than European humans—some one hundred and fifty generations to our mere twenty-five human generations. Sparrows originally came from the Middle East. The oldest Sparrow fossil was found in a cave in Palestine, dating to about 100,000 years ago. Legend has it that when Jesus Christ was crucified, the Sparrows were the only other-than-humans who stayed to accompany him on the cross—historically a symbol of transformation and union between the visible, horizontal and invisible, vertical worlds. Earlier, the Greeks considered Sparrows to be the representatives of Aphrodite, goddess of love. I threw the seeds to the Sparrows one by one, so as to engage with them energetically, on an individual basis. Very quickly, we began developing relationships, the Sparrows and I. And I began to recognize many of them. Sparrows are often described as being a drab brown, when in fact their feathers are made up of various shades of honey, nutmeg and cinnamon markings against a ground of pale gray mist and sandstone, with delicate jet and ivory bars and tracings. On their backs, they display miniature tiger stripes. (I often see these colors on expensive items in Madison Avenue shops, and no one would describe them as being “drab.”) My Sparrow friends came closer and closer to me that spring, and soon they began to gather next to me on the bench and metal armrest. Slowly, they began to take the seeds directly from my fingers. Five, ten, or fifteen of them at a time would line up on the front slat of the bench next to me. Most would await their turn, take a seed and fly away. Some of them were shy and took the seeds delicately and appreciatively, and chirped with delight, lingering for a moment, looking up into my eyes with what I can only describe as love and appreciation. But others would grab a seed furtively and fly away quickly. Some of them were assertive, jumping the line to snatch the seeds from my fingers. Some stayed for more than one seed, and the others behind them would begin to push them out of the way, or hop in front of them. Their personalities were very different. There were also Sparrows who arrayed themselves at my feet in orchestra formation, looking up at me, patiently awaiting their turn, and I soon understood that they preferred the seeds that jumped when I threw them, one by one, to the seeds lying scattered on the ground. At one point, a number of these Sparrows began to fly up to intercept the seeds in the air even before they reached the ground, higher and higher, and they began to compete for them. Indeed, I could see that they were playing—something like “catch-the-insect,” I supposed. When I spent too much time paying attention to the lines of Sparrows on the bench, the ones on the ground would begin to jump up next to my hand—sometimes landing at the front of the line, without taking a seed, then hopping back down—indicating that it was time for me to throw some seeds in the air. And when I spent too much time throwing seeds in the air, the Sparrows on the bench would begin to fly up and down in front of my hand. In time, a few of them began to wait on my shoes, and jump up from there to catch a seed.

Sparrows flying up to catch a seed, while the Sparrow on the backrest waits.

I noticed that after a while hopping around my feet or on the bench, many of them would gather in the bushes behind me and sing in chorus—sing for me, I believe, in appreciation—while the others continued to come for seeds, going back and forth to the chorus. At some point, one little female Sparrow began to sit next to my shoulder every day on the backrest, and wait for me to place a seed on the rounded metal support that jutted up and curled back. Unlike the other Sparrows, when I offered her a seed between my fingers, she would back away and bow her head toward the metal protuberance indicating that she wanted it placed on the metal, to which she would come hopping with visible delight once there was a seed there. After a few weeks, some of the others noticed this, and began to line up on the back of the bench around her. Raising her wings, the little Sparrow would try to chase them away angrily whenever they tried to take a seed from the metal she presided over. By summer’s end, a number of the Sparrows had begun to wait patiently for me to place a seed on that metal curl. They would wait on the branch of a bush a couple of feet behind me, and when I placed seeds on the metal, they would zoom over to capture the seed, occasionally touching their feet to the metal to steady themselves, or even landing on it. At first, they would often miss, or drop the seed, and return for another try, but some of them became very proficient, and they began to compete, to see who arrived first. There was one Sparrow who would alight next to my shoulder and chirp once loudly to get my attention when the seeds were gone. If the Sparrows on the backrest backed away when I offered them a seed from my fingers, it meant they wanted me to place it on the iron support, and only then would they move away and fly over to it. They were training me, if one could call it that, to do what they wanted, not the other way around. There was one male Sparrow (thus signified by his black bib; females had pale sand chests) who was larger than the others, and slower. He would mostly stand in the background on the bench or on the ground, just watching (eventually, I figured out that he was holding space for the flock), and sometimes he would line up on the bench with the others. When it came his time, he would stay in place next to me, and eat up to seven or eight big seeds, which he did very slowly before flying away. Invariably, the others in line would become impatient, and they would jostle him and even snatch the seeds from him, sometimes directly out of his mouth. And he would fuss with them, but he would stand his ground and not move out of the way. I realized that he was older, something like an older Grandfather. Over the weeks, as I watched, I understood that he was an Elder of the flock, and that he held a position of importance. Slowly, it dawned on me that he was a spiritual elder, something like an abbot of a spiritual order, and he was watching over the flock. There were other leaders who were more physical, and warned of possible danger, such as when Red Tail Hawks approached, or when bicycles rode past, or children. (The Sparrows were terrified of children; they often kicked at the Sparrows or waved sticks at them.) In the spring, individual Sparrow parents of both sexes began to bring their young. They would take the seeds and, after chewing them up, feed them to the baby birds crying and fluttering their wings, by placing their beaks inside the baby’s open beak. Gradually, as the youngsters grew, the parents began leaving them there at my feet, to fend for themselves. Sometimes there were fifty or so fledglings and juveniles, of varying sizes and stages of growth, and only a couple of adults, running around mostly only pretending to catch the seeds. I realized it was good training for the young, to develop their eye/wing coordination, which the parents obviously knew. Slowly, it became clear that the Sparrows were not there simply for the food; there was plenty of it in spring and summer. Sparrows were engaging with me in a deeper relationship. Seeds were simply the medium of communication, for two species who spoke a different physical language. It was our commonality that brought them to me. Seeds were our common language, taking us into an inner world. In a way it resembled the sharing of the Pipe in the Indian way, where heaven and earth—stem and bowl—were connected in ceremony, in prayer, or the sharing of the Eucharist in Church, where, in community, people symbolically consumed the body of Jesus in the form of a wafer made of grain, meaning seeds—symbolic of Life. These Sparrows were in Communion with me. Space always opened up. It was the space of contemplative prayer. Seeds were the portal. Seeds are Life, Creation, the place from where all Life emerges on Earth in a continuous Becoming, which is Creation. The Sparrows and I were praying together, partaking of the Life Force together, if you will. We were in relationship, as the American Indians would say. The “Mituyake Oyasin” (meaning “All my relations”) which the Lakota repeated as part of many ceremonial interactions, after every prayer, took on an added, felt meaning for me, no longer anthropocentric, no longer human-centered. My Sparrow friends, I could see, knew all this. Elder bird was teaching me this. I didn’t give human names to the Sparrows, out of respect. But I began to think of him as Medicine Bird. He was a leader in the flock, watching over them. Twice, I saw him fly to a branch on a bush behind me, about a foot off the ground, and call a meeting in a loud, chattering voice. All but a few of the Sparrows surrounding me left and congregated in orchestra formation (like they did at my feet) on the ground under the branch where he sat lecturing animatedly for some ten or fifteen minutes. It became clear to me that Sparrows have a real language, in the sense that humans understand it. Both times, when Medicine Sparrow had finished, the Sparrows returned to me, and he took his place again at the far end of the bench, continuing to hold the space in silence. Now, I got it: I had no doubt that, in fact, he was a Master of Sparrow Novices!

Medicine Sparrow about to take a seed.

The summer progressed, and the baby Sparrows grew up, then autumn came. It still brought considerable pain to my knee to walk any distance, and I was happy there with my Sparrow friends. The bushes and trees lost their leaves, and it was getting cold, but my Sparrow friends continued to come to me when I whistled to let them know I was there. Then, one day at the beginning of January, when I arrived and whistled, no one came. I continued to whistle for half an hour, and nothing. The bare branches remained bare, and there was no chirping or movement. I was devastated. Where had my Sparrows gone in such a large park? Since I wasn’t able to walk much to search for them, I couldn’t imagine how or where I would find them. I continued to go there for a few days and whistle, and nothing. I was devastated. A few days later, I was walking next to the park on Fifth Avenue, three blocks north of where I normally sat, to get to a cross-town bus, and as I was crossing the street, a tiny female Sparrow buzzed me in the middle of the street and made a small half-circle directly in front of me, as they often did to catch my attention. Then she perched on the iron fence on the other side of the street from the park. I knew immediately that she was one of my friends, and I threw her a seed. She took it and flew back across the street to the park. I followed her with my eyes, and saw her alight on a tree, and there, all sitting on the bare branches, was my flock of Sparrows. She had been telling me that they had moved there for the winter, joining another flock. I crossed back over Fifth Avenue, and the entire flock landed at my feet, chirping madly and jumping up and down, looking up at me in recognition with love in their eyes. (Although birds do not have facial muscles like humans, with which to express themselves, they have very expressive eyes.) I was overjoyed, and I continued to go there every day that winter, snow or shine. There was not as much food in the park as during summer, and the Sparrows would squeal with delight when I arrived, flying toward me like water spouting from a fountain. Here, in the new place, there was a big tree with bare branches behind the bench where I sat, and there was a wire fence almost flush with the back of the bench. My friends would line up for seeds on the fence, and on the bare branches of the tree. From there, as on 76th Street bench, a number of them would repeatedly indicate that they wanted to fly up from the tree to catch the seeds thrown high in the air in front of me, squealing with delight every time. One Sparrow, however, began to indicate, jumping up from the backrest a few inches behind me, that he wanted me to throw a seed up in the air right there. He would refuse to take it unless I threw it up in the air above him. (The photograph below, taken by a passerby, shows him flying up to catch a seed.)

Sparrows lining up for seeds at the new, winter bench.

That same winter, as I sat with my Sparrow friends, the famous Red Tail Hawk, Pale Male (about whom there was a documentary made and several books, and whose controversial Fifth-Avenue nest, interestingly, was a few doors from where I lived) would often sit on a branch overlooking us. The Rock Doves would all flee, but the Sparrows usually paid no attention. (They were too small to be of much interest, except in the spring, when he was feeding his nestlings.) One day, however, when Pale Male sighted a big Rat next to a wall behind us, and moved closer, the Sparrows suddenly all dove into the bushes in back of me, next to the wall. Those bushes stayed green in winter, and the Sparrows spent the night hidden in their branches, sleeping behind the leaves. This time, however, they didn’t hide. Rather, they all packed into the openings between the leaves, where they could be seen clearly, standing very still. And they began a low, steady chant, singing the same notes over and over for some twenty minutes, even after Pale Male had flown away with his catch. I wasn’t sure what this meant, but it was a beautiful and moving experience, seeming to be some kind of prayer ritual, or perhaps a dirge, not at all like their normal singing. (Perhaps that Rat was a friend of theirs.) Then, they returned to my bench for more sunflower seeds. When early spring came, my Sparrow friends moved back to 76th Street. The second summer, it all continued as before. Medicine Sparrow was a little slower, but he continued to hold the space, sitting at the other end of the bench, allowing the younger birds to jostle him and take seeds away from him. It became even clearer to me now that he was the Master of Novices in a loosely-organized spiritual community. I fancied that St. Francis had been inspired by a similar flock of Sparrows to form his first community of monks, in the early days, before he was required by the pope to establish a formal rule. Indeed, I thought, Francis had perhaps organized his informal order according to his observations of Sparrows. As we know, he spent a great deal of time with birds, preaching to them, praying with them, in Communion with them. That second summer, Medicine Sparrow began disappearing for days at a time, then weeks. Then, he would be back. One day, as fall approached, I was sitting on my bench sharing seeds with my Sparrow friends, throwing them up in the air, offering them in my fingers on the bench, and suddenly, all of the Sparrows disappeared, for no reason that I could see. Medicine Sparrow had reappeared the day before, after being absent for a couple of weeks, and now, he alone stayed with me. He flew to the fence next to me and just sat there, looking at me. (I noticed that there were no humans around anymore either, which was unusual.) The space slowly began to open up with a strange light, and Medicine Sparrow’s gaze held mine for what seemed like a long time. I talked to him, telling him how much I loved him and appreciated what he was doing as Master of Novices for the younger birds. He responded by swelling up his chest and feathers, and half-closed his eyelids, like a miniature purring tiger. After what must have been fifteen minutes, but felt like a lot longer, I realized that I was doing all the talking, and I asked him what he had to say to me. Immediately, I felt an enormous charge of energy coming into me, and I was transported to another place and time. The charge of energy lasted for a long while as Medicine Sparrow held my gaze, now without blinking. I understood that Medicine Sparrow was transmitting something to me. But what? I would need to decipher the message later. The energy connection was so intense that I had trouble holding it. Finally, I could hold the connection no longer, and I looked away for a moment and the charge subsided. Medicine Sparrow continued to look at me for a short time, then flew away. Right after he flew away, everything returned to normal. The flock of Sparrows all returned and gathered around my feet and on the bench beside me, and people began walking past again, all as if nothing had happened. After that day, Medicine Sparrow returned a few more times, but never stayed more than an hour or so, and then he would disappear again. I supposed he was spending time as Master of Novices with another flock. After the experience with Medicine Sparrow, I was shaken, and I went to a quiet church nearby to pray for understanding. As I prayed, I clearly felt the presence of St. Francis, and it slowly came to me that, indeed, Medicine Sparrow had given me a teaching about how to be fully connected to the Natural World. The message was simply that I had to own nothing! That I had to let go of all my possessions and be like a Sparrow, living in the moment. “Let go of everything!” the Sparrow Elder had said to me. Until I did so, he said, I would never know the ecstasy of full Communion with Nature, which was what the Avians experienced regularly. “Trust,” was Medicine Sparrow’s message. “Let go.” In fact, that was what St. Francis, who had spent so much of his spiritual life praying with wild birds, had done. St Francis let go of everything. At the end, when he lay dying on a dirt floor, he gave away his one remaining possession, the patched garment that he wore, the color of earth—of Sparrows—saying to his companions that he wanted to die owning nothing. I later came across a quotation of Buddhist monk Jack Kornfield (in Endgame: The Problem of Civilization, by Derrick Jensen, a book that everyone truly concerned about the future of Earth and all her Wild Souls, not just “civilized” human culture, should read) that summed it up nicely: “In the end, just three things matter: How well we have lived. How well we have loved. How well we have learned to let go.” Indeed, I had lived well and loved well, but the hardest thing for me had always been to let go: It seemed that I had spent my life feeling like I was falling off the edge, trying to hold on to something. As the summer wore on, in addition to the Sparrows at 76th Street, I came to know a new group of Avian people in the Ramble. My knee had much improved, and I was able to walk farther into the park. (Indeed, one little male Sparrow had begun sitting on my injured knee that summer at 76th Street, and I had noticed that my knee had begun to get noticeably better.) Birds, I had slowly realized, needed to be grounded in order to fly. They can only take off when they have strong legs (or at least one strong leg). Their scaled feet, in fact, if you look at them closely, mirror a plant’s gnarled roots. Likewise, their feathers, which give them shelter and take them up into the sky, mirror the structure of leaves. (Both leaves and feathers emerge, from bark and from skin, in spiral formation. And weren’t a leaf’s midrib and veins a more ancient version of a feather’s shaft and barbs? In fact, a leaf’s surface was for absorbing light, and a feather’s surface has been shown to be piezoelectric, which means that it is able to create electrical current with pressure, like a crystal. This means that birds, when they flap their wings, actually create a tiny bit of electricity—in reverse of a leaf—sending out light.) On many an occasion, when I think I see a beautiful feather lying on the ground, it turns out to be a leaf. And, indeed, in autumn the multi-colored, falling leaves mirror the flight of birds. (Or is it the other way around, with birds recapitulating the forms and movements of our common ancestors, the plants?) Later, in retrospect, I realized that, ironically, my legs (like birds for flight) had needed to be stronger, more grounded, to go the next level in my Avian lessons That second fall, now that I could walk farther and was spending more time in the Ramble, visiting with another flock of Sparrows as it got colder, I began to receive friendly visits from other resident birds. First, it was the Nuthatches tumbling down tree trunks like tiny, rocky waterfalls of blue and white and rust, announcing their arrival with a twang, then the playful Titmice. Eventually, as winter and spring came, many other birds joined in the visits: daring, playful Chickadees; cautious Cardinals; assertive Bluejays; a furtive Redbelly Woodpecker; shy Mourning Doves; cuddly-looking Downey Woodpeckers; a stately Mallard couple; joyful Whitethroat Sparrows (winter visitors); iridescent black Grackles; mewing Catbirds; mindful Robins; and of course multi-colored Rock Doves; and so on. They all began to come to me for seeds and peanuts, becoming friendlier and friendlier. On the way to the Ramble that autumn, I would spend some time first with my Sparrows on 76th Street. But when they moved away again around the beginning of the New Year, as they had the year before, I lost touch with them. I felt that the Sparrows had taught me what they wanted me to know for the moment, and I was being drawn to the next level of Avian teachings. And so, I continued to visit my new friends in the Ramble, in a place that was far more isolated than the bench next to Fifth Avenue, under another sheltering Oak. There, I would learn a great deal more about the ongoing ecstasy that birds live in, that is only achieved through absolute detachment and surrender, and letting go (as Medicine Sparrow had imparted to me). It was to be about learning how not to be in control of the outside world, but, rather, of being present in the inside world—present in both worlds at once. Surrender to the outside, while aligning, connecting, with the far vaster inner world, which connects with the greater inner and outer world of all beings—in other words, the Natural World. When birds fly, I was learning, it is about aligning with the forces of Nature—with the electromagnetic field of the Earth, with the sun and the stars (which they apparently can see in the daytime), and with the wind. When they fly, birds are weaving the energies of the sky and the wind into the tapestry of the Land. Feathers carry all these energies. Sparrows had begun to teach me all this over the long two summers when I could not walk far. Now, I was ready to expand my learning with other Avian members of my local community. And, as I was learning, it was all tied to a certain Place, and to the Land that knows me, to a community of beings with whom I have continued to spend much time. As I came to understand, those who have eyes to see and ears to hear will find a place where they can be in relationship with the land…

About the Author

NITA M. RENFREW LMT AADP is a member of the Editorial Board of The Journal of Shamanic Practice. She is a shamanic healer, energy healer, integrative body worker, and naturalist with many years experience working in medical settings. She has studied with a number of traditional and other healers from many countries. As a follower of the Red Road (American Indian spirituality), she has danced in Sun Dance (with Lakota intercessor Durwin WhiteLightning) and is a pipe carrier. She is also an artist and writer. She was the program creator, facilitator, instructor, and assistant instructor for the fourteen-month North American Healing Arts (NAHA) program, featuring Lewis Mehl-Madrona and Barbara Mainguy teaching Indigenous bodywork, along with osteopath Joseph Schmidlin and sound healer John Beaulieu. Nita lives in New York City, where she offers her healing services in a major hospital for humans, as well as in a hospital for wild birds. She teaches Great Bear Reiki and CranioSacral healing from a Native American perspective, and has a private practice. She can be contacted at nitarenfrew@yahoo.com. Copyright Nita Renfrew 2018, PICTURE CREDITS: Many thanks to the people passing by who took pictures of me with my Bird Friends and emailed them to me.

3 Comments

  1. Cecile Carson

    Beautiful, beautiful, Nita — thank you for these written seeds!
    Cecile Carson

  2. Genie Hobbs

    lovely, thank you so much

  3. Gwen Falcon

    Nita, thanks so much for sharing your experience. It resonates strongly with my own here in Kingston, NY where I feed the chipping sparrows every morning in my back yard. There was even a ‘medicine sparrow’ here for a couple of years who emanated so much compassion for me one morning when I felt profound sadness. One day he looked at me for a long time with sadness in his own eyes, and I understood that he was saying ‘Good-bye.’ I never saw him again; he must have known that his time had come.

    This morning there was a ruckus in the neighbors’ hedge trees that the sparrows love to hang out in; a larger bird flew out that looked like a hawk so I got up to look. It was a very young red-tail who stumbled a bit and then flew off. He must be just learning to hunt, and the sparrows apparently ganged up on him and drove him away. It was interesting to learn that they generally leave the sparrows alone.

    I’ve lived here for 5-1/2 years and have gradually developed a relationship to the land here; all kinds of amazing animal encounters have been the result!

    Thanks again… xo

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