I’m pleased to announce that The New Explorers is now officially on sale (order here and here). This small yet expansive survey of twelve female artists highlights certain changes occurring both in the art world and in the culture at large. I mean to bring attention to artists whose fresh perspectives reveal an abundance of opportunity for discovery in the twenty-first-century landscape and the continuing search for an identity that is uniquely “American.”

In Part I, “Expeditions,” I discuss three photographic projects in the context of the archetypal nineteenth-century male explorer and examine how the legacy of imperialism has shaped American narratives of landscape. The Oldest Living Things in the World is an ongoing work by Rachel Sussman. Following in the tradition of the Western naturalist explorer, Sussman travels all over the world to photograph nonhuman organisms that are more than two thousand years old. Camille Seaman’s The Last Iceberg is a moving series of ethnographic portraits of disappearing icebergs, which chronicles her expeditions into the waters of the Antarctic as a photographer on a Russian icebreaker. For her project Outerland Allison Davies has documented herself for more than a decade as the fictitious explorer of vast empty landscapes throughout the world. Visually, she mines viewers’ understanding of landscape photography and their estrangement from nature as she questions the role of the scientific explorer as a neutral presence.

In Part II, “Archaeologies,” I examine three projects that counter American technological creation stories. Sarah Kanouse’s audio tour America Ponds uses the framework of tourism to get her audience to think more critically about the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge in southern Illinois. Cynthia Hooper’s Anthropogenic Aquascapes uses video as a medium to explain complex water delivery systems, visually representing the history of cooperative ownership of land and resources. And design collective smudge studio proposes to (re) design and (re) install markers at nuclear test sites, many of which are on public land and adjacent to or within national forests—spaces commonly misperceived as unmanaged “wilderness.”

Part III of the book, “Surveys,” explores visual representations of women in the contemporary American landscape. Artist Amy Balkin launches a web-based endeavor in which she buys a piece of land and instead of developing it, questions the narrative of America as an ownership society by creating a “counter space” of public access. Suné Woods’s Bountiful Darkness juxtaposes images of women of color with unpopulated landscape images. Woods challenges American preconceptions about whose bodies “belong” in nature and counters the “common sense” notion of rural geography as simply empty space. Linda K. Johnson’s Living on the Line/The View from Here uses her body to represent the expanding boundaries of urban growth in the region as she engages members of the community in dialogues about land use.

In Part IV of the book, “Topographics,” I call attention to performance as an artistic strategy to promote a better understanding of twenty-first-century landscape. In the video Herbert Hoover Dyke, artist Christy Gast physically engages the material landscape—by literally tap-dancing her way across a Florida dike, producing a mesmerizing auditory and visual experience. Amy Stein’s project Domesticated asks the question: In the current moment, which environment is more natural, Yosemite—which is carefully managed and maintained by the National Park Service—or Matamoras, a small borough of Pennsylvania? The section ends with Tide and Current Taxi. By transgressing the fixed boundaries of public and private and expanding cultural parameters to redefine what constitutes nature in American landscape today, Marie Lorenz approaches the reality of polluted industrial landscapes as the new frontier.

The projects in The New Explorers present the topography of everydayness as ripe for cultural examination by a new type of explorer. These artists engage the land and what resides within it. They present fresh approaches to landscape that supersede the classically American ideology and heroics of rugged individualism. As American culture slowly begins to let go of outdated mythologies—such as the fantasy of true nature as pristine and the antidote for the ills of civilization—there is space, as well as a need, to make new cultural meaning.

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Amy Stein: Uncontrollable Messengers

Amy Stein does not identify as a landscape photographer. For her, the genre of landscape photography is narrowly defined as images made in empty space that is majestic and sublime. Over the course of our conversation, we expanded the category in light of her series, Domesticated, a project made in an unremarkable rural environment—one where the built and the natural overlap.

Domesticated features images of wild animals—bears, coyotes, bobcats—presented in or around the edges of the human environment. Her photographs are not typical wildlife portraits; rather, they are moments that have been carefully arranged by Stein in the rural Pennsylvania landscape. Though staged photography is a familiar trope in the contemporary art world, its subject is typically people. Stein’s clever use of taxidermy allows her to shift the emphasis to animals. The tension in the work resides in the ambiguous territory between what is real and what is fake.

When I met Amy, she was in the process of selling her apartment and moving to California. She told me that until recently, this work was hanging on the walls of the apartment, but her contractor suggested she remove the images because he thought they might provoke a negative response in prospective buyers. After Stein replaced the images from Domesticated with what she considered traditional landscapes—black- and-white photographs that she had taken in Australia—the apartment sold quickly. Her anecdote about her “strange work,” as the contractor called it, and her notion of what constitutes landscape photography, led me to ask how landscape photography is defined in the popular imagination. Does landscape photography still shape the definition of the natural world in popular culture? And in the case of Stein’s project, what signifies wilderness or nature in a contemporary visual rhetoric of landscape?

“I almost never take an image of the land that does not have cultural and social and human properties—something built in it,” Stein told me. We live in what is referred to as the Anthropocene era: the current geologic period in which humans seemingly have more of an effect on planetary changes than plate tectonics. Thus, it’s becoming more widely recognized that there is no landscape on earth that does not contain human properties of some sort, even if those properties are not actually visible in photographs. For thousands of years, humans have effected change upon the land. Yet nostalgia for “the wild,” or spaces of pure nature, lingers stubbornly. Stein, a self-confessed city girl, had to continuously reevaluate her own romantic notions while pursuing the project.

Stein began Domesticated while she was still in graduate school in 2005. Originally, she intended for the project to be her thesis work, but several of her professors discouraged her from pursuing it. “I was told more than once, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if these photographs had no animals in them?’” In the end, she felt pressured to complete a different project for her thesis, but continued working on the Domesticated series. As was the case with several other artists in the book, Stein’s choice of subject matter was not encouraged in academia. At that time, photographs of animals were rare in the contemporary art market, but in the past several years, work that centers on animals has become fashionable and widely collected. Especially for people who don’t have everyday interactions with wild animals, Stein’s photographs are intriguing. The animals in her photos come alive in the viewer’s imagination, and mere objects become what she calls “vibrant matter.” Stein admitted  that before our discussion , she hadn’t looked at her work through a lens of landscape. However, over the course of the project, the photos revealed something more important to her: the relationship between the animals and land.


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Christy Gast: Where Body Meets Landscape

In 2009, Christy Gast was flying from Tampa to Miami when she saw a giant body of water she knew nothing about. Her subsequent research led her to the Herbert Hoover Dike, which surrounds Lake Okeechobee. Once only ten feet high, and originally constructed with gravel, rock, limestone, sand, and shell, the dike now completely encircles the lake—140 miles—and stands thirty feet high except for a small gap where a stream flows inland. A product of the Hoover era, the dike was built in response to two devastating hurricanes in the late 1920s that caused widespread flooding and killed thousands of people in the region.

Gast told me she has always been captivated by landscape and art and explained that making art provides her with a sense of purpose—a reason to spend a lot of time in a given landscape. She feels a responsibility, she said, to use public land in her work to bring an awareness to people that “Hey, this is here, and it belongs to all of us. This is what your tax dollars are paying for.”

For Gast, the dike was the perfect elevated stage for a performance—an “endurance stage,” she called it, since the performance took place over the course of months. And with the exception of a single biker who rode past her performance one day, she was always alone with the massive structure.

She needed to come up with a way to physically move through the landscape. After watching Busby Berkeley’s film Gold Diggers of 1933, Gast settled on tap dancing as her medium. Gast, who had no idea how to tap-dance, originally planned on hiring someone else to do it. She never found the right person, however, and instead learned to tap-dance herself. In order to create the performance—a dance around the perimeter of the lake atop the dike—she spent a lot of time with the dike itself. In the end, Gast explained, the video she made “forces the viewer to spend time there as well.” Gast not only makes the landscape visible for the viewer, but also makes it an audible experience—crunching across gravel and tapping out rhythms on steel grates, limestone columns, and water tanks.

The outfit she wears in the video is inspired by her research on women who pretended to be men during the Great Depression in hopes of finding work. She imagined herself as a character she described as “a cross-dressing, train-hopping teenage hobo from the Depression era.” When we discussed the lack of representation women have in narratives addressing landscape, she said, “Women don’t have the same agency that I have as the artist, the creator, the performer, the director—the everything.”

For the resulting project, Herbert Hoover Dyke, she edited footage from the months she spent at the dike into an hour-long video in a way that gives viewers the sensation that they are exploring the site alongside her in real time as she moves from the berm down through the fields of tall green grasses stretched out under bright blue skies.

The dance, according to Gast, is a “duet between the body and the landscape.” Gast’s art is an outgrowth of her undergraduate focus in women’s studies—the personal as political—as well as her “reverence for this group of men who did amazing things with raw material.” As a member of a new generation of artists, Gast fuses the seemingly disparate genres of feminist performance art and what she calls “ridiculously large-scale Land Art.”


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The Search for Identity in the American Landscape

8897900438_de9ebf3b79_oThe New Explorers was inspired by my quest as an artist. My interest in artistic representation of the American landscape began in the early 1980s. As a very young photographer I was drawn to the genre of landscape photography and the work of iconic landscape masters—such as Carleton Watkins, Ansel Adams, Minor White, and Eliot Porter. The group of artists I admired was exclusively male, and the sublime beauty of their imagery both attracted and repelled me. I found the perfection of well-known landscape photographs, like Autumn Moon by Ansel Adams, unsettling. My mixed response to landscape photography triggered a fascination with the powerful role that idealized images of the American landscape have played in masking power and conflict. The violence and suffering that took place in these lands has no trace in such photos. To this day, I remain captivated by how art shapes cultural meaning, affirming certain historical narratives while at the same time erasing others.

Artists have always played vital roles in illustrating the foundational narratives of America, emphasizing landscape as not only a natural phenomenon but also an intellectual and cultural endeavor. The projects in The New Explorers examine how these persistent narratives of landscape offer valuable insight into the continuing quest for American identity. And now, perhaps for first time in American history, female artists are active participants.

Although artists have been creating “experiences” since the 1960s, the past decade has seen a rise in the number of projects that offer experiences in landscape rather than objects like paintings or photographs. Notably, the concept of creating an “experience” has also been taken up in other areas of culture, such as design, food, and travel. Certain artists have been re-entering spaces avoided by the general public. Such spaces were considered too industrial or even toxic to be beautiful. These were often the same places that the early EuropeanAmericans escaped by moving west. As these spaces become reclaimed by artists like Marie Lorenz, these projects, tours, gardens, walks, and boat rides disrupt the control of the commercially driven institutions of the art world.

As a woman who has sought to make new meaning in my art, and as someone who is schooled in contemporary social theory, I intend to bring attention to artists whose fresh perspectives reveal an abundance of opportunity for discovery in the twenty-first century landscape and the continuing search for an identity that is uniquely “American.”


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Marie Lorenz: An Explorer in the New Wilderness

2_ML_Tide  and Current taxismSix months after my experience with Marie Lorenz’s Tide and Current Taxi, I interviewed her in her Bushwick, Brooklyn, studio.

Thanks to her father and uncle, Lorenz spent much of her childhood in canoes and feels at home on the water. “I grew up this way,” she said, “so when I see water I think, you can get to the other side. You can be in there at night.” It is important to her to share the experience with others, helping them discover forgotten or neglected public space, particularly water. 

Some of Lorenz’s passengers have said they don’t think of her work as art, but more as a journalistic or photojournalistic endeavor. She revels in this project’s ambiguity and views providing a service as part of a current art movement that defies commodification. She travels seamlessly between Superfund sites and bird sanctuaries, encouraging participants to form their own opinions based on their experiences in the boat. 

Although she considers those who ride along in the boat her co-creators in the process, Lorenz remains in control of the experience. She is the one who knows the rules in what she refers to as “the zone,” the sometimes treacherous waterways of urban New York through which she transports viewers. Lorenz’s power and confidence in urban waters is still uncommon for a female explorer in the twenty-first century. She creates the narrative and activates it through the connection she establishes among herself, the participants, and the landscape itself.

Lorenz downplays the fact that she is a female artist, but it nonetheless changes how the work is received. Noting that male exploration is tied to a history of conquest and destruction, Lorenz said she deliberately uses language like mission and exploration on her website. “If I were a man it would suggest militarism and colonialism, but because I am a woman, dominance is taken out of the equation.” She continued, “I can say ‘exploration’ and people think ‘beachcombing.’” Lorenz feels that her gender allows for a more neutral connection to the landscape in which she travels.

Lorenz doesn’t consider Tide and Current Taxi environmental art per se, but she did admit, “I have never been in an interview situation or spoken about the project to students or an audience where people didn’t ask, ‘Is this is an environmental project?’ And so that means yes—it is.” But hers is not activist art intended to motivate viewers into doing something about pollution out of fear or disgust; rather, Tide and Current Taxi aligns with author and political theorist Jane Bennett’s ideas: that nonhumans and all other material—even toxic matter—are vibrant.


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A Journey Aboard the Tide and Current Taxi


I was glancing through the New York Times one day in September 2010 when I found myself transfixed by a series of small black-and-white photographs titled Inaccessible New York. The photos featured rusty submarine parts, views of a desolate, windswept shoreline, and mysterious dwellings observed from a safe distance. According to Marie Lorenz, the artist who’d created the photos, many of these images were taken just a few miles from Times Square. Lorenz had been operating a small rowboat made from plywood along New York’s waterways. Propelled by the tidal currents in the harbor, the craft did not need a diesel engine. I made arrangements via Marie’s website to take a ride in the taxi.

Eleven months later, a friend and I found Lorenz waiting for us on a sliver of sandy beach near the Long Island Expressway. Marie greeted us with a cheerful smile, a paddle, and a sturdy life preserver. After months of anticipation, we clambered eagerly into the tiny boat. Even if we had wanted to, there was no time to change our minds, because Marie needed to keep to a tight schedule in order to meet the next passengers waiting for her in a bagel shop eight miles down the Long Island coast.

My friend and I began rowing vigorously. Marie sat behind us, patiently steering the tiny craft toward a point in the hazy distance. Once we found a current, we put down the paddles to rub our burning shoulders and catch our breath. We must have been quite a sight—three women in a rowboat. We attracted plenty of quizzical smiles and good-natured greetings from the people who stood on the decks of the fancy speedboats zooming past us in both directions. As we made our way slowly past the piers, we could hear the occasional catcall.

Ever so gradually we left the familiar behind. From the boat, the quotidian landscape seemed somehow wild. The shore was speckled with colorful flotsam and jetsam, and it unfolded before us like uncharted terrain. We became explorers, examining everything we came across with intense attention, as if seeing it for the very first time. Our encounter with land and water, in this homemade craft, was casting a spell on our senses. As the day wore on, everything I observed, smelled, or heard—including the three of us—seemed to be invisibly connected to a larger whole. My usually acute sense of time disappeared, and I felt as if I had been waterborne forever.

Maria Lorenz’s Tide and Current Taxi is not what’s typically considered a work of art. The project is a kind of performance that draws from an almost exclusively masculine tradition of the lone voyager venturing into the wilderness in order to experience a re-enchantment with nature, and to affirm his individuality. Lorenz disrupts this solitary, transcendental convention by taking along a passenger or two to share the experience. My friend and I were not only the audience that day, but participants as well.    



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Where Are The Women?

untitledIn 2011 I attended the Art + Environment Conference at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno. I sat with the weight of the enormous exhibition catalog pressed against my knees and listened to an all-male panel of artists discussing the state of landscape photography and environmentalism. On the catalog’s cover was the image of a lone coyote howling at a bright light illuminating a parking lot, made by the photographer Amy Stein, who was nowhere to be found on the panel or otherwise at the conference. Female artists seemed entirely absent from the discussion. 


The respected—and well-funded—artist-adventurers on the panel who stood as representatives of the genre epitomized the artist version of the popular concept of “the explorer.” They spoke in the traditional vernacular of “man versus nature,” “the hand of man,” and so on. During the brown-bag lunch that followed, my impatience turned to anger as I listened to a guest speaker share witty anecdotes about the Land Art movement of the early 1970s. He had been the airplane pilot for the Land Artists, among them legendary Michael Heizer, as they searched for isolated locations in the Nevada desert where they could make their work. Midway through his talk, this speaker defined the Land Art era as a time when “important art deals were made in local whorehouses.” I glanced around at the predominantly female audience that was listening politely and searched in vain for a sign that I was not alone in my disappointment. 


With the last bite of my turkey sandwich sticking in my throat, I got up and walked out. As I left the museum and crossed the parking lot, I vowed to myself that I would seek out the female artists whom I had longed to hear from that day. Almost a year later, I sat with Amy Stein at her kitchen table in Queens, discussing her image Howl. 


Excerpted from The New Explorers by Kris Timken 



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Outdated Mythologies and Fresh Perspectives

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Historically, in American culture, the narrative of “the quest” is masculine; even in the present, it’s difficult to find heroic female explorers for inspiration or guidance. The few anomalies, whether historical figures such as Amelia Earhart or fictional characters like Zira, the female scientist in Planet of the Apes, are explorers who didn’t survive to tell their stories. In contemporary American culture, exploration continues to be portrayed, for the most part, as treacherous, if not fatal, for women.

Since the first European settlers landed on the continent, visual representations of landscape (created by men) have played a significant role in the characterizations of the “American subject” and the American identity. The American landscape has always been the well-documented territory of men—including Henry David Thoreau, Lewis and Clark, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold, among others. Historically, men have been the progenitors in the genre of landscape art as well.

In her research on depictions of domestic life in fiction written during the mid-nineteenth century, feminist literary critic Annette Kolodny found that, with few exceptions, the nineteenth-century female space was perceived as a domestic one, centered on the home and the garden. Women did not venture out alone into the open landscape and, for the most part, generally appeared in public only once it became defined as “social space”—a town, for instance.

Kolodny writes about a Wisconsin farmer in 1869 who recalls his arrival there thirty years before: “The country was all open and free to roam over.” But it was the men who did the roaming. “We could roam and fish or hunt as we pleased, amid the freshness and beauties of nature.” He continues, “With our wives, though, it was different. From all these bright, and to us fascinating scenes and pastimes, they were excluded. They were shut up with the children in log cabins.”

Other than the aforementioned celebrated example of Amelia Earhart, heroic female explorers are only just beginning to become visible in American culture. One recent figure worth noting is sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, the main character of the blockbuster science fiction series The Hunger Games and the extremely popular movies based on the books.

A self-sufficient heroine who must struggle for survival, Katniss does not fit the archetype of the heroic explorer of the frontier utopia. Rather, she is a heroic survivor who roams a dystopic, post-apocalyptic wilderness. However, Katniss remains a lonely figure, not just in her own story but also in American culture.

As the American public slowly begins to let go of outdated mythologies—among them the fantasy of man’s mastery over nature—there is the space, as well as the need, to make new cultural meaning. The female artists in The New Explorers offer fresh perspectives that demonstrate there is still an abundance of opportunity for discovery in twenty-first-century landscapes.



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Conversations and Performance Art: Linda K. Johnson’s The View from Here

5_LKJIn the spring of 1999, over a period of three months, dance artist Linda K. Johnson created a site-specific performance with the urban growth boundary (UGB) program in Portland, Oregon, as its subject.

The UGB sets an outer limit on spatial growth in an effort to prevent urban sprawl, making land value at the divide between urban and rural space high, due to the complicated land-use restrictions.

For her performance, entitled The View from Here, Johnson lived at six different sites, for thirty-six hours each, along the invisible boundary—or “line,” as she calls it—dividing the outskirts of Portland from farmland and forests. She created a fence-like enclosure that functioned as a modular dwelling where she ate and slept, which she could reconfigure to suit her needs at the various sites.

Based on her research, Johnson choreographed a performance complete with props (such as dishes and linens) and clothes that local inhabitants might wear (dresses, business suits, work overalls), and even prepared a sound track. However, once she actually began “living on the line,” she dispensed with the performance and most of the props.

While her choreographed material “was meant to provoke discussion,” Johnson said, “it kept people at a distance.” Residents and park users who inadvertently ran into her performing at the first location appeared wary and, as she put it, “immediately became observers.”

On her second day at the first site, Johnson dropped her choreographed performance altogether when she realized that her small, abstract dwelling at the border of the city was in itself a bridge between urban and rural space, and that her physical presence, her body, was the conduit for exchanges of ideas with people in this liminal zone.

Johnson originally conceived of the project as a way to gain a more thorough understanding of how the boundary works, but she said it spontaneously unfolded “into a series of impromptu dialogues about urban planning and individual freedom.”

These conversations not only made the edges of the boundary visible to participants in a new way but also expanded the boundaries of what art is.

While some in her audience were her social and cultural peers—urban dwellers and people from the art world who had read about the project in the press and came with what Johnson called “predetermined agendas about built versus unbuilt”—nearly half of her conversations were in-the-moment exchanges with “people who bumped into it raw.”

Living at the edge of the rural landscape for days at a time over a period of three months meant Johnson spoke with people she wouldn’t normally encounter. She documented her conversations with a mixed population that ranged from upper-middle class to working class, from urban planners and construction workers to families with school-age children.

The more time Johnson spent on the UGB, the more she came to understand that audiences experience art from a wide range of perspectives and that negotiating these was part of what her project was about. It was her intention as an artist to make an aperture big enough that no one felt excluded from entering the work.


Ultimately, her interactions with the participants expanded her own notion of what constitutes a powerful performance. What distinguishes The View From Here as a turn-of-the-century encounter with landscape is not only Johnson’s adaptive approach to her art but also, more importantly, her ability to call forth and negotiate multiple perspectives.

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Suné Woods: Landscape and Memory

Suné Woods’s photographs challenge American preconceptions about whose bodies “belong” in nature and counter the “common sense” notion of rural geography as simply empty space. Woods began her spatial inquiry after a particular self-portrait elicited a strong reaction from her peers in her MFA program.


While spending a week at her grandparents’ beloved farm in Ohio, Woods photographed herself bring playful in the landscape. In one image, she flopped down on the ground, capturing her figure in a foreshortened position, her dress pushed up in slight disarray from the fall. Dominating the image are her brown legs and bare feet covered with dirt.

Woods hung the image in her studio, and the reaction of her colleagues caught her by surprise. In a predominantly white community of people steeped in contemporary visual culture, the picture of a woman of color lying on the ground was unanimously interpreted as implying violence. This uniform response caused her to reflect more deeply about her own relationship to landscape, and to rural space in particular.

This charged photograph became the catalyst for a sustained visual inquiry into the anxious relationship between landscape, gender, and identity. Bountiful Darkness, Woods’s photographic series, juxtaposes images of women of color in landscape with contemporary unpopulated landscape images.

The self-portrait Woods made was never far from her mind as she began to photograph the horizontal female body alone in rural space, exploring the visual history of “horizontality” in landscape. “I really wanted to make an image that countered assumptions of a black body lying in dirt,” she told me.

Woods envisions the landscapes as “fantasy spaces for my heroines.” Amid the sweeping views of the American West that have been romanticized for generations, Woods’s camera conjures horizontal bodies, resting bodies, racialized bodies.

“Can we look at a black body in landscape and not assume trauma or violence? What are our assumptions? I was interested in the assumptions as well as the certainty that terrifying things took place,” Woods explains. “I am also in dialogue with how women are represented in painting and landscape, lying down, available, etc.”

Viewing the haunting images she took in the California landscape—a geography that served as a subject for generations of renowned photographers—Woods began to think more deeply about the concept of “whiteness” in visual language.

She told me that she began to wonder, “How does the dominant white culture come into play in visual language and visual communication, particularly when it comes to images that may be embedded in our collective psyche?” Visual representation is only a first step toward changing embedded perceptions about race.

Can history be inscribed in a landscape and into a body? Once violence is uncovered and made visible in the landscape, how can we address it? Suné Woods’s photographs suggest there are many stories that remain untold.



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