Living in the country has its own set of blessings and trials. If you've ever thought about pursuing a self-sufficient lifestyle on your own rural homestead or survival retreat but feared you didn't have the money or skills to do it, Steven D. Gregersen offers advice for it all in Creating the Low-Budget Homestead. But there are many things to consider before taking the plunge into the lifestyle, including how you’ll relate to your neighbors. In this excerpt, Gregersen offers tips for “getting along with country folk” and adding harmony to your homestead by becoming a part of the rural community.
You can buy this book in the GRIT store: Creating the Low-Budget Homestead.
I heard the ruckus outside and knew what was going on. The neighbor’s dog was on the porch again and fighting with my dog over her food. Grabbing a shotgun as I walked through the door, I stepped off the porch and fired a shot into the air. The neighbor’s dog was already running for home but kicked it into overdrive at the sound of the shot. Two days later, the neighbors, who had been renting, packed up their dogs and belongings and moved away. It was one of the happiest days of our lives. For weeks we’d put up with their dogs roaming our property, chasing deer, stealing our dog’s food, and fighting with our dog. Enough was enough!
Lest you think I’m just short-tempered, my wife and I had both asked politely well over a dozen times that they keep their dogs off our place. Each time they apologized and said they would. The final straw came when they told us to come up with a solution for their three-year-old daughter getting up early and letting the dogs out of the house without their knowledge. Our response was that that wasn’t our problem.
The dog was theirs, and it was their responsibility to keep it from being a nuisance. A week later the incident cited in the paragraph above occurred.
I wouldn’t have shot the dog. It was doing what dogs do, but we would have taken it to the county animal shelter and let the neighbors bail the mutt out. If the problem continued, we’d have filed a complaint with the sheriff’s department.
One thing anyone aspiring to move to the country should know is that there is no anonymity. This isn’t the city, where it’s easy to get lost in the crowd. Here, everyone knows whose check is good and whose husband isn’t. That can be good . . . or bad!
This chapter is about the relational blessings and curses of rural living. With a little forewarning, you can circumvent some of the pitfalls that commonly turn neighbors and neighborhoods against you and, by following good advice, you can do things that will spring the doors of their hearts wide in acceptance.
Here are a few do’s and don’ts to help you get along with your new neighbors.
This is probably the quickest way to raise neighborhood hackles. First, if it was so great where you came from, why did you move here? We don’t want to live like the people in the city or be a bunch of urban yuppies. If we did, we’d move there! We like not having dozens of zoning regulations. We like our laid-back life, independence, and freedom from busybodies sticking their noses into places they don’t belong. Too many who move here want freedom to do as they please, yet want to tell their neighbors what they can or can’t do. Let’s look at a few examples.
Some people looking at a property up the road from ours asked the sellers if they thought the people with the junk vehicles would mind if they were asked to move them. The sellers replied that they’d probably mind it very much. The potential buyers gave a sigh and made a very wise decision. They purchased property somewhere else.
If you don’t like seeing junk on the neighbor’s property, then don’t buy next to that parcel of land. If you do buy, build a privacy fence around your land so you can’t see them. I can assure you that things are going to go downhill very fast if you try to coerce them into appeasing you. If you try to get county authorities involved, things will really get hostile.
Show some tolerance. If it’s not a threat to your health and they aren’t trespassing, it’s not their problem, it’s yours. Get over it! Live and let live.
Guns and Shooting
Want to be the local cops’ joke of the day? Complain about people shooting guns.
As long as they aren’t endangering you or waking you up at night and are respecting your property rights, don’t whine. Most likely, if the cops do show up, they’ll join whoever is doing the shooting. People in rural areas shoot guns. Sometimes they shoot them a lot. Give this some serious consideration before you move to the country. I can guarantee you’re going to be mighty unpopular with the locals and law enforcement if you start complaining about people shooting guns.
You may see people carrying guns openly or concealed, in stores, offices, and vehicles. Many Western states allow concealed carry with a permit and open carry without one. Be happy about it. You don’t hear much about gangbangers or drive-by shootings in rural areas. They don’t like environments where the average citizen can and will shoot back.
Guns are a part of life in rural areas. If you can’t handle that, stay away.
Wildlife and Open Range
Montana is an “open range” state. That means livestock is allowed to wander at will. That means you may awaken to the sound of cattle in your front yard. Don’t call to complain to the local constabulary. It’s perfectly legal for those cows to be there. (And, no, the rancher is not responsible for any damage they do to your landscaping!) If you don’t want them there, run them off. If they keep coming back, put up a fence.
The same is true for wildlife. If you call the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks to complain about beaver eating your trees, they may give you a nuisance animal control permit to trap them or have a trapper do it (who will charge you for it).
However, don’t expect them to do more than that. If ground squirrels, rabbits, pack rats, skunks, or other nongame or unprotected wildlife are causing problems, take care of it yourself. If a wolf, coyote, mountain lion, bobcat, or bear grabs your pocket pooch off your front porch, then call FWP. They might send someone out to investigate. Living in the country has its own set of blessings and trials. If you’re in an area teeming with wildlife, learn the proper protocol for dealing with them.
“I know a better way . . .”
Please don’t come in and tell us you know a better way to grow a garden, make a road, hunt, fish, or anything else. First, no one likes being talked down to, especially by newcomers. The way you did things in the city or flatlands (or wherever else you came from) might have some merits. If so, the best way to let the neighbors know is to show them rather than tell them. If you have some advice to offer, try posing some questions first. Instead of saying, “This is a better way to . . . ,” try asking, “What happens if you do it like this?” At least that gives them the opportunity to tell you what might be wrong with your idea if it’s bad, or it will open the door so that they’ll listen to you and honestly evaluate what you tell them.
My father-in-law told a story about driving across Montana in his younger years. He was stuck behind a rancher driving a battered pickup truck who obviously had no place he needed to be anytime soon. Being young and impatient, he was about to pass the old codger when he saw him stick a handgun out the window. He quickly pulled back into his lane as the old guy proceeded to shoot at the fence posts as he drove past them. Being young but not entirely foolish, he decided that he had no place he needed to be anywhere soon either. And maybe it was a good day to just drive a little slower and take some time to smell the roses along the way. “After all,” he said, “I’d rather smell roses than pushing up daisies any day of the week!”
Driving on rural roads involves certain realities and etiquette that the reader will need to know.
Rural Driving Tips
Want to get to know the neighbors quickly? Drive fast! Cause a few accidents, beat the potholes out a little deeper, and stir up clouds of dust. After all, it’s fun to see chickens, dogs, squirrels, deer, rabbits, small children, and other living things run for their lives! Unless, of course, they’re your children or critters. In that case, reckless drivers are dangerous and will be dealt with the same as any other threat.
And while we’re on the subject of driving, make about 10 trips out every day. City folk are used to jumping in their vehicles and driving to the store for every little need or want. My wife worked at the local (seven miles away) convenience store/gas station and noticed that new people often made multiple trips daily to purchase a cup of coffee! Buy a coffee pot and use it. Many rural roads have gravel or dirt surfaces, and in the summer you’ll stir up great clouds of dust. While no one may ever say anything to you about it, it is annoying.
Many rural roads are single lane. If someone pulls off to the side of the road to let you pass, go by them, then stop and wait to see if they can make it out again. If they can’t, help them either by pulling them out with your vehicle or giving them a ride to someone who can. (You do carry a tow strap in your vehicle at all times, don’t you?) In the winter, it’s easy to get stuck in the berm left by the snowplow. If you leave someone stranded who was considerate enough to pull over to give you room, the word will get around. You’ll probably find out that no one else will pull over for you after that, so you’ll be the one driving to the side. If you get stuck, do you think they’ll help get you back on the road?
Years ago in a place far, far away . . . okay, that line isn’t very original, but in another place I lived there was a couple who moved into a rural area and decided that the private road to their home needed improvements. So, they began going to other homes along the road trying to solicit money to improve the road. When they met resistance, they began to threaten that they would get the county to take the road over and everyone’s taxes would go up. That’s when things went downhill very quickly. For one thing, the county hadn’t taken over a private road in years unless the tax base was rich enough that the county wouldn’t lose money maintaining the road. The county commissioners laughed at them. The locals shunned them, and when a title search was made, they found out that they had no legal access to the private road they’d tapped into. Their legal access was over an even worse road that was three times as long and crossed through national forest and timber company land! (Neither of which were open to improving the road.) They were the only residents using the road, and they didn’t have the resources to fight a losing battle with those two titans. They moved back to California a couple of years later.
Moving to a rural area is a lot like getting married. Be sure it’s what you want before you say “I do.” Bad roads are a way of life.
Register Your Vehicles ASAP
Nothing labels you as an outsider faster than driving a vehicle with out-of-state license plates. And before you even put on the new plates, scrape off any bumper stickers advertising favorite causes from your former life, for reasons explained in rule six below.
Much of what I’ve written so far comes from personal experience, so I asked some other people what they thought of newcomers in their neighborhood. Here are a couple of typical responses:
“Newcomers to my neck of the woods want to live a rural life. In a year or two, they own 30 horses on their 30 acres, have 3–15 dogs, and it is impossible to count their cats. The result is: 1) no grass on their place, 2) my livestock and other neighbors livestock isn’t safe, 3) deer are chased constantly, and 4) quail and other birds disappear.”
“I think it’s not really the rural life they want as much as an irresponsible one . . .” Responsibility is a major issue. Most rural people are considerate and helpful, but there’s a difference between helping someone and becoming a nursemaid to obnoxious, self-centered imbeciles. I’ve already mentioned the incident with the neighbor’s dog. We suggested that they put up a fence and keep the dog there. They responded that they wanted to live in the country so that their dogs could run free. We didn’t care if their dogs ran free as long as they didn’t cause problems for us. We had one instance when one of our dogs caused problems with a neighbor. We offered to pay the vet bill for their dog (our dog got in a fight with theirs on their property), but they didn’t think a vet would be needed. We immediately put our dog in the kennel, and that’s where he stayed unless we had him out on a leash.
Don’t let your kids be a nuisance. Teenagers racing up and down the road in dad’s pickup are not a good thing. Kids driving motorcycles and four-wheelers across private property or screaming up and down the road are not a good thing. Small children showing up in your yard without invitation or adult supervision are not a good thing.
On a more serious note, we’ve seen people move to the country with older teens and adult children who had drug problems. They stole from others to support their addiction. Believe me, when things start disappearing soon after your arrival, it won’t take a trained investigator to figure out where the problem is, especially when word gets around that your kid uses illegal drugs. (Remember, there is no anonymity. The word will get around.)
We all live in a community of sorts and have a responsibility to live in such a way that we do not negatively impact those around us. This includes taking care of yourselves.
We had one family who came to visit soon after they moved here. In the initial conversation, the wife looked over at a gas-powered water pump in the yard and mentioned that they had a friend who needed a generator and since we had two, it would be nice if we loaned them the one in the yard. She was informed that (a) that wasn’t a generator, and (b) we didn’t lend generators to other people unless we knew them to be responsible. We’ve had too many tools come back broken, or not at all. This same person went to a different neighbor’s home and asked if she could have the carpet in their living room if they ever bought a new one.
Don’t move to the country with a commune or moocher mentality. No one owes you anything.
Most people don’t mind helping in cases of hardship, but you’ll be expected to carry your own weight. Mechanical things wear out and need regular maintenance and eventual replacement. Every hour a generator (or tractor or rototiller or any other equipment) runs brings it an hour closer to needing replacement. Someone has to pay for it. If you borrow something, realize this and at least offer a few bucks to cover normal wear and maintenance.
You are not entitled to extra produce from neighborhood gardens. If they offer some it’s okay to take it, but don’t be greedy. We often give away extra plants we have (usually strawberries and raspberries), but we also sell them. The same is true of others who live out here. We buy or barter for things like milk since we don’t want to be tied down by a milk cow or goat. We do not expect our friends to give us their excess. They bought the animal(s), built the fences, fed them, milked them, and cared for them. They don’t owe us or anyone else the milk they produce.
If you borrow something, don’t loan it to someone else, keep it until the owner comes looking for it, or worse yet, break it and give them back the pieces. It is your responsibility to return it in the same condition it was in when you took possession. If it breaks while you’re using it, repair or replace it. If you can’t afford to do that, then don’t borrow it in the first place. When you’re finished, return it promptly. If it uses fuel, fill the tank. Don’t just give them the money for fuel and leave them with the inconvenience and expense of driving out for gasoline or diesel.
On a side but similar note: don’t knock on a stranger’s door and ask to ride their horses. We’ve had that happen! Horses are a big investment. They take a lot of training. They are living animals and far more sensitive to the person on their back than most people recognize. Novice or cruel riders can undo a lot of training, destroy their trust, and cause physical injuries to the horse. It isn’t like borrowing a pickup. In most cases, there’s a deep bond between a horse and its owner. Very few owners will just let you throw a saddle on their horse and take off riding.
I shouldn’t need to mention this, but I will just in case you aren’t familiar with country living. You’ll often see things left and seemingly abandoned on vacant land. Don’t assume it’s free for the taking. If someone else owns the land, they also own what’s on the land. They may be storing it for future use or may have forgotten it existed. In any case, if you didn’t buy it or someone didn’t give it to you, it isn’t yours. Leave it there.
Our neighbor butchered one of his buffalo and offered the hide to us. We were on our way to town and would be back within an hour, so we just said leave it by the road. (They’re kind of messy when fresh, and we didn’t want blood and hair in the car.)
Now, there is only one full-time resident and two part-time residents living above us. The road dead ends about a half mile beyond our cabin. We have very little traffic, and theft has never been a problem. He left the hide beside the road, but it was gone when we came back.
I began asking around and looking over vehicle tracks, and there was one vehicle that had come up our road in the “’tween time.” It was a different neighbor from another fork of our road who was a recent arrival. He was contacted and surrendered the hide. His story was that he thought the hide was abandoned and picked it up for himself because he believed the coyotes would just drag it off. It was a good story except for one thing: a couple of weeks later the owner of the buffalo was back. I mentioned what had happened. He described the man and the vehicle. It seems the guy had stopped and asked if he could have the hide and the owner said it was already spoken for. The thief drove on up the road and when he came back and saw no one around, he loaded it up and took it home. This same “neighbor” had opened up some abandoned roads across private property and complained about people shooting. His equipment was used to widen an existing easement without the landowner’s consent. He eventually sold his place and left. One of the reasons was because the people were so cold and unfriendly. Imagine that! Good riddance.
Accept responsibility. You are not entitled to anything owned by anyone else. That includes tools, equipment, access to their land, garden produce, vehicles, or even good will. No one owes you anything. If they’re kind enough to loan you anything, it’s your responsibility to return it in good shape and in a timely manner. Your pets, livestock, and children are your responsibility as well. Keep them under control.
Out-of-state buyers often purchase land at what they think are bargain prices. They may be a bargain in other states, but here you probably paid too much. The sellers and real estate salesmen will love you, but the locals may harbor some resentment. Out-of-state buyers drive up land prices, which often means locals can’t afford to buy land. Local wages don’t reflect what you made in the city, which means that people who live and work here can’t make the payments for artificially inflated land prices. It especially affects their children who are just entering adult life and looking for land of their own.
There’s no personal slight intended, but in our area we’ve been inundated with Canadians, Californians, and people from Washington state. Many of them came to the area with lots of money, which drove up land prices to the point that local people can’t afford to buy land. Rural people in New England, the Southwest, and most every part of the country experience the same thing with wealthier newcomers from out of state.
Now if you really want to get a cold shoulder, buy land and subdivide it. (I’ve known several who thought they’d pay for their land that way.) That’ll make the neighbors love you . . . not! Face it: they aren’t living here for the money. They like rural life without heavy traffic and crime, and they enjoy wide open spaces. Now you want to establish a mini city just so you can retire rich. Of course, land speculation has its own risks. Artificially inflated prices sometimes come crashing down. Current residents often band together to fight proposed subdivisions in the legislature and courts and will either stop you cold or drive up your legal costs. I could tell you lots of stories of developers having to fight for permission to hook up to existing water or sewer lines (and often losing in court). Many places in the West are also enacting tougher laws for subdivisions, which cut seriously into profits and potential sales. Be careful or you might just wreck your finances and future.
Watch for people with an agenda. They’ll often be the first to greet you and offer friendship. What they may be looking for is an ally to join them in a local feud of some type. Don’t be paranoid, though. Most rural residents are decent people. Just don’t be joining any neighborhood committees or similar ventures until you’ve been around long enough to know what’s going on behind the scenes.
On a similar vein, watch out for gossips. The best ones will say something like, “They’re a great person except for . . .” Be aware that if someone is relating unflattering information about other people to you, they will do the same about you to other people. A very wise person once said, “What a person says about someone else tells me more about them than it does the other person.”
Be careful of what you say as well. Ever hear the joke about the phone book in a small town that had 500 numbers but only four last names? It may not be that bad at your new residence, but be aware that many rural areas are filled with people who are related to one another. Anyone you talk to about anyone else is probably related to the people you are talking to. Never say anything you wouldn’t want repeated anywhere.
Get to really know issues before you offer comments, criticism, or solutions. First, if you take a stand (either for or against) a person, religion, or political view, you may be opening a can of worms you’ll never be able to close. Likewise, be cautious about volunteering for any political or religious campaigns, offices, projects, etc. Even though it might gain a quick circle of friends, it can also expand your list of enemies.
Second, quite often those with an agenda will be knocking on your door to line you up as a new recruit for their cause. In one small town in a neighboring state, there had been some hard feelings against a coach and a school official. The two were separate issues involving adultery and coaching decisions. Some of the townspeople began working against the people involved by bringing a lawsuit and by electing different representatives on the school board. Another group began working to retain certain board members. The point of bringing this up is that both factions were trying to recruit newcomers to their cause. It brought some serious splits in town unity that actually resulted in some businesses closing, some people pulling their kids out of the public school, and changes in employment among school staff. There were hard feelings for years afterward.
What many people who’ve never lived in a rural or small town don’t understand is that people may hold grudges for years. There were actually those who would cross the street if they saw people from the other faction coming in their direction. If you have a business, these things can result in bankruptcy.
I could list dozens of examples I’ve seen over the years. Be very cautious about running for any public office or openly supporting those who are running until you’ve lived there long enough to know what needs fixing!
I am not saying you should never get involved in local issues. What I’m cautioning against is getting involved before you know what’s going on behind the scenes. That takes a few years. If you’re interested in community involvement, pick something that’s not divisive. (See rule nine.)
In many ways, rural life is like living in a large, extended—sometimes dysfunctional!—family. It has its good points and some bad ones too! Tread carefully when it comes to politics and religion.
You’re going to get lots of advice when you move into a rural area. Some of it will be good. Some will be worthless but benign. Some will cost you. Be careful who you listen to! But how do you know whose advice is good and whose isn’t? Well, you can’t for sure, but there are some things to look for when the suggestions come.
First, are they local residents? Conditions in some places vary considerably due to soil structure, weather patterns, and other criteria. It’s not so evident on the plains, but in mountainous country the differences can be astounding. I know of one place where the amount of snow is three times as much as it is five miles to the west. The mountains have a pass there that acts as a gate to channel clouds through in winter. Because our weather moves from west to east, the mountains act as a dam, holding the clouds along their west slope and slowly routing them through the passes. All the time they’re waiting, they’re dumping snow. The point I’m trying to make is that advice from someone living 20 miles away may or may not be good.
The advice from someone living nearby will probably be more accurate. If there’s a discrepancy, listen to those who live closest to you.
Second, how long have they lived there? It takes a few years to get to know an area. Some things can’t be answered no matter how long you live there. We’ve been at our current residence for eight years now and we still couldn’t say what a “normal” winter is like. We’ve never seen two that were the same. What we can say is that they’re long. We can advise people to have their firewood cut by the end of October unless they like cutting it in the snow (a very miserable experience). But then we’ve seen times when snow didn’t make an appearance until mid-December! The main point is that those who have lived there the longest will probably have a better understanding of what works or doesn’t work than recent arrivals.
Third, how close is their lifestyle to the one you’ll be living? We live completely off-grid using solar panels for 99 percent of our electrical power. Others in the neighborhood depend on generators of various types. Some use both. A couple have hooked up to grid power. The advice each gives will vary according to their lifestyle. Do they have children?
Do they homeschool or use public or private schools? Do they work from home or depend on outside employment? Listen to those who are living or have lived the way you plan to live. They know what works and what doesn’t. If you keep ignoring their guidance, they’ll quit giving it and instead will just sit back and watch you struggle.
Most places a low-budget homesteader or homestead survivalist are going to move to will probably have a high poverty rate. Face it: the people who want to make lots of money are going to be living somewhere else. That doesn’t mean you must live in true poverty (true poverty is not having the essentials of food, shelter, water, and security), but you will be surrounded by some of the effects of poverty.
Most noticeable will be the percentage of people needing dental work. There are support networks and government programs to help people with medical care, but when it comes to teeth, you’re basically on your own. Get used to seeing people with discolored and/or missing teeth. It’s a lot cheaper to have a tooth pulled than to have it fixed.
Vehicles are older and shabbier. The price of owning a new car is not just a higher purchase price. Taxes, licensing, and insurance rates are also elevated. It’s this combination that keeps low-income people driving older vehicles. When people live on gravel roads, their vehicles will be dirty. In the spring they’ll be muddy, in the summer they’ll be dusty, and in the winter they’ll be covered with slush and snow.
Casual dress is the norm. I don’t mean people are dirty or their clothes are worn out (although the people coming in after a day of work may be wearing their work clothing, so those people don’t count). What you’ll find is that blue jeans are prevalent, slacks are rare. Carhartt jackets, jeans, and coveralls will be seen much more often than a suit and tie. In the winter, both men and women wear insulated boots. It’s a much more practical way to dress. Trendy clothing just isn’t deemed important.
The most important thing to remember is that externals (what we wear or drive or how we look) does not reflect who the person is on the inside. Forget all the slogans advertisers use like “the clothes make the man” and other nonsense. Some of the nicest, smartest, most honest and hardworking people I’ve known would scare small children just by the way they looked. Appearances are deceiving, especially in rural America.
We know a very petite, middle-aged woman who spent the first 20 years of her adult life working on a fishing boat in Alaska. An older woman we know has a slicked up, mid-50s Chevy pickup in her garage. In her younger years she used it to make a little money drag racing. (And she has the trophies to prove it!) Some of the most interesting people we know are Dumpster divers. One man repairs and sells what he finds in Dumpsters during the summer, picks and sells wild mushrooms in the spring, picks and sells huckleberries in late summer and early fall, cuts and sells Christmas trees in the fall and winter, and takes life easy from January through March. We have dozens of stories like this.
Every one of these people would drop what they’re doing to give you a hand when you need it. None of them would ever steal from you. Despite what you may have learned in college, poverty does not make people thieves, lazy, or stupid. Never judge a person by the way they look, dress, speak, or spell. Get to know people.
This does not contradict rule six regarding politics and religion. There are dozens of organizations that could use your help. Habitat for Humanity, the Salvation Army, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and 4-H (just to name a few) are nationwide organizations that depend heavily on volunteers for the work that they do.
If you have a volunteer fire department, see if they could use some help. The same goes for search and rescue. They’ll provide some valuable training for the homestead life as well.
We have several nonprofit thrift stores in a nearby town that usually need help. The proceeds from their profits go to support other charitable organizations in town. Schools often use outside fundraisers to support their programs and need people to help that way.
Churches usually rely on their own members for benevolent work, but if you have a skill they can use in areas such as vehicle repair, taxes, legal issues, construction projects, plumbing or electrical repairs, etc., they could probably put you to work helping others.
The main thing is to stay away from controversial issues, at least until you understand all the forces working behind the scenes. Support your local community with your dollars as well. We try to buy local whenever it’s possible or practical. Unfortunately, the two nearest towns are lacking in some services, but we do support those businesses offering products we need. If you don’t, who will? Local merchants pay a heavy share of the taxes that support schools and other necessary services. If you lose that tax base, those services may be cut and your taxes raised as well.
Additionally, getting to know merchants on a personal level helps you too. It doesn’t happen everywhere, but we’ve had times when we forgot to bring money with us when we went to our local convenience store. It takes a half-hour to drive each way, so the manager told us to take the merchandise home and pay when we came out next time. Try that at Wal-Mart next time you shop there. These people are more than just names on a storefront; they are friends and neighbors. Support them when you can.
We’ve taken part in filling their holiday food baskets and transporting and splitting firewood for their woodstove in the past. Organizations like these almost always need volunteers. We’ve also done some bell ringing for the Salvation Army at Christmastime. We have a lot of fun with the little kids who stop to talk to “Santa.”
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Creating the Low-Budget Homestead by Steven D. Gregersen and published by Paladin Press, 2012. Buy this book from our store: Creating the Low-Budget Homestead.
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