Common Yarrow: An Uncommon Conundrum

Common yarrow (Achillea millefolium) was one of the earliest plants I added to my butterfly garden. It definitely attracts pollinators and it showed up on several lists of best plants for my area. This spring, I even gave some to several neighbors because of my success with it. Soon after, I was forced to reconsider the whole enterprise when I saw yarrow on a list of non-native, invasive species for this region. What exactly was going on here? Did I make a mistake years ago that had perpetuated all this time? Was there some new information about this plant? What else might I be wrong about in all my dedicated efforts to plant a mostly native garden? Was my whole crusade to support biodiversity a fool’s errand?

I started researching with a lot of my go-to sources. Sure enough, some of them showed it as non-native, others as native, and still others as… both. They didn’t all agree on the scientific name, either. What? So I started using search terms like “yarrow native range” and “yarrow native distribution,” which shed very little light on the matter. Instead my search presented me with phrases like “native to the Northern hemisphere” and “cirumboreal distribution.” This was about as useful as when you’re eight and a grown-up asks you where you live, and with a mischievous grin you say: “Earth.”

A wild specimen at Blue Mash Nature Trail

Further reading started to clear this up: yes, it is native to Asia, Europe, and North America and yes that native range more or less includes all of the United States… but it’s also much more complicated. I was beginning to see how a plant could be both “native” and “introduced” to the same place, but I wasn’t quite getting it until I came across this excellent piece. Nowhere else could I find all of the pieces of the puzzle so elegantly combined. I won’t try to do the same here but essentially it is a species complex, there are many cultivars, and human interaction with the plant is extensive. Some of what we call Achillea millefolium is native, some is not, some may have characters of both the native and non-native varieties, and good luck to any non-biologists determining if an individual specimen is locally native!

The linked history with human activities makes me start thinking in circles. That interaction is over such a long time scale that it blurs the line between native and introduced. If humans aided its distribution, but over tens of thousands of years in lockstep with our own expansion, was that a natural process? This to me is an astonishingly fascinating question. It is certainly much different than one guy bringing a hundred starlings to a new continent, but is it also different from a plant gradually increasing its range as its seeds are distributed by birds? If so, just how different? Where is the line between humans as a part of nature and humans disrupting or interfering with nature? How we answer these questions can shape the very core of environmentalism, and I doubt there is one right answer.

This started as one small plant in the corner of this large stump.

Aside from that rabbit hole of natural philosophy, I also needed to decide if I still believed common yarrow was a good choice for my butterfly garden. Are its native or invasive characters stronger? I don’t immediately disregard all non-native plants in my landscape choices, but I do typically steer clear of anything that’s a known invasive in my area. I have noticed that this plant spreads aggressively – as predicted by every source I consulted years ago. Most of what I have planted is the white-flowering, “natural” variety and not one of the brightly-colored cultivars. It does provide the ecosystem function of attracting pollinators and it is a host plant for some local butterfly species. I can control the spread in various ways and it is hardy and low-maintenance. Is it a net benefit to the local ecosystem? I could envision a reasonable defense of either position based on my understanding of the available facts. A purist might say that with no way of knowing for certain that your plant is a locally native ecotype (or technically a native species at all) one should never include that plant in support of biodiversity. A non-purist might counter that because it serves the ecological function of a native, and some related forms are native, there’s no reason to exclude it. I believe in this case there are angels on both shoulders who happen to disagree.

For now, I am listening to the angel on the non-purist shoulder. I will be looking to replace any brightly-colored varieties with other plants, since I know for sure those are cultivars. I will keep the white-flowered specimens I have and manually restrict their spread. It hasn’t (so far) choked out any of my other plants, but there are plenty of other avenues to adding yellow and pink blooms to my garden for color balance. Fortunately, this isn’t an irreversible decision. I’m perfectly willing to reevaluate a matter this cloudy now and again. I am still building my knowledge base on Maryland native plants and as my familiarity with other species increases I may find there is no longer room for a plant that walks in both the native and invasive worlds.

One plant marked for removal…
…and another

The COVID Cope

When you’re living through a global pandemic-slash-economic crisis and creating content, you really have two terrible choices: write about it and risk becoming just one more trite voice in the clutter, or don’t and risk seeming woefully out of touch. I’ve chosen the former, but only just. I have some other ideas on what to use this space for during this time, but I think it’s best to first address the two-ton elephant in the room, even if the elephant is actually billions of one-femtogram viruses.

I’m extremely fortunate. I haven’t fallen ill, nor have any of my family or close friends. To my knowledge I don’t yet know anyone who has contracted the virus. My age and health mean I’m pretty likely to recover if I do catch COVID-19. My wife and I both still have jobs and are both able to work from home with relative ease. We’re in a fine position to weather this thing financially. We have access to everything we really need and are introverts who can handle the isolation. Yet still, it takes its toll.

Many friends, colleagues, and neighbors are out of work. There’s an absolute miasma of fear, anger, sadness, and confusion everywhere I look, perhaps especially because all outside human contact is secondary, piped through screens and mics and splattered across social media landscapes. I feel a sense of hopelessness because I can’t really help, and instead I look on in horror as our farce of national leadership continues failing to protect people in a substantive way. Of course I can help friends and family with the little things, and I can do my part to avoid spreading the disease. Yet I know it’s never going to feel like enough until this is over.

I don’t want to just perpetuate doom and gloom, though. I’ve come here instead to discuss how I cope with those feelings. I won’t pretend I have some kernel of wisdom that others do not, or that what works for me will necessarily work for anyone else. But most simply put, I have found that my existing coping mechanisms work for this crisis as for any other. That is in part because my biggest coping mechanism – exploring and observing nature – can be done without the presence of other people. If you are one of those for whom the natural world brings peace, perhaps this will work for you as well. My second-biggest coping mechanism, humor, has mixed results in a time like this. Even great jokes are not always well-received when stress levels are running high, and my terrible ones less so. Still, if I can laugh about it I know some vital part of me is still OK.

Nature is still here. Its processes are not disrupted by the closures of our businesses or the isolation of individual humans. We can all experience it with all of our senses without violating social distancing guidelines or putting ourselves at risk (do be careful, though, and always respect naturalist ethics). Nature is present in our homes and yards, so even while we must stay isolated we can find it. I will share the ways I have been able to engage with nature while compliant CDC and WHO guidelines.

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A mourning dove beneath my feeders earlier this week

Birding

Audubon posted a vital article about this topic, and this could equally apply to whatever part of nature you most enjoy. Of course, as this crisis has progressed it has become increasingly unclear whether even this much is OK – so if you do get outside please be certain to follow the six-foot rule. I personally went from birding a little in local parks and green spaces nearly every day to primarily birding only in my own backyard between one week and the next. But, this is an excellent time of year for simple backyard birding. The goldfinches have their bright breeding plumage back, the spring migration is ramping up, and bird activity will be high and varied in the coming weeks and months. Even with my gradually decreasing trips to the field, I was able to log 69 bird species this March without leaving Montgomery County. I’m fortunate to live within walking distance of a park with excellent habitat for warblers and other spring migrants. This will be a great opportunity for coping in a couple of ways. I will get the benefit of being in open, outdoor spaces. I will also be able to occupy my mind with the complex task of warbler identification. Learning to distinguish their myriad patterns, songs, and behaviors in the field requires study and focus.

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hooded mergansers in Rockville this February

I must add the caveat that as the situation changes, what behaviors are and are not acceptable will change as well. Follow the guidance of the experts and your local authorities. Currently my approach is to leave my home infrequently for birding in nearby locations only, and to be absolutely anal about the six foot rule. I hope that’s the right call.

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Gardening

Few things soothe thoughts of mortality and death more than nurturing and sustaining new life. Gardening is perhaps the easiest and most accessible way to do this. It is also a wonderful way to reaffirm our connections to the natural world. This crisis has lined up with the perfect time for intensive gardening of all types, so if you have space and an interest in landscaping or growing food, this is an excellent time to dive in. Mid-February is the start of each garden season for me, beginning with seed-starting indoors and prepping spaces outside. By early April there are a few new plants in the ground, others are hardening in pots outside, and I have divided some of the earliest-returning perennials.

In our household, I primarily focus on flowers and shrubs while my spouse handles the vegetable and herb gardens. There is of course some crossover and overlap, but the combination allows us the perfect blend of activities to share and activities to keep to ourselves. It is not lost on me how important that balance is during extended periods of co-quarantine – maybe something similar could work for a few other couples out there, too.

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I started this redbud tree from seed 5 years ago; this year it rewarded me with its first blossoms.

Gardening connects me to more than the flowers themselves. I choose plants based on their function in the environment as well as their landscape functions. It may be a drop in the bucket, but planting mostly native plants which native animals can use brings me pride and a sense of doing my part. The same can be said from a different angle with the vegetable garden. Planting food reduces our consumption of less sustainably harvested alternatives and contributes to a healthier diet. We still have a sizable lawn, but when I look at how much space we have converted from swathes of grassy monoculture to productive, biodiverse spaces I feel a genuine (and I hope well-deserved) sense of accomplishment.

Reading About Nature

IMG_2034Quarantine is also an excellent time to read, and I have been using it to catch up on some nature-themed writing. My usual predilection for reading material leans more toward fiction, but when things seem bleak good nature writing can be a balm. I just finished the excellent Nature Obscura, which recounts experiences with urban nature in Seattle. I am currently reading My Backyard Jungle, a chronicle of a man and his family who undertook a similar landscaping journey to my own a few years earlier. Whatever your favorite nature topic, there is likely a volume or two available on precisely that.

Of course our old friend the internet is chock full of all manner of writing about nature, from loose collections of personal thoughts like this blog to in-depth scientific journals. You can even read about the impact of COVID-19 on the environment. It seems the experts feel it is a mixed bag. Still, hearing about things like dolphins returning to Italy’s canals and New York City’s energy consumption plummeting is encouraging. I know I’m not alone in the belief that these are signs that our 21st-century way of life should be a little closer to what we’re doing now than most of us are truly comfortable with. Reading about what might come next, and what we should strive for, is comforting to me – although this I understand could have precisely the opposite reaction for many. If you are in a headspace which allows you to process, I encourage you to spend a portion of this time thinking about which pieces of our “normal” way of life we really need back when the dust settles.

I will sign off there, as I see I am in danger of reverting to the kind of talk I said I wanted to avoid. Stay safe, be well, and love nature my friends.

Why Nature?

My last couple of posts, spaced over a year apart, were topically less about nature than most.  Whether I look at page view charts, new followers, or general positive feedback they were also by far my most successful. While I don’t want this to become a mental illness or travel blog, I thought that at least deserved some acknowledgement and follow-up. Why exactly is nature my topic of choice? This thought led me to more deeply consider what about nature is so alluring to me. What is it that drives me to experience it as often as possible and to learn all I can about it? Why is it the balm that sometimes nothing else can be? I thought these answers would be easily teased out of phrases like “staggering complexity” or “majestic beauty,” but they are proving much more nuanced. Beauty and complexity certainly have something to do with it, but even after much thought I can’t settle on a single definitive root for this passion.

I may as well start with the concepts that first came to mind. So: beauty. Nature has it in spades, from the most expansive landscapes to the tiniest creatures. Land, sky, and water; animals, plants, and fungi – all these things hold beauty in varieties to satisfy every aesthetic. It is self-evident that the most beautiful views and sightings are among the most treasured. Beauty can’t be all of it, though. I am equally fascinated by some of nature’s least conventionally attractive offerings. Beetle larvae, termites, house centipedes, carrion beetles: all of these creatures repulse many but hold my interest. Some of this could be re-framed as finding beauty in unexpected places, but it would be disingenuous to say I find all the aspects of nature that interest me beautiful.
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What of complexity? I marvel at macro-level natural processes like the water cycle, the progression of seasons, evolution, food webs, etc… and at the adaptations of living things to them. I am equally impressed by the smaller interactions I can discover if I really get down in the weeds (sometimes literally). I can’t talk about the complexity of nature without another significant keyword: connection. Beauty draws me in, but I think it’s the connections among living things and nature’s cycles that keep me engaged.

To cite a favorite example, consider the ash tree bolete. This mushroom doesn’t appear to be anything special, except for the gregariousness with which it sometimes grows. It is found only near ash trees, but not because of a direct relationship to the trees as with many other mushroom species. It is actually dependent on a specific species of aphid which itself feeds only on ash leaves. This mushroom can then be food for squirrels (and for humans, although having tried this once I can’t recommend it). This entire system, as well as anything else which may specialize on ash trees, is threatened by the encroachment into the United States of a single insect species: the emerald ash borer.

I’ve probably mentioned that here before and it’s probably tiresome by now. But if one investigates far enough, everything in nature has such connections to something else. Bird migrations, timed to coincide with specific plants’ fruit or seed-bearing windows and covering thousands of miles, are astounding. Diversity among bird beaks to exploit specific and widely varied food sources is no small wonder, either. Insects, spiders, amphibians, and more overwinter in leaf litter. The leaf litter is broken down by microorganisms and other small creatures, enriching the soil for new plant growth. Many of those plants wouldn’t survive without pollinators – bees, butterflies and moths, hummingbirds, etc. – which in turn wouldn’t survive without the plants.

This is all pretty basic, Naturalism 101 level information, but when one stops to consider even these well-understood relationships and how they have developed over eons, it is incredible and wondrous. In these and other, more subtle interactions I see a reflection of my own – and humanity’s – connection with nature. It’s a reminder that our cultural tendency to separate mankind from nature is in many ways misguided. As with beauty, complexity and connections are definitely part of the story. These ideas still come short of fully explaining my deep and abiding love of nature. Plenty of things are complex and connected, and I’m not obsessively devoted to all of them. I don’t keep up with the Kardashians, follow cricket, or study the three-body problem.

Challenge is the next concept that comes to mind, and I think I’m getting somewhere. This is of course closely tied to complexity in some ways, but more inward-facing. A cynic might say this is how I fool my brain into believing that nature is all about me, thus making it interesting. Nature can present challenges both physical and mental, and combinations thereof. In exploring the natural world, there are countless ways for me to feel accomplished while enjoying myself,  but with each accomplishment there is always another to strive for. It’s the same dynamic at work in free-to-play mobile games: rewards are doled out at precisely the right pace to keep users playing (and paying). In nature, there’s no need to part with money to tackle the next task – not as often and not as directly, anyway.

From a very early age the challenges offered by the natural world appealed to me. First were the purely physical: hike from here to there, climb this rock or that tree, ford the stream. They progressed to the combined physical and mental: catch the critter or fish, or seek out the really cool thing. Then I was introduced to the more purely mental, in increasing complexity: identify the tree from its leaves, learn what animals to expect in which habitat, understand the relationships between the animals and interpret behaviors. I never lost interest in the physical challenges – I still love a good hike, kayaking trip, or bike ride. I still like to catch things, too, although I like to believe I do so more responsibly as an adult. Each new type of challenge layered atop the old, resulting in a bottomless well of potential challenges to draw upon.

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My latest challenge: taking better photos of birds like this American robin.

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Another challenge: gradually turning this…

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…into this

The more I pick at this thread of “challenge” the truer I realize it is. I have chosen specific naturalist hobbies with high degrees of challenge. Soon after college I became fascinated with mushrooms. Identifying wild mushrooms can be a complicated proposition, and it was largely that difficulty which drew me to it. There are many aspects to consider and no hard-and-fast rules except “proceed with caution.” Through experience, one can learn how to consider the myriad factors and arrive at an ID sometimes. More recently, I have adopted birding as my prime outdoor hobby of the moment. Here there are the challenges of finding and identifying specimens, as well as challenges of patience and visual acuity. Perhaps as important are the available data and tools for analyzing it. How many bird species per year, month, or day? How many in Maryland, North America, Montgomery County, or my yard? Which bird is the rarest for its location? If I examine any of my hobbies closely, I eventually discover that I have turned it into a personal challenge.

So, have I figured it all out? I’m probably missing an accent or two, but I think the cocktail’s primary ingredients are beauty, complexity, and challenge. The beauty is the initial taste, while the complexities and connections keep me coming back for that next sip.

 

Tea For Three

This site is ostensibly about nature, and I haven’t added much content recently, so maybe going off-topic is unwise. But this is a human story, so I’m leaning on my conviction that humans are of nature and not held apart from it. This is simply the best story I have to tell from my current work trip to China.

On Sunday afternoon in Shanghai, I had a very surreal experience that turned out to be a highlight of the trip. I had been birding along The Bund for a couple of hours, and had just put away my binoculars and checklist. I was walking briskly and looking for a place to buy a bottle of water before returning to my hotel by Metro. A young woman flagged me down, held up her phone, and said “excuse me, will you help me take a photo?” Well, of course I would! It did seem a little odd that a Chinese woman would ask the one foreigner in sight (in English) with hundreds of Mandarin speakers nearby, but I wasn’t going to say no to such a simple and polite request.

IMG_0621So, I took a couple of quick photos, returned her phone, and asked her to check if they were OK. I started to leave, assuming the interaction was concluded, but she began to make conversation. At first I gave short replies, again assuming this was just polite interest in return for the small favor. She introduced herself as Vera and we exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes. As the conversation progressed, it became increasingly clear that her English was excellent, and it was nice to be able to hold a conversation with someone when I couldn’t speak the local language. I was happy to answer Vera’s questions and ask a few of my own.

Eventually she asked, “What will you do for the rest of today?” I sheepishly explained that I was very tired from 24 hours of travel, and would probably return to my hotel soon for a long nap. She smiled and then related her own plans for the afternoon. She was on vacation with a friend, and they were about to go to a teahouse and then explore some of the older architecture in a nearby part of the city. Again, I assumed this was the end of a pleasant interaction. Then came the real surprise.

“Would you like to join us? We can meet my friend and all have tea together,” she said. Alarm bells rang. Here was a charming, pretty young woman asking a complete stranger to go somewhere with her, totally unprompted. I was jet-lagged, sweaty, and wearing cargo shorts, so I couldn’t have looked my best. She had to be no older than twenty-five, and was probably younger. This seemed like the textbook example of how to get scammed when traveling abroad. Yet, she was so earnest and sweet (yes, a skilled scammer would appear to have exactly those qualities). So, I politely declined, begging tiredness. She was, however, persistent. She assured me it would only take half an hour. Then, she explained that she and her friend were graduate students in linguistics – English was a specialization for both of them. They wanted to make friends with English-speaking people to practice.

I’m not sure what it was that made me trust her. She did look the part of a graduate student on vacation, and her English was good enough that I believed her story. Was it only that, or was it the jet lag? Maybe there was a hint of ego involved – I had no interest in being “picked up” but a small part of me wondered if that might be at least some of the motivation, and that part was flattered. Again, I realize that these are the exact strings a practiced scammer would be trying to pull, but in the end I had to make a judgment of this person’s intentions and it all felt too honest and innocent to be a trap. After a couple more halfhearted protestations I agreed to accompany Vera and her friend.

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Vera led me a short distance to meet her friend, Yuki, who seemed surprised but delighted to have a guest. This, too, put me at ease. It seemed that much less likely to be a setup, and if it turned out my new friend was interested in something more I felt equipped to decline with appropriate grace. I wouldn’t say I let my guard down entirely, but I was able to relax and enjoy making small talk. Within my own culture this type of social interaction can sometimes induce a paralyzing fear. But here, divorced of Western trappings and with no expectations to conform to Chinese expectations, the stakes seemed much lower. All that societal pressure which can make it so hard to make new friends as an adult was simply absent.

Vera explained that the teahouse was at the “feet” of a famous and important building. I didn’t understand the exact significance of this building. More embarrassingly, I also completely spaced on her usage of the word “feet.” I was tired, so the mental picture I created was a building with a large statue at the bottom, and perhaps the tea house was between the statue’s actual feet. It didn’t even occur to me that she meant the “foot” as in the base or foundation, so I just shrugged like an idiot. In hindsight, maybe her English was actually better than mine.

She went on to explain that the area we were heading toward had very old architecture – they chose this particular teahouse for the chance to view these older Shanghai buildings. As we neared our destination she began pointing out some of the differences: notably the rows of street-level shops with residences above. I was impressed – I could really feel the history of this place in the contrasting designs of the centuries.

As we walked, I tried to explain the purpose of my visit to China. Sometimes I have trouble explaining this even to other Americans, so I’m not sure how successful I was. Vera told me a bit about her hometown in Hubei Province. Of course, as everyone in China wants to she did also ask me about President Trump. I hope I made it clear that he is an idiot and a national embarrassment, and that I am sorry we failed the world so badly by electing him.

We soon arrived at the teahouse and were welcomed inside. Vera and Yuki helped to translate and explain the ordering process as well as each step in the tea ceremony. Each of us selected one type of tea and the hostess prepared them one at a time. Before the first tasting, she poured some tea on a frog Buddha and passed it around. Each of us in turn stroked the frog’s back and spun a disc in its mouth. Then the hostess described the first tea, heated the water, and poured. We were instructed to hold the teacups with our first two fingers and thumb. The ladies were to point their remaining two fingers out while I was to tuck them back against my palm. Next, we were told to swirl and sniff, much like a wine tasting. Finally, we were to finish each cup in three small sips. When this tea was exhausted, the hostess repeated the process with the next choice.

Early in the ceremony Vera asked to add me on WeChat – an extremely popular social media platform in China. She remarked on the hat I was wearing in my photo, which was a perfect opportunity to make my intentions clear (just in case). “Thank you; my wife made that for me,” I said with pride. I couldn’t quite read Vera’s reaction to that, but I thought I detected an amused smile from Yuki. A little later, though, I could read the reaction when Vera asked my age and I replied, truthfully, “thirty-five.” Her eyes immediately grew three sizes like the Grinch’s heart and she appeared briefly mortified. From this I gather there may have been some flirtation in the mix after all, but I hope mentioning my marital status early allowed things to progress platonically without any loss of face.

As long as we lingered, the hostess continued to reuse the tea leaves. We ordered one additional variety after a brief deliberation. There was one awkward moment when I asked for recommendations and they said “you’re the only man here; it’s your choice.” I winced at this, but I didn’t see a graceful exit so I chose a jasmine tea. Apparently this choice was the most womanly tea, but I saw no problem with this. It was delicious and light, as I expected it would be.

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After perhaps an hour of tea sipping and idle chatting, and a few more minutes waiting out a sudden summer squall, it was time to settle the bill – and for the final test if this was some sort of setup. It wasn’t! We split the bill equitably, and Vera and Yuki even bought some tea for me. As we left, Vera and Yuki offered to walk to the Metro station with me. I agreed.

Soon Vera said, “The Metro is a little far. Do you want to try the bicycle?” I must have looked horrified, because Yuki and Vera both laughed and assured me it was perfectly safe. Despite my survival without incident, I maintain that it was very much not. I know a little something about cycling safety, and this violated virtually all of those rules. Cycling without a helmet through the streets of Shanghai was a heady experience. Fun, yes, but still I was glad it was a brief ride. That said, I was impressed with the Shanghai bike share program. The bikes have wheel locks which can be released with various electronic means of payment. Vera unlocked mine and hers with WeChat and off we went. We kept the pace slow and before you know it we had reached the station.

Yuki had apparently intended to ride with us, but she said she was having trouble finding another bike and would meet Vera at the station later. I took this at face value, but after further reflection I wonder if this was intended to provide a last opportunity for something intimate to happen. The idea that it was at all difficult to find a third bike doesn’t seem to hold up to scrutiny. I’m hopeless at reading these things even in my own cultural context, so I really don’t know and probably never will.

The goodbye was as sudden as the hello. Here we stood, new friends who may never again see one another, and parted with a polite handshake. Here ended my encounter with what I am choosing to call “Chinese YOLO.” As Vera put it in the beginning, “It’s new experience. You should try.”

That Sunday afternoon in Shanghai was a whirlwind through about two hours which I will never forget. The experience reminded me that it is OK to trust others sometimes, and that human life is at its base level a series of fleeting moments. Humans are social animals, so some of those moments are meant to be shared. Even for introverts like me, great happiness can come from embracing such moments when they arrive.

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