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Prairie Restoration

The North Branch Prairie Project: Volunteers Restore the Prairie, and the Prairie Restores the Volunteers



For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them; as the one dieth, so dieth the other; Yea, they have all one breath . . . --Ecclesiastes 3:19

Chris: "Burning the prairie is fabulous. Usually it's on a day when you should be at work, so it's like an escape. After you burn it looks sort of lunar, and your clothes smell so great, you don't want to wash them when you come home."

Larry: "There's a sense of belonging to this cult with these secret rites, and doing things that are forbidden. My first burn was the first time I saw a flock of sandhill cranes. It's like they were attracted to the fire. You see these omens . . ."

At the north end of the Ravenswood line, the el comes down to earth. You walk right out of the train onto streets where well-trimmed lawns front solid brick homes. You may meet an occasional solid citizen walking a besweatered dog or taking a child to the corner park.

Larry and Chris Hodak live here; he's an architect, she's a full-time mother. Until about five years ago, they spent almost every Sunday together with a shifting group of a dozen or so friends known as the North Branch Prairie Project--digging, planting, cutting, gathering, clearing, raking, burning, and otherwise cajoling almost-dead prairies back to life in the Cook County Forest Preserves. Their daughters, now aged five and three, have changed the way they spend their weekends. But the project changed their life.

In the fall of 1977, the Hodaks were looking around for some way to get involved and learn about the midwest's landscape. They visited the state's prairie-restoration project at Goose Lake Prairie State Park near Morris; they wandered around the Wolf Road area west of Chicago but couldn't even find the prairie there. Larry answered an ad and went out to help pick prairie seeds at the Fermilab restoration--but "it was kind of disappointing. We were treated more or less like drone labor. There was no real attempt to teach or to draw people in and explain what was going on."

That October, after hearing a lecture at the Chicago Academy of Sciences, they joined a North Branch work-day party at Wayside Woods in Morton Grove. There, in the angle of forest preserve formed by Lehigh and Dempster, a remnant of prairie hung on, squeezed between woods, parking lots, and mowed expanses of picnic and baseball fields. "We cleared a little brush and picked some seeds," recalls Larry. But it was the people who convinced them they'd found their niche. "The people were really neat," recalls Chris. "Everyone's priorities sort of meshed. To be with a group of strangers who value the same things you do . . ."

What things? At the center, it's the experience of prairie--an experience available even to those who can't tell big bluestem from giant ragweed, explains Steve Packard, the North Branch project's founder and moving spirit. "In a healthy prairie--of which there are few, and not much in the North Branch--the average person would know they were in a charmed and different surrounding, like a coral reef or an alpine meadow.

"In May, when the prairie first comes up, it's eerie, because everything is two or three inches tall. It looks like a golf course"--but a golf course with a difference. "The whole surface of the ground is covered with color--pink shooting stars, yellow star grass, white Seneca snakeroot, pink phlox, violet wood sorrel--masses of this stuff. There's not a square foot that doesn't have flowers in it. It looks rich--inspiring--like a garden.

"One difference between a weed patch and a prairie is that prairie is a 10,000-year-old ecosystem. Like any 10,000-year-old antique, it has a patina, it has character. There's a sense that every little space has something that fits perfectly.

"We have a couple of places on the North Branch that rich. They are entrancing places to be. It would be much easier to teach people if you could take them there and walk them through it. But there are too many people--they'd destroy it."

The North Branch Prairie Project, soon to complete its 11th year, is an odd duck in the increasingly crowded pond of prairie-ecosystem restoration. It's an organization without visible organization, without money, without professional botanic expertise. Among its stalwarts are a tax accountant (Donna Hriljac), a carpenter (Preston Spinks), a physics teacher (John Balaban), and a consulting engineer (Ross Sweeny). It cherishes and nurtures the once vast, once spectacular midwestern tall-grass prairies--in the city, where they hang on in tattered remnants if at all. And it's a group of environmentalists, strange to say, without any obvious antagonist to keep it going.

The heartbeat of the project is not meetings or agitation but work days. By prearranged and published schedule, anyone who wants to come is invited to meet near one of the project's seven prairies along the North Branch of the Chicago River (Sauganash, Bunker Hill, Miami Woods, Indigo, Wayside, Milwaukee Road, and Somme Woods, going from south to north). "Our work days are always ritualized," says Larry Hodak. "Always on Sundays. The elders gather and see who will do what. There's a sense of community, especially at lunch and on the walks.

"I could rationalize not going to church because I was doing this instead. And it was more than a rationalization--in a way I felt I was doing more with Sunday mornings than if I went to church."

A work day is a mix of brute labor, fellowship, and nature watching. The workers use only hand tools. The latest additions are scythes, to speed up the brush cutting. ("We're forging into the 18th century with our management techniques," chuckles Ross Sweeny.) This isn't archaism for its own sake. For one thing, at the beginning, officials of the Cook County Forest Preserve District (which owns all the North Branch prairies) would have looked more askance at a group of chain-saw-wielding novices than at a group using hand tools. Another reason is practical: "Chain saws and the like are only suitable for a small group," says Pete Baldo. He and his wife, Kris, were mainstays of the project; they now devote most of their time to a similar volunteer effort at Wolf Road Prairie. "[A chain saw makes it] uncomfortable for other people and for new volunteers--they can't hear what they should do. Hand tools create a more informal atmosphere, but still very productive."

Basically the work consists of encouraging the prairie plants and discouraging their most vigorous competitors--which include everything from the showy, all-engulfing purple loosestrife to teenagers on dune buggies. Prairie remnants are not places we can say "Hands off!" and let nature take its course. We've cut the prairie into tiny pieces, taken away its animals, mowed it, driven over it, stopped allowing it to burn, brought in new weeds to compete with it, and even altered its drainage. Now we have to help.

Partly out of necessity and partly out of conviction, the project does not follow the pattern of many other prairie restorations: it does not plow under existing vegetation and set out prairie seeds and plants on bare soil. North Branchers plant in the existing turf, and then provide the brush cutting and burning necessary to enable the native plants to gradually take over. What Packard calls "successional restoration" has worked. "The North Branch is unique," says Pete Baldo, "in restoring prairies that were old beaters to really mint condition."

Just what constitutes "helping" is not intuitively obvious to the uninitiated urbanite. In Ross Sweeny's 1984 North Branch scrapbook is a picture of a small clump of tree stumps. The photo is captioned: "The best looking buckthorn in Indigo Prairie"--in other words, the only good buckthorn is a dead buckthorn. Yet a young pin oak of the same diameter would be carefully cut around and preserved. Sure, they're both "natural"--but one is a weed and one isn't. No prairie project veteran could possibly confuse the two, any more than a Chicagoan might mistake the corner of Michigan and Randolph for the corner of State and Madison.

In a garden, a weed is any plant that grows when and where you don't want it to. For the lawn-proud home owner, a weed is any plant not the correct strain of bluegrass. But in ecology the word means something different--a weed is a fast-growing, quick-dying plant of disturbed areas. Packard contrasts the ragweeds and dandelions and buckthorns with the 10,000-year-old prairie community. "Weeds are individualists. They grow up quick and they die quick. They bash each other. They don't have time for beautiful complex flowers. Prairie plants have evolved for their own special insect pollinators. The prairie white-fringed orchid, for instance, requires a sphinx moth with a two-inch-long tongue to pollinate it. Weeds don't evolve that"--because in their niche it wouldn't make sense. "The weeds may be there only one year, or one year in 20. That insect won't be around. So generally they're pollinated by wind or they self-pollinate." There's also the matter of diversity. "In a good prairie, you can find about 25 different species of higher plants in a square meter. In a weed patch, you might have five.

"Weeds race through life, shoulder each other out of the way to set seed quick, because somebody's going to come and cut them." The prairie project volunteers set out after weeds with loppers, scythes, and--most efficient and most important--fire. Controlled burning of the prairies enables the native plants to drive out the weeds, and it has become both tool and ritual for the project volunteers.

"The thing I miss," says Larry Hodak, "is the sense of discovery, especially in the fall. We would go out to pick seeds at railroad rights-of-way, places that hadn't been plowed. It was a real search, cruising around looking for bright orange cord grass, copper tan Indian grass, wine-colored big biuestem. They seem to become more distinct as fall goes on--the European grasses kind of bleach out. At the intersection of some railroad tracks, we found a wonderful group of dropseed--yellow, yellow, yellow. Real old plants. We found some side-oats grama at an old dump in Addison." The seed gathering itself, as he and Chris describe it, sounds like a low-energy idyll under intense blue skies.

"Those areas are gone. We had a big seed source in Des Plaines, we'd had three or four years of wonderful experiences there." Then one year they rounded up a crew of 15 or 20 people, parked on a residential street nearby, climbed up the embankment--and saw, instead of waving grasses, four inches of gravel and a new Montgomery Ward warehouse.

"That was horrible to see," says Chris. "But that's part and parcel of the prairie experience, dealing with having your guts ripped out. You have to harden yourself."

"There was another place," adds Larry, "a big area in Buffalo Grove, that was deliberately plowed to destroy the prairie. Still, for a couple of springtimes after they plowed, we'd go and rummage through the dirt clods to pull out roots. We got some lady's slipper orchids that way. But a couple of years later they planted soybeans, and then there was nothing left."

Most of the Chicago-area prairie remnants that had survived by accident have been destroyed in the last ten years. The North Branch prairies have to stand on their own--they can no longer be replenished with seed gathered elsewhere. Partly this means less discovery and more perseverance. Donna Hriljac--an admitted mosquito magnet--tells how she watched over three poke milkweed plants in the Forest Preserve's notoriously buggy Glenview Woods, in order to capture their seeds for distribution elsewhere.

"They only set five seedpods, and the seeds are very feathery, they could all blow away. I couldn't pick them too early or they wouldn't be viable." So it was watch and wait, from mid-August to the third week of September. "They ripened at different times over a three- to four-week period. But I did get them--and left some seed there.

"Most of the seeds went into our savanna mix, to be distributed through parts of Miami, Somme, and Edgebrook Flatwoods [near Bunker Hill]." But wild seed, unlike garden seed, cautiously refuses to sprout all in one year. So as a backup--a possible source of further seeds--Hriljac saved seven seeds "for Tom Murphy to try growing in his garden."

Seed gathering can have its disappointments, too. "Steve identified a fringed loosestrife plant in Glenview along a pathway. It's a native, very pretty savanna species. I was so proud of it. It set a lot of flowers and was doing really well. Then a noted ecologist came out on a walk--and to identify it to people, he picked it! I was heartbroken, even though it is a perennial and will come back. That forced me to find it in another woods, and we did get some seeds."

Even after seed gathering, the work of preparing seeds for storage and planting is exacting. When Hriljac dried some in her apartment, she learned that "'Spring Beauty' wasn't just named for the season. The seeds will spring right out of the drying trays unless you cover them!"

As the warehouses and the famous ecologists close in, gardeners become ever more essential to the project. At the North Park Village Nature Center, in the backyards of Preston Spinks, the Baldos, and dozens of other volunteers, gardeners coax wild seeds and cuttings to life. The idea is not to grow a "prairie garden" for its own sake, but to catch the seed and return it to North Branch sites. Mary May, the project's garden coordinator, says that many visitors see her prairie plants as a bunch of "weeds"--but then there was one visitor who asked for some of her yellow sundrops. "I said, 'I have to collect the seeds.' She thought I was putting her on." Gardens are also the source for small plants to set out in the prairies.

Not all the work works out. Larry and Chris Hodak remember one effort they knew was going to fail: they planted "little two- or three-inch-tall plants in baked clay in July at 11 o'clock--knowing that the plants had no chance and that all the effort of finding and growing, and carrying them had gone to waste." For two years the project tried to use plants raised in greenhouses, but they weren't tough enough to survive outdoors. "Those were simply failed experiments," says Larry. "It's easy to look back on them fondly now, but--"

Some volunteer groups labor toward the day when paid bureaucrats can take over their work. As the North Branch network of work-day helpers, seed gatherers, and gardeners expands up and down the river, this scenario seems less and less plausible. You just can't hire someone to brave mosquitoes and crawl through poison ivy every few days for six weeks in order to watch over a poke milkweed pod--even if an agency could afford to try. And according to North Branch philosophy, it would be a bad idea in any case.

"If the Forest Preserve hired someone and then he lost his job," says Pete Baldo, "then you'd be back to square one, with nobody taking care of these places. And if you let them go nowadays, they'd be gone in 20 years." Paradoxically, in some roles volunteers can be more dependable managers than public employees. "In the Reagan years, a lot of 60s programs were knocked out by one politician. There was no volunteer expertise left, and needs cropped up all over. It's better to have a half-and-half mix. We need some institutional support, but we need volunteers too."

Prairies, says Packard, are "powerful but also delicate. To have them in the midst of millions of people and to have them be seen, you need to have a lot of people around who like them. And you can't hire Pinkertons to stand around there all the time."

Thanks to the inspiration of Jens Jensen and the prodding of Dwight Perkins, in 1913 the state legislature established the Cook County Forest Preserve District. The law authorizes the district "to restore, restock, protect, and preserve the natural forests and said lands . . . together with their flora and fauna as nearly as may be, in their natural state and condition. . . ." Today Cook County's unique "green necklace" encompasses more than 10 percent of the county's area and more land than the entire Illinois state-park system. "I've come to really respect the Forest Preserve," says Ross Sweeny. "The fact that we have 66,000 acres not filled with more Chicago and suburban buildings is an asset to the metropolitan area."

If it weren't for the forest preserves, there would be no North Branch prairies to restore. And if it weren't for Northeastern Illinois University ecologist Dr. Robert Betz, few people would know how. In the 1950s and 1960s, received botanical opinion held that the midwestern prairies were destroyed beyond recall. Betz was one of the pioneers who sought out comparatively undisturbed fragments of virgin Illinois land, in rural cemeteries and along railroad rights-of-way, and from them and from historical accounts painstakingly reconstructed what the prairies must have looked like.

It's hardly surprising that the North Branch volunteers should turn often to Betz for advice and counsel; what is surprising is that the comparatively young reformist types in the project have nothing but good words for the giant bureaucracy under whose wing they operate.

"Thank God for the forest preserves," says Larry Hodak. "It's not us against them, it's the common good." And from the other side, FPD chief landscape architect Joseph Nevius: "At first, we really questioned the whole idea. Anytime somebody says they want to come and work on some of your land, you have to be real cautious. . . . We're pleased with the outcome. They've gone in and done a tremendous job."

You won't catch the Friends of the Parks and the Chicago Park District complimenting each other that way. It's especially curious when you learn that, during much of the time that Robert Betz was unraveling the mysteries of the prairie ecosystem, Steve Packard was in the thick of the 60s movement against the Vietnam war.

In fact, it was that movement that led Packard toward ways of organizing other than confrontation. "When I was with Tom Hayden's Indochina Peace Campaign, I spoke a lot about the Pentagon Papers, and I learned a lot from reading them about how to get things done, as opposed to being a visible media figure--how Henry Cabot Lodge handled Diem, for instance. At the same time, I learned from the Swedish antiwar movement. Their idea was to bring everyone in on one focused campaign on one specific issue, with the confidence that that one thing would have other impacts.

"Tom Hayden used to argue that movement people of the 60s and 70s had learned to think like losers--we were so good at protesting the war that we could protest forever. Instead, we had to learn how to set things up so we could say, yes, we're winning this; and how can we build on this victory?

"Today, I see something like Earth First! and I think, 'Weatherman'--the idea of going to the most extreme, 'purest' position. In the Vietnam stuff, I'd see these people having a very destructive impact. You get ten minutes' high off these things [radically disruptive actions], but you've lost 90 percent of the people and everyone's exhausted. When you want to do something for the long haul, it has to be done in a different kind of way." And in the case of the North Branch prairies, "these places are so vulnerable, any enemies could do enormous damage very easily."

In the summer of 1975, Packard spotted some odd flowers growing along the North Branch bicycle trail. He recognized them from the photos in a book, The Prairie: Swell and Swale, for which Betz had written an eloquent essay. Golden Alexanders and pink spiked lobelia were hanging on despite the mowing and the absence of fire. Says Pete Baldo, "All it needed was a little love, and parts of the metropolitan area could be like they were when the Indians were here. That's what Steve saw."

Early letters suggesting that the district quit mowing certain areas and occasionally burn them off got the standard defensive, bureaucratic response: "Unless there are nurse or prairie seed plants present, it is highly unlikely that they would appear voluntarily," wrote one FPD functionary August 18, 1977. "Unless you have a well established prairie, burning only encourages European weed growth which is even less desirable than the [mowed] meadows we now have. . . . Those areas that are truly prairie by nature of their botanical structure are already set aside."

Standard confrontational procedure would then dictate criticizing the Forest Preserves for not managing the prairies properly (a criticism that probably would have been on the mark). Picket lines, indignant press conferences, and a stream of press releases would follow almost as a matter of course.

North Branch procedure was different: low-key, and always careful to emphasize whatever the district was doing right. Packard et al were not so much asking the district to do more (in fact, they wanted less mowing) as they were asking for permission to help out. "We are well aware that the District's resources are already heavily committed," Packard wrote to FPD General Superintendent Arthur Janura in the fall of 1977, "and we believe it is appropriate for us to take on some of the burden of caring for these delicate areas." Says Packard now, "The very first thing we asked to do was, 'Can we try and restore some rare plants and snip some brush twigs?' How could you say no to that? It's like offering to pick up Hershey wrappers off the trails."

There was another angle, too: few people outside the project at first believed that the North Branch prairies could amount to anything, regardless. "That was crucial in the early stages," says Packard. "I wanted to manage natural areas, but no one would give someone with no credentials the right to do that. In effect, we said, 'We're managing junk,' and they said, 'Go ahead, wear yourselves out.'"

"Now," says Pete Baldo, "in meetings with [superintendent of conservation] Ray Schwarz and Joe Nevius, they're so responsive. They want to help us, and they're very supportive. Every work day at Wolf Road Prairie, we haul out a ton of brush, and they see that it gets chipped up and hauled away. . . . That relationship with the Forest Preserve District--Steve is the guy that established it. That was very painful work he did at the beginning, getting these guys' confidence--key to the rapport we depend on now."

In those negotiations, Packard soon found that the Forest Preserve honchos "recognized that the North Branch idea went to the heart of what the forest preserves are about." But he also learned from them that "People think you're trouble." So, says Packard, "It became a major part of our strategy to avoid any kind of trouble for the Forest Preserve District." This did not preclude occasional outrage when a planted area was mowed, but confrontation was definitely not the order of the day. "When we cut brush, we'd carefully leave a screen [of small trees] up until the area looked good. We did a lot of similar things, the whole purpose being to save the Forest Preserve from grief. You could say [putting a snap in his voice] 'Well, that's their job'--to take that grief. But we went to enormous lengths to make sure they got no complaining letters.

"One thing Roland Eisenbeis [then superintendent of conservation] said to me, I had over my desk for years. We were trying to get the Forest Preserve District to buy Wolf Road Prairie--this was part of my job with the Chicago office of the Nature Conservancy. I was writing a press release and I read it over the phone to Roland. I often did that. He said, 'You've got to take this part out--these people will be offended. Remember this, Steve: [slowly, with exaggerated feeling] It's a wonderful world, and we're all working together.'"

You can't get much farther from the angry antiwar movement than that. "It's much more fun to be pure, with your nonnegotiable demands, and see all the bad guys ranged against you. It's very attractive, but it doesn't get things done."

For the record, the first North Branch work day was held August 6, 1977: 13 participants spent all morning gathering seeds of the smooth phlox for planting in three prairies from which it had disappeared. (The seeds began to sprout five years later.) Since then--according to figures maintained by Ross Sweeny on a computer purchased largely for that purpose--a grand total of 760 different volunteers have done 16,463 hours of work on the prairies (not counting seed gathering and gardening outside the seven North Branch prairies). The project continues to grow: in 1987, for the first time, the group held 59 work days--more than one a week--with a record number of total hours (3,129) and new volunteers (134). Two of the prairies--Somme Woods and Morton Grove Prairie--have been dedicated as Illinois Nature Preserves. All have been found to contain at least one species of plant endangered in Illinois and have therefore been listed in the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory. At one prairie, entomologist Dr. William Hamilton of Loyola University has found a species of mite hitherto unknown to science. The project has been the subject of an article in the Field Museum Bulletin, of a five-part lecture series at the Chicago Academy of Sciences, and of a paper presented at a London symposium on ecological restoration. And 81 other sites in the six-county area are now part of the Volunteer Stewardship Network--in which local people take responsibility for watching over and maintaining natural areas near their homes--a concept that emerged from the North Branch. What was once "junk" is now blooming.

"So many of the things you do, you get so tired," reflects Donna Hriljac. "The legislative battles [on behalf of the Sierra Club]--you can fight for the Morton Arboretum, and two years later you fight again, and two years later, and then you lose.

"I do tax work all day, and work as treasurer of the club. But there are just so many meetings I can go to--after a while I've got to go outside. It's so nice to be able to walk out of an area and say, 'We cleared that, and planted, and five years from now we can come back and see the puccoon blooming.' It's different--it's not administrative--and it's very satisfying."

John Balaban, who teaches math and physics at Saint Ignatius, often brings members of the school's outdoor club to work days. "I think the idea of the project was to get together a bunch of people who would really invest themselves in this project--using loppers and getting down on their hands and knees. Hand tools are quiet, so you can talk and hear the birds. You clear a little area, and it really becomes a part of you, trying to aid what's already there.

"At school, I'm very open about this, and I get a sense that the students are challenged by the idea that here is an adult male who cares about wildflowers. It's important that they be aware of what's out there, how fragile it is, and how easy it would be to lose it."

"I was really pleased," says Chris Hodak, "at the Academy of Sciences lectures when we saw slides, and the Latin name of the plant flashed in my head before he said it." Adds Larry, "I can't travel anywhere now without looking in ditches and trying to imagine what the presettlement landscape was and looking for it. This has just opened up a whole new realm of information. I can't imagine what our life would be like without this. . . . In half an hour, I can go downtown and be in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Or I can go in the other direction and be in one of our little wildernesses"--not as a tourist but as a participant, a cocreator. "Where else could you do that?"

In a real sense, the North Branch volunteers are cultivating themselves as much as they are the phlox and puccoons and orchids of their chosen ecosystem. In the same sense, this is a pilot project: today the North Branch, tomorrow the earth. Packard is fond of expounding on a lecture given at the Chicago Academy of Sciences earlier this year by William R. Jordan, editor of Restoration and Management Notes, associated with the University of Wisconsin arboretum in Madison. Jordan compares the North Branch prairies to Yosemite.

"In Yosemite, our feelings about our relationship to the place tend to be negative--'We can only harm it,'" says Jordan. "The North Branch Prairie Project shows us how we can broaden the nature-preserve idea and bring it into our lives. I don't know of any more beautiful, clear, and stirring example of giving us a role in the landscape."

The North Branch prairies depend on people's ongoing efforts much as in other ages the building of a pyramid or a cathedral would have. "In other words," says Packard, "the prairie is not something that can be dealt with by one law or one person"--nor by a 50 percent increase in the forest preserve budget. "It requires a lot of people and a lot of changes in consciousness, a lot of creativity. Through the North Branch Prairie Project, a lot of individuals and officials and schools and neighbors have learned."

The simple lesson is that endangered species need protection, which means protecting and restoring to health the entire ecosystem of which they are parts. There are well-rehearsed economic reasons for this, since new, useful life-forms are constantly being discovered in hitherto unnoticed corners of the natural world. "But for many volunteers," adds Packard, "it's sufficient motivation that the prairie plants are there, and rare, and depend on us, and we love them and want them to thrive. It's OK if no one ever makes an industrial solvent from them."

The complicated lesson is that we have a part to play in that system. And the North Branch teaches the lesson by acting it out. Says Jordan: "Steve and those guys have reenacted the whole movement of cultural evolution in these places: hunting and gathering seeds, burning, farming, and science"--recapitulating millions of years in an afternoon's healing work. All this, says Packard, "is part of a cultural change that has to happen--you end up with people taking care of these prairies the way we eventually have to care for the whole world."

Pete and Kris Baldo first met at a Wolf Road Prairie work day. "After we started going together," says Kris, "we went to all the North Branch work days for a year and a half, plus all the Wolf Road work days: every Sunday and every other Saturday.

"The morning of our wedding, Pete was nervous. He got his two brothers and his father up real early. They went out to Wolf Road to do some work. We were married at 10 AM.

"The next day, Sunday, we were up bright and early at Somme Woods, and proceeded to have a really good work day up there. It was a nice day, we cut out a lot of brush and buckthorn. I know the spot where we did it. The blue gentians were in bloom."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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