Writing Samples

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Travel Writing: Excerpt from Animal Tales: Kruger National Park

Biographical Writing: Photographer story from The Wild Focus Project

Writing for Children: Post from the Backyard experiments blog

Article Pitch: Letter to the editors of Science Magazine

 

Travel Writing: Excerpt from Animal Tales: Kruger National Park

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Cars filled up the narrow dirt road. People leaned out of windows, wielding camera lenses the length of their arms. Su and I found a space, parked in the middle of the crowd, and scanned the savannah. Heat waves rolled off the ground and distorted the view. My eyes flicked from tree to tree. Wildebeests meandered through the yellowing grass, but that was nothing remarkable. Surely all these people hadn’t stopped just to watch wildebeests?

Su leaned out of her window and called to the car next door, “What’s going on? Is there a rhino or something?” The man kept his eyes trained on the animals, but he shook his head and said, “No, it’s-  look!” The wildebeests had suddenly stampeded, kicking up clouds of dust. What are they running from? They swung back the other direction, and I could finally see the cause of the traffic jam. A cheetah! Cameras clicked all around us.

I had never seen a cheetah in person, but it was unmistakable. The dark, tear-track marks around the eyes and snout, the small solid spots, the massive pendulum tail keeping it from falling over as it swerved around scraggly bushes. It nearly brought down a young wildebeest, but the calf dodged left at the last second. The cheetah slowed to a walk, and then sat under a nearby tree and panted for a while. Understandable – cheetahs are built for sprinting. They can only maintain their top speed of 55 mph for 20 or 30 seconds maximum. Fascinated, Su and I watched it snooze and stretch and stalk the wildebeest herd for several hours. We were one of the last cars from the traffic jam to leave the scene. I would’ve been happy to stay longer, but Su reminded me that if we didn’t get back to Lower Sabie Rest Camp by nightfall, we’d be locked out and fined.

We were in Kruger National Park in northeastern South Africa. It was early April 2013. We had an unusually long spring break that year, so we had decided to do something completely different and go in search of the cast of The Lion King. We, like most visitors to the park, came with a checklist of animals we wanted to see. The first priority was to find the Big Five: African bush elephants, Cape buffalo, leopards, lions, and black rhinos. Historically, these were the five most difficult and dangerous game animals to hunt. Now they’re mostly used as a tourist gimmick; safari businesses lure in visitors with promises of seeing all of the Big Five. Of course there are plenty of other fascinating animals to see, but the Big Five are found throughout the park, and they’re one of Kruger’s major draw cards.  Elephants and cape buffalo are the most common (and surprisingly, the most dangerous). Lions and leopards are far less numerous; they’re threatened by trophy hunters and habitat loss. Black rhinos are the rarest of the Five, critically endangered due to the illegal rhino horn trade. Kruger is at constant war with poachers.

After we’d checked off four of the Big Five, we moved on to other famous African animals. Giraffes, impala, wildebeests, hyenas, zebras, warthogs, hippos, and the more common white rhinos are all popular, as are a multitude of unique birds like hornbills and saddle-billed storks. It’s considered a point of pride to check boxes for the rarer, seldom-seen animals. During our week in the park, we encountered no one who had recently seen a black rhino, and only one person who had seen an African wild dog, of which there are only 150 in the park. Su and I later realized just how fortunate we had been to have seen the cheetah. They are the rarest large species in the park with a mere 120 animals.

Kruger is among the largest and most popular game reserves in Africa with up to three million visitors each year. It has the triple advantages of being extremely visitor friendly and accessible, being within easy driving distance of Johannesburg, and having an incredible array of wildlife. A grand total of 148 mammal species call the park home. People are drawn to these iconic animals because they’re usually a novelty. We tend to think of them in the context of zoos and circuses. But in Kruger, people and cars are novelties. Humans are the ones who don’t belong. The 2,500 kilometers of road crisscrossing the scrubby grasslands seem as out of place as a rhino in suburbia. All of the rest camps are fenced in, the camp gates are locked from sunset to sunrise, and you’re required to padlock your fridge or turn it against the wall so baboons and vervet monkeys can’t steal your food. At Lower Sabie, you can hear hippos bellowing outside the fence all night long, and jackals prowl around the edges of Tamboti Bush Camp. People must stay inside their vehicles at all times when outside the camps, or be accompanied by an armed park ranger. All of this gives the impression that the people are in cages while the animals roam free, which I personally find rather refreshing.   

Today, Kruger’s main focus is the conservation of its animal inhabitants, and heavy penalties are attached to hunting in the park. But ironically, the park owes its existence to hunters. Back in 1900, the area now known as Kruger National Park was a collection of private game reserves, set aside specifically for wealthy Afrikaners to hunt for sport. The reserves were eventually brought together and merged into one national park – South Africa’s first – in 1926, which was named for South African Republic president Paul Kruger. The park has since grown to be approximately the size of Wales. Now it’s one of the parks, reserves, and sanctuaries across South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique that make up the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Peace Park.

Kruger is primarily subtropical savannah – flat grasslands dotted with scrubby trees and crisscrossed by wide rivers, including the Sabie, Olifants, Crocodile, and Limpopo. Granite outcrops and small muddy ponds dot the landscape, adding some visual variety. Bush-willow and thorny acacia trees poke up through the dusty earth. Near rivers and ponds, there are swaths of buffalo grass and scraggly mopane bushes. Here and there you can find the world’s southernmost baobab trees, which are estimated to be around 4,000 years old.

But no one comes to Kruger to see the trees or the rivers. It’s all about the animals here.

One of the most memorable episodes from that trip occurred on a hot, dry morning a few days before the cheetah sighting. We’d been up before dawn and driven north from Tamboti to Olifants. Su wanted to go in search of elephants – they were supposed to be nearby. The camp and the nearby river were named for them, after all. I desperately wanted to see another rhino, up close. We had caught a glimpse of one the previous evening, but at a great distance and in poor light. So we ventured out in our tiny, boxy rental car with all windows open (the AC didn’t work). We found neither elephants nor rhinos that day; instead we found the spectacular, harsh reality of life in the savannah.

We reached a fork in the road. “Which way?” asked Su. I pointed to the right. It was a smaller, rougher road, so we’d be less likely to see other tourists, and maybe more likely to see animals. After a few minutes of washboard gravel, we spotted some giraffes off to one side. They were staring in the direction we were driving, unfazed by our intrusion. Well, unfazed wasn’t quite right… it was more like they were completely distracted by something down the road. We snapped a few pictures and moved on. I draped my arm out of the open window and tried to unstick my sweaty legs from the seat.

Suddenly Su grimaced. “Ugh, do you smell that?” I frowned, sniffed, and almost gagged. There was a truly horrific stench drifting in through the windows. We rolled them up and immediately started looking for the source. We found it fifty yards down the road.

It was a giraffe, or rather, had once been a giraffe. Now it was four awkwardly splayed legs, an enormous ribcage, seven absurdly long vertebrae, a grinning skull, and some shredded patchwork skin peeled back to reveal the meat underneath. Farther back there were a dozen lionesses resting in the shade of the acacia trees. Transfixed, we watched as one approached the carcass and buried her nose in the rotting flesh, smearing blood all over her chin. After a while, another two joined her at the feast, but made sure to give her plenty of space. Flies hovered everywhere, vultures looked on from a nearby tree, and Su and I roasted in the car with the windows blocking out the smell.

Rather morbidly, I wondered how the lions had taken down a fully-grown giraffe. They obviously couldn’t leap high enough to grab a giraffe by the throat. Maybe they had attacked when the giraffe was drinking and had its neck stretched down to the water? But there was no sign of a lake or a stream nearby. That evening, I asked a park ranger at Olifants about it. She told me that the trick was to get the giraffe to run. Normally a giraffe walks in a very slow and stately manner, but if the lion pack can scare it into running, there’s a good chance that it will tangle up its long legs, trip, and fall. Then the lions pounce before the giraffe can get back up.

Unlike most cats, lions are sociable with each other and live in tight-knit groups called prides. The lionesses do most of the hunting as a pack, and the senior female leads the charge. They attack from behind, clawing and biting at the hindquarters of their prey until it collapses, or sometimes lunge for the throat from the front (giraffes are a special case). Sometimes lions hunt alone, but they are much less likely to succeed than a pack. But even when working together, lion hunts end with a successful kill only ten percent of the time. So to get the rest of the protein they need as obligate carnivores, they scavenge from other predators whenever they can. It seems abhorrent to us to eat carrion, but it’s important to remove dead animals and process them back into nutrients to feed plants. It’s a slightly more disgusting version of the circle of life presented in The Lion King.

Spotted hyenas also help to clean up corpses from the savannah, but not as often as many people think. In fact, lions steal from hyenas at least as often as hyenas steal from them, if not more. Kruger’s hyenas in particular hunt more than they scavenge; their favorite prey is wildebeest. In fact, less than an hour after we left the lion feast, we came across a hyena family polishing off the last of the meat from a wildebeest skeleton. I was expecting them to be slavering, cackling brutes like they are in children’s stories, but they were actually quite cute. Two adults carefully watched over four or five cubs as they crunched on ribs. Hyenas’ jaws are immensely strong; they’re built for breaking bones open to get at the marrow inside. Much like lions, hyenas occasionally hunt alone, but their chances of catching prey increase significantly when they work together.

Teamwork pays off for African wild dogs too; they have a higher successful kill rate than any other African carnivore – eighty percent. Like lions and leopards, wild dogs are obligate carnivores (sometimes also known as hypercarnivores). They owe their hunting success to their highly social nature. They work in teams, splitting up so some chase the prey, while others cut off its escape and ambush it as it runs. Then when they kill their prey – usually medium-sized antelopes like impalas – the pups get the first crack at the meal. This ensures that the new generations get the nutrition they need. But unfortunately, wild dogs’ success at hunting has made them enemies of local farmers. Bigger predators like lions also sometimes attack wild dogs so they can steal their kills. These days there are estimated to be around 400 wild dogs in all of South Africa, with Kruger hosting the largest population.

It was pretty gruesome to watch the lions tear apart the remains of the giraffe, but we stayed and watched and for hours. We couldn’t tear ourselves away until the lions retreated back into the shade, and the vultures settled in for their turn at the meal. By that time, we were drenched in sweat, and our brains were probably slightly fried too. Still, there was a raw appeal in witnessing the brutality of nature. This was no zoo; the animals were not there for our entertainment. The experience served as a forceful reminder that this planet is home to far more animals than just us humans. In Kruger, we were visitors in someone else’s home.

 

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Biographical Writing: Photographer story from The Wild Focus Project

Story about marine filmmaker and photographer Kyle McBurnie. Featured under "Stories" on the Wild Focus Project - visit for more stories and to see Kyle's photography (images cannot be shared outside of the Wild Focus Project).

 

Enamored by the Ocean

Kyle McBurnie

Professional Filmmaker, Occasional Photographer from San Diego, California

 

When people talk about wildlife, they usually mean land animals. But more than 70% of our planet’s surface is ocean. Life first appeared in the ancient oceans around four billion years ago, and stayed there for a long time. Even now, some of Earth’s most biodiverse environments are underwater, and scientists estimate that less than 10% of all marine species have been discovered. Being underwater and seeing the life below the surface is incredible; it’s an entirely different world unlike anything on land, bathed in shifting light patterns, almost hauntingly beautiful. Few people know this better than Kyle McBurnie.

I first came across Kyle’s photography while flipping through the Oceans category in the 20th anniversary edition of Nature’s Best Photography magazine. I’ve never been diving and I’ve only snorkeled a few times, but his photos instantly brought back that feeling of quiet awe that I’ve only experienced underwater (although the oceans aren’t actually very “quiet” these days – marine noise pollution from ships and mining is a huge issue for whales and dolphins). These days, Kyle does more filmmaking and videography than still photography. He explains that it can be hard to tell the full story of an animal’s life and behavior in a handful of images, and by shooting video, he can truly dive into the stories of the animals he films. His film footage is amazing, and he recently received a Young Explorer Grant from National Geographic to film underwater bioluminescence.

Kyle’s father was fascinated with marine biology, but never pursued it as a career. He did, however, pass on that passion to his son, and supported him in getting scuba certified as a teenager and studying marine biology in college. After working aboard a dive boat, Kyle and a friend started their own recreational dive company, where they take people out to meet sharks and other inhabitants of the California kelp forests. Kyle fondly recalls a particularly special day when a female blue shark spent an unusually long time with them, and they stayed in the water with her into the evening: “We watched the sun go down and blow up the sky. We were in the water, and you could see the shark – she was glowing red from the sunset.” Kyle describes blue sharks as “a good ambassador shark.” Sharks could certainly use some good publicity; Jaws didn’t do them any favors.

All in all, Kyle spends a lot of time in the water, and it’s affected his perspectives on marine biodiversity. When I ask him about this, he’s unsure at first: “It depends … sometimes when you’re photographing, you’re not paying as much attention to what’s going on in front of you because you’re trying to get the shot, so you might not have noticed that second species of fish swimming by in the background. But on the flip side, if you’re photographing for natural history, you’re paying a lot more attention to behaviors, and species, and who’s interacting and stuff, so… I’d say being a photographer makes me more aware and want to know more about what I’m seeing, versus if I were just diving somewhere and I’m happy to just take the divemaster’s word for it.” He’s also personally witnessed the effects of warming oceans on California kelp forests, and is very aware of issues like overfishing, pollution, and the spread of marine diseases. Kyle mentions that it would’ve been a lot easier to run a business based around animal interactions 20 years ago, when things like blue and mako sharks were more abundant.

One thing that’s really important to Kyle is the establishment of marine protected areas, or MPAs, which are sort of the ocean equivalent of national parks. Fishing, diving, and other human activities are regulated to protect the local marine life. His favorite diving spot, San Clemente Island, is not protected, nor are a lot of other important and biodiverse areas off the California coast. Another major issue is that MPAs don’t always completely protect pelagic species, or those that live in the open sea. Many types of fish or other marine creatures might have different stages of their lives in different places with different fishing laws, and one place might have a strictly regulated MPA while another might have no protection at all. This is a huge, international problem, and Kyle strongly feels that we need pelagic MPAs and international species protection.

Fortunately, there’s already some protection in place for marine mammals, which are some of Kyle’s favorite animals. “[Photographing them] is rare, which makes it special,” he says. The Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits people from approaching or interfering with them, but Kyle has spent enough time in the water that he’s learned how to behave around them so they’ll be interested in approaching him. That makes a huge difference in his photos and film footage. He explains, “You could be the best photographer in the world, but if you can’t bring yourself to entice a harbor seal to come look at you closely, you’re never going to really get that shot.” He also finds it easy to connect with whales and seals: “I think it’s just a mammalian sympathy where you feel like you can understand their emotions, whereas it’s really hard to understand the emotions of a fish, other than that they have them.”

One thing that I find really intriguing is that Kyle often doesn’t show anyone a lot of his photos. That makes it crystal clear to me that he’s not in this for money or the publicity or anything like that – instead, it’s all about his love for the ocean, and how much he enjoys sharing “water time” with so many wonderful creatures. Fortunately for the rest of us though, he does share enough of his photos and film footage that we get to see some of the incredible things he gets to see, things that most of us would never even know about. As Kyle says, “You spend a thousand hours in the water, and you’re going to see something really amazing because really amazing things happen all the time … we’re just not there to see them.”

 

Quick Facts

  • Favorite place to take photos: The kelp forests around San Clemente Island, off the coast of San Diego
  • Favorite photo subjects: Marine mammals – seals, sea lions, whales, and dolphins
  • What’s next for Kyle: Working on a VR experience film in the Philippines, looking for unknown plane wrecks in Paua New Guinea, and continuing to work towards protection of pelagic species.
  • Where you can find him online: www.kylemcburnie.com

 

Kyle’s Photography Tips

  • Focus on getting really comfortable in the water – “If you’re comfortable in the water, you’re already a 90% better underwater photographer.”
  • Once you're comfortable, focus on adapting your body language. Some animals are shy, so be submissive. Some animals are curious, so make yourself obvious. Play to the psyche of your subject.
  • Work on developing relationships with marine mammals so they feel comfortable approaching you (but you should never approach them!)
  • Talk to people in the area you might be diving to learn about what animals you can find where, and what they might be doing.
  • Spend a lot of time in the water and be patient – you’ll be rewarded with amazing things!

 

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Writing for Children: Post from the Backyard Experiments blog

Visit www.backyardexperiments.wordpress.com to see this post with its original formatting. Intended for an audience around age 10 or 11 (or their parent/guardian/teacher)

 

Make your own Lava Lamp

Everyone loves lava lamps. I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t like them. They’re fascinating to watch, and they are absolutely essential to the complete bachelor pad.

Image by  Dean Hochman

Image by Dean Hochman

With this awesome experiment, you can make your own version!

What you need: a tall clear bottle, water, food dye, vegetable oil or canola oil, and fizzing tablets like Alka-Seltzer (I’m based in New Zealand, so I used these Aspro-Clear pain relief tablets). A funnel is helpful but not necessary.

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Steps:

1.  Pour about 4 cm or 2 in of water into the bottle.

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2.  Fill the rest of the bottle with veggie oil. This is where the funnel comes in handy! What happens when the oil meets the water?

3.  Add several drops of food dye. Aim the color right at the middle of the surface of the veggie oil. How do the drops of dye behave? Does the color mix with the oil?

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4.  Squeeze the bottle and gently tap it against your table or counter to make the drops of food dye mix in with the water at the bottom of the bottle. You can also use a straw or a long stick to mix the color into the water.

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5.  Once the color has spread through all the water, remove 2 fizzy tablets from their packaging. You’ll probably need to break them in half so they’ll fit through the neck of the bottle. Drop them into the bottle.

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6.  Enjoy the show! Watch how the fizzy tablets affect the colored water in the oil.

Tip: To really make this look like a lava lamp, take it into a dark room and put a flashlight under it.

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What’s going on here?

First, the water and the oil don’t mix together. The water is what we call polar, meaning that each water molecule, like the one below, has a positive region (+) and a negative region (-), just like how a magnet has a north and a south.

Oil, on the other hand, is nonpolar. Its molecules don’t have a negative side and a positive side. Polar liquids mix together, and nonpolar liquids mix together, but they don’t mix with each other very well. That’s why you have to shake up salad dressing before you put it on your salad. That’s also why it’s hard to just rinse oil off things with water – you need soap to break it down and wash it away.

Second, the oil has less density than the water. Density refers to how much stuff fits into a certain amount of space. A brick is more dense than a wad of bubble wrap. In this case, a teaspoon of water has more molecules than a teaspoon of oil. It’s the same amount of liquid, but the water is denser than the oil. So the oil floats on top of the water. That’s why you can see those rainbow oil slicks floating on top of puddles on the road when it rains.

Image by  John

Image by John

As for the food coloring, the dye is both polar and more dense than the oil, so drops of dye float right through the oil without mixing in. But it does mix with the polar, dense water.

Third, when the tablets hit the water, they start fizzing and releasing gas bubbles. The bubbles travel up because the gases inside are lighter and less dense than either the water or the oil. So they go all the way up to the top of the liquid and then burst, releasing the gases. Soda is fizzy for the same reason – carbon dioxide gas is trapped in the bottle or can, and when you open it, the gas is released in bubbles traveling up to the surface. If you drink the soda too fast, the gas might try to go out through your nose or come out as a burp! As the bubbles in the bottle travel up, they each carry a little bit of the colored water with them, which creates the lava lamp look.

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Fun Fact: Of all the elements (the most basic substances that make up the universe) the most dense is called osmium. Osmium is a metal very similar to platinum, but it’s too brittle to be used for much of anything. Other very dense elements include gold, lead, and mercury. Liquid mercury is so dense that you can float heavy coins on it!

Image by  Alby

Image by Alby

 

Article Pitch: Letter to the editors of Science Magazine

This letter was intended to pitch an article about fungus farming ants to Science magazine. Due to time constraints presented by my Master's coursework and thesis, the letter has not yet been sent and the article has not yet been written.

 

To the editors,

My name is Emma Hanisch, and I am a postgraduate student studying science communication at the University of Otago in New Zealand. I would like to propose an article for Science Magazine about fungus farming ants. My article will discuss the highly sophisticated behaviors that surround ant agriculture, and compare them to human agriculture. I worked in the Entomology Department at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum studying fungus farming ants for eight months. I personally know the museum’s ant curator Dr. Ted Schultz and many of his colleagues, and can easily set up interviews with them. I think Science readers will be interested in the parallels between human and ant societies, and will likely not be familiar with the topic. My working title for this piece is, “The Secret World of Ant Agriculture.”

 

Somewhere between ten and twelve thousand years ago, humans figured out how to grow food instead of foraging for it. The development of agriculture allowed us to settle in one place instead of constantly roaming in search of our next meal. Those settlements grew into towns and cities, and civilization was born. Now, we’re so good at farming that our population has boomed to 7.4 billion people. Our society has become unbelievably sophisticated and technologically advanced.

But we are only just starting to approach the level of the most advanced farmers on Earth: ants.

Famed author and entomologist E.O. Wilson once estimated that the total world population of ants was around 10 quadrillion individuals. More recently, scientists have made a more conservative estimate of 100 trillion, but that’s still enough to ruin your picnic. AntWeb, the online database for all ant species, lists over 16,000 valid recorded species. Of those, 250 species are farmers. They learned how to grow crops tens of millions of years before we did, and for much the same reason.

In my story I will outline the development of ant agriculture. Some 50 million years ago, a primitive ant began eating some sort of fungus, and her colony eventually became dependent on it. To ensure that they would always have their food of choice available, they and their descendants developed the means to grow the fungus within their nests. Over time, different branches of the family formed new preferences or adapted in different ways, but maintained their ability to cultivate fungus for food. Today, fungus farming ants range from tiny, primitive species with small simple gardens all the way up to huge, highly advanced “civilizations”. The fungus evolved along with each ant species, to the point of a completely symbiotic relationship between the ant and the fungus: neither can live without the other.  

I will discuss how ant agriculture bears little resemblance to our neatly tilled fields of corn and wheat. Instead, ants grow gardens of fungus in underground chambers. Most people wouldn’t identify an ant fungus garden as agriculture at a glance; they look more like white or yellow-grey sponge. But ants are actually remarkably similar to humans in their farming practices. Their fungus is cultivated just as carefully as our crops of fruits and vegetables. Ants “weed” their gardens by sniffing out and removing contaminants, using the antibiotics that their bodies naturally produce. Some species have even been known to herd aphids in the same way that humans herd cattle or sheep.

My article will focus on leafcutter ants, one of the most sophisticated fungus farming species, as an example. They are frequently seen traveling in lines carrying chunks of leaves, but they don’t actually eat the leaves. Instead, they process the leaves into a sort of mulch, use it as a growing surface for their specific fungus, and then eat the fungus they grow. Leafcutters live in enormous networks of underground chambers; a single nest can be thirty square meters and extend three or four meters deep. They have evolved to have a complex society with different castes devoted to tending the garden, taking care of the larvae, foraging for leaves, defending the nest, or removing waste to the most ventilated chamber in the nest. Every single member of the colony is dedicated to their role in growing and processing food.

Ants, as you might expect, have very small brains. They do not have the capacity to consciously decide who does what, or to individually plan out their gardens. So how can they have such complex social behavior? In my story I will describe the concept of emergence – many individuals performing simple tasks that contribute to collective sophisticated behaviors. Colonies essentially function like one gigantic brain with each individual ant acting like a neuron. This group mentality has evolved in social insects over 130 million years.

But despite collectively acting like a brain, ants do not have consciousness like humans do. We have the advantages of forethought, planning, and learning through observation. My article will conclude with the observation that this has allowed us to do in a mere ten thousand years what fungus-farming ants did in 50 million years.

 

I look forward to hearing back from you soon. Thank you for your time and consideration,

Emma Hanisch

 

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