Fire (Social) Wood (Spiritual)

The Emerald Isle?

At its peak, following the last ice age, Ireland was covered in forest. The first humans, initially hunter gatherers, arrived around 9000 years ago. About 6000 years ago the forests began to disappear as farming began to take hold. By 1600, forest cover was still substantial, but as population pressure grew, and in particular clearance for sheep grazing, by 1800 less than 1% remained. Even by European standards of destruction, this was an impressive feat.

Sheep farming in Ireland

Today, Ireland has around 10.5% forest cover, still placing it at the bottom in the list of European countries. The average in Europe is about 30% – Finland leads with 73%, and even heavily developed Germany has 32%. Ireland trails even the Netherlands, with a population density of 416 people per square kilometre, compared to 69 for Ireland.

Ireland is nearly unique among developed countries in that its population is far below its peak. In 1841, the current area of the Republic of Ireland had a population of 8.51 million. The Great Famine initiated nearly a century of population decline, as both starvation and emigration took their toll, and by 1926 the population had been reduced to less than 3 million.

The causes of the Great Famine are complicated. The best land was reserved to meat production for primarily British consumers, and when a potato blight struck, destroying around half of the potato crop, exports of potatoes to Britain continued apace as impoverished primarily Catholic Irish could not pay the required prices. Ireland always produced enough food to feed its people, but most of it was exported to Britain, similar to what happened with other famines under British rule, such as in India. Some Irish saw and still see this as a form of genocide.

But back to the forests.

Ireland is now afforesting quite rapidly, and aims to get to 18% cover by 2046. The government has policies in place to support private landowners planting forest, and now almost 45% of Irish forest is privately owned. Unfortunately, the vast majority of this is non-native, mostly Sitka Spruce, planted mainly for its potential use for timber and paper.

The non-native Sitka Spruce

Wandering around Ireland, the Sitka Spruce ‘forests’ feel dead. Almost no birdlife, and an acidic soil that prevents anything else growing under them. The largest patches of natural forest grow in Killarney National Park, which by contrast is lush and alive, supporting a wide range of flora and fauna. However, the entire reserve is a tiny 102 square kilometres.

Wild forests in Killarney National Park

It was Ireland’s first national park, created in 1932, and until 1984, the only national park in the country. There are now 6 in total, protecting just under 1% of the country. Ireland is certainly lagging in this regard,

But it’s intriguing to me too see how much sway meat production has in the country. I have visited three national parks while here. Killarney, which is heavily wooded, as well as the Burren and Connemara. The latter two have almost no tree cover. What’s more, they don’t look like getting any soon. In the Burren, the reserve seems to find it important to preserve the concept of winter grazing, and is concerned about animal farmers moving to less taxing means of production, and no longer grazing the Burren.

The Burren is unique – beautifully stark and rocky, with numerous rare species. The famous quote “There isn’t tree to hang a man, water to drown a man nor soil to bury a man” purportedly comes from one of Oliver Cromwell’s general during his campaigns in Ireland in the 1600s. And yet once it too was covered in forest.

The Burren

Connemara National Park is similar. Sheep and goats graze right to the top of the highest peak. I can understand that it’s been thousands of years since trees grew in these areas,and so conservation has a different meaning that in an area much more recently touched by humans, but I still find it strange that, with such a demand for afforestation, and government subsidies, there seems to be so little attempt to regrow the ancient wild forests that would once have covered the Emerald Isle.

Sheep grazing just below the highest point in Connemara National Park

Images from Wikimedia Commons (1 2 3 4 5 6)

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Water (Personal) Wood (Spiritual)



In late 2015, after a moment of bliss, I decided to write down some of the peak moments, those little appearances of bliss, that I’ve experienced in my life. They’re in no particular order, just what came to mind at the time.

1) In my parent’s garden, doing chi kung at midnight, a clear sky, channeling moonlight to the earth.

2) A hike in the Hout Bay mountains, 3 close friends, a howling gale and I lean out over the edge, held up by the wind, buffeted, supported.

3) In a car, driving home from the Boland Trail. Day 2 was cut short by an intense hailstorm, fingers numb, we stumbled and slipped down, sat by a fire having a hot chocolate, drove home in bliss in a warm car, listening to the Waterboys, conversation.

4) Late night at “the mad-hatters tea party”. The moon is purple, smiling, a figure dancing in circles under the moonlight. Is it one or two figures? The world glows with beauty.

5) Making love under a skylight, beauty, my body liquid, soft.

6) On a mountain, a sandy overhang, 3 close friends, candles, sharing stories, connection.

7) In a forest alone, near Knysna, night falls, fireflies come out, it becomes a magical fairy forest

8) Dancing in a village in Madagascar, a new years party, a head taller than everyone, the music strange. The ecstasy of surprise, music and connection, after arriving on New Years Eve, no plans, after the dullness of Christmas alone in a forest eating a litchi for dinner.

9) Floating on my back in Silvermine dam, ears underwater, silence, the mountains a bowl around me.

10) Arriving at Rustlers Valley after an exhausting 3-day/2-night hitch. Collapse on the welcoming grass. Feel a deep sense of being home.

11) Dancing at Rustlers Valley, no sense of anyone else. Feeling unwanted in my tent, I go to the dancefloor in the early hours, ecstatic frenzy.

What’s noticeable about the list is that all eleven are moments felt in the body, mostly outdoors. There have been highs thinking, writing, doing something mental, but none of them have the same intensity as those moments felt in the body. Of the eleven, about half I was alone in some sense, and the other half were shared with others.

And the other thing noticeable is that none of them are particularly recent. Most are from the 90’s, early 2000s. Only one, perhaps two, are from this decade. Time to change that!

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Image from Wikimedia Commons

Wood (Spiritual)

Preferred Mind States


I was meditating tonight, and going into the meditation was in a fantastic mood. I’m starting something new, which always excites me (it’s the persisting that’s the downer), and had been listening to Eddie Vedder’s Acoustic Songs.

A common trap in meditation is to judge a session as “good” or “bad”, and usually it’s “good” if we’re not having many unpleasant thoughts, or many thoughts at all. We can easily take an effect of meditation, less unconscious engaging with thoughts, and make a goal of reducing thoughts. All this ends up doing is suppressing thoughts, leading to a kind of dullness.

I was having a “good” session because I felt great, not because there weren’t many thoughts. I wasn’t really doing much meditation – my mind was engaged and hurtling forwards to all the future possibilities, as it usually does.

At the recent retreat I was on, we spent some time on preferred mind states. It’s a paradox in that everyone meditates in order to feel better, become better, yet this grasping after a particular state is one of the blockages. We reject our current state, and wish for some improved future state. Materialists fall into the trap of saying something like “When I buy my new car I’ll be happy”, meditators say “when I progress more in my meditation I’ll be happy”.

I was feeling really sick on one of the days on the retreat. The kind of day which I’d normally spend groaning in bed feeling sorry for myself. Instead, I meditated. It wasn’t fun, but it was interesting, because I was meditating in the kind of state I normally wouldn’t be. It helped me see a mindstate I usually take into meditation.

It’s so easy to look for preferred mind states in meditation, as a result of meditation, and before we start meditating. We may not even start to meditate if we don’t feel “in the right space”.

Instead, try some radical acceptance. However you’re feeling, whatever’s coming up.

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Image from Wikimedia Commons

Water (Personal) Wood (Spiritual)

Projection on projection

I’m doing a five-year insight meditation course, and the most recent topic for our meditation was projection.

Projection is, essentially, the act of attributing the traits that we deny in ourselves onto others. These can be negative, such as thinking someone else is aggressive, unfriendly, disorganised, or positive, such as thinking that someone else is confident, kind, loving, etc.

Projection is extremely common. We all do it all the time. Whenever there is blame, there is invariably projection occurring. Observing this as it happens takes away its power, and is one of the most liberating insights for people to experience. It’s hard to remain angry with someone else for being aggressive, for example, when you see the aggression coming from yourself!

For a while now, I’ve been doing a shadow exercise which fits nicely with projection and I’ve found very useful.

Do this exercise regularly, picking the person you’re most unhappy with, or do it whenever you find yourself really upset with someone else.

  • First, imagine yourself telling a friend about what the person has done. Experience the feelings as fully as you can, describing them all in as much detail as you can.
  • Next, imagine yourself talking to the person. They’re sitting in the chair while you describe what they are doing to you and how it has made you feel. Let them respond, so that the conversation flows both ways.
  • Finally, describe the situation from the perspective of the other person. Become the person. How do you feel about what has happened, why are you acting and responding in the way you are? End it by affirming that you are this person.

In my own experience over time, I’ve found that the first part of the exercise becomes shorter and shorter, and that I go quickly to the second and third parts of the exercise. In everyday life, it becomes more difficult to talk or think badly about anyone else.

At the moment I’m finding that the situation I react most to is when I see others projecting onto a third person. So their projection allows me the space to project all sorts of unhelpful things onto the situation – my superiority at seeing what’s happening, and so on.

Projection can also happen at a larger scale. Groups, nations and beyond can also be blind to their own attributes. A quick glance at any of the news websites and the comments sections will tell you we have lots of shadow work to do!

Hearing others talk of their own experiences of projection has been really interesting. Many of them dealt with relationships, a wonderful mirror to see these things. An interesting one shared by a number of males revolved around a female partner having had greater sexual experience, having done wilder things, how this bothered them, indicating projection, and the feeling at the root of this, for example shame.

This kind of practise is easily misunderstood to mean passivity, doing nothing but blaming oneself. It’s not at all the same.

If a boulder is hurtling towards you, don’t stand there wondering how you caused the problem. Get out of the way! If someone in your life attacks you with a knife, get out of the way!

But there’s a different quality when projection onto a person is involved.

Next time you’re unhappy with someone, try the exercise above – you may be surprised what you find.

Water (Personal) Wood (Spiritual)

Sam Harris on Free Will

Sam Harris recently released a book on the topic of free will.

I haven’t read the book yet, but watched a presentation he gave of ideas from his book.

Traditionally there are three positions offered. Determinism, which essentially states that we could not have made any alternative choices, as our choices are determined by pre-existing conditions, and that therefore free will is an illusion. The second is compatibilism, which states that free will is compatible with determinism by defining free will not as the freedom to have acted differently, but as being able to act voluntarily. Finally, libertarianism, which claims that we do have free will.

I remember writing an essay at university arguing in favour of libertarianism, and I hauled it out from the moth-eaten piles of paper to reread it again, as I remember being quite proud of it.

Seventeen years later it’s very easy to pick holes in, but essentially I used quantum physics as a basis to argue for free will, much like the video below:

Even at the time I wasn’t satisfied with the argument, as indeterminate quantum events are a far cry from free will, but I saw none of the three positions are coherent, and most of my essay was spent arguing against determinism on the basis of its consequences, and against compatibilism on the basis of its weak definition of free will and arbitrary distinction between causes.

Sam Harris’s video below presents the best summary of the topic I’ve seen so far, essentially arguing against any coherent notion of free will.

I enjoy his video particularly because be undermines the argument I used in my essay against determinism, that of its unacceptable consequences, by making the important distinction between choice and free will, and by highlighting how removing free will from our concept of reality actually increases the love and compassion we show for others.

If we encounter a poisonous scorpion, we don’t assign free will and therefore blame the scorpion for wanting to sting us, but we will also take actions to avoid being stung. By not blaming the scorpion, we are also open to seeing things from the scorpion’s perspective, the basis of compassion.

Similarly, if a human wants to kill us, blame is neither helpful nor rational, and understanding this opens us to understanding, love and compassion. Harris uses the example of realising that a murderer had a brain tumour causing them to act that way. If we understood that, and knew that removing the tumour would take away the impulse to murder, we cannot reasonably blame the person, and our action would shift towards treating them, and we would likely feel compassion for the terrible circumstances of the tumour. Just because we don’t understand the causes of most actions shouldn’t change this understanding.

When asked a question about what sparked his interest in the topic, Harris responds by crediting personal observation, and earlier in the presentation discusses the nature of arising thoughts, and the lack of freedom this entails. Harris is the most interesting of the group of well-known atheists (he dislikes the label), as while some seem closed to any kind of spiritual experience, Harris has studied meditation and seems to have a greater openness and interest in the mysteries beyond our comprehension, all without the need to believe various incoherent explanations in response.

His comment about personal observation and his anecdote about arising thoughts matches what can happen in awareness meditation. At first, we may become aware of our thoughts and the train of thoughts we follow; later we can become aware of our thoughts as they arise, and then slowly get to understand even deeper into this process.

Harris points out that its these thoughts that are often claimed to be the basis of free will, but that a greater look at this process leads us to realise that these thoughts that arise are not free in any real sense.

Watch Harris’s full presentation here:

Water (Personal) Wood (Spiritual)

Lucid Dreaming Chi Kung

I haven’t been lucid dreaming for a while now, at least a few months. In the past, I’ve found that I could become lucid quite regularly if I followed a routine of going to sleep relatively early (before 11pm), then waking up around 4am, then again at 5.30am and finally 7am.

This routine worked very well for me, and I could become lucid quite often while following it.

However, for all sorts of interesting reasons, I almost never follow that routine, and almost never go to bed before at least 2am.

This past week has been a good example. After a staff member family tragedy, I ended up I on the night shift packing boxes at work. I got to bed about 8am. My Coursera course routine has been to do nothing until the just before the deadline day (about 5.30am Monday morning). As the course has progressed, the readings have taken me longer, so I’ve worked right until the deadline the past few Sundays.

And then, there’s the odd stay up till seven just because I’m in the zone, full of energy and getting lots done.

Going to bed before 11 is like most people considering going to bed at 5pm – rather unlikely to happen.

Usually, after seeing too many sunrises in a row, I tend to crash, and have an early night, before slowly drifting later and later again. But now, for the first time since the mindfulness of dream and sleep retreat about 18 months ago, I’ve made three days in a row of going to sleep early, around midnight or before, and getting lots of sleep. The first two days I had extremely vivid, almost but not-quite lucid dreams. And today, the third day, I became lucid again.

The main inspiration for my lucidity has been my son. He began by telling me about his lucid dreams, which was my first realisation that such a thing existed. Quite often, he’s been the trigger in my dreams as well. Playing with him, chasing him down corridors, his form changing around every turn. Or simply when he’s been staying with me. So it’s fitting that yesterday was his birthday, and after a fun but exhausting day with him, I had another early night.

In the dream, I was at my parents house (another common dream motif). I tried to switch on a light, and it didn’t work. As a force of habit, I did a reality check, the easiest being a hand check. I obviously didn’t do a very good hand check because I didn’t realise I was dreaming, but I decided to leap into the air and start flying anyway, and to my complete shock I took off.

So it seems I have a new, more reliable, reality check – flying. Expect to see me hopping down the street from now on, trying to take off.

In almost all of my previous lucid dreams, I have known I was dreaming without doing a reality check. Either something strange has happened, or I’ve simply got the sense that it was a dream. Only once before have I done a reality check and been stunned to realise I was dreaming. Now I realise that perhaps my hand checks haven’t been working, although I don’t recall any failed hand checks after working up. My hand changes have always been subtle, a wrinkle hear, a marking there, rather than the dramatic missing finger or branch growing out some people report.

In this lucid dream I finally managed to do so tai chi and chi kung. After the inevitable blissful soaring through the sky, ended by breaking through a thin cloud, a wish I realise I had while driving in the day, I decided to meditate. Before really getting started, I decide to do tai chi instead.

This has never worked before. Either I haven’t found a spot in my dream where I could do tai chi – my first attempt saw me going on a mission to find a field across a strange city, each field being either covered in rocks or steeply sloped, and when I finally found a suitable field, waking up immediately.

I have only managed once to even attempt tai chi, but it was hopeless, with me staggering and falling about, utterly unbalanced.

Once again, my mind put obstacles in my way. There is a field near my parents house, and I ran there. My “usual spot” on the field was taken by a parked car. I have no usual spot, I’ve never done tai chi on that field. There was dog shit on the field, broken glass. But finally I found a spot, and could so start practising. I started with an eight section brocade, and as I bent my knees and lowered my body, I found myself in water, with only my mouth and hands above water. Somehow this wasn’t much of an obstacle, and I managed to carry on. When I got to the exercise of rotating the waist as far left and right as possible, I found I could keep going indefinitely, and I seemed to stop only to keep the exercise realistic, as I thought that turning around five times is not how the exercise is supposed to be done.

There were more obstacles, a child playing and falling into the water next to me, but I managed a reasonable session before waking up.

I’ve just tried the routine now, and realised that I’d mixed up two routines, the eight section brocade and the seven stars of dipper.

Sadly, I can’t twist around indefinitely either.

Wood (Spiritual)

Lucid Dreaming – Chalie Morley TEDx

A year ago I did a retreat entitled The Mindfulness of Dream and Sleep with Rob Nairn and Charlie Morley. It was a wonderful retreat, and much of it focused on lucid dreaming. I’ve had a half-written blog post on the go since then, but instead of waiting for me to finish it, here’s the much more inspiring Charlie and his presentation from TEDx San Diego.

Fire (Social) Water (Personal) Wood (Spiritual)

Orgasmic Meditation

This week Nicole Daedone gave a talk at TEDx San Francisco on orgasmic meditation (embedded below). Orgasmic Meditation existed on the fringes of San Francisco society until 2009, when an article in the New York Times shone the spotlight on her retreat centre.

It received further widespread attention through Tim Ferris’s book, The 4-Hour Body. Tim Ferris, formerly (but probably no longer) best-known for The 4-Hour Work Week, published his most recent book this year. Featuring sections on weight loss, adding muscle, perfecting sleep and reversing injuries, I suspect the most-widely read chapter is the one entitled Improving Sex, which begins with a description of the 15-minute female orgasm as taught by Nicole Daedone at her OneTaste retreat centres.

Orgasm is a word that comes with so much negative baggage, but Nicole describes it simply as rooting the fundamental capacity for connection. Her first experience of the particular practice began as do most sexual experiences – in her head. How did she look, was her stomach was too fat, was she doing it right?

Until, all of sudden, as she describes it, the traffic jam that was my mind broke open and she moved from thought to feeling. Meditation through orgasm, where instead of using breath or sound as a meditative focus, she’d used sensation, and had broken through.

I enjoyed her talk – I’d only read Tim Ferris’s account, very much from (and for) a male perspective, as have been all the related readings on Taoist sexuality I’ve come across, so it was interesting to hear her perspective.

I’ve tried the practice once without much happening besides a sore wrist for me and bored indifference from the partner.

Like all meditation, the danger of talking about experience is that it creates expectation when the process itself is goalless. With expectation, each time we meditate, if instead of experiencing the blissful ecstasy of a world beyond thought, we experience nothing more than a stiff back, we’ll view it as a failure when it’s anything but that.

Tim was lucky enough to hone his technique with some personal clitoral training at the OneTaste retreat centre. I’ll just have to make do with more practice.

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Water (Personal) Wood (Spiritual)

On Gratitude

I wrote a post for the Ethical Co-op newsletter briefly mentioning gratitude. Since it’s short, I’ll quote it here in full:

Gratitude is a key to happiness. When we are more grateful, we are happier. Gratitude is also much like love. It’s easy to apply conditionally – to be grateful for wonderful food, or wonderful people and experiences. It’s not so easy to apply unconditionally. How can we be grateful when people and experiences don’t seem so wonderful?

The key seems to be practising gratitude directed at these very things that don’t seem so wonderful. So that soon, gratitude is not just being grateful for something pleasant, but a permanent experience. Instead of “I am grateful for”, it becomes just “I am grateful”.

It got some positive responses, in particular from one person who’d just before receiving the mail destroyed her laptop, but also got an interesting response from someone disagreeing and got me considering the issue further.

Her response, in full:

Dear Ian

I enjoy reading your weekly thoughts each week; this week’s however made me pause.

Like you I believe that appreciation/gratitude is key to living a self-aware, meaningful, curious and joyful life, but I do not think it can be applied wholesale to every aspect of life. Chronic and terminal illness, poverty, acts of violence, in our lives and the lives of others, are not things for which I feel feel grateful, thankful or appreciative. I think gratitude is the wrong word in these contexts, and smacks of what are for me empty religious platitudes regarding fate and god’s greater purpose.

Bad things are a part of life and the human experience, but nonetheless do not need to be embraced, and common sense suggests they be avoided and minimized for the sake of happiness wherever possible, which I think goes against the act of gratitude.

Perhaps a wiser choice of words might be serenity or peace. I like the humanist version of the serenity prayer:

I seek
Serenity to accept the things I cannot change
Courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference.

Warm wishes

I think my phrase practising gratitude directed at these very things that don’t seem so wonderful wasn’t well put. In particular, the word things. I am also not talking about fate, or a greater purpose. I am not saying that we should be grateful for poverty, or be grateful that someone is murdered. Let me clarify.

The serenity prayer is wonderful, and I think of it often when considering actions. But it deals with the external world, where we are limited. Some things we can change, and some things we can’t.

When it comes to the internal world, we can change our perspective on anything.

I was lucky enough to attend a retreat with Rob Nairn recently. Rob is a widely-regarded meditation teacher, and his definition of mindfulness came to mind.

He describes mindfulness as being aware of what’s happening, as it happens, without prejudice. The first two parts should be clear, but the third is important, as prejudice is what we apply all the time, internally.

When a thought arises, we may like the thought, dislike it, or be indifferent to it, but all are prejudices and take us away from being present with the thought that arises.

Similarly, with outside experience. Something happens in the world. We apply the same prejudices internally. We receive a promotion. We like it. We are mugged. We dislike it.

But let’s take a step back. Before we like or dislike, there’s simply the experience. What is happening is happening. As it happens, our like or dislike is of no consequence – the experience is happening. We may change what we can, or accept what we can’t, but still, the experience happens.

No matter how unpleasant the experience, it still seems to me that the best approach is to be grateful. We can use every experience in a positive way. If I’m attacked, I can be grateful that I am alive, be grateful for the reminder of how precious life is, and be grateful for the way it invigorates my actions and relations with other people, realising that each moment together may be our last.

And what if it happens to someone else? What if a friend is murdered? Is it really possible to feel gratitude?

Gratitude is not positive thinking, or trying not to think negative thoughts, which only results in the opposite. All the grief and anger which arise should be experienced, not suppressed.

But gratitude is helpful attitude. We are not grateful for them being murdered, we are grateful of the time we spent together, of the experiences we shared, of what they’ve shown us through their own unique lense.

Gratitude is an internal attitude. How wonderful it is to exist! External circumstances are of no consequence – we are not grateful only if something goes according to our preconceived ideas of how it should, and only then.

We are, simply, grateful!

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Fire (Social) Wood (Spiritual)

The Ethical Bank

South African banking is dominated by the big four, Absa, First National Bank, Nedbank and Standard Bank, with little Capitec trailing in very distant fifth place. If you’re looking at opening a savings account, Capitec are the only one where the account has even a chance of living up to the name, with the others eating into your “savings” with huge monthly fees.

Generally, recommending a bank goes along the lines of “they’re less bad than the others”, and if asked to associate a word with “bank”, for most people it’d probably be a negative word such as “slimy”, or “greedy”.

Certainly not “ethical”.

There’s a difference between being ethical, and simply running a few worthy projects. Much like gangsters who sell tik and carry out hits on neighbouring gangs wouldn’t be considered ethical by most, in spite of frequently providing much-needed social services to their community, supporting an arts festival while funding a coal power station, or supporting a wetland rehabilitation project while funding an arms company would disqualify a bank by most measurements.

Banks that claim to be ethical do exist internationally. In essence, this means they consider the social and environmental impacts of their investments and loans, and apply various criteria. The Co-operative Bank in the UK refuses to invest in companies involved in the arms trade, climate change, genetic engineering, animal testing or sweatshop labour. GLS Gemeinschaftsbank in Germany focuses on cultural, social and ecological projects, lending to organic farms, health food stores, kindergartens, nursing homes and the like, and is completely transparent about all its investments.

Nothing similar yet exists in South Africa.

However, there is a move underfoot change this, and form an ethical bank. It began in July 2010 from a group involved in the Stellenbosch Waldorf School community, and a board was elected with the eventual intention of developing an ethical co-operative bank.

It’s not a quick process. The first stage is to register as a stokvel, recently formalised as a savings vehicle. To achieve this, they are looking for 30 to 50 paid-up members and a total of R20 000 savings.

After this, the goal is to become a Financial Services Co-operative, and finally a Co-operative bank.

It’s an exciting project, and one I hope succeeds – if you’re interested in becoming involved at this early stage, send a mail to Craig Tilsley at

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