All posts by Andrea Gibbons

Permaculture in Urban Farming: An LA Experiment

Once upon a time I was lucky enough to move into a house with a small and completely overgrown garden. So my then-partner and I decided we would reclaim it and try to grow as much of our own food as possible. Just to learn what that would take.

chickens

We grew some delicious vegetables — and if you know me that will make you laugh — but I deeply enjoyed them after they were cooked. We also had loquats and kumquats and pomegranates. We had fresh eggs from the chickens we also raised up there in the Forgotten Edge, perched between Echo Park and Chinatown. But what we managed to grow? I’m afraid it was nowhere near enough to sustain us and this is partly why (apart from size, as of course that does matter).

Grocery stores have brutally erased the agricultural seasons for us, so you have to relearn a lot (which also means your diet and your cooking repertoire have to completely change). You can’t plant seeds all at once, rather you have to do it in waves, so as to have a continuous harvest. Preparation of the ground is key: digging deep, breaking up clay (of which we had tons and it sucked but it sure as hell was better than caliche), adding what you can to improve its lightness along with your organic fertilizer which should come as much as possible from your own compost pile.

We aimed for all organic but it was rough, and involved things like wiping down each individual plant to get rid of aphids and other pests. We bought ladybugs, but did not have a garden they seemed to enjoy sticking around in. That required more thought and work and planting. We had to water; to do it efficiently required putting in a drip system or a way to collect rainwater, and treat and reuse gray water, which we investigated but never managed to do. We didn’t have money even for the drip system all at once, so watering regularly was one more thing (though adding mulch reduced that burden). We had to fertilize regularly. We had to tie up our tomatoes and our cucumbers, and insulate our squash from the ground. We had to rotate crops as we constantly planted new ones. Planting certain combinations — like the famous triad of squash, corn, and beans — helps ensure each variety grows better than they would alone and puts them at less risk of pest infestation, so we planned that into our rotations. And every day we had to be out there weeding, watering, tending, planting. Every. Day.

All of it required planning and thought and work and more planning. It was joy and pain all mixed together, even if we didn’t do it all that well and I discovered I’m lazier than I thought. I remember reading something in the middle of this that referred to subsistence farmers as unskilled labour, and I almost threw the book across the room. The ability to survive on what you grow on the land is knowledge passed down from generation to generation. To try and relearn it all through books that are never specific to the land you are working? I just wonder when we will awaken to the tragedy of what we have already lost, and what we continue to lose.

I started reading  Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual by Bill Mollison during this grand attempt, the only textbook I’ve ever loved. I’ll acknowledge that for the present I’m far too busy, and very happily so, to reattempt such a labour intensive project for now. But permaculture as a way of being in the world has stuck with me. In it’s most concrete sense it is an approach to planning and implementing sustainability, creating systems that provide for their own needs and recycle their waste. It has very practical rules to live by. In a quote from Bill Mollison:

“Permaculture turned very rapidly into a system of design so that everything you put in had a multiple purpose and was in the right place to carry out its job. It’s a peculiar thing to say that you put the tree there to give shade; every tree gives shade; so that’s not a unique characteristic of this tree you put there, to give shade, but if it also gives you something like oranges or dates as well, that’s good, and also has an excess of oranges to feed your pig . . . then it’s doing three things. And I always say that everything you place should do at least three things.”

But more philosophically, it is entirely about getting to know your place: finding out where the sunlight spends most of its time in summer and winter, where the cold air collects, where the soil changes and moisture collects. It’s about acknowledging all of your assets, seeing how you — and everything around you — fit together, work together, improve or help each other. You can only live this way by constantly working to see the world around you holistically, deepening how you understand it. You no longer see just a chicken, but what a chicken eats, how it lives, what it produces as the picture above shows. This requires deep reflection on experience, in preparation for acting, building, creating, before reflecting again in a perfect popular education spiral.

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Clearly I haven’t even scratched the permaculture surface here; I’ve just read a book or two and talked to some people and tried to implement some principles, so find out for yourself and explore! I’m particularly excited about urban permaculture, so read more here. I’ll leave you with an awesome design I look forward to one day building, as I’ve already mentioned spirals once and I surely love them:

 

herb spiral
It reminds me of this from my own hometown:

and the house I grew up, built of adobe by my parents and called at different times ‘mud house’ and ‘nautilus house’. This stuff runs deep.

 

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Resistance Behind Bars: Robert King

How do you organise around ideals and fight back in a system designed to control and repress any and all dissent? It is an important question for all of us, but how much more so for those actually trapped behind prison walls?

On the 9th at Birkbeck we held a small workshop with Robert King of the Angola 3 and Denise McNeil of the Yarl’s Wood 3, sponsored by the law college and holding maybe 30 people or so. We took the opportunity to do it, with the help of the marvelous Sarah Lamble and Isabelle Fremeaux of Birkbeck, given Robert King is back in London!


It’s always such a pleasure to have him here, though I confess I have been dead sick this go round. But the antibiotics have kicked in and I am finally getting round to the blog!

The goal was to get into an in depth discussion of the parallels between two countries increasingly turning to prisons to control their populations. The stats on the US are familiar enough, two and half million in prison, over 8 million within the system through probation, 1 in 9 black males under 25 in jail. The UK seems to stretching itself to join it: prison populations have hit record highs, and as a proportion of the population, blacks are incarcerated at an even higher rate. Only this month, Met officers were asked to explain why blacks were the victims of tasering at such a higher rate (50% of recorded taserings, though about 2% of the population).

Denise was getting her son ready for school when the police and immigration burst into the block of flats looking for the man living upstairs. They searched her flat looking for him, and arrested her violently in front of her son for the small amount of cannabis in her bag. Violence has been at the forefront of her encounters with the system. She served her six months, and was then immediately transferred to another prison to await deportation. She was there a year and a half, and only just recently released on bail after long struggle in the courts. Two other women, Sheree Wilson and Aminata Camara, remain in prison.

Her stay in immigration prison was both indefinite and abusive, and she joined other women in a five week hunger strike. She was there when the guards locked the striking women into a corridor for hours with no toilet facilities, food or water. She was beaten by guards and placed into solitary confinement for four weeks. You can read Denise’s statement on the hunger strike as given to the Guardian two weeks into it here.

In Yarl’s Wood the women worked to overcome barriers of language and race to come together and strike to improve their conditions; those perceived as the leaders were thrown into solitary. Angola the same, with the duration of solitary being the primary difference. As King said, however, solitary always changes you, traumatizes you, no matter how long or short a time you stay there. He has known men to be broken in only a day, it is in itself an inhuman thing to do to another human being and should be abolished.

So how did they organize? Talking to each other, the way you do on the outside. In some UK prisons you are allowed mobiles, which clearly facilitates things a great deal. But you can always pass messages. King remembers from solitary, men who were so skilled they could bank rolled up balls of newspaper off of a wall and into any cell they chose. You bribe orderlies and guards with cigarettes. You use fraying threads from your shirt to create strings to pass or collect notes. The ingenuity of human beings is incredible, and where there is a will to organise and improve conditions, there seems to be a way to do it.

This is just a very small taste of Wednesday’s inspiration of course, I’d definitely encourage you to listen to the podcast here, and please do look at the campaign pages for the Angola 3 and the Yarl’s Wood 3 to see what you can do.

There have been a whole round other events for King of course. We started it all off on Monday 7th March at UCL, screening In the Land of the Free to over 300 people in the Cruciform Theatre, followed by a discussion with King and director Vadim Jean. We also heard poignant statements from the other two of the Angola 3, Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace, sent to us from their cells where they continue to be held unjustly:

Similar events were held at Birkbeck, Centerprise, the George Padmore Institute, the Karibu Centre and Rio Cinema in Hackney. A great tour all round, and still a few more private events to go…

So if you missed the events, buy a book or dvd, I promise you will not regret it, and your money will go to Robert or the Angola 3 campaign. No better cause I could think of.

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Camden Council Refuses Entrance to Public

Just got back from Camden town hall, I went with the LSE contingent because it’s our University’s borough, but showing a little solidarity from Lambeth SOS as well! I have no nice words for our Labour council at all, but Camden’s Labour council had upwards of 30 policemen waiting for their constituency. They closed down the main entrance, and police lined the concrete ramp leading to the small door labeled staff entrance.

It seemed absurd when we arrived, a line of pensioners and people in wheelchairs behind a line of metal barricades across the street from the Town Hall. They had tea and biscuits, and one carried my favourite sign: ‘Age Against the Machine’ was once again in play! We yelled ‘Save Great Croft’, one of the two day centres up for the axe. In the words of Mrs Ruse, of Cromer Street, King’s Cross (taken from a Camden Gazette article): “If they closed this centre, they would be sending us all home to die. There would be nowhere else for us to go.”

They are planning to close the centre. They were voting tonight. We chanted with the small crowd, I can’t tell you how awful it was to stand next to elders in wheelchairs across the road from the hall while the police stared at us. But that’s when the main contingent showed up from Camden United Against the Cuts. They had a bus! And several hundred people and we took over the road and got rid of the barriers.

There were attempts to break through the police line, chants of ‘Whose town hall? Our town hall.’ But there were too many of them and the doorway far too defensible.

So we took Euston Road, and held it. At no point before then did I see them allow anyone from the public into the building, and I heard that not even all of the official delegations got in. At least not until we had held the road for forty minutes or more. Maybe more, it felt like more, it was ridiculously cold and damp and my feet and hands have still not recovered. Word was that the meeting had been adjourned, postponed, dragged out, who knows. But they finally did let a handful of people in, a ploy to get us off Euston Road? Text from inside said that the balconies were empty.

And then they stopped letting people in. I laughed at, and others argued with, the police. Not much else to do given their numbers and their funny array of hats. And then I was just too cold, and so I came home, though I was feeling as though I could leap a double line of policemen in a single bound if only to be warm again. But I figured that might be slightly delusional. When I left we were still holding the road.

For some amazing pictures and another take, check out this great blog from HarpyMax, and then there are some more great pictures from demotix, especially if you like pictures of policemen.

No ifs, no buts, no public sector cuts. I’m looking forward to fighting with you all until we win. Or I get so cold I can no longer move my fingers.

Occupying Lambeth Town Hall

Occupying Lambeth Town Hall to hold a People’s Assembly is what we did on the 23rd, and extraordinary it was too! The crowd outside was so impressive, and the noise was like nothing, absolutely nothing I have ever heard before, as the cars, trucks and buses passing all slowed down, cheering and honking to show their support.

It was tricky even getting in. And so we got fed up and took democracy into our own hands. This is what it felt like as we forced our way up the stairs and into the main council chamber after they refused to even let us into the overflow room to hear our people testifying to the council:

I’m usually the one with the camera, so it is magic to have someone else catch my face (and Ali’s!) at such a moment of happiness (photo by Guy Smallman, he’s got some great pics!). I found my face featuring heavily in the Socialist Worker article, which was ironic, but I loved that so many groups were able to come together to pull off such an incredible night.

I’m late writing this up due to exhaustion and another day of protest yesterday, and you can read the full coverage from the Guardian here. We heard this article some time after midnight, sitting in the Brixton Bar and Grill and clustered around Andy as he read it off of his phone. The victory was particularly sweet as a section of Lambeth’s Labour Council was also in the Brixton Bar and Grill, we spotted them in their suits as soon as we entered the door. Celebrating one would guess. Some words were exchanged, some hilarious dancing, but no blows. I twittered that their hangover was going to be far worse than mine, and doubtless I was right. Especially since it’s a cocktail of liquor, guilt and responsibility for carrying out this unprecedented attack on the welfare state.

Not us of course, we were celebrating a victory in the good fight, and the Guardian article was just icing. What got the most cheers upon reading was this: “Demonstrators ranging from trade unionists to pensioners occupied the chamber for more than an hour, taking their seats in what they called a ‘People’s Assembly'” because Lambeth SOS is both big and diverse and it’s a shame that the council tries to brand us otherwise. My favourite though, was “Alex Bigham, a Labour councillor, said that the meeting had been moved to an assembly room after it was disrupted by ‘quite organised protesters'”. Damn straight we are ‘quite organised’. The cuts affect up to a thousand jobs, not just people’s quality of life, but their ability to live itself. This budget will devastate both workers and those who need and deserve the services that they provide.

So a brief rundown on the assembly! Ruth presided over the voting as Mayor of Lambeth, as we voted down a budget that will destroy everything we have fought to build since World War II.

We had a number of great speakers, I can’t do them justice, and am still a bit too tired to try! But these were my favourites, demanding we save adventure playgrounds (pic also by Guy Smallman):

The People’s Assembly support them unequivocally. As we did libraries, park rangers, teachers, school crossing patrols, nurses and the NHS, the RMT (who were brilliant by the way, though we could have used their heft getting up the stairs!), students who joined us from the UCL occupation, and everyone else who makes Lambeth a great place to live.  This is just one more step forward, for more info on what’s coming up or how to support, go to http://lambethsaveourservices.org/.

For more written on the events, look at the Urban75 blog, London Indymedia, and the Coalition of Resistance webpage.

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Big Society Bail-in at Brixton’s Barclays

UK Uncut came out in force against the cuts in Brixton this morning, cold and rainy as it was, as part of the Big Society Bail-In. The demand? Books Not Bonuses.

So a quick note on why protest Barclays Banks, and just what this is all about:

  • £11.6 billion: the amount of profit Barclay’s made in 2009. They paid tax on only 1% (The Guardian)
  • £6.1 billion: the profit Barclay’s declared in 2010, along with a 23% rise in the average pay of its investment banking arm, Barclays Capital (The Guardian)
  • £9 million: the bonus paid to Chief Exec of Barclays, Bob Diamond, this week — more than 400 nurses earn in a year. (UKuncut)
  • over £100 billion: the Bank of England estimate of the subsidies and guarantees to the banking sector in 2009, which Barclays has benefited from. (The Guardian)

How can it possibly be such an uphill battle to save thousands of jobs, frontline services, and a tradition of taking care of each other, when making Barclays (and all the rest) pay their tax could pay for it all?

So we’ll see you on Wednesday, February 23rd, 6pm at Brixton Town Hall to protest as Lambeth Council votes on a budget that will cut almost every council service, anything up to 1000 council workers, and 25% of all staff.

For more info go to the Lambeth Save Our Services Website

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Budget Cuts in Lambeth

Several hundred people gathered in front of Brixton town hall on February 7th to protest against the budget cuts.

What are they cutting?

Almost every council service, anything up to 1000 council workers, 25% of all staff, this includes:

  • The entire park ranger service
  • The entire school crossing patrol service which serves 24 schools
  • More cuts in Children’s Services
  • Libraries budget slashed – staff cut, Nettlefold hall closed, four of nine libraries under cuts consultation
  • Discretionary freedom passes for adults with mental health problems
  • Regeneration schemes on housing estates
  • Cuts and privatisation in adult social care
  • Lambeth and Lewisham Colleges to merge – massive cuts to local education
  • Reduction in highway maintenance levels and potholes
  • Rent rises whilst there are less staff to keep estates safe, clean and in decent state of repair
  • Maintenance of the borough’s parks, cemeteries and crematoria is to be scaled back.
  • Street cleaning levels reduced
  • Many cultural events scrapped
  • Three out of four Public toilets to close
  • Noise nuisance service
  • Reduction in the Faith Engagement Programme, which helps to support events such as Holocaust Memorial Day and Peace on the Streets and other community events and projects.
  • And much more. For more info see the council website (400+ pages!)

There were only 90 tickets to get into city hall last night, thus limiting democracy to 90 people only. Police hovered along our entry, as we waited in line to get into Room 8:

And that’s the last illustration I’m afraid, as I was told politely that no filming or pictures were allowed inside.

Steve Reed kicked it all off by telling us all that the evening was NOT a forum, but instead a cabinet meeting, which is held in public. They had allocated an hour of comments for all the issues up for discussion, and each speaker was requested to limit their comments to 3 minutes each. Like the cuts, the more time the council gave you, the more time they took from someone else, forgetting that the time limit, like the budget, is completely arbitrary. They tried to keep it business as usual, but that’s not quite what happened; these aren’t the times for business as usual.

First we sat and listened to the councillors report back on how the cuts would affect their various areas. They thought the national government was wrong to impose these cuts, they claimed the cuts were heavier in inner city areas, and it was particularly egregious that they should be frontloaded as they were.

They emphasized that there would be even more cuts, and a lot more pain, in the years to come.

They used words such ‘unprecedented in our lifetime’, they said the national government had declared war on the welfare state. They were being forced to cut a quarter of the workforce, up to 1,000 posts. All services were being slashed, and all this in a context where things were getting steadily worse for working people in Britain.

While they emphasized they were not happy to be presenting this budget, they presented it all the same. They emphasized that given the cutting of all services, they new that people’s primary worry would be crime, so they were increasing the number of police on the street. Fewer services, more police? It appears they’ve forgotten Brixton’s history with the police, if they ever knew it.

And then it was our turn to speak, starting with the kids from the threatened adventure playgrounds and One O’Clock Clubs. “We can’t just hang around on the streets, because the streets are very dangerous,” challenged one. “Explain to us where we can go and we will go there.” requested another. The audience cheered.

They were followed by a long line of people with one consistent message (and apologies for not capturing all the details, as they are important I know!), these cuts are wrong, they are ideologically motivated, and it is your duty as our elected officials to stand up to them. Someone emphasised they should not be selling our community’s assets, but building desperately needed housing on them. Another that bankers’ bonuses and tax evasion and avoidance should be cut, not services. The council was requested to choose a side, and Jon Rogers of Lambeth Unison compared them to the Vichy government. In fact, there was a lot of historical memory in the room, given that after World War II, with a debt immensely higher than it is today, we built the NHS and the welfare state.

Everyone acknowledged the pain, despair, and anger that these cuts would bring. That once you have lost something it is almost impossible to get it back. That these cuts will impact the minority communities above all, the most vulnerable, the women and children and elderly and disabled.

The final speaker was Kingsley Abrams, labor councillor for Vassall, who had spoken out and voted against the budget. He urged his colleagues to do the same. Steve Reed then proceeded to call him a disgrace. We demanded that he apologise. The room began chanting ‘apologise, apologise!’

And that’s when the police come in. We watched one come in from one side, and another came in behind us. Two more followed him. The chanting turned to shame, we demanded that nothing further be done until the police left the room. When we asked the policeman beside us who had invited him in, he pointed at the staff person, but that was quickly denied. The police left, they apologised to us for entering, and then the staff apologised as well.

When we saw that the council were not going to seriously consider our request we left. In another little chat with the police on our way out, Inspector Dornan mentioned our ‘infantile leftist posturing’.

There was indeed a lot of posturing, but not by the members of the community. We’re just getting started in this struggle for our communties, our homes, and our lives, and looking forward to the full council meeting on February 23rd.

For more info go to the Lambeth Save Our Services Website

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I’m going to hurt you if you don’t go

I just looked up how to say I’m hungry in Italian, and the internet offered a series of related phrases:

It really made my evening, but what makes my evening even better is the little place with the mama italiana in the kitchen who cooks up bowl after different bowl of homemade pasta, and you can eat as much as you like with the purchase of a single bottle of wine. Happiness itself. And you think it can’t get any better and then all the staff and customers start dancing…

Afghanistan…

Bush declared Operation Enduring Freedom in October of 2001, but too often reading the news you could have forgotten entirely that we were still at war. Yet it went on, day by brutal day, the list of Western soldiers killed and mourned by name steadily growing. But it has now sprung very much into focus. WikiLeaks‘ recent release of thousands of classified documents has revealed a much expanded sense of the tragedy, the instances of friendly fire, the civilians dead, the steadily growing hatreds, the despair on both sides.

The Guardian has made it a major source for multiple stories since the news first broke, giving it a majority of space on the landing page and releasing detailed information and spreadsheets with the actual data. Der Spiegel has done something similar. The New York Times? Today there is one major story, “Document Leak May Hurt Efforts to Build War Support.” There is nothing about civilian, or even friendly fire, casualties here, rather a principal focus on Afghan and Pakistani unreliability.

I would disagree with the NY Times Op-Ed writer Andrew Exum that this is no big deal and we have learned nothing new. These documents offer an unparalleled view of what is happening on the ground and its true costs to everyone within Afghanistan’s borders. Of course, this immeasurable human cost is multiplied in the daily suffering of refugees.

The camps along the borders in Pakistan overflow with Afghans trapped in strange limbo, with very little hope of returning home, and less hope for any kind of future. And the true tragedy of Afghanistan is that many of these camps have been in continuous use since the 70s, and the USSR’s war in Afghanistan with all its parallels to Vietnam. Given a guerrilla was like a fish in water, to counter insurgency their strategy was to simply drain the water.

What wouldn’t any of us do to escape a world with so little chance for a future?

[also posted on www.brightwide.com]

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We are all Oscar Grant

Oscar Grant was shot in the back of the head by a police officer on New Year’s Day 2009. He was lying face down on the ground at an Oakland train station. The shooting was captured on multiple mobile phones and is all over youtube, you can see some of the footage here, though I warn you, it’s graphic.

The officer claimed he thought he was pulling his taser and not his gun. And last week the courts convicted him of involuntary manslaughter, with a sentence of two to four years, which is less than the five-year mandatory sentence for crack possession. Arnold Schwarzenegger begged for calm, and while some didn’t listen, it is saddening that the protests weren’t bigger, riots certainly seems far too strong a word.

Perhaps people just don’t believe change is possible. The names of 2000 people killed by law enforcement in the 1990’s alone are shown below as part of the Stolen Lives project.

index

Extreme cases like those of Rodney King and Amadou Diallo are well known, but there are thousands of others. Amnesty International has cited the United States for multiple violations, as has Human Rights Watch. And police brutality against people of colour is intertwined with the shocking statistics on incarceration in the United States, where 2.2 million people, over one in every hundred Americans, is behind bars. One out of every 9 African American men between 20 and 34 are in prison.

From slavery to the institutional racism and lynchings of Jim Crow to the violent repression of the Civil Rights movement, there is an unbroken chain leading to today’s ugly statistics. Self protection against police brutality was one of the organizing principles of the Black Panthers, hundreds of them were incarcerated, and George Jackson and Fred Hampton among others were killed by police. Many continue as political prisoners today, Mumia Abu-Jamal and the Angola 3 among them. But they are still fighting, we can do no less.

WallaceWilkersonWoodfox

[also posted at www.brightwide.com]

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Roque-Gageac, Beynac, Rouffignac

I woke up this morning to a brave calling of swallows echoing across the cliff face, greeting the dawn. It is the same cliff that forms one wall of my room, the other wall of pine sloping sharply up to meet it with a cross bracing of huge and ancient beams cut square. It is very cold. The swallows move in and out of crescendo and light comes in through the two small triangular windows.

Last night I was kept awake by the irony of a rock-pop festival in this tiny medieval village, and then I was kept awake by the cold. I wore my down vest under the covers for a while, then wrapped it around my feet. In between wakings I dreamed of James Crumley, big and shaggy and alcohol soaked, I dreamed he had hired my dad to rebuild and redecorate his record and auto-part store. I dreamed we walked in the desert and I tried to explain just how beautiful it was, just how much I loved it. But I almost never write about the desert, I don’t understand. But I suppose dreams aren’t for understanding.

Maybe it is just that I have found no inspiration beyond photos, I don’t find words hidden seamed up in time’s folds the way I do in London. So I shall work on my dissertation. It is ridiculously beautiful here of course, ancient villages of mellowed golden limestone and narrow winding roads. They are all fortified, on hilltops, castles crowning outcrops and defensible walls blocking cavern faces high up in the cliffs. It was on the edges of the hundred-years war with England, the castle of Beynac-et-cezenac in French hands, that of Castelnaud in English.

We went to see the grotte de Rouffignac yesterday as well. It is a huge cavern, huge. And regular the way most caves are not, carved out by an underground river through stone that must have been very regular. There are no stalactites and stalagmites, though my french did not quite reach to understanding why. The walls are mostly smooth, with a layer of what looks like a conglomerate just above the level of my head, strange rounded multi-armed shapes embedded whole into the walls, grey near the opening, stained a deep orange-red with iron ore deeper inside. You ride a small electric train very deep inside, following where ancient people walked with only torches. Large openings branch to either side, you wonder how they found their way. Past the hollows where ancient cave bears dug their holes to hibernate for the winter, into a rounded cavern where beautiful mammoths and bison were drawn across the roof, only a few feet from the floor, emerging from the deep hole of a cavern to the left that goes far beyond seeing…

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