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Summer 2017 Top 6 Experiences

Summer is coming to a close, and it’s been a great one. I wanted to share my top 6 favorite experiences, in no particular order. On top of Mount Shilthorn.png

1. Wandering into a swarm of butterflies on a hiking trail in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Ok, the trail was called the Path of a Thousand Flowers, so maybe the butterflies shouldn’t have been such a surprise.

 

 

 

 

2. Volunteering in Boston with MIRA, the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. We waited outside of new citizenship ceremonies, and as new Americans came out of the doors, we offered to register them to vote.

 

 

 

 

3. Renting a camper van in Iceland, and driving around exploring the landscape. Because there are so many volcanoes in the area, there’s a ton of geothermal energy in the ground. That means there are craters, bubbling mud pits, hot springs, and geysers.

 

 

 

 

4. Seeing glaciers on mountains! I took ski chair lifts up Hohfluh at 7,300 feet to see the Aletsch Glacier in Switzerland, and also did some hiking at Mount Rainier National Park, getting up to 6,336 feet (via car and foot). Glaciers are beautiful, especially under the summer sun.

 

 

 

 

5. Chilling out on an island in Lake Maggiore, Italy — eating yummy food, watching weird birds, and reading a good book.

 

 

 

 

Ever seen a white peacock? Running in circles? Me neither. Until this summer.

6. Seeing beautiful trees in Washington State — there’s rainforest, record setting heights, and roots that grow in bizarre places. Not your typical evergreens here.

 

 

 

 

And now I’m ready to go back to school! I’m looking forward to hearing about all the interesting experiences my students had over the summer.

A Volcano is Erupting!

The start of school. Moving to a new home. These seem like important events in my life, but then I remember what it would be like to live in Iceland. There’s a volcano erupting right now! Activity at Bárðarbunga Volcano did not start until after I left Iceland, but now it’s in full swing.

You might wonder why it looks like a strip of lava instead of a single stream from the top of a mountain. That’s because the eruption started happening UNDER a glacier, and the lava flowed for days before it melted through the surface. Now, there’s basically a river of lava flowing for many miles, spewing very high. Imagine lava bursts of up to 130 meters high, which is higher than a 40 storied building! Scientists have actually photographed this eruption from space.

When I was in Iceland, I didn’t see anything like this. However, I did see LOTS of dried out lava fields as we drove around. This is dried out lava that probably erupted thousands of years ago:

Lava from many years ago...

Lava from many years ago…

I did see evidence of more recent volcano activity, like black ash from the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull which I wrote about in my post a few weeks ago, Living Under a Volcano. In that post, I even posted a video of my visit to a glacier, where you can see the ash mixing with the ice.

I’m glad that I didn’t witness a volcanic eruption in Iceland! I’m lucky that I have seen an active volcano though. Back in 2006, I traveled to the Pacaya Volcano in Guatemala, and I hiked up that volcano while it had lava flowing out of it! I did take some video footage, but at the time, my camera wasn’t quite as nice. In any case, now I’m publishing this “never before seen footage” for the first time:

As you can see in the video, we were able to see the lava flowing right next to us, getting pretty impressively close, while staying safe.

Pacaya Lava

The Pacaya Volcano in Guatemala, with hot lava that just flowed from the top.

The people that led our hike told us where it was safe to stand, and we could also feel it ourselves. Obviously, if the lava was red and flowing, I stayed back. But in addition, I could feel the heat coming from some darker rocks, so I knew to back up when it started to get uncomfortable. It was like walking up to a campfire and feeling a little burn on your skin.

Pacaya Lava Up Close

Pacaya Lava Up Close

Here are some photos that show the dried up lava at Pacaya. This lava was only a few days old, but totally safe to walk on.

Personally, I think volcanos are really interesting, and this is one of those moments when I wish I taught science! Did you know that during this eruption, over the past few weeks, there have also been thousands of earthquakes in Iceland? Every day, more news comes out of Iceland, and the situation is changing rapidly. They’re expecting that the volcano will start spewing ash soon, which could cause some additional problems, though not necessarily flight disruptions like last time. Right now, people are evacuated from the area of the eruption, so don’t worry — everyone is staying safe and nobody is under that lava!

The biggest risk is flooding due to the giant glacier that is being melted by the volcano. Remember the Dettifoss Waterfall that I wrote about in my Waterfall Pageant post? It’s currently closed due to the risk of massive floods. So, even though Iceland is a little country, with only about 320,000 people living there, please keep them in your hearts at this time. And if you want to follow the eruption as it unfolds, I recommend checking out these two sites for more information: the Icelandic Met Office and the Iceland Geology Blog by Jón Frímann. Whether you follow volcano news or not, know that BIG things are happening over in little Iceland.

Christianity in Iceland

About one third of the world population is Christian, making it the world’s most common religion. Even in Japan, where most people are non-religious or Buddhist, there are churches here and there. Here’s a Japanese church that I photographed in Kushiro:

City ChurchHave you ever wondered why Christianity is so common? Country ChurchOne reason is that Christian people believe in spreading their religion to others, and many Christian churches send missionaries to spread their beliefs. There are other religions, like Hinduism or Judaism, in which it’s less common for people to try to convert others to their religion. Missionary work is very common in Christianity, however, and that’s how the religion came to America. Explorers and settlers from Europe brought Christianity here when they first arrived, and today, missionaries still travel, as we saw last week when Jen wrote about her experience doing mission work in Trinidad. This is one way that a religion could spread to a new place.

In Iceland, the earliest people worshipped the Norse Gods. But back around the year 1000, missionaries brought Christianity to Iceland. Today, most people in Iceland are Christian, and one particular branch, the Lutheran State Church, is the official religion of the Icelandic government. On my vacation in Iceland, I saw churches everywhere. I saw big ones in cities:

Akureyri Church

And tiny little churches in small countryside towns:

Country ChurchMost of the churches were white, but I saw black ones:

Black Church

And historic churches made from sod and grass:

 

Because Iceland has so many country towns, many churches were tiny, with just a few rows of pews.Colorful Inside of Church

However, there were giant churches, like this one in Reykjavik, with the biggest organ in all of Europe:Church

Inside the churches, I often saw beautiful artwork, like these images of the Last Supper:

Whether you are Christian or not, Iceland is a wonderful place to check out some unique churches and see some beautiful architecture. It was a very interesting part of my trip!

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If you’d like to keep learning about world religion, there are lots of posts on this site that teach about different religions and we even study world religion during our Holy C.O.W. (Cultures of the World) unit. Hasedera Leaning BuddhaCheck out our Sacred to Me, Sacred to You website, or posts here about our field trips to houses of worship, Orthodox Easter in Ukraine (Pysanky eggs and traditional foods), Islam and Christianity in Turkey (The Sacred in Istanbul), Buddhism in China (About the Lotus FlowerLama Temple, and Jing’an Temple), or temples in Japan (the Giant Buddha and temple rituals). Enjoy!

ChristianityNote: If you like numbers, here are some interesting ones. According to my favorite world facts site, Nationmaster, this is the estimated percent of people who are Christian:

  • In the world: 33%
  • In Iceland: 91%
  • In Japan: 0.7%

Next stop… Greenland?

IcelandAir is becoming one of the best airlines for flights from North America to Europe. As you can see on this map, Iceland is a great stop over right in the middle of these two continents. IcelandAir RoutesYou can also see on this map that many of these flights fly over the southern tip of Greenland. While I was flying home from Reykjavik, I happened to look out the window while we were over Greenland. At first, it was hard to see anything, because the clouds were in my way.

CloudsAs I looked more closely, I noticed little white dots. Floating icebergs? I couldn’t see any polar bears, but some mountains came into view more clearly.

Mountains of GreenlandThen, it turned to more white. Only this time, I realized that I wasn’t looking at clouds. I was looking at a giant glacier. How did I know? In Iceland, I learned that glacial water is bright blue, like the little “lake” in this picture:

Glacial WaterThe area of glacial ice was huge! In between, some mountains peaked through the ice.

Mountain Tops

But the views just kept getting better. As we approached the coast, I saw that the coastline of Greenland is full of fjords and cliffs. It was spectacular:

Coastline

I even saw an area where the glacial water ran off into the ocean, where the ice broke off and turned into little icebergs floating in the water:

Breaking Ice

I couldn’t get it all in one shot, so here’s a little video gift to you. Enjoy!

As I looked at this amazing sight, I wondered — why haven’t I heard about tourism in Greenland? It’s so beautiful! The only person I know who has been to Greenland is my college friend John Huston who is an Arctic explorer! Is it cold there all the time?

Cold GreenlandIt’s said that Erik the Red, the Viking explorer, found a nice place to live there, and named it Greenland in order to convince others to come live there. Apparently, it didn’t work too well, because not too many people live there. What do you think? Is this a good spot for my next trip?

Wow

 

Iceland has cities too… and they’re super hip!

ReykjavikYou’ve probably been looking at my posts from Iceland and picturing that there’s countryside everywhere in Iceland. Actually, about two thirds of the population of Iceland lives in and around the capital, Reykjavik. It’s a very happening city, with all sorts of resources from around the world. Check out some of my photos that will show you the hip side of Reykjavik.

My favorite building in Reykjavik, the most funky of all, was the concert hall.  Its really unusual architecture makes it stand out on the harbor.

Reykjavik isn’t the only city in Iceland. We also got to visit Akureyri, the Northern capital. It’s built right on a fjord, which makes it quite beautiful.

Akureyri

In Akureyri, I got to check out a big festival, with live music and kids’ activities. It was for an Icelandic holiday called “Commerce Day” which celebrates the merchants. It’s kind of like our Labor Day, and lots of people get off work and go camping with friends.

Of course, there was a lot of shopping in the cities! Overall, Iceland is an expensive place to travel. For example, I didn’t buy myself a souvenir t-shirt, because they cost about $35! There were some really nice things in the shops, and also some silly touristy items.

We ate at several really nice restaurants, but there are some cheap ones too. The Curry Inn in Akureyri only had 2 seats. It’s mostly a take-out place. And the hot dog stand in Reykjavik is famous! People come from all over to try these hot dogs. I tried one– it was indeed quite good. I think the secret ingredient might be lamb…

One of my favorite parts of being in the city was seeing how Icelanders seem to care deeply about natural beauty. There are a lot of beautiful gardens, and in Reykjavik, you don’t need to go far outside of the city to spend a few hours on the water.

CraneThe city of Reykjavik is growing, and they are constructing new buildings all the time. One local guy told us he’s never seen so many cranes in the city! However, Icelanders are thoughtful about building. When a company built this ugly rectangular eyesore near the coast, they decided to build a public art grassy mound next to it, to make the coast look more beautiful.

Mound

Overall, people in Iceland were really nice. After we went through the security at the airport, we saw this machine to log your experience:

Nice Security

Viking with Me

I really enjoyed visiting the cities of Iceland. Though the scenery isn’t quite as glamourous, it was fun to learn about the culture and get a taste of how people live. Reykjavik has a little bit for everyone — lots of museums, good food, and natural wilderness at your fingertips if you’re willing to endure a short ride out of town. It’s a truly exceptional place to visit!

And if you want to take a photo of yourself with a giant troll… you can totally do that too.

Waterfall Pageant

Little WaterfallsI visited so many waterfalls in Iceland! From big tourist attractions to little side of the road trickles, waterfalls were everywhere. I thought that I would get bored seeing so many waterfalls, but each one was unique. I decided to save a whole post for the waterfalls, and turn it into a little pageant. They can’t exactly walk the runway, but I’ll give a little profile of each one, and then YOU will be the judge. Vote at the end of the post for your favorite.

Contestant #1: Skogafoss

Skogafoss

Height: 60 meters (197 feet tall)

Weird Fact: This waterfall used to be on the Southern coast of Iceland, but the coast has receded about 3 miles!

What I did there: Climbed up the steps all the way to the top, counting along the way.

Contestant #2: SeljalandsfossSeljalandsfoss

Special Features: It’s possible to walk behind this waterfall and see it from the back!

Dangers: The path is slippery and wet. If you fall, the situation would probably be grim.

Bonus Feature: We arrived on a sunny day and got to see a rainbow.

Contestant #3: DetifossDetifoss

Claim to Fame: Biggest waterfall in Europe (in terms of volume of water rushing down per second)

Talent: Getting people totally soaked (especially when the weather is windy)

Contestant #4: HraunfossarHraunfossar

English Name: Waterfall of Lava

Fun Fact: This waterfall comes from an underground, or subterranean, river! It flows out of a lava field rather than being fed from a normal river.

Contestant #5: GulfossGulfoss

Nickname: The Golden Waterfall

The Latest Fashion: On the day I visited, Gulfoss was sporting a beautiful rainbow. This is common attire for her, because sunshine and rain mixing together create beautiful results every time!

Contestant #6: Asbyrgi CanyonÁsbyrgi

Claim to Fame: This waterfall is now dry!

Early Days: Scientists can tell that there used to be a big waterfall here back in prehistoric times. The water created this huge valley, but now it is close to totally dry.

Talent: This canyon can produce a big echo if you scream into it!

Contestant #7:Kolugjufur Kolugjufur

Special Talent: This waterfall has a bridge over it, so people can walk or drive right across!

Other Important Facts: None. This waterfall isn’t particularly famous, but it’s still nice.

Contestant #8: GoðafossGodafoss

English Name: Waterfall of the Gods

Early Days: Back in about the year 1000, Christianity became the official religion of Iceland. It’s said that one of the local leaders converted, and then threw his statues of the Norse Gods into the waterfall.

Ok, it’s voting time!

I’m sure that there are so many more waterfalls that didn’t get to “enter” this pageant. If you visit any, please comment and tell me about them! Or if you want to visit these ones, here’s a map that I made to show the approximate location of each waterfall contestant.

Waterfalls

Hunting for Hot Springs in the Wild

I’ve always loved going to the zoo, but there’s nothing like spotting a wild animal in its natural habitat. In Iceland, I discovered that the same is true for hot springs!

In the Distance

Blue LagoonI did love visiting the Blue Lagoon, which is one of the most famous tourist attractions in Iceland. It’s a huge pool of bright blue geothermal water, and it’s kind of like being at a spa. You can swim up to the bar and get a smoothie, or scoop out some mud mask to give yourself a facial while soaking in the warm water. As you can imagine, you leave feeling pretty luxurious.Blue Lagoon 2

Rut HikingEven better than the Blue Lagoon was yesterday’s hike up to natural hot springs where I hopped into a stream and marveled at the mountains around me. Even though I’m a pretty adventurous traveler, I never would have been able to find this on my own. I was lucky to connect with Rut (pronounced Ruth), a young Icelandic woman who started her own tour company called Lost in Iceland. She took me on a “Hot Spring Hunt” to the Reykjadalur Valley, and I made this little video so that you can come along for the ride from your own home: 

As you can see in the video, the hike itself had some stunning views. There were other hikers and even horseback riders that we passed along the way, but it still felt pretty remote and very peaceful. Wow!As we walked, Rut pointed out some interesting spots, from boiling mud pools to moss growing on the rocks. She also told me stories of her experiences with outdoor adventures in Iceland. Rut is trained as a volunteer search and rescue crewmember, so she goes out looking for people who lost their way in the mountains. I loved hearing her stories, and I also felt like I was in great hands with someone who would know what to do if we encountered a problem! The area felt very safe though; most of the trails were very well maintained, until the end when we went off trail to check out some interesting rock formations by the hot springs. I didn’t mind doing a little trekking through the mud – that’s what hiking boots are for! It felt great to get a bit dirty and do some exploring. The sights were incredible.Colors

When I looked at the stream, it looked like any old stream that you could find in New England. So, it was really funny to me to feel that it was hotter than most hot tubs I’ve been in! Testing the WatersWe had to test out different spots to find one that had a temperature that we liked. We knew a spot was too hot when we saw steam or little bubbles coming out of the bottom of the stream. We looked for the spot where the water was mixing from a cold stream coming in. Rut told me that the cold glacial water is totally safe to drink, but I didn’t try it, since I brought a water bottle with me. She also showed me the mud that you can put on your skin like at the Blue Lagoon. Our Spot in the StreamIt was so much more amazing to see it coming directly from the ground. There was no smoothie bar in the wilderness, but Rut and I brought a few snacks, so we had fruit and cookies while relaxing in our bathing suits. After we finished, there was no locker room, so we had to make our own by covering up with towels as we changed. That was a little tricky, but it was all part of the adventure! Bathers

In the end, I wasn’t really “lost in Iceland.” Of course we knew where we were the whole time and it wasn’t really so “wild.” It still felt like a perfect little adventure, and it was magical to come upon the hot springs in nature. If you went to Iceland, would you rather go into to the Blue Lagoon or into a little stream in the Reykjadalur Valley?

Why only Puffins?

Today, we went out on a boat to see the puffins!

Why puffins? Well, there are two main reasons which I hope to prove in this blog entry: 1) Puffins are adorable and 2) Puffins are one of the only unusual animals in Iceland. First of all, here are some cute photos that I took of the puffins!

So many horses!

So many horses!

I hope you agree that puffins are very cute. So, why do I say that puffins are one of the only unusual animals? Well, most of the other animals in Iceland were brought in from other countries, like horses, cows, sheep, dogs, cats, etc. Iceland does have arctic foxes and minks, but those were also brought over by Europeans to use for fur. Where are the other animals? It makes sense that there aren’t elephants or lions, because of the weather, but why not squirrels or raccoons or something?

Bear

Polar bears: Bigger than I would have guessed!

Well, Iceland is an island, and animals that walk on land can’t get there easily. There are plenty of animals in the sea (from small fish to big whales) and there are lots of birds, but not a lot of mammals. Believe it or not, a few polar bears have made it over to Iceland by floating on glaciers from Greenland. That’s a long way, and it’s not an easy trip! There aren’t currently any living polar bears in Iceland — just this stuffed guy that was in the lobby of one of the hotels that we stayed in. As you can see, I almost got attacked!

Some interesting terrain of Iceland, taken out my plane window

Some interesting terrain of Iceland, taken out my plane window

You might be wondering how animals end up in any country, and this relates to a very interesting question that one of my students, Sean, asked in his comments today. Sean wondered how old Iceland is, because I wrote in a previous post that it was a young country. Basically, scientists estimate that Iceland was formed by volcanos about 20 million years old. They estimate that other land on our planet was formed  250 million years ago, back when all the land was connected in a big mass we call Pangea. Around 100 million years ago, it all began to break up into the land we have today. People have only been around in our current form for about 200, 000 years, which is a very short amount of time in Earth’s life. Anyway, there are more animals on these bigger continents because they evolved from other animals, and even dinosaurs, that lived before people. If you want to see big animals, go elsewhere. If you want to see interesting landscapes, birds, and fish, Iceland is the place to be!

Beauty

It’s so easy to get these beautiful photos here!

 

Living Under a Volcano

Ólafur Pálsson’s farm has been in the family since 1886, and it sits just near a small volcano in Southern Iceland. Their primary work has always been in the dairy industry…

Screen Shot 2014-08-02 at 6.23.34 PM

…until everything changed in 2010. The volcano near their farm is called Eyjafjallajökull, and though it is difficult to pronounce (AY-yah-fyaht-luh-YOH-kuutl-uh), it was all over the international news when it erupted in May of that year. EyjafjallajokullAt first, it was a magna eruption, and tourists were coming from the city to watch the beautiful lava flowing. After that, things took a turn for the worst. It turned into an ash eruption, and spewed fine black ash for about six weeks straight. The ash was carried in the wind for miles, causing over 95,000 flights all over Europe to be cancelled. Actually, it could have lasted longer, even a year, so we were all very lucky.

HatMany farms were destroyed in this area. Not only did the ash cover everything, including the fields where the animals needed to graze and the food needed to be grown, but the glaciers atop the mountains began to melt. As the volcanic heat melted the ice, big floods of water came rushing down and flooded the area.

Ólafur and his family were smart. They had a friend take documentary film footage of the whole experience, and then they opened a tourist center to teach visitors about the volcano. My group went there today. It was a little weird to see pieces of lava for sale, but it was really interesting to meet this family and learn about their experience.

Living through a volcano eruption sounds very scary, but thanks to modern technology, all of the people survived. Scientists today can monitor movement very accurately, using several tools including very accurate GPS devices. Loki and I on a glacierThey were able to tell families like Ólafur’s to evacuate when things were getting really bad.

It’s safe to get close to these volcanos and glaciers, because we would have warning if something were to happen. So, that’s why I felt totally safe this afternoon, when I got to visit a glacier in the area and see the way that the ice and ash gets all mixed up.

It was really beautiful, but I wouldn’t want that ash or ashy water all over my house!

Mud

The people here are used to this kind of climate, so it’s not so strange to them. Even the beaches are full of black sand. And they are really beautiful!

Screen Shot 2014-08-02 at 6.57.11 PM

Today, some families try to protect against possible natural disasters. For instance, while driving on our bus, we passed a house that had planted trees above their farm in order to stop any damage that might come from a landslide. That’s a smart idea, right?

Screen Shot 2014-08-02 at 6.06.39 PMI would be afraid to live with this risk, but Iceland is way safer than the United States in other ways.

Akureyri AirportFor instance, very few people have guns, and crime is really low there. In fact, there are only a handful of people are in prison in the whole country! When we took a small flight from one part of Iceland to another, there was no security line and no metal detector. It was shocking to me, but I wish our country was so safe that there wasn’t a need for all that security.

People in Iceland accept the risk of volcanos, floods, and landslides because they love their country and this is their home. Their families have long histories here, from the old days when houses were often built of sod.

Screen Shot 2014-08-02 at 6.11.04 PM

We got to visit the Skogar Museum today, which was a historical site sort of like Plimoth Plantation. There weren’t re-enactors, but there were real houses and artifacts that had been in the family for over 150 years. It was neat to see how people used to live in Iceland.

There’s a lot of history and beauty here, so I can see why people love it here. If there were a volcano near your house, would you move? I’m pretty sure that the Icelandic people aren’t going anywhere.

The Slow and Sudden Movements of Iceland

Warning SignIceland is a surprising place. You never know when it’ll jump out at you! Today, I went to see the Great Geysir in the southwestern part of the country. I saw the warning signs, which said that the water will burn you if you touch it and that the nearest hospital is 62 kilometers away. I knew that the English word for this phenomena is a “geyser,” which comes from the Icelandic, and that it is a spouting hot spring. I even read that this one is bigger than Old Faithful in the United States, which goes up 25-55 meters. Geysir in Iceland is known to go up 70-80 meters.

I still wasn’t prepared for what I saw. Take a look for yourself — make sure to watch the slow motion part at the end of my video too:

Whoa! What’s happening here? As I wrote about a few days ago, Iceland has a lot of volcanic activity below the surface of the earth.Steaming Ones

When cold water near the surface of the earth gets down to the hot rocks underground, pressure can be built up. Eventually, it all gets released in a big bang of hot water or steam, as though someone were holding their finger over the end of a hose. The results are impressive… but unpredictable. It seemed to happen about every 10 minutes, but it varied a lot. Sometimes the spray was big.

The Great Geysir

And sometimes it was absolutely enormous!

The Massive One

Not every movement in Iceland is fast. In fact, there are cliffs that I saw today that are moving away from each other at a rate of a few centimeters a year. That’s pretty slow, but have you ever seen a giant wall of rock gliding across a dance floor? It’s not an earthquake or anything, but these rocks are spreading apart over time, and it’s been recorded since people arrived here. This is what I’m talking about, where I walked today between the two cliffs:Between the PlatesLet me explain. The island of Iceland was formed volcanically millions of years ago. Even though that seems like a long time ago, compared to other parts of the planet, Iceland is very young.

Today, Iceland is still growing up, in a sense, and changing all the time. In fact, it’s very unique because the island falls right where two parts of our planet meet. The earth is made out of several tectonic plates which move around the surface of the earth. There’s one big section called the “North American Plate” and there’s another one where Europe and Asia are located, called… the “Eurasian Plate.” These plates are drifting apart slowly, and little by little, the cliffs I saw today are spreading. I tried to give you a closer look in this little video:

It was very peaceful at this National Park– I didn’t see the earth moving at all! A few centimeters a year is too small to see, but the scientists can measure it. These changes are real.

So, as you can see, changes in Iceland can be both fast or slow, even without any volcano eruptions. Some changes are even made by people! For example, many years ago, Icelandic people thought their climate kept them from growing many vegetables. Today, they’ve learned to harness geothermal and solar energy and use it in greenhouses, where they’re growing all sorts of fruits and vegetables. Here’s an adorable little country market right by some beautiful greenhouses, where people can purchase their food by the honor system, just by putting their money into a box. Farmers Market

Iceland is moving! Sometimes it’s obvious, and sometimes you have to pay really close attention to see it chugging along. Whether the movement is fast or slow, it’s truly impressive to see.

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