Books

Photographing Ancient Organisms Before They Disappear

by Allison Meier on April 3, 2014

Welwitschia Mirabilis #0707-22411 (2,000 years old; Namib-Naukluft Desert, Namibia)  The Welwistchia is primitive conifer living only in parts of coastal Namibia and Angola where moisture from the sea meets the desert. Despite appearances, it only has two single leaves, which it never sheds. National plant of Namibia.

Rachel Sussman, “Welwitschia Mirabilis #0707-22411 (2,000 years old; Namib-Naukluft Desert, Namibia)” (nd) (all images ©Rachel Sussman from “The Oldest Living Things in the World”)

Around our planet, life moves at different speeds. Generations of humans come and go in the lengthy lifespan of organisms like Pando, the “Trembling Giant,” a colony of quaking aspens in Utah some 80,000 years old. Brooklyn-based photographer Rachel Sussman spent nearly a decade tracking down the elders of our world, where life is measured in centuries instead of years.

The Oldest Living Things in the World by Rachel Sussman

The cover of ‘The Oldest Living Things in the World’ by Rachel Sussman from University of Chicago Press

The Oldest Living Things in the Worldpublished later this month by University of Chicago Press, collects together 125 photographs and essays of exploration to profile 30 of these beings. Sussman started the project in 2004, collaborating with scientists and extensively researching for her expeditions to the extremes of the Earth, from Antarctica to the Mojave Desert. She even gave a TED talk on the topic in 2010. This September, she will stage a solo show at Pioneer Works in Red Hook.

The purpose, as she puts it, is “exploring the living past in the fleeting present.” Where the temperatures are hottest and the nutrients scarcest, that’s where lifespans progress in creeping increments. The floppy and alien Welwitschia Mirabilis, a primitive conifer, slowly saps moisture from the Namibian desert; lichens in Greenland grow just a centimeter each hundred years. All of the living things she photographed are over 2,000 years old, some much more than that. The Posidonia sea grass meadow she dived down to capture off the coasts of Ibiza and Formentera is an estimated 100,000 years old.

This breadth of time that these geriatric organisms have existed on our volatile planet is astounding, but in many ways the current era may be the hardest for them. Sussman notes the environmental concerns that could cut their staggering lifespans short, such as the over 400,00-year-old bacteria in the thawing Siberian permafrost. And as humans push into these previously isolated areas, there are dangers for nature’s survival. A grad student in the 1960s may have accidentally chopped down the oldest tree in the world in Nevada, and there are often unfriendly uses of the large interiors of thousands of years old baobab trees in South Africa such as for bars, a prison, and bathroom.

Sussman’s photographs are quiet portraits of venerable beings often existing at the edges of the world. By seeking them out and preserving them in photographs, they become reminders of the vastly different chronologies of life taking place all around us, and how it’s all part of the ecology of our planet.

Pafuri Baobab #0707-1335 (Up to 2,000 years old; Kruger National Park, South Africa)  This baobab lives in the Kruger Game Preserve in South Africa and requires an armed escort to visit. Baobabs get pulpy at their centers and tend to hollow out as they grow older. These hollows can serve as natural shelters for animals, but have also been appropriated for some less scrupulous human uses: for instance, as a toilet, a prison, and a bar.

Rachel Sussman, “Pafuri Baobab #0707-1335 (Up to 2,000 years old; Kruger National Park, South Africa)” (nd)

Stromatolites #1211-0512 (2,000 - 3,000 years old; Carbla Station, Western Australia) Straddling the biologic and the geologic, stromatolites are organisms that are tied to the oxygenation of the planet 3.5 billion years ago, and the beginnings of all life on Earth.

Rachel Sussman, “Stromatolites #1211-0512 (2,000 – 3,000 years old; Carbla Station, Western Australia)” (nd)

La Llareta #0308-2B31 (2,000+ years old; Atacama Desert, Chile)  What looks like moss covering rocks is actually a very dense, flowering shrub that happens to be a relative of parsley, living in the extremely high elevations of the Atacama Desert.

Rachel Sussman, “La Llareta #0308-2B31 (2,000+ years old; Atacama Desert, Chile)” (nd)

Mojave Yucca #0311-1233 (12,000 years old, Mojave Desert, California) The approximately 12,000-year-old creosote bush and Mojave yucca both have remarkable circular structures, pushing slowly outward from a central originating stem.  New stems replace old ones, but they are all connected by the same clonal root structure.

Rachel Sussman, “Mojave Yucca #0311-1233 (12,000 years old, Mojave Desert, California)” (nd)

Spruce Gran Picea #0909 – 11A07 (9,550 years old; Fulufjället, Sweden) This 9,950-year-old tree is like a portrait of climate change. The mass of branches near the ground grew the same way for roughly 9,500 years, but the new, spindly trunk in the center is only 50 or so years old, caused by warming at the top of this mountain plateau in Western Sweden.

Rachel Sussman, “Spruce Gran Picea #0909 – 11A07 (9,550 years old; Fulufjället, Sweden)” (nd) (all images ©Rachel Sussman from “The Oldest Living Things in the World”)

The Oldest Living Things in the World by Rachel Sussman is available April 22 from University of Chicago Press. 

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  • Cardie

    love this post and look forward to hearing her TED talk

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