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