Two-hundred-seventy-year-old trees? Too young. This artist has made it her mission to find and photograph the world’s oldest living species, be they exotic bushes or microscopic bacteria.
“I have always felt a strong affinity for the natural world, and I started photographing as a means of creative expression at a very early age,” Sussman says. The idea to turn her camera on ancient organisms was inspired by a trip to Japan in 2004. Several people had recommended she visit the Jomon Sugi, a tree just over 2,000 years old, on the island of Yaku Shima. “After returning home to Brooklyn, the idea crystallized to bring art, science, and philosophy together to find and photograph continuously living organisms 2,000 years old and older,” she says.
She chose 2,000 years as her benchmark, she says, because she wanted to start from what we consider to be year zero and work backwards. Her travels have taken her to the ends of the Earth—quite literally. In February, she traveled to Antarctica to photograph a 5,000-year-old moss. She learned scuba diving in order to uncover a 2,000-year-old brain coral off the island of Tobago. She finds out about these ancient species, which range from tiny fungi to gigantic trees, through a great deal of research and sometimes word of mouth. “As word has gotten out about my work,” she says, “some scientists have actually contacted me requesting their discoveries be added to the project.”
She photographed another plant, the llareta (Azorella compacta), in Chile’s Atacama Desert, where it has grown for more than 3,000 years. “The llareta is striking for the odd shapes it takes,” she says. To the untrained eye, it looks like an enormous head of broccoli, or perhaps a free-form topiary. “But it’s actually a dense shrub living with little water and extreme elevation. It also happens to be related to parsley.”
Though Sussman has been witness to some of nature’s most enduring creations, she says her work makes her more concerned about their downfall. Human-induced climate change is altering the ecosystems in which many of these species have thrived for millennia. “The speed and force in which the climate is currently changing is without precedent,” she says. “Many of my subjects are adapted to extreme climates—desert or high altitude or polar temperatures—but should their whole ecosystems shift, they have no way to survive.” With what she considers “phase one” of the project complete, she plans to focus on making a book. Her hope is that her work can lead to protections for all of the world’s oldest species under UNESCO, the United Nations agency that designates important cultural and natural sites as threatened or in need of safeguarding.
“On the positive side,” she says, “all these organisms have displayed remarkable resilience. We have much to learn from them collectively and as individuals.” Such as: We could all learn to live with less. And slow and steady really does win the race.
Originally published in Organic Gardening Magazine, April/May 2012