Enduring Life

In search of nature’s oldest living things

Emily Main October 18, 2013

The camellia-dotted grounds at Middleton Place, the historic Charleston, South Carolina, estate built by politician Henry Middleton, are the oldest landscaped gardens in the United States. But the azaleas and magnolias planted there in 1741 are mere toddlers compared with the plants photographer Rachel Sussman has spent the past 7 years documenting.

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.”

Scientific though her work may seem, Sussman still considers herself an artist. In her photographs, she displays natural beauty that could easily go underappreciated—such as the 13,000-year-old “underground forest” outside Pretoria, South Africa. Certain species of plants have adapted to the area’s dry climate by migrating underground, with extensive systems of woody stems and roots growing beneath the surface and only a few short, leafy shoots visible above ground. That way, when wildfires rage through the South African bush, “it’s the equivalent of getting your eyebrows singed,” she says.

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.”

Among the 28 other natural wonders she has captured thus far on film: clonal forests in which dozens of trees have sprung from a single root system for 13,000 years or more; an Actinobacteria colony living in Siberian permafrost, which at around half a million years old is the world’s oldest living thing; and the Welwitschia mirabilis, a coniferous tree of coastal Namibia that looks like a haphazard pile of palm fronds lying on the ground. Some of her photographic subjects disguise their age well. “An untrained eye would walk past most of the oldest organisms none the wiser,” Sussman says.

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.

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Originally published in Organic Gardening Magazine, April/May 2012