Old Timers

Rachel Sussman

photo of a seascape near a frozen rocky island

Rachel Sussman’s exploration of “Deep Time” was sparked more than a decade ago by a trip to see Jomon Sugi – an 83-foot-tall cryptomeria tree that has been living on a remote Japanese island for at least 2,180 years. A professional photographer with a keen interest in science and philosophy, Sussman was intrigued by the idea of ancient beings, some of which have been on Earth for millennia.

Once back home in Brooklyn, New York, she began poking around to learn more and was surprised to find that no one – no scientist, no artist – had ever bothered to compile any sort of catalog of these continuously living organisms. In 2004 Sussman began traversing the world photographing organisms that have been alive for at least 2,000 years.

During the next 10 years, Sussman photographed 30 different ancient beings on all seven continents, ranging from lichens in Greenland to brain coral in the Caribbean Sea. Her oldest subject is a soil sample from the Siberian permafrost, which contains actinobacteria that have been around for half a million years.

You might pass by many of these biological wonders without a second glance. The 13,000-year-old, scraggly Palmer oak bush in the hills of Riverside, California, for instance, or the floppy-leaved, 2,000-year-old Welwitschia mirabilis in coastal Namibia, which looks like seaweed but is actually a primitive conifer. Others – like the brown, globbish stromatolites in western Australia, or the similarly lumpy, but green llareta plant in Chile’s Atacama Desert – could well be part of an artist’s rendering of an alien landscape.

Sussman approached her subjects as individuals, creating intimate portraits of each of them. Her intention, she says, was “to facilitate an anthropomorphic connection to a deep timescale otherwise too
physiologically challenging for our brain to internalize.” She was interested in investigating what it means “to capture a multi-millennial lifespan in 1/60th of a second.”

Most of Sussman’s subjects have clung to life through all kinds of natural perils and human interventions, but now they are in jeopardy. Two of the organisms she photographed have since died. A 13,000-year-old “underground forest” in Pretoria, South Africa, was bulldozed to make way for a new road, and a 3,500-year-old bald cypress near Orlando, Florida, called “The Senator,” was accidentally burned down by a meth addict in 2012. Alongside such thoughtless actions looms the bigger threat of climate change. Sussman’s image of a 9,950-year-old spruce standing tall on a rocky mountainside in western Sweden is a stark reminder of this. Biologists say the tree’s spindly trunk shot up only in the past 50 years, most likely as a result of warming on the mountain plateau. Prior to that, the spruce’s branches grew close to the ground.

Last year, Sussman’s art-and-science project was complied in a book, The Oldest Living Things in the World. Her hope is that this documentation of the world’s most tenacious survivors will help generate initiatives to protect our living-past well into the future.

Rachel Sussman’s work has been exhibited throughout the United States and Europe in venues including the Museum of Natural History. View her work at www.rachelsussman.com

photo of a desert plant community

photo of an enormous tree

photo of a tall tree in a sere landscape

photo of a series of amorphous blobs off of a sandy beach

photo of a plant that looks wilted in a desert

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