The Oldest Living Things in the World by Rachel Sussman

with essays by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Carl Zimmer
University of Chicago Press 2014

Reviewed by Leo Hsu

Issue 75

The premise of Rachel Sussman’s The Oldest Living Things in the World is straightforward: she has travelled the seven continents to photograph the world’s oldest living things, things that are at least two thousand years old.  The book is comprised of thirty chapters of photos and text describing thirty missions, over ten years, to photograph not individual species but actual individual organisms.  The reader is invited to reconsider our human experience of historic and planetary time.   “The oldest living things in the world,” writes Sussman, “are a record and celebration of the past, a call to action in the present, and a barometer of our future.”  The project, Sussman notes, is part science and part art.  Its authority similarly comes from two different places: the scientific knowledge through which she defines and executes the project, and her own authority as a storyteller, as she describes her journeys in words and pictures.

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.

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.

 

We often think of things as old because they have been weathered by time.  Broken and bowed, they are surviving more than thriving.  For The Oldest Living Things in the World, Sussman has photographed four baobab trees in Limpopo, South Africa and they look old.  They are enormous, their giant proportions suggesting mythological titans.  Recognized by humans for their age, they straddle spectacle and novelty.  One of them even has a semi-functional bar built inside of it. 

These baobabs, and the giant sequoias that Sussman photographs in Kings Canyon National Park, California, are recognizable as individuals; we are able to identify with them for their anthropomorphic qualities.  The seqouias have names: the Sentinel, the Washington, the Cleveland, and General Sherman.  Sussman shows us the base of General Sherman, where the tops of the roots bulge like knuckles, the smoothed textures of the bark resembling the lines on our own hands. Sussman's images, characterized by a strong use of subdued colors, sharp focus, and detail in both shadow and highlights, are subtle, often understated; the photograph of General Sherman is among the most pronounced in the book.

This 5,500-year-old moss bank lives right around the corner from where the Shackleton Expedition was marooned 100 years ago on Elephant Island, Antarctica. It was a victory simply being able to locate it. These days it's easier to get to Antarctica from space.

This 5,500-year-old moss bank lives right around the corner from where the Shackleton Expedition was marooned 100 years ago on Elephant Island, Antarctica. It was a victory simply being able to locate it. These days it's easier to get to Antarctica from space.

 

These trees, are, however, among the youngest living things in The Oldest Living Things in the World.  Most of the very old living things in Sussman’s book don’t look obviously old, nor do they invite anthropomorphic identification.  Sometimes they look so pedestrian as to be unnoticeable, like the map lichens of Greenland (3000-5000 years old) or the box huckleberry of Pennsylvania (8000 – 13,000 years old, disputed).   In other cases they look so alien as to be unfathomable, like the brain coral off of Tobago (2000 years old and the only old animal in the book – though there are some shorter-lived fauna here and there) or La Llereta, a smoothly rounded moss-like shrub found in the Chilean desert (3000 years old).  But in nearly all cases, these very old living things do not appear ancient because they are so clearly alive.  They defy the connection that we humans make between age and mortality; many of them are technically immortal.

Not only is human life displaced as the defining purpose of our planet, but our human notions of “self” and “individual” are displaced as the reader learns that most of these very old things are clonal colonies: vegetable life that has lived for tens of millennia, expanding and propagating but sharing the same DNA.  Just as an individual person’s cells regularly die and are replenished without compromising their sense of being a continuous self, so these clonal colonies are extended “selves”, sometimes not even physically contiguous.

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.

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.

 

The origin of the book was in Sussman’s encounter with a very old Japanese Cedar on Yakashima, Japan, the Jomon Sugi (2180-7000 years old), which planted the seed in her mind for the project that she would later develop.  This path to nature, through personal experiences and revelations rather than through the apprehension of systems of knowledge, is conveyed to the reader, and this is both the strength and the character of this book.  Science, for Sussman, is not categories and the rationalization of information, but instead, the perception of the kinds of truths that produces transformation- a perceptual awareness that we generally attribute to art. 

The book is both a personal memoir and an account of life on this planet. Like an anthropologist, she positions herself and her intentions, and attempts to identify her biases.  We learn how and why she chooses the subjects that she does.  We learn about a romantic relationship that ends mid-project.  She discusses the long epochs of geologic history and also the experiences of seconds, as when she injures herself falling down a flight of stairs in a remote town in India on the way to photograph the Sri Maha Bodhi (2294+ years old) causing her to abandon her mission to seek medical attention.

At 100,000 years old, the Posidonia sea grass meadow was first taking root at the same time some of our earliest ancestors were creating the first known "art studio" in South Africa. It lives in the UNESCO-protected waterway between the islands of Ibiza and Formentera.

At 100,000 years old, the Posidonia sea grass meadow was first taking root at the same time some of our earliest ancestors were creating the first known "art studio" in South Africa. It lives in the UNESCO-protected waterway between the islands of Ibiza and Formentera.

 

While the pictures are rich in information, they make these old living things knowable, not because there is visible evidence of their age but because they are part of Sussman’s own narrative.  The picture editing of this book is exceptional, fully aware of the effect of the photographs in combination with the text and providing a visual narrative that at times echoes the words, and at other times provides counterpoint and punctuation.  Many of the pictures describe Sussman’s paths to her subjects, and this context is important.  The point is not, after all, to show what these things look like, but to show that we can find them.

All images © Rachel Sussman, from The Oldest Living Things in the World.

Leo Hsu is a photographer, writer and photography instructor, based in Pittsburgh, PA.
Contact Leo here.

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