Compared to other living things, people are babes in the woods, barely making it across the 100-plus year line (although that is changing).
Brooklyn artist, photographer and philosopher Rachel Sussman has been on a worldwide quest to capture the planet’s oldest living creatures in her decade-long project, The Oldest Living Things in the World.
In her TED TALK, Sussman says the inspiration came from the realization that no one had ever studied global species longevity.
So, she picked up her camera, and with the help of a team of biologists, set off to some of the most remote parts of of the world to find these living treasures.
Her definition for a candidate as oldest living thing: a minimum age of a mere 2,000 years old.
She creates a “deep time scale,” transforming the way people think of longevity and their place in and among the living things on the planet.
In the Atacama desert in Chile, she photographed a relative of the parsley family — a 3,000-year-old lime green La Llareta, a huge shrub consisting of thousands of branches with tiny leaves “so dense you can stand on it.”
In her TED TALK, Sussman shares what she believes is the most “quietly resistant” living thing. In the photograph it appears to be a stand of Aspen trees, but it is in fact one tree– the Clonal Quaking Aspen tree. It’s one giant root system, an “interconnected individual” that has lived for 80,000 years.
Other oldest living subjects include: a 9,500-year-old Glen Spruce tree whose location is kept secret in Sweden and 2,000-year-old Sagole Baobab trees in South Africa that have been used for prisons, a bar and a toilet.
Voted “most poetic” is a 13,000-year-old underground forest in Pretoria, South Africa where all you see are the crowns of the trees which look like a patch of green grass.
But what is the oldest living thing she’s photographed so far? It’s a 500,000-year-old Siberian Actinobacteria found under permafrost. It’s also the most vulnerable because, if the permafrost melts, it dies.
“It’s doing DNA repair in below freezing (temperatures). It’s actually been living and growing a half a million years,” she said.
“I feel like I know the he heart of this work. The oldest living things in the world are a record and celebration of our past, a call to action in the present and a barometer of our future,” Sussman said.
Her hope is to bring attention to these “remarkably resilient” organisms to promote their longevity into the future.