Enduring Life

In search of nature’s oldest living things

By Emily Main

Photography by Rachel Sussman

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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.”

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