Enduring Life

In search of nature’s oldest living things

By Emily Main

Photography by Rachel Sussman

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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.

Originally published in Organic Gardening Magazine, April/May 2012

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