All that lives must die—but some organisms get a little more time on this Earth than others. For nearly a decade, the photographer Rachel Sussman has been traveling around the world, capturing images of the oldest continuously living things in the world, part of an effort to “step outside our quotidian experience of time and start to consider a deeper timescale,” as she put it in a TED talk in 2010. Everything she has photographed for the project is at least 2,000 years old, if not much, much older. That includes something as unimaginably ancient as the Posidonia sea grass meadow, found in protected waters in the Mediterranean Sea, which may be 100,000 years old, and something comparatively younger, like baobab trees found in southern Africa. It is a record of survival, of those organisms—and they’re all plants, lichen or coral, as the oldest animals live less than 200 years—that beat the odds of genetics and simply lasted.
Sussman has a new photo book out that details her project, along with a foreword by the science writer Carl Zimmer. There’s a sense of wonder imbued in these photographs of organisms that seem to be a physical record of time, but there’s also a call to action. Many of these subjects of Sussman’s portraits are under threat from habitat loss or climate change or simple human idiocy. (Sussman has written movingly about the loss of the 3,500 year-old Senator tree in Orlando, destroyed in a fire that was almost certainly set on purpose.) “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 the future,” Sussman has said—and the images that follow prove her out.
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