In 2007, photographer Rachel Sussman made a pilgrimage to Florida's 3,500-year-old Senator Tree. The pond cypress's mottled gray trunk stretched 125 feet into the sky, and sported a bronze plaque gifted by Calvin Coolidge in 1929. Sussman snapped a few pictures, but, upon review, wasn't thrilled with the results. "I thought, 'Oh, I'll just come back sometime,'" she remembers.
Five years later, a meth user snuck into a space in the trunk of the tree, lit up, and burned the whole thing down. Sussman came back and photographed the charred remains. "It really was this moment challenging my sense of permanence and impermanence," she says.
For the past nine years, Sussman has been on a quest to document the world’s oldest living things before they’re gone. She’s traveled to a remote region of Greenland to take pictures of 5,500-year-old moss, to an ATV park in the Southwest that hosts a 12,000-year-old clonal creosote bush, and to Namibia, where she documented a plant that had survived several millennia in the desert by absorbing sea mist. Now, she’s compiled the best 32 images from her travels in a book, appropriately titled The Oldest Living Things in the World, and won a Guggenheim grant to continue her work.
Sussman didn’t originally set out to capture ancient organisms. But a formative trip to Japan’s prehistoric cryptomeria tree inspired her to seek out more. She started tracking sites she wanted to visit on a map, as well as sites she’d already been. In order to qualify for a trip, the organisms had to be at least 2,000 years old.
"I was absolutely floored that nobody had done this work before," she says. "There isn't an area in the sciences that deals with longevity across species."
Throughout her travels—which plunged her into significant personal debt—Sussman learned that few of the organisms she saw were protected in any substantial way. Their situations were so fragile that one Swedish biologist made her promise not to reveal the location of a 9,550-year-old spruce. Other organisms were even less secure—like the 9,000 to 13,000-year-old box huckleberry bush living in a Pennsylvanian’s yard.
But connecting with "deep time" through living things is a project Sussman thinks could last an entire lifetime. Ancient organisms, she points out, are being "discovered" all the time.
"We know so little about life on Earth, especially when you look at the ocean floor or bacteria—we're really just scraping the surface of our knowledge," she says. "The other thing, though, is that it feels like a race against time because of climate change. Will these things survive? Or will we find out about them at the last minute before we lose them? It’s kind of mind boggling to me that of my 30 subjects we've already lost two."