A photographer’s pilgrimage to see the world’s oldest. Before the signs of climate change sees them disappear.
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.”