There are puzzling mysteries among us. Many living beings on Earth so lack distinctiveness to our eyes that we fail to recognize that they are profoundly old. Once identified, their sometimes-inconspicuous form may be gripping simply in the fact that it is alive and its remarkable age discovered. However, photographs by artist and investigator Rachel Sussman have newly inspired our sense of kinship with these ancient life forms and our understanding of their fundamental importance.
Since 2004, Ms. Sussman has traveled the world documenting living organisms two thousand years old or older, and has brought her wondrous visual record to the public.
Through these ancient individuals, she reminds us that we share the planet with a range of incredible life forms—from the monumental baobab tree in South Africa and the even more immense redwood tree in the Sequoia National Park, to the diminutive lichen in Greenland and even the obscure microscopic Siberian permafrost actinobacteria.
Life forms on Earth older than human experience inspire and offer us connection to our distant past, while at the same time call into question the power balance of humanity’s place in the natural world. It seemed particularly poignant to look at these individual species as plant populations around the world suffer the stress of global warming.
When I first saw Sussman’s large-scale photographs at her recent exhibition, The Oldest Living Things in the World at Pioneer Works Center for Art, my thought was that everyone needed to see these—they are not only places most have never been, they are of the mental spaces that elude us most. Among the clonal species was a portrait of Pando, a place dear to my heart.
I have been visiting old-growth forests for a long-time; however in 2009, when I first visited Pando, a clonal forest of Quaking Aspens located in the alpine region of Utah, I found that something urgent woke up inside me—something that pushed my mind to a different comprehension. It had to do with discovering what a geologic time scale could feel like by walking through it with all my senses engaged and what that can mean.
As I roamed under a fresh canopy of relatively young trees, my feet followed an unseen ancient root system that served as a guidepost as I mapped the idea that the earth and many of its inhabitants have lasted thousands upon thousands of years. Pando endured earthquakes, landslides, fires, eruptions, floods, and intense droughts and yet, is present with us today. As I found with Pando, you likely won't even recognize many of the ancient ones for who they are.
Pando didn’t look his age despite the fact that he is estimated to be somewhere between 80,000 to 1 million years old. He has endured it all, yet now his magnificence is waning. Anthropocene era is under way and the effects of global warming are taking their toll. This beautiful Aspen forest is a testament to both the idea of what a lifespan can mean and to the logic that life is a continuous struggle for survival.
Pando and other ancient living organisms challenge our understanding of the biological processes underlying their presence. They beg us to question the unique capacities they have. How did they assimilate over vast periods of time? How do they offer insights to how life evolved or how it might continue at this point? Simply in the fact that they are here, we must ask what made them different.
Despite hardships, some individuals will live long lives; they are more durable than others. These are the ones that penetrate our human centric notion of lifespan and coax us towards new timescales outside our own physical and biological experience.
Primal forests such as Pando are often referred to as immortal. When is a life so long it's seemingly everlasting? And why do humans have trouble processing timescales outside of approximately three generations?
What makes the experience and understanding of time, including what it means to be in the present, so difficult and paradoxical?
Rachel Sussman’s work presents more than a physical record of time—these photographs offer a rare perspective on biological longevity and transcendence. She stated, “My hope in connecting with these organisms that are two thousand years old or older is to sort of crack open this idea of what it means to be an individual and what an individual lifespan can mean.”
In the following interview with Rachel Sussman, we discuss her philosophical journey to comprehend evolutionary time as well as the impact her project has had on conservation efforts.
To read an article written by Rachel Sussman on photographing the world’s oldest living things, click here.