THE OLDEST LIVING THINGS IN THE WORLD. Rachel Sussman. xxxiv + 270 pp. University of Chicago Press, 2014. $45.00.
Photographer Rachel Sussman spent 10 years visiting every continent to find and document the Methuselahs of life on Earth, those aged at least 2,000 years. Primarily a visual artist, she describes her work as “outside of conventional scientific methodologies.” Nevertheless, there is no doubt that this tome is a scientifically important compilation of these often elusive and remote organisms—one that illustrates the importance of conserving them to better understand the mysteries of longevity and protect their diverse forms.
As art historian Hans Ulrich Obrist points out in his opening essay, focusing on the organisms that survive through multiple millennia can offer a message of hope in a time when mass extinction is a persistent worry. The study of longevity remains a constantly evolving field, and the advent of better dating techniques using radioisotopes and genetics means that the ages of some of these organisms were discovered or updated as Sussman worked on this photodocumentary project—a circumstance that further emphasizes the wealth of information that can be lost when they are neither appreciated nor protected. In her quest to catalog this ragtag group of creatures, Sussman presents more than 120 photographs in The Oldest Living Things in the World, accompanied by her travel and research anecdotes and introduced in two opening essays by Obrist and Carl Zimmer.
Despite their capacity for survival, some of these ancients are threatened with extinction. As Sussman notes, “Extreme longevity can lull us into a false sense of permanence.” In fact, some are the last living individuals of their species—for example, the 43,600-year-old king’s holly (Lomatia tasmanica) shrub in Australia. Such astonishing life spans prompt the question of how these organisms outlive everyone else. “The durable mystery of longevity makes the species in this book all the more precious, and all the more worthy of being preserved,” Zimmer writes. Although humans may consider the week-long life span of a gastrotich to be a mere blink, he says, our own life span similarly diminishes compared to that of a 13,000-year-old Palmer’s oak.
Why organisms have different life spans remains unknown, but there are some lessons in the book on how they do so. “The fast and furious,” as Sussman puts it, are not the survivors, and efficiency is a key survival strategy. For example, she notes, the bristlecone pine, which can live upward of 5,000 years, may rely on a single live branch when the rest of the tree looks dead and can retain each needle for as long as 40 years.
Some organisms survive by being unappealing to predators and people. Hollow trees, such as the 3,000-year-old olive tree that is the pride of Crete, may survive because they have been spared the ax. Although some of the world’s oldest organisms, such as the giant sequoias, are impressive in size or appearance, most are decidedly more humble: Sussman does not shy from the scrubby and scrappy life that is more fascinating than photogenic. For example, her photograph of the box huckleberry (Gaylussacia brachycera) of Perry County, Pennsylvania, depicts a plant so unremarkable one would overlook it completely on a hike, but it turns out to be somewhere between 8,000 and 13,000 years old.
Others on the list are downright ugly, and Sussman retains a deep if bemusing fascination with these. When she first encounters the Posidonia sea grass in a local Spanish newspaper, she says the article includes a “tantalizing photo of a tangle of dead grass and seedpods that looked like the world’s largest hairball.” Let’s just say that her photographs do the plant complete justice.
In the midst of these massive, scrubby, and homely compadres, another kind of survivor emerges. Evidenced by the fairy rings of the 2,400-year-old honey mushroom in Oregon and the seedlings of the 3,000-year-old Llareta in Chile, circular growth patterns indicate an organism’s ability to make many identical copies of itself. The very oldest organisms in the book are clonal: the 400,000- to 600,000-year-old Actinobacteria of Siberia, the 100,000-year-old Posidonia sea grass, and the 80,000-year-old stand of 47,000 quaking aspen trees in Utah known as Pando.
Sussman’s account of her worldwide travels to document these epic survivors is deeply personal. She does not censor some of her failures and challenges: the organisms she could not document because of one impracticality or another; a clumsy injury that tested the limits of Sri Lankan health care; getting foolishly lost in a remote part of Greenland; and awkward meetings with her boyfriend, one of which ultimately ends in a breakup. Although these accounts often ramble, the book’s format, reminiscent of a field notebook, fits Sussman’s conversational style and leaves room for nuggets of intimate reflection. A favorite example: “There is a special kind of cognitive dissonance to being featured in the pages of the Wall Street Journal while simultaneously unable to pay one’s rent.”
This unique, ambitious book sets out to review the interdisciplinary and fragmented work of those who have discovered by accident or pure perseverance an incredibly ancient living thing. In addition to the photography and writing, Sussman includes several helpful summary figures: a timeline, map, phylogeny, and graph of growth strategies. She admits the work is far from over, because more than half of her subjects were discovered in the past 30 years. For some organisms, she just couldn’t get there: “Sometimes a girl really does need a submarine.” Whether or not a sub becomes available, one hopes a second album of ancients will find its way to readers eventually. Until then, Sussman’s quirky catalog of travel and photodocumentation is both artistically and scientifically one of a kind.
Katie L. Burke is an associate editor of American Scientist. She received her PhD in biology from the University of Virginia in 2011. She blogs about ecology at http://the-understory.com.