Past: The Oldest Living Things in the World

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Antarctic Moss #0212-7B33 (5,500 years old; Elephant Island,
Antarctic Moss #0212-7B33 (5,500 years old; Elephant Island,Photography by Rachel Sussman

A look at artist Rachel Sussman's incredible project, documenting the world's oldest living organisms

If you knew you were expected to live 2000 years or more, would your experience of time be different?

Our time scales place the conceivable past, present, future into a time span of about 150 years. At this moment in time, it is hard to comprehend beyond 2050 and anything that happened before 1900 is confined to the history books for eternity. For some living things, 150 years is essentially the present.

Captivated by the longevity of these organisms, contemporary artist Rachel Sussman made it her mission to document them: The Oldest Living Things in the World. Sussman's quest took her to the most remote edges of the earth to photograph things that had been continually alive for over 2000 years – this cut-off age was a play on human time-frames; she considered anything that was living before year zero. The project brought together scientists and artists, and even scientists with other scientists, as it provided a previously unexplored perspective of the living world.

"It is humbling to know that some of the trees we see today have been alive since before 3000 BC"

The flora and fauna uncovered are a visual joy: the knotty bark of the Bristlecone Pine tree in California is imbued with wisdom, it has watched the surrounding world for the last 5000 years, undeterred by war, drought, fire and anything that we humans can throw at it. It is humbling to know that some of the trees we see today have been alive since before 3000 BC.

There are other magical ancient trees in Sussman's collection, although many are clonal colonies – individual parts may grow and decay, but the organism as a whole goes on as often the continuous life-force remains in the roots. The quietly resilient Quaking Aspen cluster is an impressive clonal colony that has lived for 80,000 years in Fish Lake, Utah. What looks like a forest is actually a single tree, a huge mangled mix of roots spread underground, each trunk a single shoot from the tree.

Deserts also provide the perfect home for incredibly resilient species, both the Welwitschia Mirabilis – a primitive conifer in Namibia, and the Chilean La Llareta – a distant relative of parsley – have sat comfortably alive through the last two millennia, their distinct forms well-adapted to the arid climate.

We may not always be aware, but some of these ancient creatures do live among us. Venerable Yews are dotted in churchyards around the country – one in Scotland and another in Wales are known to have stood tall for over 2000 years. Last year, Sussman released a book entitled The Oldest Living Things in the World, which documents these organisms and explores the friction between human time and geological time. It is a logbook of essays, images, maps and a ten-year journey to the edge of eternity. As Sussman points out in one of her musings, the Yews came before the churches.