The World’s Oldest Living Things
September 20, 2010 | Matthew Day
If you had the chance, what would you ask a 9,550 year old spruce tree? I’ve been thinking about this question for a few days and I’m still not sure.
If it was 200 years old, I’d ask it what piece of technology has changed the world the most. If it was 2000 years old I’d ask it if the renaissance really was a re-birth of European culture. If the tree was 3,000 years old I’d ask for a history of fiction writing starting with the Iliad (Homer’s Iliad is considered the oldest fiction in Western literature). But these questions only relate to the final third of the tree’s life– it’s retirement, so to speak. To delve into its childhood, I would have to ask more general questions about domesticating cattle or the advent of ceramics. At this point I completely lose a personal reference of time. Heck, I don’t even think I know a ‘your momma’s so old’ joke older than Jesus’ last supper.
Rachel Sussman is familiar with this line of thinking. She has spent the last 5 years working on a science / art project taking portraits of The Oldest Living Things in the World. Her unique approach raises interesting existential and environmental questions: perhaps the same type of questions we as a society should be concerned with as we grapple with mitigating climate change.
Her photos can’t help but make us compare our short life of experiences (In Canada, we can expect to live on average 81 years) with these truly senior citizens. A picture of a 9,550 year old spruce tree gives us a direct and living connection to a vastly different time – and with any luck, reason for pause and reflection.
So, as a society, how are we treating our elders? Not great, it turns out. We’re finding ways both directly and indirectly to danger the life of these creatures. In the above picture, you’ll notice fickle branches in the middle of the tree. Biologists who have studied this tree link this loss to climate change. Similarly, this 2,000 year old Brain Coral (pictured above) only just survived an attack from hungry fish to become threatened by the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico (fortunately it is no longer in danger).
Above is a picture of the Siberian Actinobacteria. It is the most vulnerable of Rachel Sussman’s studies and it is also the oldest. It has been living in the permafrost in south central Russia for almost half of a million years. It would best celebrate its birthday in Milankovitch Cycles! But with its home so precariously located in ice, a warmer climate would very likely destroy this ancient wonder.
As you flip through Sussman’s pictures, you will notice that a great number of these creatures live in the harshest and least hospitable regions in the world: deserts in the United States, Antarctica, Chile and Namibia; the tundra in Sweden; and in Siberian ice. As I pondered their isolation from humans, I got to thinking, is it despite these climates that they persist or because of them?