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The Survivors

By Nicole Anderson
June 2014
Photo © Rachel Sussman
Llareta in Atacama Desert in Chile.

A decade ago, artist Rachel Sussman found herself on the lush island of Yakushima looking up at a colossal gnarled cypress tree called the Jomon Sugi. A trip to Japan brought Sussman first to Kyoto, where ancient temples stand only a short distance from commercial strips filled with Starbucks branches and office buildings. She felt the urge to see something different, be somewhere more remote, so she traveled to Yakushima, off the southern end of Japan, in search of the Sugi, a tree between 2,180 and 7,000 years old. But it wasn't until a year later—when telling friends about her travels and recalling the sight of this long-surviving Sugi—that she hatched the idea to trek to the far-off corners of the world to photograph organisms that have been alive at least 2,000 years.

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"When I first started, there was no list of organisms 2,000 years old or more. I first had to figure out what I was looking for," says Sussman. She began creating a list of species; once she tracked down research papers on them, she reached out to biologists. Now Sussman's journeys have culminated in a book, The Oldest Living Things in the World, a collection of her compelling photographs accompanied by narration, out this spring. In the Atacama Desert in Chile, she captures the 3,000-year-old Llareta, a plant in the same family as parsley and fennel resembling a series of boulders covered in bright green moss. In the Mediterranean Sea off the Balearic Islands in Spain, Sussman joined a team of biologists researching underwater to snap shots of 100,000-year-old Posidonia seagrass.

But an inevitable question arises: how much longer will these organisms be able to live? As climate change continues to impact weather patterns and the environment, the continued survival of these enduring yet fragile species is at risk. "I hope my photographs and essays help bring these specimens to life in a way that is more personal," says Sussman, "so that we can see the world on their terms: that their lifespan is a drop in the bucket, and what we do matters."


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