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These Are the Oldest Living Things on Earth, and They're Dying

"They have lived through any event you can think of in modern history... Shakespeare or the renaissance, or even the invention of the wheel."

The world's oldest Baobab tree at Kruger Game Preserve in South Africa. Image: Rachel Sussman

They have endured for millennia, but the world's oldest living organisms face an uncertain future. These ancient, yet fragile entities encounter new threats from a changing climate, and humans populating the Earth. For a decade now, photographer and artist Rachel Sussman has wandered around the planet, crossing 20 countries and every continent, to chronicle these ancient creatures.

Antarctica moss, 5,500 years old. Image: Rachel Sussman

Sussman's photographs, entwined with stories and essays, can be found between the covers of The World's Oldest Living Things, which appears in stores today. I talked to Sussman about her book, her travels, and what's threatening these historic organisms.

100,000-years-old sea grass, Baleric islands, Spain. Image: Rachel Sussman

"They're all in danger," Sussman told me. "They are impacted by every marker of climate change—rising temperatures, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, rising greenhouse gases, melting of polar ice caps—as well as basic human encroachment."

From 5,500-year-old moss in Antarctica to 100,000-year-old sea grass at the bottom of the ocean, the subjects of Sussman's photos had preserved for thousands of years, and yet just in the last five years, two of them have already died out.

An underground forest in Pretoria, South Africa, 13,000 years old, now deceased. Image: Rachel Sussman

The 13,000-year-old forest above thrived underground in South Africa until it was bulldozed over to pave way for a new road. 

The now deceased Senator tree, Bald Cypress, 3500-years-old, Florida. Image: Rachel Sussman

This 3,500-years-old Cyprus tree met a fiery death in 2012 when a group of kids in Florida, high on meth, lit a lighter inside it to "see their drugs better."

Soil sample containing 400,000--600,000 year old Siberian actinobacteria. Image: Rachel Sussman

Another endangered organism is this half-a-million-year old actinobacteria, the oldest living organism Sussman captured with her camera. The actinobacteria lives in Siberian permafrost, and if the permafrost melts, they will die.

Sussman's voyage across space and time began in Japan in 2004. She started feeling homesick after a friend's wedding, so took the advice of an old Japanese idiom and trekked even further away from home, seeking out the 7000-year-old Jomon Sugi tree (below), from the Jomon era in Japan.

2,000- to 7,000-year-old Jomon Sugi in Japan. Image: Rachel Sussman

The tree, though beautiful, did not deliver any instant epiphanies. It was a year later, in a Thai restaurant back in Soho, New York, that Sussman had her Eureka moment. Ever since, she has spent very little time in her studio in Brooklyn, preferring to explore the bottom of the ocean, the desert in Namibia, and the Antarctic peninsula, tracking and documenting the world's oldest things.

But her task hasn't been an easy one.

"One thing that's really interesting is that there's no area that deals with longevity across species," she said. "For example, dendrochronologists study old tree history, and micologists study fungi. But they don't talk to each other. So there was no list of old organisms. Basically I had to figure out what I was looking for before I could look for it."

Sussman wound up finding more than organisms; she found connection to deep time, and long-term thinking.

3000-year-old Llareta, Atacama desert, Chile. Image: Rachel Sussman

Millenia-old life, (like the 3000-year-old Llareta (above), puts the human lifespan and the human approach to timekeeping into a whole new perspective. On the geologic time scale, human life lasts but for a few fleeting moments. On the cosmic scale, it's the blink of an eye. 

"Some of the older individuals have been around since pre-history (or before historical records began to be written around 4,000 BCE)," said Sussman. "They have lived through any event you can think of in modern history, events which seem like they happened a long time ago—Shakespeare or the renaissance, or even the invention of the wheel!"

These individuals have witnessed the unfolding of history; the evolution of man, the dawn of agriculture, the Ice Age.  

They have lived through any event you can think of in modern history ... Shakespeare or the renaissance, or even the invention of the wheel!

"The underpinning of the project is really deep time and long-term thinking," she went on. "By starting at year 0, it's like saying "wait a minute, this is all so recent, our perspective is so narrow. Let's look really far back."

But even year 0 is a problematic starting point.

"Why is it 2004? Why is it 2014? That's so arbitrary. It's actually the year 4 billion, 500 million, 2014. It's kind of remarkable that we've come to agreement to what year it is, given all the other differences we have on this planet," said Sussman.

And yet despite our fleeting presence, humans are having a massive impact on our planet and its ancient survivors. 

18-feet wide, 2,000-year-old, brain coral, Speyside, Tobago. Image: Rachel Sussman

This brain coral living off the shore on the East Coast of Tobago narrowly missed the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010. This year, there have even more oil spills off the shores of Trinidad and Tobago.

Pando, 80,000-year-old clonal colony of Quaking Aspen, Fish Lake, Utah. Image: Rachel Sussman

Sussman hopes her work will serve as a wake-up call, and help visualize the long-term effects of global warming and our behavior on the Earth. 

"My photographs are portraits of these organisms, a way of approaching them as individuals, as a way to anthropomorphize them, to put a face to climate change," she said. "I hope this is a way to connect the issue of climate change and long-term thinking."

Looking at a 80,000-year-old Aspen colony in Utah should be a humbling experience for anyone.