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The Oldest Living Things in the World Hardcover – April 14, 2014

4.7 out of 5 stars 106 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“As a kind of time-traveling expeditionist — a chrononaut? —Sussman lets us drink from primeval wells. One of the great satisfactions of her book is that it allows us to peer at the almost eternal even as we’re mired in a culture quick to praise the new and ephemeral.”
(New York Times)

“The Oldest Living Things in the World serves us the humbling profundity and pathos of things that live almost forever. We see our abstract selves and feel the terrible bludgeon of that which we cannot have and are fated only to behold. Rachel Sussman brings you to the place where science, beauty, and eternity meet.”
(Jerry Saltz, New York Magazine)

“The Oldest Living Things in the World adds in dramatic manner a fascinating new perspective—literally, dinosaurs—of the living world around us.”
(Edward O. Wilson, Harvard University)

“Contemplate life through the time scale of The Oldest Living Things, and you'll find your mind expanded and heart inspired. I'm thrilled to see Rachel's powerful TED talk develop and deepen into this captivating book. “
(Chris Anderson, TED curator)

“Longevity means continuity. Long-lived people connect generations for us. Really long-lived organisms, like the ones Sussman has magnificently collected photographically, connect millennia. They put all of human history in living context. And as Sussman shows, they are everywhere on Earth. This book embodies the Long Now and the Big Here.”
(Stewart Brand, cofounder, The Long Now Foundation)

“Something astounding happens when Rachel Sussman photographs the most ancient organisms to be found across our planet. A fraction of a second of time in her photographic exposures animates forms that have evolved across nature's deep time to create a profound experience of being alive. Sussman's ten-year investigation of the symbols of the earth's ecology is rigorous and exploratory, realized with such generosity to the reader and her ambitions make an impossibly vast subject both felt and understood.”
(Charlotte Cotton, author of The Photograph as Contemporary Art)

“I am in awe—awe staring at my planet's old sages, who know the way things were, will be, and should be—awe when I appreciate Rachel Sussman's epic quest to round them all up and her daring in stealing their soul with her photographs.”
(Paola Antonelli, senior curator, Museum of Modern Art)

“There’s a sense of wonder imbued in these photographs of organisms that seem to be a physical record of time, but there’s also a call to action. Many of these subjects of Sussman’s portraits are under threat from habitat loss or climate change or simple human idiocy.”

“Beautiful and powerful work at the intersection of fine art, science, and philosophy, spanning seven continents and exploring issues of deep time, permanence and impermanence, and the interconnectedness of life. With an artist’s gift for ‘aesthetic force’ and a scientist’s rigorous respect for truth, Sussman straddles a multitude of worlds as she travels across space and time to unearth Earth’s greatest stories of resilience, stories of tragedy and triumph, past and future, but above all stories that humble our human lives.”
(Brain Pickings)

“The series, and now book, is part art, part science, and part travelogue, but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Because whether you look at these as documentary photography or scientific snapshots of millennia-old species that are now being threatened by the looming specter of climate change, there’s something in this book for everyone.”

“A gorgeous book of stunning portraits which almost seem to capture the wise, wizened personalities of these scraggy pines, rippling sea grasses, and otherworldly mosses. Accompanying the photo are Sussman’s essays, which serve as both a scientific explainer and a captivating travelogue, transporting the reader to often freakishly remote locations on all seven continents. The book and its subjects are at once inspiring and terrifying—a testament to the resiliency of nature, of course, but also a reminder of its fragility.”

“Photographer Sussman has spent the past decade looking for the oldest things alive. Her search has led her to every continent, to specimens such as a 2,400-year-old fungus in Oregon to an ancient shrub in Tasmania (age: 43,600). She documents 30 of those organisms in her new book, The Oldest Living Things in the World. To find them, she enlisted the help of biologists and explorers—and even collaborated with the Polar Geospatial Center to get arctic satellite maps to reach a rare moss.”
(Wall Street Journal)

“The Oldest Living Things in the World by contemporary artist Rachel Sussman features photographs of 30 of the oldest continuously living organisms in the world. They're a dry, scraggly lot, like 5,500-year-old, weather-worn Antarctic moss (first picture, below), and a 2,000-year-old, brittle-looking pafuri baobab tree in South Africa (second picture). Like the very oldest human beings, tucked away in nursing homes, the oldest plants tend to live in out of the way places, stolid in the desert or reproducing slowly beneath the permafrost. But unlike human beings, who fade away, these organisms quietly thrive, diligently repairing their aged molecules and stonewalling generations of pathogens. Most of the time these old things are an afterthought, but collected together, they begin to appear as the main event on earth.”
(Boston Globe)

“We need more artists, musicians, dancers, and poets to give humanistic expression to the pursuit of environmental knowledge. I wish major research institutions supported artist-in-residence programs alongside labs. Sussman believes that ‘[t]he best art and science projects enhance and extend each other, bringing something new to both; they are not about simply making the research pretty, or making artworks using novel scientific tools.’ By this measure, The Oldest Living Things in theWorld is a work for the ages.”

“Anyone who sees Sussman’s images will be struck by their beauty, but the photos also have the power to make one ponder our fate, and the planet’s.”
(San Francisco Chronicle)

“At a time when science is increasingly specialized, her artist’s vision transcends the divides between disciplines, and she highlights the importance of analyzing longevity across species as a way of understanding our world.”
(Boston Globe)

“The photos are beautiful, and even more so when you learn how ancient each living thing is. Her youngest subjects are 2,000 years old (such as brain coral she found in Tobago, and a strange exotic plant called welwitschia spotted in Namibia), and these are mere toddlers compared to their elders, like the 80,000-year-old aspen trees from Utah (pictured above) and the 400,000-600,000 year-old continually living Siberian bacteria! A photography book filled only with these incredible miracles of nature would have certainly made for a gem to be displayed. But Sussman surprised me with what most coffee table books don’t do – she told an engaging story, filled with humor, intrigue, and fascinating science, based on her experience over the last 10 years researching, traveling and photographing this book. If Oldest Living Things contained no photos, her story would still easily stand on its own as a captivating memoir … or an engaging science textbook … or both, actually.”
(Boing Boing)

“The images, collected in The Oldest Living Things in the World, are vast in size and accomplishment, the colours startling. Readers are left with a sense of wonder at these miracles and at Sussman’s retelling of her journey.”
(New Statesman)

“Sussman’s ten-year journey going back in time thousands of years through photographs offers a unique perspective that will inspire current and future biologists. Recommended.”

“This unique, ambitious book sets out to review the interdisciplinary and fragmented work of those who have discovered by accident or purse perseverance an incredibly ancient living thing. . . . Sussman’s quirky catalog of travel and photo-documentation is both artistically and scientifically one of a kind.”
(American Scientist)

About the Author

Rachel Sussman is a contemporary artist based in Brooklyn. Her photographs and writing have been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Guardian, and NPR’s Picture Show. She has spoken on the TED main stage and at the Long Now Foundation, is a MacDowell Colony and NYFA Fellow and is a trained member of Al Gore’s Climate Reality Leadership Corps. Her work has been exhibited in museums and galleries in the US and Europe, and acquired for museum, university, corporate, and private collections. She is fiscally sponsored by the Brooklyn Arts Council. To make 100% US tax-deductible donation to support her ongoing work, please visit: http://rachelsussman.com/donate
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; 1St Edition edition (April 14, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 022605750X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226057507
  • Product Dimensions: 12 x 10.3 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (106 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #25,946 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By David Dubbert on April 27, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I agree with the other two reviewers who gave this book five stars, but I don't think they touched on what was so meaningful to me about the book. The photography is good, even though many of the subjects don't really lend themselves to easy framing or notable settings - try photographing a fungus if you don't believe me. The theme is engaging as well, but what really made this book for me were the stories, thoughts, ponderings that accompany each chapter. Despite writing only about living things over 2,000 years old, Sussman has made this into an intensely personal book, part story, part quest, and all heart. Please read this, you'll be better for having done so.
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A tree 2000 years old, another a 13,000, and a clonal copse of trees 70,000 years old - or maybe a few hundred thousand. Bacteria somewhere around a half-million years old. Yet odder beings in the thousands to ten-thousand-plus range. If the individual organism isn't at least 2000 years old, it doesn't make the cut.

This book is simply awe-inspiring - to be among beings that live such lives, where ice ages might come and go around the one individual. That time scale simply boggles the mind. Then the chill sets in: a few of these beings have died since their pictures were taken. A tree of 3000 years succumbed to fire, another of 13,000 was killed in a construction project. What lived so long can die in minutes, and you can't just plant some seeds and grow a new one, not 13,000 years old. Gone, after all that time, because of natural hazards or human carelessness.

And, in the current Great Extinction, we'll lose a lot more, mostly never having known they ever lived. Environmental threats and climate change can move faster than these living things can respond. I find it humbling, too - so few human artifacts or cultures have the power to last as long as these beings have.

Although the naturalist who collected these images took care with proper identification, she's not a scientist by trade. She's an artist, a photographer. But she's a part of the scientific venture, too, making it humanly understandable, even personal, and stirring the sense of awe and respect that underlies nearly all scientific research. (I first became aware of this book through a review in Science magazine.) Really, she just proves that the dichotomy of science and art is artificial and arbitrary, more an artifact of the viewer's preconceptions than of the fields themselves. This has my highest recommendation.

-- wiredweird
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I love the exploration of very old things, and there are some fantastic photos. The commentary is a little strange though, with meandering narratives that mention personal romantic dramas that are totally irrelevant to the topic.
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Format: Hardcover
Author/photographer Sussman is motivated by the death of the Senator tree near Orlando Florida in early January, 2012 - 3,500 years old, killed by a fire likely human caused. (There was no lightning recorded in the area during the weeks prior, and the tree had recently been provided with its own lightning rod.) Fortunately she had already photographed it in 2007 as part of her focus on living organisms 2,000 years and older.

The Senator tree is not the only seemingly immortal treasure damaged/killed by man - there's a 3,000+ year-old chestnut tree near Mt. Etna in which someone tried to grill sausages inside it. Fortunately, that tree was saved and a protective fence since erected.

Other such treasures are also threatened from time to time - thankfully she's well into her work. Sussman has also traveled to Greenland that grow only 1 cm. every hundred years, Tasmania to record a 43,000-year old shrub, a dense bush in Chile's Atacama Desert that is as much as 3,000 years old, etc.

I was surprised to learn that creosote bushes, of which there are many in my yard, have been estimated at 12,000 years-old in the Mohave Desert. Turns out they grow-out from a center via circular expansion of roots. So, mine may also be very, very old as well. The really good news - they can survive up to two years without water. Quaking Aspen in Utah, underground forests in South Africa, and other trees/bushes spread out similarly from a very old center. Olive trees may be 3,000 years old.

There's also 5,500-year-old moss on Elephant Island in Antarctica (looks deceptively like ordinary moss), and younger (2,200 year-old moss) growing atop 9,000-year-old fossilized remains of its predecessors. Oldest of all - 400,000 to 600,000 year-old Siberian bacteria (microscopic), and still alive, per the experts.

Truly an awe-inspiring work.
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Format: Hardcover
‘The Oldest Living Things in the World’ photographed and written by Rachel Sussman is an impressive collection of beautiful photos and high-quality texts that lead us through history to the present, raising many interesting questions about our future.

The artist Rachel Sussman for last ten years conducted an extensive research helped by the biologists, travelling around the world and taking photos of the flora that is 2 000 years old or even older.

With her pictures taken all around the world, in the areas with eternal snow, or places where a drop of rain has not fallen for an eternity, Rachel has managed with her objective to convey emotions and beauty of ancient life which is kind of hard to express in words - it must be seen and felt in her photographs.

Except the reader can enjoy her photographs, equally valuable, educating and useful are the author texts, among other things, based on the work of scientists which explored the subjects of her photos – they will occupy readers, offering the opportunity to learn about the many beauties and variety of life on Earth for which unfortunately we realize how little do we know after the last page of her impressive book is closed.

80 000 years old colony of aspen trees in Utah, moss older than 5 000 years on Antarctica and almost 44 000 years old shrub on Tasmania are just some of the jewels of which you will find out between the covers of this book, about which you probably just like I did not know anything.

Therefore, ‘The Oldest Living Things in the World’ is both a work of art thanks to the photographs author provided, a scientific work because of the writings found inside - in a word, breathtaking comprehensive experience given by Rachel Sussman which you will continually enjoy, just like me since I picked up for the first time this book in my hands.
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