I’m not sure which I enjoyed more. 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. Reminding me of Jon Krakauer or Bill Bryson, Sussman was able to explain the science behind ancient organisms in fascinating layman’s terms, while weaving an entertaining story in between the facts. She had me laughing out loud over the many anecdotes of her travels, such as the details of her stay in a hippie trailer in Australia to photograph a 12,000-year-old beech tree. A page later, I was cringing over the dripping blood under her collarbone from a leech bite, which she tried to mop up with a take-out napkin. And this was right after she had come across a poisonous snake in the middle of her path. In another part of the book, on her trek to find 2,200-year-old Antarctic moss in South Georgia, she explains with a bit of dry humor how to ward off aggressive seals, which had bitten at least one of the folks on her expedition. 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.
The Oldest Living Things in the World, by Rachel Sussman