The oldest living things in the world

"The Oldest Living Things in the World is an amazing hybrid," says Carla Sinclair, "part traditional coffee table book displaying gorgeous photographs, and part memoir of Rachel Sussman’s journey trekking around the world to photograph the oldest living things that she could find."

By Carla Sinclair

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

Published 9:41 pm Thu, May 22, 2014

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About the Author

Carla Sinclair is the co-founder of bOING bOING, the founding editor-in-chief of CRAFT magazine, and editor-in-chief of Wink. She has written several books, including Net Chick, The Happy Mutant Handbook, Signal to Noise, and Braid Crazy.

From our forums

  1. crenquis

    I like llareta (Sussman's photos of it seemed to be everywhere this past week)... At only ~3000 yrs, it is a bit of a baby.

    I feel compelled to head down to the Atacama to search for the perfect llareta that would meet Bushmiller's aestetic:

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