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TEDGlobal: Rachel Sussman photographs plants from before year zero

Rachel Sussman is photographing organisms that are more than 2000 years old. The project was inspired by Jamon Sugi, a two thousand year old Japanese Cedar at a remote island called Yaku Shima. The project is a combination of philosophy, photography and history, starting at year zero and working backwards.

The project features wonderful species like La Llareta – a three thousand year old shrub that looks like a strange pile of moss. She visited Greenland and photographed a map lichen, which grows a centimeter every 100 years. She tells us that visiting Greenland was more live traveling in time than in space, going to a place where you can grab foot-long trout with your hands from a running, glacial stream.

The trout aren’t very old – indeed, there are no animals in the set, as the oldest animal alive – a tortoise – is only 175 years old. A coral isn’t a very speedy animal, but there is one that’s 2000 years old off the shores of Tobago – it’s beautiful, nibbled by parrot fish and there’s an open question of whether it will be damaged by the Gulf oil spill.

But generally we’re looking at plants and fungi. Really big fungi.

The Armilaria Death Rings are caused by a predatory fungus, sometimes called honey mushroom or “the humungous fungus”. It’s best seen from aerial photography in rings of trees killed by the fungus.

Circles of plants appear in her work. A clonal colony of quaking Aspen is a single tree, with a single genome, but looks like a forest. It’s 80,000 years old, lives in Fish Lake, Utah, happens to be male, and in theory, is immortal.

The Sagole Baobab in Limpopo Province, South Africa, is two thousand years old. As they age, baobobs hollow out, because they become pulpy. She tells us about trees that have been used as a bar, a prison, a toilet.

Welwirschia, a primitive conifer, a shrublike desert tree, lives in Namib desert, where it features the longest leaves in the plant kingdom. To its south, in the bush veldt of South Africa, trees grow almost entirely underground with just leaves poking above the surface. This protects them from fires that sweep through the area. They, too, are astoundingly old. So are some creosote bushes in the US – 12,000 years old – which are slow spreading circles, in danger on their Bureau of Land Management land, which is open for ATV traffic.

In more serious threat are Siberian Actinobacteria. They’re 400-600,000 years old and we know they’re alive because we can document them doing DNA repair at temperatures below freezing. In her upcoming travel, she’ll go to Antarctica to photograph 5000 year old moss.

Why do this? The oldest living things are a record of the past, call to action, and a barometer of the future.