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Zain meets Rachel Sussman
Artist + Author

Zain meets Rachel Sussman | Kidspiration

How old is old? England’s Prince William is only 34, not very old these days. Your grandparents may be 75, or even 95. The oldest man in the world is still alive, in Indonesia. He’s 145 years old!

Many buildings, objects, and artworks have long outlived their human creators. The Statue of Liberty is 130 years old; the Imperial Palace in Beijing, China, is 610. Westminster Abbey has been here for over 950 years, and the Great Pyramid in Egypt, for 4,500 years.

But what about other living things? How old is “old” on Earth? That’s the question artist and photographer Rachel Sussman decided to answer in 2004. She’d traveled to Japan and was getting ready to go home to New York City when a friend suggested she check out Jomon Sugi, a cypress tree that’s been on the island of Yakushima for more than 2,000 years. The trip took several days but what she found was amazing. How did Jomon Sugi get to be so old?

Ms. Sussman soon discovered that there was no science dedicated to extremely old living things. If she wanted to find them, and understand their ways of surviving for thousands of years, she’d have to do the research herself and track down anyone who’d written papers and was still doing field work.

She started “The Oldest Living Things in the World” project in 2004, and spent the next 10 years traveling everywhere to find organisms that are 2,000 years old. Or older. She photographed them, then created an art exhibit and a book.

What did she find? Ancient things are alive on all seven continents, and Greenland. Many survive in very harsh climates by cloning themselves. La llareta, a strange combination of bacteria and inert matter in Chile (it’s related to carrots), is 3,000 years, and there’s moss in Antarctica over 5,500 years old. A Palmer’s oak shrub in California has been here for over 13,000 years. Actinobacteria found in Siberia has been staying alive for 400,000 to 600,000 years! It probably wins the Oldest Living Thing in the World contest.

Ms. Sussman, the artist, is now an expert in the super-old life forms area of science. If you’re interested in science, you can look for the parts that include art. You don’t have to choose, she says, or follow only one direction. Find out where several interesting ideas may work together and that may lead you to study something brand new. Or something very very old!



Zain:
Hello. My name is Zain and I’m going to interview Rachel Sussman, the author and a photographer of the oldest things in the world. Let’s go see her now.

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Zain:
Hi Rachel.

Rachel:
It’s so nice to meet you Zain.

Zain:
Tell me more about your life.

Rachel:
So I’m an artist but I’m an artist who works with scientists. And I live in New York but I have traveled all over the world to every single continent looking for things that have been alive for 2,000 years and longer. So I call the project: The Oldest Living Things in the World. And I was working on it for ten years which I think is longer than you’ve been alive.

Zain:
One year longer.

Rachel:
One year longer, okay. [laughter]

Zain:
Which one do you prefer – science or art?

Rachel:
That’s a trick question. The nice thing is that you don’t have to choose a favorite. So for me they’re both really important. So I love working with scientists and I think in a lot of ways scientists and artists think in the same way because they’re both trying to discover something or make something new, and following their interests. And so for me as an artist it was great to be able to say I’m interested in this part of science so I want to include that in my artwork.

And that’s a very special thing. And it could be anything. It could be philosophy or geography or history. So whatever you’re interested in you can combine together. You don’t always have to follow one – one specialized discipline.

Zain:
How come this has been living for 2,000 years and it hasn’t even decayed?

Rachel:
That’s a good question. And actually it has decayed a little bit. So the giant Baobab trees – as they get older they decay in the center. So they get a little hollow. The wood gets soft and pulpy. So it’s hard for them to live much longer than 2,000 years. So the Baobab trees – there are some trees in South Africa where people use the inside of the tree for different things. So somebody put a bar inside one and a prison. And one of them they use for a toilet.

Zain:
What?

Rachel:
Yes, I know. It’s crazy right?

Zain:
We could really take care of the environment instead of using it for their purposes.

Rachel:
I agree with you absolutely. So don’t scratch your name in a tree. and don’t use it as a toilet for sure.

Zain:
Can you climb it?

Rachel:
You can try. It’s so steep and the bark is really smooth so it’s a little – It’s hard but I bet you could do it. So this is very unique because these are called stromatolites. And stromatolites are part living and part non-living.

Zain:
How did it get into the water?

Rachel:
Well so there are a lot of questions about these. They’re made up of bacteria and non-living things like sand and silt and things that have washed down. And they’ve combined together to make these shapes. And so the bacteria is called cyanobacteria. You can keep that in mind or not. It’s not important. But the thing that’s most interesting is that’s one of the very earliest living things on earth. So the question – your question: how did it get in the water?

One question is: how did it get to earth to begin with? This is just a theory but there’s a chance that bacteria could’ve been sitting on a meteorite and landed on earth somewhere. So maybe the stromatolites grew out of that. We’re not sure. The very first ones started forming 3.5 billion years ago.

Zain:
What?

Rachel:
Yeah I know right?

Zain:
Rachel what’s this?

Rachel:
That is pretty interesting right?

Zain:
Yeah.

Rachel:
So this is one of everybody’s favorite photographs or organisms from the project because it is so weird looking. So sometimes people have guessed is it an alien?

Zain:
[laughter] Really?

Rachel:
Yeah. Or does it –? I mean and often people would guess it looks like moss growing on top of rocks. But that’s not right either. So what it is: it’s a shrub. So it is thousands of branches. And at the end of each branch are a cluster of little green leaves. And they’re really densely packed together. So you could stand and walk on top of this.

Zain:
Is it edible? [laughter]

Rachel:
It is not edible. But one thing that it does do well – this is sort of a thing that makes it endangered a bit – is that it’s very good for fuel so to burn. So we obviously don’t want that to happen. These are protective. Some people don’t burn them but sometimes they do. So this is one of those times where we want to protect these organisms even though it might be tempting to use them. And these are related. The Llareta plant is related to things like carrots and parsley and things like that.

This is a very special tree. This is a spruce tree living in Sweden. And it’s 9,550 years old. The reason the location – the exact location of the spruce is hidden is because the scientists don’t want to encourage too many people to go disrupt the environment around it. For 9,500 years of its live it was only that tall. And for the past 50 or so years this part grew. And the reason that happened is because it got warmer. So the scientists say that this is like visualizing climate change.

Zain:
Thanks for showing me all your pictures and sharing interesting information with me.

Rachel:
Oh you’re welcome. I’m so glad to meet you. And you’re obviously so interested in learning about things. So it’s always great for me to talk to kids and adults – anybody who’s interested in learning and exploring. So I can tell that you like to do that.

Zain:
So I’ll see you next time.

Rachel:
Okay see you next time.

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Zain:
So it was great to meet Rachel and learn about the oldest things in the world. Well my name is Zain and I will see you next time. Goodbye.