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24 APRIL, 2012

A Journey to the End of the World: Tracing Polar Explorer Shackleton’s Footsteps a Century Later

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What a seal bodyguard and 2,200-year-old moss have to do with a watershed moment in exploration history.

On April 24, 1916, five men led by polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, the third officer on Captain Scott’s Discovery Expedition, set out on an 870-nautical-mile journey on a 22-foot glorified rowboat across the Drake Passage. Shackleton and his crew were marooned on Elephant Island after losing their ship to the Weddell Sea.

They were coming to their own rescue.

Medusa Kelp in Hercules Bay, South Georgia

I, too, was headed to South Georgia; it was the same trip, though certainly not the same journey. I looked out the windows of the National Geographic Explorer, secure and comfortable, as we rounded the far eastern point of Elephant Island. I saw the cove where Shackleton and his men found some small respite from the icy waters, and drew a mental picture of that place, too depleted after my morning’s efforts to even go get my camera.

A small selection of the 300,000 King Penguins in Gold Harbor (a.k.a. 'Penguinpalooza')

Two days later we were in South Georgia, a veritable paradise of animals, vegetation, and exposed geology, like the story of the world writ large on the landscape itself. And here, too, are etched the final chapters of the Shackleton story; the thumbnail of a beach where they first landed, the spot they set out overland across terrain just this side of passable, a hike over a last ridge that separated an impossible journey of perseverance back into a remote outpost of civilization: a whaling station in Stromness Bay.

Grytviken Whaling Station Torqued Ellipses (For Richard Serra)

The captain pulled us so far into Stromness Harbor we were practically on the beach. Despite some cloud cover and a bit of snow coming in, our conditions were calm that day, and I hopped into a Zodiac with Stephanie Martin, a marine mammal researcher, and we zipped back out into the bay and down one harbor to Husvik. The moss I was now after, my “back up moss,” if you will, is 2,200 years old, and growing on top of a 9,000-year-old fossil bed. Fortified with the research and a map provided from Nathalie Van der Putten who discovered this bank, I once again scanned the outline of the topography to home in on Kanin Point.

Elephant seals in Gold Harbor

The beach and tussock grass was so lousy with seals that Stephanie became my de facto seal bodyguard, and likewise instructed me on how to keep them at bay. The first rule is to make loud noises. The second was to carry a paddle from the Zodiac. One might be tempted to smack a snarling male fur seal on the head, but it isn’t necessary — just tapping them on the flippers is deterrent enough. (Which is not to say that no one got bitten over the course of this expedition.)

Hercules Bay, South Georgia

I climbed through the tussock and saw the ancient mounds of peat. I had found it. I took some photos, this time close in, feeling unbelievably fortunate to have found not just one, but both of these ancient moss banks — the needles in a polar haystack.

2,200-year-old moss bank, growing on top of a 9,000-year-old fossilized bank

Later the same afternoon, I hiked overland from a protected inlet into the plot where Shackleton is buried. My heart was once again clutched with the grip of this place, ancient and primeval in its makeup. It was akin to a wide-eyed first visit to the surface of another planet.

Landscape, South Georgia

View of Elephant Island, looking east

If Shackleton’s story had been written as fiction, surely someone would criticize it for having an unrealistic number of obstacles. He had returned to South Georgia five years after his harrowing circuit, and, as if living on borrowed time, died of a massive heart attack the very night he arrived. He died having no idea he shared Elephant Island with one of the oldest living things on the planet, nor that he would end his journey in South Georgia just a stone’s throw from yet another. But I have a feeling he would have approved of the quiet perseverance of these unassuming mosses, in this landscape that speaks of deep time, the power of the natural world, and the precariousness of life in its clutches.

The Grytviken maritime graveyard, guarded by a giant elephant seal

I poured some whiskey on Shackleton’s grave, and some for me, too.

Rachel Sussman is a Brooklyn-based artist and photographer. Over the past six years, she has traveled the world to document Earth’s most ancient organisms in her project The Oldest Living Things in the World. Rachel has exhibited across the U.S. and Europe, received numerous awards, and spoken at TED. You can follow her global adventures on Twitter.

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17 FEBRUARY, 2012

All the Time in the World

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What a charred ancient tree can teach us about impermanence, deep time, and our place in the universe.

The tree had been on fire for over a week before anyone noticed. The Senator, one of the oldest Cypress trees in the world, was killed when a smoldering ignition from an errant lightning strike slowly transformed it into a towering chimney and fuel source in one. Or maybe it didn’t happen like that at all. Perhaps it was an errant cigarette, or a sinister match strategically placed in its hollow berth. The mystery endures, but the fact remains: on January 16, 2012 The Senator collapsed and died, engulfed in flames. It was 3,500 years old.

The Senator; Bald Cypress #0907-0107

3,500 years old; Seminole County, Florida

Back in 2007, I went to Orlando to photograph The Senator as part of The Oldest Living Things in the World, my art and science project consisting of continuously living organisms 2,000 years old and older. I had recently returned home from Africa, where I’d driven around the Limpopo in search of ancient Baobab trees, visited an underground forest in Pretoria amidst a morning threat of ‘smash and grabs,’ and taken a road trip from Cape Town up through Namibia to find the genuinely odd Welwitschia Mirabilis, which looked more like a science fictional sea creature than a primitive conifer punctuating the vast and empty Namib Naukluft. And then I flew to Orlando.

Welwitschia Mirabilis #0707-22411

2,000 years old; Namib Naukluft Desert, Namibia

The Senator was the primary attraction at the aptly named Big Tree Park, just twenty minutes worth of strip malls from downtown Orlando. In fact, it was the original Orlando attraction, BD (‘Before Disney’, if you will), visited via horse and carriage. I drove with a friend in her family car. We parked in an orderly lot, walked a quarter-mile on a planked path through the once-swampy woodland, and arrived at the tree just like that. Named for Senator M.O. Overstreet in 1927, it was impressively tall and robust while not overly gnarly, and kept company with Lady Liberty, which at 2,000 years and a noticeably svelter silhouette – save for a knotty eye-level north side bustle – made for a May-December pairing. Families with cameras looked up and strolled between the two, the children quickly bored and retreating to the playground.

I snapped a digital shot for a couple who asked, out of proximity rather than expertise, that I take their picture in front of the tree. I then took out my medium format film camera and made some photographs of my own. I make large-scale fine art prints of my work, and feel that I get the best of both worlds by shooting film, and making high resolution scans of the negatives and making archival pigment prints. When I got the film back I knew I had missed my mark: there were some interesting compositions, but I hadn’t captured the spirit of this remarkable being. I was coming to see my subjects as individuals, and as such I wanted to make portraits of them rather than landscapes; to encourage anthropomorphism, and create a means to connect to Deep Time – thousands of years of a life distilled into 1/60th of a second.

And with that, I made an unceremonious decision to return to The Senator when opportunity allowed. In the intervening years I traveled to Greenland for lichens that grown only 1cm every hundred years, to Chile for the strange and wonderful Llareta plant growing at 15,000 feet and a desert-cousin of parsley, and to Western Australia for the stromatolites, tied to the oxygenation of the planet and the very beginnings of all life on Earth. I went to Tasmania in search of a 43,000-year-old shrub that is the last of its species left on earth, rending it both critically endangered and theoretically immortal. But in five years, even despite having visited Florida a couple of times to see family, I did not make it back to The Senator. It was too easy. It would always be there. Surely, if The Senator had been around for 3,500 years, it was going to be around for 3,505.

But it wasn’t.

La Llareta #0308-23B26

Up to 3,000 years old; Atacama Desert, Chile

Sagole Baobab #0707-1086

(2,000 years old; Limpopo Province, South Africa)

Extreme longevity can lull us into a false sense of permanence. We fall into a quotidian reality devoid of long-term thinking, certain that things which have been here “forever” will remain, unchanging. But being old is not the same as being immortal. Even second chances have expiration dates. The comparative ease of access and the seeming lack of urgency bred a certainly complacency in my return to The Senator.

On February 8, 2012, just days before I was to ship out for Antarctica in search of 5,500-year-old moss, I returned to what remained of the ancient tree.

I met Jim Duby, Program Manager of the Seminole County Natural Lands Program, at the locked gate of the park. Jim has been to the site every day since the fire. The investigation is considered ongoing, but after speaking with him, it was hard for me to consider the cause of death to be anything but human intention. There was no lightning recorded in the area during the weeks in question, and the tree had been newly fitted with a lightning rod. The idea that it had spontaneously combusted under its own auspices simply seemed absurd. On the other hand, the tree was visibly hollow before the fire, and an opening at the base of the trunk, once filled with concrete, was now large enough for a person to squeeze through and stand inside. Or to drop a match into, and run. The Senator was likely spared the long-ago ax of the logging industry because it was hollow, but the very same defect ultimately sparked its death.

Underground Forest #0707-10333

13,000 years old; Pretoria, South Africa; also deceased

Stromatolites #1211-0512

2,000 years old; Carbla Station, Western Australia

After spending over six years of my life researching, photographing, and traveling all over the world in search of ancient life, it has put my own mortality into perspective. I have a more immediate understanding of the briefness of a single human life in the face of the incomprehensible vastness of ‘forever,’ and at the same time, when standing in front of these organisms, I feel a connection to the moments, small as molecules, that shape a constantly unfolding narrative on both a micro and macro scale. Any given moment matters.

The charred remains of The Senator Tree, February 8, 2012.

For the Senator, there is a glimmering chance at a second life: clippings from the tree were taken years ago and successfully propagated in a nursery. The resulting trees are now 40 feet tall, and could ostensibly be transplanted into the very spot after a long and careful root-stabilization process. There are also seedlings at its base that, with a little paternity testing, could prove to be its clones rather than its progeny, or perhaps some new growth will be forced from the existing root system stimulated by the stress of the fire.

Only time will tell.

Rachel Sussman is a Brooklyn-based artist and photographer. Over the past six years, she has traveled the world to document Earth’s most ancient organisms in her project The Oldest Living Things in the World. Rachel has exhibited across the U.S. and Europe, received numerous awards, and spoken at TED. You can follow her global adventures on Twitter.

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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





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