Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Rachel Sussman’

04 FEBRUARY, 2015

Happy Birthday, Design Matters: 10 Years of Intelligent and Inspiring Interviews with Creative Icons

By:

Stimulating, ennobling, deeply human conversations with Maira Kalman, Seth Godin, Dani Shapiro, Malcolm Gladwell, Chris Ware, Shepard Fairey, and more.

A decade before the so-called golden age of podcasting and exactly a year after the word “podcast” itself was timidly coined by The Guardian’s Ben Hammersley, Debbie Millman launched the world’s first podcast about design, armed with nothing more than an idea, a telephone line, and ample doggedness. Design Matters premiered on February 4, 2005. Over the years that followed, it evolved beyond design into the broader world of creative culture, featuring wide-ranging and deep conversations with celebrated designers, artists, writers, musicians, and other luminaries, including Chris Ware, Seth Godin, Maira Kalman, Dave Eggers, Kurt Andersen, Paola Antonelli, Malcolm Gladwell, John Maeda, Milton Glaser, Massimo Vignelli, Jonathan Harris, Chip Kidd, Dani Shapiro, Terry Teachout, Wendy MacNaughton, Jason Kottke, Ze Frank, Steven Heller, Grace Bonney, Marian Bantjes, Christoph Niemann, Dominique Browning, John Hockenberry, Barbara Kruger, and hundreds more. In 2011, the show received the People’s Choice Cooper Hewitt National Design Award. One of the most downloaded podcasts in the world today, it has shaped the public discourse on design and has inspired such newer projects as 99% Invisible and The Great Discontent.

Propelled at once by Moore’s Law and the pioneer spirit of exploring any new territory, the show’s early days were marked by that distinct blend of endearing technical embarrassments and visionary creative bravery. There is the bad audio quality, the atrocious commercial breaks, and the fact that Millman had to pay the network to put her show on the air — a pause-giving reminder of how low the barriers of entry have fallen, and how much we’ve come to take for granted.

But there are also boundlessly emboldening moments reminding us that the best kind of genius is one backed by goodwill, generosity, and pure human goodness. In an admirable antidote to our cancellation culture, graphic artist Shepard Fairey keeps his interview date despite having just had emergency eye surgery; he actually takes the call from his hospital bed to discuss, among other things, how having a baby daughter opened his eyes to the patriarchy’s oppressive impact and profoundly changed the kind of art he wanted to put into the world. In an uncommonly heartening conversation marking the fourth season premiere, mother-son writer duo Malcolm and Joyce Gladwell share the airwaves; when asked whether she was surprised by her son’s success in looking at what everyone looks at but seeing what no one sees, Joyce’s answer emanates the deep and disarming warmth of motherly love:

I was not [occupied with] fame and fortune… I wasn’t looking ahead very far — I was just enjoying the delightful child that had come into our life. He provoked mirth just by being who he was — by the way he moved, by the way he was made, by his eyes and his hair… Am I surprised? Yes and no. I can see the strands that contribute to Malcolm’s success, and to the way he thinks, the way he expresses himself. But I also am surprised at what it is he says and how he says it, and at how he got there — because there is no precedent for that.

Collected below are ten of my favorite episodes from the past ten years, along with my favorite highlights from each. You can subscribe to Design Matters here and catch up on the archive here.

DANI SHAPIRO (2014)

Dani Shapiro — whose memoir Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life is one of the very finest books on writing and the creative experience ever published — discusses our chronic flight from presence, how she wrote her way out of an existential crisis, and why vulnerability is the wellspring of all meaningful creative work. Listen on iTunes or below:

Deep inside, we are all so much the same — our details might be different, but we are all kind of walking the same internal path. And when I allow myself to be vulnerable, I am allowing myself to connect. I’m allowing people to connect to me.

[…]

How do we actually be right here, right now? Not leaning toward the future, not leaning backwards into the past… How do we find a way to inhabit the moment more often than not?

[…]

It’s the feeling of something becoming heightened in just a moment where … I know that it’s going into a place where it’s like it’s storing itself somewhere inside of me… It is unmistakable when it happens. And then sometimes … it requires a lot of patience to make sense of it. It’s not like that shimmer happens and, Eureka!, you have a story — it’s like that shimmer happens and, sometimes, it can be years before it connects to something else that then makes the story clearer, or makes clear why it shimmered.

MILTON GLASER (2010)

Legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser, creator of the iconic I♥NY logo and cofounder of the equally iconic New York Magazine, builds on his conversation with Millman from the 2007 book How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer and discusses idealism, community, aging, the moral duties of the imagination, and what it takes to sustain one’s creative vitality over a long life. Listen on iTunes or below:

No one has the ability to understand our path until it is over, and if you can sustain your interest in what you are doing in your later years, you are very lucky. Many people get tired, indifferent, and defensive, and lose their capacity for astonishment…

Daily life astonishes me. I’m looking through the door here, at the little table-and-chairs that was painted a light green and yellow, and there’s a plant on the table — a little pussy willow — and the combination is totally astonishing… Shadows in the night astonish me. And when you’re working, and you’re putting forms out on paper, every once in a while you’ll be astonished by what happens… The great thing about the work, and particularly work later in your life, is that you can still maintain the sense of possibility that at the end of the day you’ll know something that you didn’t know at the beginning of the day. And I just find that an extraordinary gift.

SETH GODIN (2014)

In this Design Matters Live conversation — occasional interviews recorded not in the studio but at various public events — the wise and wonderful Seth Godin discusses creative courage, the art of dancing with the Resistance, what defines great design, and his “children’s book for grownups” about vulnerability. See more transcribed excerpts and commentary here, then hear Millman’s 2007 studio interview with Godin here.

That is what [artists] do for a living — we dance with the Resistance, we don’t make it go away. You cannot make it go away — you cannot make the voice go away, you cannot make the fear go away, because it’s built in. What you can do is when it shows up, you say “Welcome! I’m glad you’re here. Let’s dance about this.”

[…]

What we need to do is say, “What’s the smallest, tiniest thing that I can master and what’s the scariest thing I can do in front of the smallest number of people that can teach me how to dance with the fear?” Once we get good at that, we just realize that it’s not fatal. And it’s not intellectually realize — we’ve lived something that wasn’t fatal. And that idea is what’s so key — because then you can do it a little bit more.

[…]

For the [creative person], what’s going on outside is trivial compared to what is going on inside… Don’t try to change the structure of the outside world [hoping that] then you’ll be fine, then you’ll be creative and then you’ll be brave. No. First, figure out how to be creative and brave and courageous, and the outside world will change on your behalf…

It’s always the same case — it’s always the case of you’re a human, trying to connect to another human. And if you just pick one human that you can change for the better, with work that might not work — that’s what art is.

MALCOLM GLADWELL & JOYCE GLADWELL (2007)

Prolific author Malcolm Gladwell and his mother, Jamaican-born psychotherapist and writer Joyce Gladwell, discuss success, luck, racism, why we treat enduring ideas as disposable by letting timeless books go out of print (something I encounter regularly and find particularly unsettling), and more. Listen on iTunes or below:

When I think about my family, I think of us as being “serial outsiders”… I have a mother who moved from Jamaica to England — [and] the cultural distance between those two points is greater than the physical difference between those two points — then married an Englishman and moved to Canada (and not just to Canada — to a little rural corner of Ontario filled with Mennonites), and then I went from there and moved to the United States, to New York City.

So when I say we’re “serial outsiders” I mean we’ve replicated the role of the outsider over and over again. And my writing is the writing of an outsider — it’s the writing of an observer… The outsider always has an enormous advantage in terms of seeing things in a different way… It doesn’t have to do, necessarily, with any particular gift of the outsider him- or herself — it’s the gift of the position of being on the outside. You literally see something differently when you look from outside the house than when you look from inside the house. So, in that sense, I’m the lucky recipient of that series of circumstances.

[…]

What I like to do in my writing is combat the feeling one has of bafflement, which I think is a disconcerting feeling… I don’t think I can promise in my writing the answers to problems, but I can promise something which is probably more important in … combatting the sense of unease we have in the world… I can help people to understand how to think about things. That’s what we really want. We’re not unhappy with the fact that the world presents lots of different, difficult-to-answer problems — we’re unhappy about the fact that we don’t even know how to start to think about all these things, what kind of framework to use, what questions to ask, where the beginning point is and where the end point is to any kind of process of analysis. My writing is really intended to be that kind of a roadmap — and I find those kinds of roadmaps to be enormously comforting.

RACHEL SUSSMAN (2014)

Artist Rachel Sussman discusses her decade-long project The Oldest Living Things in the World — which produced one of the best books of 2014 — and its underlying questions about permanence, impermanence, deep time, and how we orient ourselves to the universe. Listen on iTunes or below:

It’s hard to answer [whether any of these ancient organisms have consciousness]. I mean, no, I don’t literally think that they have a consciousness. But at the same time I think there is a sort of “world spirit” — which I say to you as an atheist. Nature is a system, and these organisms are part of that — and I think there is a strong will to live.

And [yet], these are all terms that we just impose upon these things.

PAOLA ANTONELLI (2006)

Curator extraordinaire Paola Antonelli offers a behind-the-scenes look at her uncommonly visionary MoMA shows exploring safety, the humble masterpieces of everyday life, and the intersection of design and technology, and discusses the glories of living in New York City, the tyranny of the corporate world on our inner lives, and what we can do to create degrees of freedom even within limiting systems. Listen on iTunes or below:

Designers’ humility will change the world… Designers just sit and think about how to make people’s lives better. And to do so, you have to strip yourself of your ego for a moment and put yourself in other people’s shoes — the first act of real humanity. And it takes humility.

SHEPARD FAIREY (2007)

Graphic artist Shepard Fairey — who has used the raw materials of capitalism and freedom to continually challenge our social, political, and personal assumptions about how the world works and to offer sometimes subtle, sometimes provocative ideas on how it can work better — discusses how he went from covering his neighborhood in stickers to being one of the world’s most prominent street artists, how the notion of “selling out” impoverishes our understanding of creative culture, and what his daughter’s birth taught him about our world. Listen on iTunes or below:

Here’s how having a child has affected my art: I think that in society, much of the time, the male, dominant, aggressive, I’m-gonna-make-my-way-and-rule-things mentality is rewarded, and the maternal side of things is definitely not valued as much… It’s a patriarchal society. But seeing how my wife is with our daughter and realizing how much work it is … and that it’s our yin and yang that allows the family unit to function in a really amazingly positive way, I really tapped into more of my feminine side, appreciating more the maternal side of things…

A lot of the work that I’ve been doing is dealing with peace and using a lot of female figures. One of the things I’ve thought about was [that] it’s usually men that perpetuate injustice, and they take up arms to do so. And when women take up arms, I think they do it to correct an injustice. (This is a generalization, of course… There are people like Margaret Thatcher out there.) … A lot of the work that I was doing [was] as agitational and provocative as possible. Now, I still try to make the work really engaging and provocative, but also allow beauty, the merit of beauty and the maternal side of things to show through in some of the elements in my work.

SOPHIE BLACKALL (2012)

Artist, author, and children’s book illustrator Sophie Blackall — creator of such wondrous treasures as The Mighty Lalouche and The Baby Tree — discusses the necessary balance of optimism and subversiveness in children’s books, her immeasurably charming Missed Connections project, and the challenges and rewards of illustrating Aldous Huxley’s only children’s book. See more highlights here and listen on iTunes or below:

SB: I think children are pretty subversive creatures.

DM: It’s interesting: It’s subversive in the way that The Wizard of Oz is subversive — there’s a subtext. And that subtext has to do with love, and longing, and loss, and pain. But I guess, for me, there seems to be an innate optimism that doesn’t feel dark — yes, there’s darkness in the work, but I always get the sense that the light overcomes that darkness. … You can create a brush stroke that somehow defines wistfulness. But in that ability to see that wistfulness, I can’t help but feel understood — which … then gives me a great sense of joy.

CHRIS WARE (2012)

Chris Ware — one of the finest cartoonists of our time and a frequent New Yorker cover artist — discusses his intricate and immensely brilliant book-in-a-box Building Stories, why it’s necessary to make room for sadness in the fabric of life, and how storytelling gives shape to the human experience. Find more highlights here and listen on iTunes or below:

When I was in school, some of my teachers told me, “Oh, you can’t write about this or that, you can’t write about women, because then you’re colonizing them with your eyes”… And that seems ridiculous to me… That’s what writing is about — it’s about trying to understand other people.

[…]

It really all comes down to empathy… If you feel empathy for a group of people or a nation, you’re less likely to attack them. And I just feel like it’s what being human is — that’s the most important thing you can learn, it’s the most important thing you can impart to a child.

MAIRA KALMAN (2007)

The ceaselessly prolific and imaginative artist and author Maira Kalman — whose spectacular recent memoir of sorts, My Favorite Things, was among last year’s best books — discusses the essential role of boredom in creativity (something eloquently expounded by Søren Kierkegaard, Bertrand Russell, and Adam Phillips) and why storytelling for children shouldn’t be approached as a special species of storytelling different from that for adults (something memorably asserted by J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Maurice Sendak, and Neil Gaiman). Listen on iTunes or below:

Boredom and impatience are real motivators. I don’t want to do one thing all the time — I’m “multi-curious.” And, really, not knowing how to do something and then not being afraid to do it is a nice combination — because you just try new things. If you’re open to whatever serendipity of inspiration is around, sometimes you find yourself sewing and sometimes you find yourself playing imaginary viola.

But I don’t like having a different mindset for children than I do for adults. I just would like to tell the story that’s around me, and just kind of chronicle what I see — and it shouldn’t matter if it’s an adult or a child… What’s the worst that can happen is you can fail — or it can be bad. (Which has happened.) And yet, somehow, the world doesn’t come to an end. So I’m ultimately very brave and terrified… It’s the human condition.

WENDY MACNAUGHTON & CAROLINE PAUL (2013)

Artist Wendy MacNaughton — a Brain Pickings regular — and writer Caroline Paul discuss their endlessly wonderful and layered book Lost Cat, how they balance their romantic relationship with their creative collaboration, our chronic compulsion for control, and what true love really means. See more highlights here and on iTunes or below:

You cannot know everything about the creature that you love, and you also can’t control that relationship. And maybe that’s okay — because we can’t control relationships. In fact, if we did control them to the degree that we want, it would probably provide us with nothing. Relationships are probably our greatest learning experiences.

To see what the next decade of stimulating and ennobling conversations brings, subscribe to Design Matters here, then explore the archive here.

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30 APRIL, 2014

Perseverance, Self-Transcendence, and the “Slow Churn” of Creativity: A Conversation with Artist Rachel Sussman

By:

How deep time puts our fleeting human lives in perspective, what it takes to persist, and why any meaningful creative endeavor requires sacrifice.

At a recent event at the School of Visual Arts Theater in New York, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brooklyn-based artist, photographer, and Guggenheim Fellow Rachel Sussman about The Oldest Living Things in the World (public library) — her decade-long labor-of-love photographic masterpiece at the intersection of fine art, science, and philosophy highlighting thirty humbling organisms over 2,000 years of age, which I’ve covered at length previously. In our conversation, we explore how deep time helps make sense of our fleeting human lives, what the role of the “slow churn” of ideation is in the creative process, and why any meaningful creative endeavor requires an act of self-transcendence.

Transcribed highlights below, and be sure to see Sussman’s superb photographs, contextualized by her thoughtful essays.

On the project as a cultural reality check and a personal reminder of our place in the universe:

MP: NPR recently shared a survey that found 40% of the American public doesn’t believe the world is more than 6,000 years old. We know, of course, that scientifically speaking, Earth is about 4.5 billion years old. And yet what’s most striking is that we — all of us, globally, still use Christianity as the basis for measuring and dating time. The year 2014, for instance, is based on the story of Christ, year one being his birth in that story. But when one beholds, say, a 13,000-year-old eucalyptus tree, it’s impossible — impossible — to continue believing such mythology. When you were starting this project, did you have any sense that besides a masterwork of art, it would also be a tremendously important and powerful piece of science communication and a cultural reality-check? And how do you see the project’s role in that regard, now that the book is complete?

RS: One of the things I was aiming to do was to anthropomorphize these organisms as a way to connect and start to forge a personal connection, which really is a philosophical one, when you start to look at, for instance, the 13,000-year-old eucalyptus tree, and what does that mean. For me, this is something that has taken years to sink in — you get it, on an intellectual level, but by returning to this topic again and again … and making more connections to these organisms and understanding how they are all interconnected, that starts to create a bigger picture that’s both about deeper and broader time that belongs to all of us, but also that our individual moments matter quite a bit and are part of that chronology.

Bristlecone pine

5,068 years | White Mountains, California, US

On finding a sense of purpose, the doggedness necessary for creating meaningful work, and the importance of defining our success in terms more authentic than outside approval:

MP: I want to talk a little bit about this notion of faith — ungrounded, unevidenced faith that carried you through.

A young woman recently reached out to me and asked for some advice, and complained that she had just started working for a major publication six weeks prior. She complained that she was really frustrated that she couldn’t build an audience in those six weeks, and she was ready to throw in the towel.

You’ve been doing this for a decade — you’ve been doing it completely guided by your own inner compass, inner radar, and not having any sort of solid positive reinforcement from the outside. What carried you through it, what gave you that center that told you this was something that had a sense of purpose on the scale of your life and defined success in terms other than immediate rewards?

RS: [Laughing] I certainly wasn’t in it for the immediate rewards.

I couldn’t not do it — that is the simplest answer. I felt so compelled by that idea, and it felt important to me that I see it through.

That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t terrifying along the way… It was quite a long battle just getting to the point where I felt this is something that really is worth my time and attention, and then I had the idea and I thought, “How am I ever going to do this idea justice?” And I grappled with that for a while. And over the years it just changed and transformed, and I grew more confident the more I looked at it. But it took that time. When I started … I didn’t know what I was doing, and these things revealed themselves to me by having that continued attention to it.

It’s hard to say what the magic ingredient is, other than perseverance. And, certainly, you can’t throw in the towel after six weeks.

Llareta

3,000 years | Atacama Desert, Chile

MP: Since you started the project, you’ve been working with the Climate Reality Project as an official presenter doing public outreach. So I wonder how the ecological component of the work accelerated in urgency for you, personally, doing this?

RS: I’ve always considered myself an environmentalist, for whatever that term means, and it’s something that I think, as an artist, was an interesting thing — because for a long time, I don’t think it was particularly acceptable in the fine art world to be doing work about nature. It’s something that was sort of in a compartment somewhere off to the side…

The problem of climate change is so pressing and actually is something of a moral imperative for us all, and I think artists do a tremendous job of engaging the public on different levels [compared to hearing] some numbers about the C02 levels — it’s hard to internalize that. And I think that’s one of the beauties of being able, as a creative person, to create the parameters of what you want to talk about. The science and the climate science are a very important component of the overall project. That message certainly underpins the whole thing and has been with me and with it from the beginning.

The question has been this idea of making portraits of these organisms and thinking of them as individuals. I think one of the most important things to do when dealing with climate science and climate change is to create a personal connection, and to create some relationship. That was my way of trying to forge a relationship to these organisms.

Antarctic moss

5,500 years | Elephant Island, South Georgia

On how the project began when Sussman first photographed an ancient tree in Japan, the myth of the Eureka! moment, and how the slow accumulation of combinatorial creativity sparked this decade-long journey:

I didn’t know I was doing the project yet — I didn’t have the idea, and I didn’t have an epiphany standing in front of [that first tree] … It was actually sitting at a Thai restaurant in Soho over a year later that I got the idea — so you never know when inspiration [will strike].

But this is actually something that I think is so vital to the creative process… I didn’t know at the time, but I find it incredibly comforting now — it’s something that Steven Johnson writes about in Where Good Ideas Come From, this idea of the “the slow churn” … just following these different paths, the things that intrigue you, and allowing them to simmer in there until something fires in your brain and all of a sudden these connections happen.

I did have the a-ha! moment — but it probably was a year and a half in the making.

Dead Huon pine

10,500 years | Mount Read, Tasmania; Royal Tasmanian Botanical Garden, Hobart

On self-doubt, creative resilience and making the choice to pursue this project:

I knew I was going to make sacrifices — I don’t think I knew I was going to make as many sacrifices as I did. But that’s okay. There are moments where I felt doubt, because I think every creative person does — and if they don’t, there’s probably an issue [laughing] — but there was never a moment that I wanted to give up.

On the disconnect between exposure and financial success, an important reminder in a culture where artists are constantly asked to do work for free and be “paid” in exposure:

Just because your name is in the paper, it doesn’t mean you have money to pay your rent.

On realizing, while working as a digital producer, that paying work and fulfilling work are not always the same thing:

I had a moment while I was sitting working for some website for some brand, and I thought, “This doesn’t matter. This isn’t how I want to spend my days, this is not the way that I want to put something out into the world that is of significance.”

Brain coral

2,000 years | Speyside, Tobago

On the notion of the “audience”:

MP: Oscar Wilde famously said that to the artist, the public is “nonexistent” and Hemingway believed that writing is a solitary act which necessitates no witnessing audience until the very end. And for you, certainly, this was a very solitary project… But you wrote in Nature, in a beautiful essay:

“There are a lot of happy accidents. Both art and science can be filled with passion and frustration, setbacks and breakthroughs. But, most importantly, the work is never meant to exist in a vacuum … it is the audience that completes the picture.”

So I wonder how your sense of “the audience” evolved over the course of the project.

RS: When I first started the project, even though I knew it was meant to exist on these different levels and have different aspects, I didn’t really know how I was going to communicate that. So I think that it was just important that I be able to create a connection with these different aspects, but that it would be different for different people. So, if you’re a scientist, you may go straight for the science, and if you’re a visual artist, you might just look at the pictures. But the idea was that I wanted to intermingle all of these things, and let people bring what they will to it. So there’s not a right and a wrong way — it’s not prescriptive in that way…

It’s completed by the person taking it in, and that’s something that I realized over time as well — that I want to have all of those layers there, and I see them as a whole, but I also have an understanding that … there’s just as much value if you get one thing out of it and not the other. My hope is that it sparks some thought or conversation in the audience, and it’s not just meant to be a document filed away — it’s actually meant to engage, and I hope that it will serve as something that is a call to action, whatever that might mean for people.

Welwitschia Mirabilis

2,000 years| Namib-Naukluft Desert, Namibia

And engage it does — The Oldest Living Things in the World is a masterwork of pause-giving perspective, both cultural and personal. Sample its dimensional genius here.

All photographs © Rachel Sussman published exclusively with the artist’s permission

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14 APRIL, 2014

The Oldest Living Things in the World: A Decade-Long Photographic Masterpiece at the Intersection of Art, Science, and Philosophy

By:

What a 13,000-year-old eucalyptus tree reveals about the meaning of human life.

“Our overblown intellectual faculties seem to be telling us both that we are eternal and that we are not,” philosopher Stephen Cave observed in his poignant meditation on our mortality paradox And yet we continue to long for the secrets of that ever-elusive eternity.

For nearly a decade, Brooklyn-based artist, photographer, and Guggenheim Fellow Rachel Sussman has been traveling the globe to discover and document its oldest organisms — living things over 2,000 years of age. Her breathtaking photographs and illuminating essays are now collected in The Oldest Living Things in the World (public library) — beautiful and powerful work at the intersection of fine art, science, and philosophy, spanning seven continents and exploring issues of deep time, permanence and impermanence, and the interconnectedness of life.

Llareta

3,000 years | Atacama Desert, Chile

Baby llareta

With an artist’s gift for “aesthetic force” and a scientist’s rigorous respect for truth, Sussman straddles a multitude of worlds as she travels across space and time to unearth Earth’s greatest stories of resilience, stories of tragedy and triumph, past and future, but above all stories that humble our human lives, which seem like the blink of a cosmic eye against the timescales of these ancient organisms — organisms that have unflinchingly witnessed all of our own tragedies and triumphs, our wars and our revolutions, our holocausts and our renaissances, and have remained anchored to existence more firmly than we can ever hope to be. And yet a great many of these species are on the verge of extinction, in no small part due to human activity, raising the question of how our seemingly ephemeral presence in the ecosystem can have such deep and long-term impact on organisms far older and far more naturally resilient than us.

Pando (quick aspen)

80,000 years | Fish Lake, Utah, USA

Alerce (Patagonian cypress)

2,200 years | Patagonia, Chile

Above all, however, the project raises questions that aren’t so much scientific or artistic as profoundly human: What is the meaning of human life if it comes and goes before a patch of moss has reached the end of infancy? How do our petty daily stresses measure up against a struggle for survival stretching back millennia? Who would we be if we relinquished our arrogant conviction that we are Earth’s biological crown jewel?

Sussman offers no answers but invites us, instead, to contemplate, consider, and explore on our own — not as creatures hopelessly different from and dwarfed by the organisms she profiles, but as fellow beings in an intricately entwined mesh of life. What emerges is a beautiful breakage of our illusion of separateness and a deep appreciation for the binds that pull us and these remarkable organisms in an eternal dance — our only real gateway to immortality.

Dead Huon pine

10,500 years | Mount Read, Tasmania; Royal Tasmanian Botanical Garden, Hobart

Indeed, it is this capacity for questioning that makes Sussman’s perspective particularly powerful. She herself, adding to history’s most beautiful definitions of art, considers it the supreme responsibility of the artist:

The role as an artist [is] to answer some questions, but to ask many more.

Bristlecone pine

5,068 years | White Mountains, California, US

Bristlecone pine detail

5,068 years | White Mountains, California, US

Sussman writes in the preface:

What does it mean when the organic goes head-to-head with the geologic? We start talking about deep time and the quotidian in the same breath, along with all the strata in between. All of these organisms are living palimpsests: they contain myriad layers of their own histories within themselves, along with records of natural and human events; new chapters written over the old, year after year, millennium after millennium. When we look at them in the frame of deep time, a bigger picture emerges, and we start to see how all of the individuals have stories, and that all of those stories are in turn interconnected — and in turn, inextricably connected to us all.

[…]

The oldest living things in the world are a record and celebration of the past, a call to action in the present, and a barometer of our future.

Brain coral

2,000 years | Speyside, Tobago

Baobab

2,000 years | Limpopo, South Africa

Welwitschia Mirabilis

2,000 years| Namib-Naukluft Desert, Namibia

To be sure, the project has resonance far deeper and wider than a purely artistic pursuit. In a culture where 40% of people don’t believe the world is more than 6,000 years old — a kind of faith-washing known as Young Earth Creationism — Sussman’s work brings to light tangible, irrefutable, gloriously alive evidence of the scientific reality. After all, when beholding a majestic 13,000-year-old Eucalyptus tree, how can human arrogance dare deny its reality under the blindness of dogma?

Indeed, the exploration of deep time is one of the most powerful elements in Sussman’s work — certainly a scientific concept, in terms of being concerned with biology, geology, and astrophysics, but also very much a philosophical one raising enormously important, if unsettling, existential questions: Why are we here? How can we matter if we’re gone in the blink of a cosmic eye, the metaphorical minute of a Bristlecone Pine’s day? And, most importantly, what gives us the arrogance to consider ourselves atop the hierarchy of living organisms? We extol our intelligence as the uniquely human faculty that sets us apart from other animals, but even our definitions of intelligence are narrowly anthropocentric and based on things we humans happen to be good at. Surely there’s a special kind of biological and existential intelligence in an organism capable of such remarkable resilience — an organism that can outlive us by millennia and witness all of our fleeting struggles while it remains unflinchingly rooted in its particular corner of the ecosystem.

Soil sample containing Siberian actinobacteria

400,000-600,000 years | Kolyma Lowlands, Siberia

Chestnut of 100 Horses with fresh lava

3,000 years | Sant'Alfio, Sicily

Because of its unique cross-disciplinary slant and dimensional scope, the book comes with two introductory essays — an art one by art-world legend and curator extraordinaire Hans Ulrich Obrist and a science one by Carl Zimmer, one of the finest and most respected science writers working today.

Obrist elegantly applies the late and great philosopher Eric Hobsbawm’s notion of “the protest against forgetting” to Sussman’s work and celebrates it as a living archive of remembrance. He writes:

The oldest living things may well not be a clear category science-wise, but it is a category that is defined by curiosity, humane character, a fascination with deep time, and the courage of an explorer.

In the science essay, Zimmer explores how lives become long and why the remarkable timescale of these organisms’ lifespans matters — not just scientifically, but also culturally:

The durable mystery of longevity makes the species in this book all the more precious, and all the more worthy of being preserved. Looking at an organism that has endured for thousands of years is an awesome experience, because it makes us feel like mere gastrotrichs. But it is an even more awesome experience to recognize the bond we share with a 13,000-year-old Palmer’s oak tree, and to wonder how we evolved such different lifetimes on this Earth.

Lower slope leading to Palmer's Oak

13,000 years | Riverside, California, USA

Box Huckleberry (Bibleberry) branches stripped by deer

8,000 to 13,000 years | Perry County, Pennsylvania, USA

Stromatolites

2,000-3,000 years | Carbla Station, Western Australia

Even more fascinating than how much we know, however, is how much we don’t — many of these organisms stand as a testament to the “thoroughly conscious ignorance” that drives science. In a book chapter exploring the 2,000-year-old Stromatolites of Western Australia — a species composed of bound cyanobacteria that formed about 3 billion years ago and undertook the Herculean task of oxygenating our then-oxygen-poor planet — Sussman observes:

It’s remarkable that we know so little about the origins of life on our planet. We know more about surfaces of other planets than we do about the beginnings of life on our own.

The Senator (bald cypress)

3,500 years | Seminole County, Florida

One of the most moving stories in the book is that of the Senator tree in Florida, one of the oldest Cypress trees in the world, which Sussman originally wrote for Brain Pickings a few years ago. She had photographed the Senator in 2007, but upon developing the film — Sussman shoots with a medium-format film camera for her high-quality fine art prints — she found herself unhappy with the result and resolved to return to the tree down the line. Since it was one of the most easily accessible organisms in her stable — what’s a sunny flight to Florida next to a harrowing weeklong voyage to Antarctica’s icy cliffs? — and since the tree had been around for 3,500 years, she figured it could wait.

Then, in January of 2012, news broke that a mysterious fire had burned the Senator to the ground. Unsettled and full of unease, Sussman immediately got on a plane to shoot the charred remains of the mighty tree, the only sign of its former brush with Forever. She poignantly observes:

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 complacency in my return to the Senator.

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

The most devastating part? It was later discovered that the cause of the fire was a group of twenty-somethings who had broken into the park after dark, high on meth, climbed inside the tree, and lit matches or a lighter to “see the drugs better,” setting the Senator ablaze and erasing thousands of years of natural wisdom under the influence of synthetic senility.

But this story, too, is one of optimism. Sussman writes:

For the Senator, there is a chance at a second life: clippings from the tree were taken years ago and successfully propagated in a nursery. In February 2013, after a careful root-stabilization process, a forty-foot grafted tree was successfully transplanted back into the Senator’s original spot and has already sprouted fresh growth and gained in height. Four artisans and several institutions were selected to make works honoring the Senator’s legacy. The stump has been incorporated into the playground area.

In this beautiful short trailer by filmmaker Jonathan Minnard offers glimpse of Sussman’s extraordinary world:

Interwoven with Sussman’s photographs and essays, brimming with equal parts passion and precision, are the stories of her adventures — and misadventures — as she trekked the world in search of her ancient subjects. From a broken arm in remote Sri Lanka to a heart-wrenching breakup to a well-timed sip of whisky at polar explorer Shackleton’s grave, her personal stories imbue the universality of the deeper issues she explores with an inviting dose of humanity — a gentle reminder that life, for us as much as for those ancient organisms, is often about withstanding the uncontrollable, unpredictable, and unwelcome curveballs the universe throws our way, and that resilience comes from the dignity and humility of that withstanding.

Antarctic moss

5,500 years | Elephant Island, South Georgia

The Oldest Living Things in the World is absolutely remarkable in its entirety — a true masterpiece of compassionate curiosity and cross-disciplinary brilliance. A limited collectors’ edition is also available, housed in a gorgeous handcrafted, cloth-encased box, including a signed print of the Spruce image on the cover.

For more, see Sussman’s 2010 TED talk:

All photographs © Rachel Sussman published exclusively with the artist’s permission

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