17 December 2007


the senator, a 3,500 year old bald cypress in seminole county, FL



back in september i was fortunate enough to be invited to speak about my work at the cornell fine arts museum at rollins college in winter park, FL. artist rachel simmons (whom you may remember from my time in scotland) is a professor at rollins and also happens to have a fantastic exhibition of her "wonders" work at the museum through the end of december. it was great to give my first talk on this work, and as an added bonus i was fortuitous enough to stumble upon another OLTW right in the area.

at the time i was fresh from my african and european marathon trip over the summer, so the passport-free jetblue flight from JFK to orlando was a piece of cake. (one of rachel's colleagues had asked her if i'd be ok finding my way on my own from the terminal out to the curb where i'd be picked up. i had to laugh.)


if getting to florida was a piece of cake, visiting the senator was a cake walk. the following day rachel, her husband and daughter and i jumped in their minivan and drove to the big tree park where the senator lives. (the land, tree included, was donated to the county by a senator. between that and big tree park i'm getting the sense that folks are pretty literal around here.) a newly constructed boardwalk led from the parking lot to the tree a short way off. a 2,000 year old bald cypress, lady liberty, is just a little further down the path. i made some photographs and met up with my party who had made their way back to the playground in the parking lot.

28 August 2007


here are a few favorites from under the microscope. these are 3 different samples of the same soil, thinned to different consistencies on the slides, and viewed at varying magnifications.

visit my positing on this 400,000 + year old bacteria to learn more.

27 August 2007


finally, some photographs!

i'm happy to be able to share some digital images with you while my 70 rolls of film are being processed.

here are a couple welwitchia mirabilis in the namib desert. they're native only to parts of namibia and angola, and like the baobabs, they are thought to be in the ballpark of 2,000 years old. there may be some older ones in another part of namibia. visit my previous welwitchia posting for the full story.

the big welwitchia on the namib naukluft self-drive route.

the just as big if not bigger welwitchia, (um...not an official name) also in the park, but not marked on maps.


These Baobabs are scattered throughout the Limpopo Province of South Africa and are hovering around the 2,000 year old mark.

(visit my week 1 posting for the full story on the baobabs.)

1) The Sagole Baobab
Probably the oldest Baobab, but unconfirmed.

2) The Sunland Baobab
Yes, there is a bar inside the tree.

3) The Pafuri Baobab
This tree is inside the Kruger game preserve and requires an escort of armed rangers.

4) The Glencoe Baobab
This tree was partially uprooted hundreds of years ago. The roots became branches, creating its unusually symmetrical form.

20 August 2007



so there i was. the last stop on my trip, and my first time doing artwork in a biology lab. i was meeting with martin bay hebsgaard, a PhD candidate in ancient DNA and evolution at the niels bohr institute at the university of copenhagen. i was put in touch with martin by sarah stewart johnson, a PhD candidate in planetary science at MIT, and a primary researcher on the siberian bacteria. working with eske willerslev, director of the ancient DNA group, sarah's research is about to be published by the proceedings of the national academy of sciences. their remarkable findings show that the bacteria were not lying dormant in the permafrost, but rather showed continuous DNA repair -- an indication that these ancient cells have been continuously living. for how long?

folks, we have a winner. 400,000 to 600,000 years.

these findings are particularly interesting to sarah,
who is working on a dissertation entitled "mars in the late noachian: evolution of a habitable surface environment." her findings here on earth raise the point that similar discoveries of viable ancient life are possible on mars or europa (one of jupiter's moons) if ever such life did in fact exist there. um...wow.

but back to the earth. first stop, the freezer. it was packed with soil samples from canada, hungary, and siberia. i only needed a small quantity to view under the microscope, so we headed into the clean lab (kept clean with UV light and positive air pressure) in our white safety suits.

yep. that's yours truly.

it was hot as all get-out in there, so thankfully i could do the actual work en plein air. well, outside of the suit, at least. martin carefully transfered a small amount of the soil into another container, which we would take with us to a different building to take a look under the microscope. henirk glenner, a colleague of martin's, allowed me to use his digital imaging setup to photograph. it works like a regular microscope -- we prepared slides, adjusted the magnification, focus, and light -- the only difference being that a specialized digital imaging component is attached both to the microscope and a computer. an imaging application allows you to see what's under the microscope on the screen, make exposure adjustments, and then capture the image. i was transfixed for days, changing views and settings and magnifications.

the research done on this bacteria (class: actinobacteria, many within the order micrococcaceae and genus arthrobacter ) was not done visually, so i likely produced some of the first images of it -- or at least where it lives. it was difficult to tell what i was looking at, and i probably needed magnification powers beyond what was available. not to mention the question of how long the bacteria can survive at room temperature. so i created images according to my own aesthetic choices within the given scientific parameters, leaving some questions unanswered.

it was a thrilling last stop on a truly eye-opening trip.

oh, and i want a microscope.

12 August 2007


i arrived in edinburgh in the late afternoon in the rain, returned my rental car, and headed to the center of town where i would meet a group of students from rollins college (where i will give a lecture on this project in september) lead by friend (not to mention professor and talented artist) rachel simmons. (check out rachel's blog for an alternate account of the next few days.) the fringe festival was in full tilt, and the city was buzzing with activity, the locals having long since split town. i slept with ear plugs to muffle an event in an adjacent building which raved on into the wee hours of the morning.

what seemed like mere hours after arriving in ediburgh, rachel and i hopped a train to glasgow. at this point in my travels i was starting to wing it when it came to the small stuff. (looking up directions ahead of time, checking for opening hours, for instance.) travel fatigue was setting in, combated only by my desire not to miss opportunities. i had been looking forward to visiting the fossil grove since i left new york, so that was first up on the day's loose agenda. after getting some completely incomprehensible directions from a scotish bus driver, we finally got to the bus station, chose a stop, and found a less heavily accented local to point us in the right direction.

the fossil grove is fantastic, and unlike anything i'd ever seen. the fossils are the remains of an ancient forest, around 330 million years old. unlike petrified forests, which are formed from the actual wood of the trees (growth rings ofter still in tact), these fossils are actually casts of their former selves, capturing the broken down wood (and other materials that would have entered the stumps) in fossil form, the bark long since broken away. the resulting forms looks more like clay sculptures than wood or rock.

next up was the hunterian museum, where we would meet with jim devine, head of multimedia at the museum and a friend of our friend (and talented artist) diana folsom. there were stuffed pigs with two heads and stuffed deer with two bodies and a single head. there were geological samples and explicit illustrations of the birth of gynecology. it was sort of a natural history museum greatest hits by way of ripley's believe it or not. (oddly enough, my hotel in copenhagen is next store to the danish ripley's. i haven't been in.) though there was something resonant here as well -- it was interesting to think of the oddities in terms of chance and anomaly -- they have that in common with the OLTW.

so the day was lousy with interesting things. i was pretty sure i was reaching my saturation point, however, when i looked out at a panoramic view of glasgow trying to reconcile some missing landmarks in the landscape -- until i realized i was, ahem, looking for landmarks in edinburgh. (the following week i would awake with a start on a plane to copenhagen, certain for a moment that i was in the back of a car in france.)

but back to edinburgh it was. on the 7th we visited the large and pristine botanical garden, where i was happily surprised to see they had a william eggelston exhibition up. the following day was a hike up arthur's seat, a little highland landscape located within the bounds of the city. disinterested in a long walk around it's base to the gently sloping incline, rachel and i decided on a more adventurous route. after passing through a depression filled with some pot-smoking men, we scaled a cliff-like side, the weight of my ever-heavy camera bag strategically leaning forward as not to send me tumbling back down. we made it up (and back) uninjured. i'll have to take in the northern highlands next time. now it was time for france.

a little time off couldn't have come at a better time. i won't bore you with the details, but suffice it to say that i swam in rivers, pools, and the ocean, hiked, biked, and ran, and ho mangiato molto bene. (yes, i know, that's italian.) as for other entertainments, leave it to the french to come up with the world championships of espadrille-kicking. contestants run up to the starting line, an espadrille perched on their kicking foot, and let 'er rip. surprisingly you don't seem to get points for flair, it's all about distance. the current world champ is measuring in at 25 meters. not bad.

but not all amusements are such fun and games. i also attended my first ever bull fight in bayonne. it was a first for the matadors, too -- it was a novillada, the first time they would fight the bulls publicly in the ring, not to mention all the way through to the death blows.

this was a complex experience, from deciding to attend in the first place all the way through the post-fight discussions. i'm going to have to save this one for a separate posting -- it warrants exploring.

since i was a hop, skip and jump from northern spain it seemed downright silly not to take in the guggenheim bilbao. while all the controversy about gehry's involvement in the ratner development in brooklyn has put me off of him (not to the point that i'm wearing a "fuck frank gehry " tshirt, mind you), i have to admit that the guggenheim is worth its salt. (and if you know my feelings about salt you know that i wouldn't say that lightly.) my highest compliments go to how the space compliments the richard serra work. if fact i've never seen it done better. (sorry MoMA, dia, gagosian.) the monumental anselm keefer's also seemed right at home. not surprisingly i was particularly taken by keefer's works incorporating star maps and "the secret life of plants."

it's remarkable that some art and architecture managed to put an old ship building town on the world map.

the last stop (!) on this OLTW trip: siberian bacteria in copenhagen.


i arrived in scotland as the sun went down. it was after 10 pm and all the customs officials had already called it a night, so i headed right to the rental car desk. by this point driving on the left side of the road didn't require a second thought, though driving in the poorly-signed streets of edinburgh without a navigator to read my google directions did prove a bit tricky. i did manage to stay on track, however, after a quick check-in with the A to Z at a petrol station. the next morning i drove out of edinburgh towards perthshire. with something that i have to attribute to good travel karma, when i arrived in aberfeldy (the town where i was staying) i somehow managed to coast right up to the street i was looking for, just as i was going to have to consult a map or a local. after settling in i continued my drive to the even smaller village of fortingall. in a second stroke of luck, i had an entire precipitation-free afternoon to photograph. rain set in later that night and didn't stop until i was back in edinburgh.

the fortingall yew (yes: yews are conifers, ewes are female sheep), somewhere between 2000 and 5000 years old (probably closer to the former than the latter), lives within the confines of a churchyard, further confined by its own tourist-proof stone wall. the area is steeped in history, not to mention incredibly beautiful, so its popularity is hardly surprising. however, the increase in traffic lead to substantial souvenir-taking of the yew's bark, endangering the health of the tree. hence the wall.

while it seems to be undisputed that the fortingall yew is the oldest tree in europe, this was another case of shoot first, ask questions later -- i'll have to confirm the age and history of the tree with the appropriate experts after i return from this trip. after the lengths required to reach and research the baobabs and welwitchia, reaching the yew was much closer to a walk in the park.

03 August 2007



phase 1 of the trip was over. i was back in london, bleary-eyed, navigating heathrow to one tube line to another, out to my friend beverly's house (an old classmate from the SVA photo program and former co-worker at NBC) where i would remain rather firmly planted for the next couple of days. i had made grand plans to visit the tate and kew gardens (at the very least), but realized that recouping from the previous 3 weeks of activity was just about all i could hope for. that, and dealing with the reality that my trip was not yet half way over and i was running out of film.

one would think that a city like london would stock fuji 220 film (i shoot medium format on the mamiya 7 II, in case you were wondering.) i started calling camera stores around the city, figuring it wouldn't take more than a call or two to track some down. i called at least 10 stores. then i started calling dublin. then ediburgh. the film i needed was no where to be found within a 200 mile radius, though they would be happy to special order it for me in a week's time and at twice the price. i was about to start pulling my hair out, but instead put in an order to B&H back home in new york, and had it sent to county kerry, ireland, where i would be the following week. it made it there in time, and i smiled to see that it was shipped from the brooklyn navy yards, where i had been regularly riding my bike before leaving for this trip. now if only i can get a VAT refund...


after london i headed for dublin. it was my first time there, and i was lucky enough to have a friend (the lovely and talented bren mcelroy) to stay with, and some friends of friends to meet at project arts centre. (check out the PLAY SAFE show if your in the neighborhood.) and then i was off to county kerry.

the green of countryside and the sudden outbursts of rain were a welcome change after the weeks of african desert. the aforementioned rachel holstead (RH) and her family graciously hosted my visit there. stay tuned for photos from the dingle agricultural festival, one of the highlights of my visit. i was also quite taken by the "film club," which takes place every tuesday night in town. tea and coffee are served, and everyone in the theater seems to know everyone else. each week an arty or otherwise interesting film is introduced by (not to mention selected by) the theater's elderly owner. this particular week he said a few quiet words at the front of the theater in honor of ingmar bergman (who had just passed away) and then pulled out a copy of the new yorker to read a review of the film he would show the following week. as a finishing touch he held up a poster for the film's theatrical release (first upside down, then backwards) before the lights went down.

the week flew by as i got in a combination of much-needed sleep and hiking. i grew used to the fact that there was still some light remaining in the sky at 11pm. then it was back to dublin on august 2nd, which included a repeat visit to project, a first visit to the irish museum of modern art (IMMA), and a stop at cultivate, a sustainable living center with a fantastic selection of books. i wanted at least 4, but restrained myself in light of the fact that i was already traveling over the legal ryan air limit and had already sent two packages home to myself to lighten the load. speaking of flying, please let me know if you're interesting in helping to offset my carbon emissions for this project. i'm taking 14 separate flights on this trip alone -- counterintuitive for environmentally sensitive work to say the least.

off to scotland for a visit to the fortingall yew, the oldest tree in europe.

31 July 2007


i awoke on a king sized, rock-hard bed under a synthetic leopard print bedspread, glanced over at the leopard print curtains, and considered a bath in the giant, sunken tub. mt. etjo is an aging safari lodge lodged pretty firmly in the 70's. my room was dubbed "the bachelor pad" on sight. the setup of the place is somewhere between a wildlife park and a disney attraction. right across the lawn, with a little electric fence between us, was a large watering hole teaming with activity. a group of hippos were in residence, along with countless antelope, enormous storks, and baboon. if the water wasn't enough to lure them all to stay within comfortable viewing range of the lodge, salt licks and bales of hay sealed the deal. one can wake up, grab a coffee, and pull up a chair to watch the morning's goings on.

in the afternoon tea and cake is served. next to the flamingos.

the main draw to the lodge are the (dirt cheap) safari drives, where extensive wildlife sightings are guaranteed. while many of the animals on site were once native to the area, they are long since hunted out and the current ones brought in from other locations. elephant, giraffe, zebs, black rhino, white rhino -- they're all there. finding wildlife at mt. etjo is more like finding a needle in a pincushion than a haystack. (don't get me wrong -- it's great if your goal is to set eyes on them, though not exactly 100% natural.) the larger animals even get attention from vets when necessary.

the other main attraction offered by the lodge is a nightly lion feeding. the lions are kept in separate part of the park from the rest of the game, and while they do have space to roam, they are not exactly in a natural habitat. every night, tourists stashed safely in a hide, a skinned carcass of some animal or other (zebra, kudu, etc.) is put out for them to eat -- chained to the spot in front of the hide so they don't do something silly like drag their dinner out of view.

i opted it out of this activity for several reasons, primarily because the unnatural spectacle of the whole arrangement didn't sit quite right with me. RH and CM attended, and after hearing their vivid reports of the sounds and smells of the event, i was not sorry to have missed it.

in the morning we packed up and headed out of mt. etjo for our last full day in namibia. the road which had housed so many dangers two nights before seemed innocent in the daylight. we were driving to see the nearby dinosaur footprints. george, our naturalist friend from the namib desert, had discussed our route and plans with us before we left the swakupmund area. we had mentioned the footprints to him, to which he offhandedly remarked "once you've seen one set of dinosaur footprints you've seen them all." "but we've never seen any," i immediately replied. so off we went, a fitting last stop after all that searching for old things, these in a different age bracket entirely. as george has warned us, they were indeed small, circled in white paint lest you breeze past them. but they were a lovely sight. you could almost imagine being the first person to stumble upon them and the excitement at realizing what it was you had found.

we drove on to windhoek, namibia's capital (population 200,000, to put it in perspective.) it felt like an odd little jolt to be in a city -- even a small one -- after being out in all that openness. somehow time had folded in on itself, and i had been enveloped in those great expanses and experiences of those 3 short weeks. it was almost time to leave.


in the afternoon, having bid adieu to CM in windhoek in the morning, RH and i flew back to cape town. we headed straight to kirstenbosch upon arrival, where i had the aforementioned meeting with ernst van jaarsveld. ernst separated welwitchia facts from fiction for me --and informed me about two other OLTW to add to my list: a leadwood tree in namibia and elephant's foot on the eastern cape, both safely over my 2,000 year minimum age.

looks like i'm going to have to come back.

26 July 2007


satisfied at the previous day's welwichia watching, (or "velvitchia vatching," if you will -- namibia was once colonized by the germans), we finally got to an internet cafe that actually provided internet access, stocked up on water and snacks for the car, and headed towards twyfelfontein (which means doubtful spring, in case you were wondering.) but a few more words about swakupmund before we go:

imagine a german idea of an african beach town. now imagine the abandoned feeling of a beach town just about anywhere in the world in the off season. and then consider the fact that in this particular town, it can get hotter in the winter than in the summer. and so it was: sunny and quite hot, all the shops closed, hardly a person in sight. i saw a poster for the swakupmund high school production of grease...unfortunately i didn't get the chance to take it in. next time.

so off we were headed to tywfelfontein, the draw of which is the
concentration of ancient rock engravings and paintings from as recently as 2000 years ago and as far back as 6000, with a lovely lodge near by. (in most of namibia, small enclaves arise at points of interest in what otherwise is the middle of nowhere. the staff often live on site, returning to their actual homes during the intervals between shifts often lasting a few months. namibia is a large country with a small population. people know one another here.) we drove north and inland, having skipped a diversion up the skeleton coast to see seals in order to give ourselves the much-needed gift of a short car ride for the day. (at this point we were nearly 2/3 of the through the country towards its northern border with angola.) we arrived early in the afternoon, just in time to rent some bicycles and ride out into the gorgeous landscape, grasses, sage colored shrubs and small mountains glowing in the low light, and then out to the gravel airstrip as the sun was setting. speaking of airstrips, i should mention that i hardly saw a plane overhead the entire trip through namibia. no contrails, no light pollution. just uninterrupted sky.

that night we signed up for a stargazing trip, where we drove out of range from the lights of the lodge equipped with a small telescope and a german astronomer with a thick accent and dubious credentials. if only i could do justice to the description of the sky. the milkyway stretched, clear as a bell, from one end of the horizon to the other. the only interference was the dust that ringed the horizon, remnants of that sand storm we had heard about earlier in the week. there were shooting stars less fleeting than languishing through space, then succumbing to the darkness. it was a gift of the sublime to be looking at that sky, though little realities creaped back in: it became cold and late, and a group of american retirees ostensibly also out to see the stars were tending more towards carrying on like teenagers. it was a good night, and we were getting up at 6am the next morning for a 3-hour sunrise hike.

i awoke about 10 minutes before our sunrise hike was to begin, threw on my boots, and hurried over to the lodge to get a few precious sips of coffee before we set out. i had become used to an early-to-bed, early-to-rise routine, and had gone to sleep well past midnight. and if you know me you know how serious i am about my morning coffee. but i digress. we started up a steep and rocky incline, following our guide, thankful to be outside before the days heat took hold. rock paintings were on the route. it's still untouched enough in the area to imagine yourself standing in the same spot thousands of years earlier. i was glad to come in contact with some human elements from the same era as my subjects for my work, a longevity of another sort.

tywfelfontein itself has a visitor center, and guided informational tours are included with the small fee for admission. the site consists mostly of engravings as opposed to paintings, with local animals as almost exclusive subject matter. i found one of a lion with a hand at the end of its tail to be the most compelling, believed to have been created by a shaman. also of particular interest were some engravings of penguins and seals, a sign that they had travelled to the coast, though they read more as sketches done from memory than the confident renditions of more familiar giraffes and antelope.

it was at least 1pm as we completed the tour, sun high and very hot overhead, us having been swept into the walk without a chance to run back to the car for water or proper shoes. i was dehydrated (and apparently delirious, since at the time it seemed like a good idea to drink a pineapple fanta back at the visitors center. i quickly regained my senses and switched back to water.) there was a gift shop as well, filled with local crafts from a community job-building program, each individual item sweetly labeled with the name of the person who had made it. as we lingered, enjoying the shade and admiring the goods, some of the staff approached us and asked for a ride back to the local village. we ended up driving two women a few miles, a favor to them but really a tread for us as they spoke damara nama as we drove -- a wonderful language containing a number of different clicking sounds. (we tried a couple basics, my name is ____, thank you, etc, with little accuracy or hope of retention.) one of the women shared a story (in english) of how she had made a comment about a japanese man who had walked into the center -- "wow, he's tall!" she had exclaimed to one of her co-workers, only to have him retort, without a beat and in her own language, "you should be careful what you say!" she sticks to english now to avoid further embarrassment, though she was also impressed at how well and how quickly this stranger had learned her language.

next on the agenda: the petrified forest, though not before stopping in a ditch on the side of the road to make some sandwiches. we laughed as the dust from passing cars settled on the food and stuck to our hands, sticky with oranges and peanut butter. when we got the petrified forest we asked for the whirlwind tour: i was headachy and tired from the dehydration and lack of sleep, but i certainly didn't want to miss it. and i'm so glad we didn't. i was surprised to learn that the petrified trees are conifers -- incongruous in the desert as there isn't a living conifer in sight. but let's not forget the welwitchia! the following week, at ernst van jaarsfeld's office in kirstenbosch, the very first thing he did was show me a terribly familiar photo he had taken of a welwitchia -- a conifer -- growing at what would have been the crown of the largest of the petrified trees at this very site. what an energizing light of recognition.

so we had really packed in a lot of activity in the last 24 hours, and now we were in for a long drive to mt. etjo safari lodge. as the light crept towards dusk and then into darkness, the small roads got smaller and animals made themselves at home in harm's way. CM was behind the wheel, avoiding rabbits, steinbok, a large male kudu, guinea fowl, and horses. it was dark and getting late as we got closer to the lodge. i saw some eyes on the side of the road, figuring it was a grazing horse or donkey that was likely to stay put as we drove past. it turned out to be neither equine or sensible, but rather an oryx, huge and confused, bolting out in front of our car. i cried out to CM, who had not yet seen it, just in the nick of time, and she swerved and braked us to safety.

shaken and tired, we made it to the lodge, through the security gate (the one that keeps the animals in), and checked in for the night.

the quirks and charms of mt. etjo, a night in windhoek, and one last day in cape town.


today was the day. i was heading back into the namib naukluft desert, this time the northern part of the massive park, in order to photograph some of the oldest living welwitchia mirabilis in the world. after a walk along the ocean into swakupmund proper and another failed attempt to get online, we headed back to our b&b to await the arrival of self-taught naturalist george erb, our desert guide, as arranged by chris the previous day. i had been hoping to get in touch with someone at the desert research center to check my facts on the ages of the particular welwitchia on our route for the day, but since email was still unavailable i resigned myself to shoot first and ask questions later. i was still a bit concerned that i was not getting exactly where i needed to go -- there are some old plants recommended to me by braam van wyk that were much further south than swakupmund, which we had actually driven past the day before -- but lacking a 4x4 i dolefully drove past the turn-off. i had also learned from chris that perhaps the most ancient plants are further north at messum crater, but the site is remote even by namibian standards and the roads downright treacherous. (apparently even on the "good" road, a 4x4 is required, and if something were to go wrong it was likely to take days before a helping hand might drive by. the unexpectedness of my horseback riding incident the previous week sprung back into mind, and i took it as a lesson learned on unknown unknowns: in this case taking a potentially dangerous trip into unfamiliar desert was more foolhardy than a reflection of my dedication to my project. it helped that both chris and george seemed convinced that the plants on our route are over 2000 years old, so i relaxed into the day and we drove out of town and into the namib desert.

the welwitchia are truly strange and unique plants. surprisingly enough, they're part of the conifer family and live only in the very specific climate along the coast of namibia and angola where coastal fog and desert meet. ernst van jaarsfeld, chief horticulturalist at kirstenbosch botanical garden in cape town, met with me the following week to discuss the the welwitchia, which he described as being arrested in its juvenile stage. technically, the welwitchia has a trunk (when pressed for the defining attributes of a tree, ernst replied with a smile: you have to be able to to climb it), though it's unlike any trunk i've ever seen. it grows in an almost wavelike form (you can see the annual growth rings, though they're too distorted for an accurate count), and unlike anything else in the plant kingdom it grows only 2 leaves over the course of its entire life. i observed that you can think of the two leaves as baby teeth -- instead of falling out and being replaced by adult ones, imagine instead that they never fall out...and never stop growing. because of this the welwichia actually holds the record for longest leaf growth of any plant, though it's a common misconception that this distinction belongs to the raffia palm.

but back to the desert.

we drove into the park and past newly laid pipeline carrying water away from swakupmund and into the sandy expanses. george explained that the namibian government has leased out large portions of the park to international mining corporations. while they do bring in a few low-wage jobs for namibian citizens, namibia is not sharing in the profits from the mining of their natural resources. i began to wonder what weight the designation of "park" has -- many parts of the park are now off limits to the public as the mining companies are given the right to restrict access. later the in day we would drive through land marked as private access for "swakup uranium" at my coaxing -- it was the only way to get to an old acacia tree i was dying to see before sundown.

but first we drove along the welwitchia route, a self-guided driving tour that many visitors to the park take, culminating with "the big welwitchia." it is aptly named, and an incongruous sight fenced off with an escalated viewing platform with dubious stairs. there were other huge plants nearby -- just as big, really. as with any plant, light, water, nutrients, pH, and other factors can effect growth rates, but in general the bigger the welwitchia, the older the welwitchia. we abandoned the tourist route and headed to what might be an even bigger, and unfenced, specimen. apparently some radio carbon dating was done on some of the plants in the area about 10 years ago, the results of which i plan on looking into. i've heard everything between 1,500 year to 3,000 as an age estimate for the largest welwitchias. as people are more likely than not to overestimate when it comes to ages, i'm trying to parse all the data and get down to facts. as with the baobabs, it is proving to be difficult.

as the afternoon wore on we left the desert plains for the comparative green of the canyon. we drove along a bone-dry river bed, an occasional ostrich zigzagging prehistorically away from the jeep. we made it to the acacia (also known as "camel thorn tree," camels being the only animal that eat its thorny branches) that george had talked up earlier in the day. he estimated its age at 3,000 years or more. i was excited at the prospect of adding another OLTW to my list, but when i checked in with ernst the following week, he thought it unlikely that the tree is over 500 years old. it is lovely, none the less. i worry about the encroaching mining operations.

all in all it was a great day, having seen just a small part of the beautiful and varied, however unforgiving, desert. and i was content that i saw some of the oldest welwichia in the world, national plant of namibia, surviving against the odds by the most simplistic of means.

21 July 2007

WEEk 2: TAKE 2

my goodness! please forgive the long delay in my posts -- i had no idea i was going to be offline for so long...but man was it well worth it. namibia is a fantastic country, and i am now back in cape town and heading to london tonight...but let me rewind and bring you up to speed.

we had one last breakfast at lola's cafe in cape town before hitting the road. oh, and a rather comical stop at a petrol station where the 3 of us, 2 petrol station attendants, and 1 helpful bystander all failed to figure out to pop the hood on our new volvo. (it remained a mystery until the following afternoon when CM found the latch behind what seemed like a scsi connection and a mess of wires.) while there we bought a gas can for extra fuel to keep in the boot just in case. (rule of thumb: any time you see a map of an entire country which has little fuel pump icons on it, bring along some extra.) and in yet another comical turn of events, some one drove up to the station and handed the requested gas can out the window and over to one of the attendants in what seemed like mere seconds after i had requested it. last but not least, our car of course needed a name, so we chose "val kilmer," partially for the dark and brooding actor himself (the car being light and airy), and also in homage to the graffitist in williamburg, brooklyn who's been tagging the aforementioned around the neighbourhood.

so we were off to a good start.

we stopped by the lovely, flamingo-filled west coast national park after driving a bit up the atlantic coastline, and made it to springbok, a small blue-collar mining town, after nightfall. it was a long day's drive through beautiful and varied landscape...with much more to come on both fronts. that night, RH and i had dinner in a restaurant called "the godfather," which felt more like a dated eastern european hangout than a restaurant in a small town in south africa. the next day we would cross into namibia. CM and i were already pretty tuckered out from the previous week's adventure, so we were at least glad to find that the road conditions were leaps and bounds better than those in eastern SA, despite the clouds of sand and dust the trailed our vehicle and left us in temporary blindness when oncoming traffic passed.

i started the day with some concern: i had received an email from my contact at the gobabeb desert research center (whom i had been in contact with for some time in order to locate and learn about the oldest welwitchia mirabilis...the very reason i was in namibia in the first place), which stated that absolutely no one would be in the research center during the time i would be in the area. further more, if were to try to locate the plants on my own, i would require a 4 x 4 vehicle, which val was not, in addition to a special permit. there was no way i was going to go all the way to namibia and not get to see what i came for, so i called nicole, sister of a friend of a friend, not to mention a namibian travel agent who had set up our entire itinerary, and asked for help. she called chris, a well-known naturalist in swakupmund, and got things rolling in the right direction again. when i followed up with chris he had answered his cell phone in the middle of a desert sandstorm. it seemed prudent to finish the planning later.

so: off to namibia. the landscape got more and more arid as we drove north, and seemed to give into it completely as we crossed the border, demarcated by the orange river -- one of the few rivers in either country that actually contained any water. (the term "river" is used loosly here -- one river i was told about flows for only about 4 hours a year. "river bed" is more like it.) we were headed for fish river canyon, which may or may not be the second largest canyon in the world after the grand. (it was formed when the bottom dropped out, millions of years ago, as opposed to having had eroded.)

nicole had managed to book us in at the cañon lodge, despite our small budget, and we couldn't have been more appreciative. it was not yet evening when we arrived, and the drive in had been absolutely stunning as we began to view glimpses of the canyon in the expansive landscape. the lodge itself consists of thatched-roof bungalows, nestled into the boulders strewn around the area. they grow a large percentage of their own food, keep their own animals, and bottle their own mineral water (the latter we learned was not at all uncommon.) so we checked in, smiles on our faces at a chance to unwind in such lovely surroundings and glad that the drive had been a short one. we went on a sundowner walk, not the most rigorous of hikes as a cooler of beer awaited at the top, but a lovely way to unwind none the less. i had been on the lookout for clonal aloe on our drive earlier per dr. braam van wyk's suggestion, but had not found any, nor did our guide for the walk seem to be familiar. i guess there was nothing to do but enjoy the quiet beauty of the place.

we all awoke early, excited to be staying another night and to see more of the surroundings. we signed up for the sunrise walk (we would see many sunrises and sunsets over the next two weeks), and then later in the morning, for horseback riding. the walk actually started with a drive, were we parked, had coffee, and watched the sunrise by some quiver trees. the quiver trees are in the aloe family, and can live to be several hundred years old. (not old enough for my project, but photogenic none the less.) they're named as such since their branches are easily hollowed out and were actually used as quivers for bow hunting. we then walked back to the lodge, leaving the safari jeep behind.

next was the horseback riding. they had asked us if we had any experience riding when we signed up -- RH and CM said just a little, and i professed that i was an experienced rider. in retrospect it might have been wise to have considered the context -- while thus far we were having very tame walk-and-beverage service style activities, i hadn't taken into consideration that namibian farm horses might not be as tame as the ones i'd been used to. they put me on a very ornery horse. his ears were plastered back the whole ride (a clear indication of his displeasure), as he was fighting with me (and the other horses) the entire way. this was a trail ride, mind you, and nothing i would have ever blinked twice at, but when the stables were in view again, one of the horses went for a trot, and mine went for a full on gallop. i was not at all pleased, and not in very much control either. he was heading straight for a tree, on which i think he intended to impale me, and when that failed was still going full throttle towards the high fence of the corral. afraid that he might be crazy enough to try the 8-foot jump, i rolled off to the side, off the horse, and into the dirt and bottom rungs of the corral. i was left with some serious bruising to my knees, hip, and nose, but knew that nothing was torn or broken (a good thing since medical assistance was ages away.) just black and blue and shaken up. there was nothing to do but ice down the swelling and sip some scotch. a mighty thanks goes out to gymnastics, trapeze, and streb, all of which played a role in teaching me how to fall safely from high speeds and great heights.

the next morning we had our last breakfast at cañon, made ourselves some PB&J sandwiches for the road, and headed out for keetmanshoop, home of the quiver tree forest. i was limping and in no shape to drive, so CM took on the task for the day. keetmanshoop is a funny little town, complete with a "central park" and a hungarian restaurant. we made a trip to the grocery store, stocking up on rusks, rye crackers, oranges, etc, all of which would be ground into the car at some point or other along with dropped vitamins, dripped sunscreen, and spilled water. (the windshield was cracked, too -- more a chip, really, but once again a rock spit up by a passing car hit us dead center, breaking the glass. this seems so common at the rental car places here that they didn't even charge me for it.)

anyway, we headed out for the quiver trees, me still limping and shuffling in the midday heat. the trees were impressive, but somehow less personal in this touristy campsite then they'd seen on our sunrise walk. they also kept cheetahs or leopards captive on site, which we opted out of seeing. we got back in the car and pressed on towards sesriem, deeper into the desert and home to some of the largest sand dunes in the world.

we drove into the darkness, the landscape transforming from large barren flats back into small mountain passes. we'd have to wait until morning to see what the distance and daylight would reveal to us.

we awoke to sweeping desert plains offset by mountains. the were staying in the half wood/half tent structures ("the camp") similar to the platform tents by the kruger and sunland baobabs. they had rattled and bellowed wildly in the night’s winds. we wondered if sandstorms were in our future. but the day was clear and bright (and HOT), and after breakfast we headed for the vleis (a term roughly indicating a place where water collects allowing for plants to grow there...in this case when or if there is some.) we crossed into the namib naukluft park -- the first of many forays into this vast and varied desert park.

the landscape was fantastic, and when we reached the red-hued dunes we were all smitten. we slathered ourselves with sunscreen and headed out, sand blowing off the creases of the dunes against the deep blue sky. we were going to attempt the 2 km walk from the parking area to dead vlei, me still on the slow side, but not in too much discomfort. we were trudging along the sand road in the blazing sun for who knows how long, not there yet, when one of the shuttles (an open safari jeep) offered to pick us up. we accepted. we joked that we must already be there, and the ride would be just around the corner, but was we drove on and on we realized we'd made the right decision in saving our energy for the short walk out to dead vlei. dead vlei, as it sounds, no longer supports any plant life. what it does have, however, are the skeletons of dead trees, which have been standing for over 500 years in the place where they once grew. they were luminous and haunting in the stark landscape.

we were exhausted from the heat as we trudged back through the sand, without a thought of attempting the walk all the way back to the car. amazingly enough we all managed to avoid getting sunburnt, a seemingly impossible feat, us all being fair skinned and having spent an entire day in the direct desert sun. getting back to the car was a little comical, but i'll save that for another time.

time was up in sesriem, and we headed towards the beach towns of walvis bay and swakupmund, where we would stay for two nights. i was back behind the wheel, and we were looking forward to seeing the ocean. we drove through a different part of the namib desert, stopping in an absolutely charming town called solitaire. (towns in namibia, btw, seem sometimes not to exist at all, or could be a single house. this one had a gas station and restaurant, not to mention was home of the solitaire festival.) i had been told to ask for moose, owner of the establishment, to get instructions for finding some strange grass formations known as fairy rings, but he wasn't going to be in until later in the day. instead we just enjoyed the surprising, sort of nostalgic wabi sabi aesthetic of the place, ate some just baked apple cake, picked up some local crafts and a much-needed hat.

by this stage in the trip i was learning the limits of what i could and couldn't do -- it was much more important to press on towards the welwitchia than wait for moose. it was one of the many times during the trip that i wished i had more time -- it easily could have been 3 months instead of 3 weeks without a moment of boredom.

so the grasslands transformed into down and dirty desert -- nothing but sand and dust as far as the eye could see, then just as suddenly transformed again into dark, craggy mountains, nothing done in small scale. we continued to keep an eye on the horizon, looking for sandstorms which we would not find. it turned out the light we had seen was not a break in the dust, but rather the ocean, spotted from some distance away. as we got close to walvis bay we were stopped at a roadblock. not curious of who we were or why we were there -- the block was for a movie being filmed -- a war film set in the middle east. as we waited two pickup trucks with costumed actors holding machine guns were getting ready to make the scene, fake oil barrels, tanks, the works all strategically placed along the highway. we laughed, took pictures, and drove on to catch the sunset over the atlantic.

later we drove north to swakupmund, where i had still not secured my route to the welwitchias, or even which were the exact ones that i needed to see. i was getting concerned. since our itinerary was all booked and paid for, staying an extra day would mean major hassles and financial repercussions. we finally found an open internet cafe, not having had access for a week, only to find the gmail was down, or at least not accessible on their terribly slow connection. to add insult to injury the phone wasn't working either, but finally i got a phone card and got through to chris (i found in namibia that sometimes you'd have to dial a number a few times to get through -- sometimes nothing would happen, sometimes you'd get the wrong person.) i explained my predicament in more detail and he arranged to have his colleague george take us all on a welwitchia tour the following day. chris convinced me i would see what i needed for my project. i breathed a sigh of relief, if a tentative one. we'd see how it would go in the field.

welwitchia, ancient rock engravings and paintings at twyfelfontein, a petrified forest, and a very scary almost-collision with an oryx on the road to the mount etjo safari lodge. but right i have to hop on a plane from cape town to london. more soon from the UK!

15 July 2007


phew! there's a lot to report and barely a moment to do it...but just a quick note to say that i'm doing well, loving namibia, and just returned from a sucessful day of photographing ancient welwitchia and acacia. more to come as soon as i can!


08 July 2007


hello out there!

it's hard to believe it, but i've been in south africa for only one week now. i've seen and done so much already it's hard to believe so little time has gone by. let me bring you up to speed...

christine and i, having met up at heathrow amidst attempted acts of terrorism, arrived safely in jo'burg and started in our first challenge: driving on the left hand side of the street. (i'm pleased to report we've acclimated nicely.) our time in jo'burg was quite limited -- we drove directly to diana mayne's house, who graciously put us up before heading out bright and early the next morning for the start of our baobab tour. the baobab is almost impossible to date accurately while it's still alive, so a number of likely candidates for oldest were on the itinerary.

we started out early on a long drive into the limpopo region, heading towards the northeastern most part of the country. we had lunch en route with a forester and friend of diana's who happens to be creating a business locally sustainable business processing the oil from the baobabs, the uses for which range from soothing the skin to dressing salads.

we then got back on the road to the segole, which may or may not be the oldest living baobab. the segole is located on tribal lands, which meant leaving the tar roads as they're called, and driving on gravel. cows, donkeys, people, goats, etc, have no qualms about crossing the road at their leisure, regardless of the (exceptionally high) speed limit. i'm very sad to report that i am responsible for the loss of at least one mongoose, as at least 10 of them bounded in front of my car at once. (consider this a little obituary...)

so we finally reached the sagole, which is a strange and massive thing. it was late in the afternoon and the sound of bells and the nearby tribes people wafted over, creating a perfect atmosphere for the visit. christine and i climbed up and into the tree a bit, but the bark is very smooth the limbs steep, so we didn't get very far.

we began driving off the tribal lands and back to the tar roads as the sun was setting, local traffic buzzing on the streets as in daylight. we were heading towards the pafuri gate of the kruger park. we were staying in platform tent-camping accommodations, situated a literal stones throw from the electrified fence of the kruger (which if you're not familiar, if filled with wild game.) the gravel road to the site was very rugged, and more than once we winced for the poor car, which had already suffered a rock to the windshield earlier in the day, causing a small crack but not enough concern to do anything but keep an eye on it.)

the tents had running water (though not traditional showers -- a story for later), though the bathroom facilities were essentially located outside. i slept lightly that night, the dark woods filled with unfamiliar sounds. at one point in the night i was convinced that a monkey was outside the tent door at the sink, eating the toothpaste i had left out. i wasn't about to get up in the darkness to find out, but i awoke in the morning to find it just as i'd left it.

the next morning we awoke to cloudy skies, but rain is absolutely unheard of this time of year in the region. by the time we were inside the kruger, it was raining. we weren't deterred, however, from visiting the ancient baobab in the kruger, accompanied by park rangers, as you are not allowed off the main roads or even out of your car without an escort in most parts of the park. the skies cleared then darkened again, luckily leaving me enough time to photograph, not to mention dramatic lighting.

another favorite siting that day was a lovely grove of fever trees, which have a beautiful light green bark. they're called fever trees as they were once thought by local tribes to cause malaria. after the grove of trees we arrived on the dry banks of the limpopo river. the rangers told us that if we ran across we'd be in zimbabwe, though the lions have been acting as a sort of natural boarder patrol. we opted out.

though this being a world class game park we were hoping for some animal sightings, but the rain kept things quiet. we were lucky enough to see a number of giant tortoises that day, as well as monkeys, baboons, zebras, all sorts of birds, impala, and a handful of frogs. we couldn't wait for this unexpected weather to turn, however, so after a couple hours of trolling slowly through the park we headed towards our next destination: the sunland baobab.

a long and confusing drive later we arrived at the sunland, where we were also staying the night. no one was there to let us into our platform tents, but a few phone calls later we were let in to this struggling tourist destination in the off season.

what makes the sunland a tourist destination? primarily the fact that it houses a bar/cafe inside the tree. it was raining steadily that morning at the sunland, but cleared in time to get some photos before heading out again, having made a new plan to re-visit the kruger the following day to try to get a glimpse of more wildlife. we canned the trip to visit the cycad forest, home of the rain queen, who apparently was doing her job a little too well.

the next and last tree on the route was the glencoe baobab, a huge and unusually symmetrical tree that lives on a private farm. the owners were happy to let us have a visit, this having been pre-arranged by diana. the flat expanse of the farm was punctuated by the tree, with sheer mountains not far in the distance. everything felt properly in scale -- and quite large. the stormy sky was braking once again, and made for a great, and once again dramatic, backdrop.

we spent the night at a lovely bed and breakfast, all the sweeter after the previous two nights.

the next morning we set out for three repeat visits: the glencoe, the kruger, and jo'burg. it was an ambitious plan to begin with, and we were off to a late start. the rains were finally over though, and it proved to be a great game day. i have to admit it was thrilling to spot giraffes, whole families of elephants (ellies), warthogs (warties), eagles, hippos, and sable (a rare site even for diana, who has had many a visit to the kruger.)

the plan was to leave all this and be back in jo'burg in time for dinner, where a friend of a friend was preparing dinner for us. it seemed like we might even be able to do it, even after the horrendous driving conditions through a busy yet high-speed construction zone, but when we were only 40 km away from jo'burg we hit traffic. and i mean traffic. we inched along for a while, and then finally settled into a dead stop. people turned off their engines and waited. dinner long since canceled, we arrived back at diana's house at midnight. after 10 + hours of hard driving, i was completely spent.

christine and i awoke early the next morning back in jo'burg, just in time to bid goodbye to diana and leave again. first stop: the pretoria botanical garden, where i had arranged to meet with dr. braam van wyk, a biologist there. i had first contacted braam to get information on the baobabs, and it turned out that he was wealth of information on other oldest living things as well, especially something referred to as underground forests, which are clonal colonies of pyrogenic geoxylic suffrutices. think of them as whole trees that have retreated underground, where only the very tips of the crowns make an appearance above ground. the underground forests could be hundreds of thousands of years old, as like other clones they could in theory be immortal. these have the additional advantage of not having had to survive through an ice age. i photographed what i could see at the botanical garden (which to, quote braam, is an ugly botanical garden.) more about these fascinating plants later.

next stop was our rescheduled dinner from the night before, which became a lunch back in jo'burg before heading to the airport.

time was tight, but after a delightful meal and quick drive back the airport, we dropped off the car, crack in the windshield having grown by several inches, and made it to the plane with time to spare.

next stop: cape town.

so now we are up to speed, and i am writing this now at an internet cafe on long street. christine and i arrived safely as the sun was going down, picked up the new rental car, and drove into town to the backpackers where we met up with rachel holstead, fresh in from ireland.

we slept in a bit today and headed over to the kirstenbosch botanical garden -- as decidedly lovely as the the pretoria gardens were not. afterwards we headed down the coast where we may or may not have seen penguins on our way to cape point, which may or may not be the meeting point of the atlantic and indian oceans. (a friend who had joined us for the day astutely pointed out that they were simply human designations, so it didn't much matter.) the gates to cape point park were closed by the time we arrived, unfortunately. so we drove on, stopping at an ostrich farm and various look-outs over the ocean until darkness overtook us and we continued the windy drive back to town.

tomorrow we light out towards nambia....

26 June 2007


Well, it’s that time again. I am leaving New York in search of the next batch of Oldest Living Things in the World. This trip is a big one – not only will it be my first time in Africa, it will also be the longest trip I’ve taken to date, weighing in at 7 1/2 weeks. Where exactly am I going and why? So glad you asked:

Johannesburg, South Africa: JULY 2 – JULY 7
This stop consists of a round trip road trip to visit several of the oldest Baobab trees and Pyrogenic Geoxylic Suffrutices, known as the “underground forests” of Africa. Classical pianist and neuroscientist-to-be Christine McCleavey will join me in Joburg, where we will meet up with Baobab expert Diana Mayne, who has graciously planned a multi-day Baobab viewing tour, complete with the occasional ranger to keep us safe from lions and leopards and hippos, oh my! Before leaving Joburg I’ll be visiting some underground forests courtesy of biologist Braam VanWyk from the University of Pretoria.

Cape Town, South Africa to Namibia and back: JULY 7 - JULY 21
After spending a few days in Cape Town I’ll be taking another road trip – this time to Namibia to photograph the Welwitchia Mirabilis (with guidance from the Gobab Training and Research Center), hopefully having tracked down some ancient clonal Aloe claviflora (another tip from Braam VanWyk) en route. The lovely and talented composer Rachel Holstead (a friend from my residency at the MacDowell Colony), will join Christine and I for this exciting leg of the trip.

London: JULY 21 – JULY 25
No, there aren’t any oldest living things in London that I’m aware of, but there are good friends and the Tate Modern to visit.

Dublin and Kerry, Ireland: July 25 – Aug 3
No oldest things here either, but I don’t plan on letting that stop me from non-stop photographing. Ireland’s been on my list to photograph for a while, so thanks to the above mentioned Irish native Rachel Holstead I’ve been invited for a visit to photograph, squeeze in some more research, and re-coup.

Edinburgh, Scotland: Aug 3 – Aug 9
And back to old things in Scotland. The town of Fortingall, apparently replete with Roman history, is also home to Europe’s oldest tree, the Fortingall Yew. It’s located not so very far from Edinburgh, where I will be staying with yet another artist named Rachel that I met at a residency – this one is the lovely and talented visual artist Rachel Simmons (who shares my interest in the intersection of science and art), who just happens to be taking some of her students from Rollins College to the Fringe Festival at the time.

Sorde L’Abbey, South of France: Aug 9 – Aug 16
Vacation, pure and simple.

Copenhagen: Aug 16 – Aug 23-ish
The last stop on my trip is Copenhagen, where I will be experiencing another first – photographing the world's oldest viable microbes under a high-powered microscope. This ancient bacteria is from Siberia, but has been transported to Denmark for study at the Niels Bohr Institute, Copenhagen. Special thanks goes out to Sarah Stewart Johnson at MIT for telling me about the Bacteria, and Martin Bay Hebsgaard of the the University of Copenhagen's Ancient DNA and Evolution Group who will guide me through the lab. I’ll try not to break anything.

I don’t have my return ticket yet, but I plan to be coming home around Aug 23rd.

I hope to keep you posted as I travel, so stay tuned!

- r

13 May 2007


hello out there.

welcome to my blog, which i've created in order to track the development of my interdisciplinary project "the oldest living things in the world." i'm researching, working with biologists, and traveling around the world to photograph living organisms, aged 2000 years old and older.

there's a lot more to come...and in the mean time please visit www.rachelsussman.com to see images from this and other bodies of work.

stay tuned!