09 December 2011

Last of the Lomatia

Wondering what's going on here? This is a clipping of the 43,600-year-old Lomatia Tasmanica, propagated in the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens.

There is only one single living individual Lomatia Tasmanica left in the world. It flowers, rarely, and there are pollen and a stigma in each flower, but as the plant is a triploid, it is sterile. [corrected from original post.] And it is 43,600 years old. How is that possible? It's growing clonally, as you've heard me talk about before: it continues to send up new shoots, without the introduction of new genetic material.

I was not granted permission to visit the Lomatia in the wild (more on my thoughts about the Tasmanian Parks Department later), though I was glad to see it in the Gardens. The clippings propagated there and one in Canberra are the only other places it can be found in the world, and even then it is not on public display. The clippings are so sensitive, in fact, that the only time one spent half a day in public view in slighly different conditions, it died. That hardly bodes well for its survival.

The Lomatia Tasmanica is continuing its line in the only possible way it can: by cloning itself over and over again, theoretically forever, though that is unlikely given the instability of our climate to come.

12,000-year-old Antarctic Beech

This image is of a fairy ring of Antarctic Beech which is probably around 12,000 years old, living in Queensland, Australia. The ring of trees is a single, clonal individual, growing vegetatively (as opposed to adding genetic material from another individual as in sexual reproduction.)

There are a number of other clonal Antarctic Beech living in the area, though not all have been studied. I was lucky enough to have botanist Rob Price, a veritable expert in all the local flora and fauna, guide me out to this stand, as well as others in the area. (Rob first got in touch with me after seeing my TED talk. So glad he did, as I otherwise might have missed them.)

Why Antarctic? These beauties used to cover Antarctica in its milder days, before its present iced-over state. As Gondwana broke apart 180 million years ago and the South got colder, the Antarctic Beeches worked themselves up to more suitable climes. Talk about going the distance.

30 November 2011

Waking Up Down Under

I haven't finished penning the story of my Sri Lankan mishap yet, but I couldn't help but start my next adventure. This morning I woke up in Australia. No, not all of a sudden, but rather after a somewhat perplexing 16-zone time change and two full turns of the calendar between JFK and Sydney. Who was it that said in regard to sea sickness that it feels like you're going to die when you have it, but to everyone else around you it's just funny? Ditto on the jetlag.

There's a lot on my agenda in Oz -- not to mention a lot of physical ground to cover --
between now and December 23rd. Antarctic Beech trees that have inched their way out of now frozen pole over tens of thousands of years to settle on the Gold Coast. A Eucalyptus so rare that all I can tell you is that it's in New South Wales and might be 10,000 years old. In Western Australia there are the Stromatolites, which are beyond fascinating and beautifully complex, and their neighbor to the south, a 5,000-year-old Gum tree. And the two clonal organisms in Tasmania that caught my fancy back in 2006 when this project was still but a twinkle in my eye: the 10,000-year-old clonal Huon Pine on Mount Read, and the Lomatia Tasmanica...a 43,600-year-old clonal shrub that is literally the last of its kind left on earth, and yet theoretically immortal. The sheer magnitude of its solitary existence and unfathomable perseverance gives me a chill every time I think about it. But you can't just stroll right up to this wonder (save for visiting a clipping in the Hobart botanical garden.) I'm still working on securing permission to visit the two Tasmanian sites.

It struck me on the plane ride over that I had no idea what The Oldest Living Things would become back when I first photographed the Giant Sequoias and other California elders that are, relatively speaking, close to home, and how fortunate that I waited to come to Australia. If I had made this trip in the project's nascent stages, I wouldn't have known about half of the organisms on my current itinerary. I'm glad to be taking this journey now, having learned a great deal about what to look for and how to look for it in the intervening years. 

Today my primary goal is a simple one: to stay awake during daylight hours. Tonight I'm embracing the idiosyncrasies of travel by accepting an invitation to see Eddie Izzard perform live. And on Saturday it's up to the Gold Coast to kick off a few weeks of photographing organisms tens of thousands of years in the making.

04 October 2011

Tough Break

Wondering where I disappeared to after my last missive from Colombo? As it turned out, I fell and broke my wrist my first evening in Anuradapura. After a rather traumatic misadventure, I'm on the mend and have quite a tale to tell. Stay tuned for a long-form article on my experience.

In the mean time, if you're in the Chicago area, please stop by the Museum of Contemporary Photography where some OLTW prints are part of the "Our Origins" exhibition, up through October 16th.

05 August 2011

Are we there yet?


My first visit to Dubai came and went in a 12-hour blur.

A sign reading "Mr. Sussman" greeted me at the gate, and I left the glistening airport for the near-empty roadways and a nearby hotel. The night air was desert-hot, but I wasn't outside the deep chill of air conditioning long enough for it to actually sink into my skin. I found myself instinctively searching for context, and came up with Miami meets Las Vegas. To be fair, I hardly saw the city itself. Though when faced with a new environment, we always look for familiar markers to give context to experience, an inner voice that says: I understand; I know what to do here. The Arabic road signs were like math equations I did't understand. There's an inherent order, but an abject foreignness. And then we whizzed past the requisite Chili's and TGI Fridays.

This trip is distinctively different from most of my other OLTW travels: it has far more of a cultural navigation than an environmental one. Instead of researching things like GPS coordinates and radio carbon dating, I've wondered "should I be wearing a head scarf?" As I contemplated what it is like to be a woman in this culture, and whether or not I should dare swim in the hotel pool in just my skivvies (a resounding no), a ridiculously phallic "fruit basket" arrived -- two bananas jaunting upward out of an undulating crystal bowl, and apple and an orange nestled at their base. I laughed out loud and set my alarm for 4:45am.


The storm over the Indian Ocean was fierce but brief. The sky is still a heavy gray, and it's just as sultry as before the downpour. The waves reach up to the rocky sea wall, and I'm drinking coffee amidst the other guests at this partially restored colonial hotel. Yesterday I sat with an Indian man on holiday here (his wife wanted to go to Europe, and had opted to simply stay home), who told me that both JFK and Marilyn Monroe had stayed here when it was at its prime. He was quick to add that they hadn't stayed here together, as if I might somehow be scandalized.

The past day or so went by in a haze. I thought about leaving the hotel for a walk yesterday, but was met with so many warnings about getting scammed, not to mention the mid-day heat, that I scarcely got half way down the Galle Face Green (more like a fallow soccer field than a "green" per se), that I turned around and came back. I haven't felt particularly comfortable thus far, and it dawned on me why: I feel more like an interloper than a guest. There is a cultural language as much as a spoken one that I'm not privy to. Thus far I feel like a tourist, not a traveler.

But later today I'll dip my toes in the water and start meeting people: first, Suranjan, a university contact via the Thilo Hoffman, preeminent conservationist and uncle of the incomparable Tina Roth Eisenberg, and the later, I'll visit the home of friends of my cousin Laura and her husband Wijitha.

And tomorrow I head out to Anuradapura. I'll let you know when I get there.

27 July 2011

What do an environmental grant, a photo equipment company and my first cousin have in common?

They all play an intrusmental part in my forthcoming journey to Sri Lanka. As I prepare, it occurs to me just how auspicious it is to have so much support from so many disparate sources.

First, a resounding thank you to David de Rothschild and his non-profit foundation, Sculpt the Future, who generously awarded me their Creativity for Change grant. The grant is supporting the entirety of this trip and some much-needed equipment back in the studio. How amazing is that? David, whom you might know from his incredible voyage on the Plastiki, also founded MYOO.com, a forward-thinking website bringing together people and fostering ideas about protecting our planet. I'm proud to be working with the talented folks at MYOO, starting with this in-depth interview on OLTW.

My next thank you goes out to Ron Egatz at the Mac Group, who very kindly brokered the loan of a lightweight yet heavy-duty Benro tripod for me to take on the road. Ron wrote up my project on the Mamiya blog last year, and has gone out of his way to see me properly outfitted. I've been lugging around a brick of a tripod, and heavy equipment can really take its toll physically (though I'm sure my years as an acrobat didn't help matters any either.) So on behalf of myself and my osteopath, I'd like to thank them for lightening my load.

And sometimes support comes in the form of sharing your knowledge and connections. It just so happens that my first cousin Laura's husband, Wijitha, is from none other than Sri Lanka. Though they now live in Virginia, Laura and Wijitha have been instrumental in helping me plan my trip. From giving me recommendations on where to stay and helping me find a driver, to discussing local customs and reaching out to their own contacts, I know my travels will be all the richer for their kind and thoughtful support. They also helped put my mind at ease in terms of safety as a foreign woman traveling alone. While the civil war is over, I'm first to admit I know woefully little about the intricacies and brutalities of the war or its lingering effects. (I recommend the New Yorker article from Jan 12th of this year for a thoughtful primer.) Thank you, Laura and Wijitha, and I look forward to swapping stories.

Ok, back to packing. Technology permitting, stay tuned for reports and pictures from the field over the coming two weeks... x

12 July 2011

From the B62 to the Anuradhapura Bo tree

The pharmacist told me to take the Typhoid directly home. It was in the 90’s in New York yesterday, and I had just picked up my traveler prescriptions, including anti-malarials and some just-in-case antibiotics. The tiny box labeled “Live Typhoid” needed to stay refrigerated, so I hopped on the bus to spare it a hot walk down Bedford Avenue. Though harmless in its four blister-packed capsules, it was a heightened moment on New York City transit, a la La Jette or 12 Monkeys.

This is part of my travel prep for Sri Lanka, my next OLTW journey, which will be underway in a few weeks. Film? Check. Culturally appropriate clothing? Check. Immunizations? Check. I leave on August 1st, and arrive in Colombo, the capital, on August 3rd after what I’m sure will be a delirious 12 hours in Dubai, sandwiched by nearly 12-hour and 5-hour flights, respectively. (Sri Lanka, to save you the Google search, is the tear-shaped island off the southeast coast of India.)

And what is it I’m after, you ask? A 2,239-year-old banyan fig tree that lays claim to several distinctions:

  • It’s the oldest historically cultivated tree on record
  • It grew from a transplanted branch of the tree under which Siddhārtha Gautama attained enlightenment. As the story goes, the branch was brought to Sri Lanka under the specific instruction of the historical Buddha, planted in 228 BCE
  • It’s one of the world’s oldest angiosperms. (That’s flowering plants, kids. Look that one up.)  The oldest angiosperm? Probably not. You might remember the ancient Olive and Chestnut I photographed in the fall that also meet that distinction. The Baobabs, too. Ooh, and the Llareta. You get the picture.

As I was calculating the exact age (um, yes: 2011 + 228) of the Anuradhapura Bo tree (which also happens to be a UNESCO site and one of the longest historically inhabited cites in the world), I was reminded of the “year 0” dilemma.  A number of numerical systems skip from - 1 to +1, as it were, without counting the zero. Sort of like buildings that eschew a 13th floor. The Buddhist calendar does include a year zero, though it begins somewhere between 554 and 483 BCE. Which means that our 2,239-year-old tree just might be 2,240. But who’s counting?

27 February 2011

The 13,000-year-old Oak of the Inland Empire

 [Rachel photographing the Jurupa Hills Oak in February 2011. Photo by Marie Regan.]

About six months ago I got an email from a biologist at UC Davis telling me about a discovery that he and his colleagues made down near UC Riverside. It was a clonal scrub oak, Quercus palmeri, that's at least 13,000 years old, and might actually be twice that. The biologist, Jeffery Ross-Ibarra, saw an article about my project on CNN and thought I might be interested in including their discovery in my project. He was right.

This past week I flew out to Los Angeles, along with my friend and wonderful filmmaker Marie Regan, who is capturing the first documentary footage for the Oldest Living Things in the World project. We drove to Riverside, where we met up with Jeffery (who just happened to be in town for a conference), and Mitch Provance, who was the first person to have a hunch that the Oak was something out of the ordinary. We also met Andy Sanders, master of the UCR Herbarium, who helped Mitch confirm his hunch. Over a decade later, their paper was published, confirming the minimum age of 13,000 years, and conferring the title of oldest continuously living organism in Southern California. (Though it's got nothing on the 80,000-year-old Quaking Aspen clone, Pando, in Utah.)
 [The Jurupa Hills Oak. 13,000 years old. Riverside, California.] 

So what does this thing look like? If you're picturing something akin to the 'Giving Tree' or something on the massive scale of the Giant Sequoias, think again. In fact, like many clonal organisms, you might walk right by it, never knowing you'd come in such close proximity to such exceptional longevity. In fact, you might not know you were even in the presence of an Oak. The leaves are tough with sharp holly-like points, though they're not related. 

See that silvery, sagey looking shrub? That's it. The bright green in the foreground actually belongs to a type of Cherry. The Oak clone extends over the ridge of the hillside, though not down the other side. It found a purchase on this steep hillside at a time when mastodon and camels still roamed the area, and has quietly persisted ever since, even as housing developments, a cement factory, containers filled with modular home components, and the traffic of off-road vehicles became its new neighbors. 

It's a difficult climb to the top (especially when dividing ones attention between maintaining ones footing and safely transporting ones camera equipment), but I'm sure that's what has afforded the Oak the off-the-beaten path anonymity that allowed it to survive into the present.