For the past six years, Rachel Sussman, 37, has devoted her life to chronicling the oldest living things in the world before they disappear. A photographer by training and hedge scientist by necessity, her photos are a mix of Annie Liebovitz and Ansel Adams: portraits whose subjects happen not to be human. Sussman has chased down nearly three dozen different organisms, a 400,000-6000,000 year-old bacteria in Siberia, a 2,000-plus year-old olive tree in Crete, and some 3,000 year-old lichen in Greenland, to name a few. She spent February and March chasing down 5,000-year-old moss in Antarctica. She found it, but couldn’t get close enough to get a picture she liked. She had to settle for a photo of 2,200 year-old moss instead. “Some of these things are not photogenic,” she says. And yet their age—and Sussman’s lens—gives them a haunted beauty.
Earlier this month, just a few weeks after she returned from Antarctica, she and I went looking for the oldest living thing in New York. And so we went to see the Queens Giant, a 134-foot tulip poplar estimated to be between 300 and 450 years old. Sandwiched between the Long Island Expressway and the Cross Island Expressway, it was once protected by a chain-link fence, one side of which is now shorn in two. As Sussman walked around its trunk, camera in hand, she pointed out the trash strewn about. A traffic cone here, a discarded rubber tire there, and, oh, look, right by the trunk, a misplaced tchotchke lying on the ground that Sussman described as a “scary little plastic alien suffocating in a bag.” A new kind of invasive species?
Sussman’s list of the oldest living things is by no means exhaustive. “I think we’re barely scratching the surface”—she later told me—“literally.” The project has taught an artist like her not only how little research is done into longevity, but also that even the research that is done is not, because of technological limitations, definitive. “I hadn’t realized how inexact of a science science is.”
By all accounts, then, the Queens Giant is far too young to be Sussman’s type. But Sussman has been told that the Giant is as good—which is to say, as old—as she can get inside of her own city. (She lives on a Williamsburg block reinvented several times over.) The Giant is the city’s tallest tree; urban legend, an old newspaper report, and its very own Yelp page have it that it’s also the oldest.
Except it turns out that it’s almost certainly not.
The oldest living tulip tree in New York? “No one disputes that, really,” said Bram Gunther, New York City Parks’ chief of forestry, horticulture and natural resources. But the oldest living thing? “I doubt it.”
Perhaps unsurprising in a city that traffics in false superlatives—which Famous Original Ray’s is the Famous Original Ray’s, again?—nobody seems to know what New York’s oldest living thing is. Nor does anyone seem in any particular rush to find out. That’s partly because the only way to date a tree is to scar it. When scientists core into the trunk, it can leave the tree open to infections. “Considering how few venerable trees we have, coring is the equivalent of taking bone marrow from a grandmother,” Mike Feller, New York City Parks’ chief naturalist, says. “You know she’s old, so don’t put her through the trouble.”
So, the pool of candidates remains as murky as it does diverse. Take your pick. Could it be, as New York City Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe wonders, a white oak in the New York Botanical Garden? Or what about a black tupelo, which, according to Neil Pederson, a professor with the Tree Ring Research Laboratory at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, can live to be about 700 years old and may or may not be in Alley Pond Park along with the Queens Giant? And don’t forget about those post oak trees in Pelham Bay Park, a rare specimen whose age we actually know. Pederson took a sample a few years ago and dated it to around 1770.
Of course, New York’s oldest living thing doesn’t have to be as majestic as a tree. And it maybe, perhaps, possibly isn’t. “It’s entirely possible that some of our salt marshes do have a network of plants that are genetically the same,” and thus thousands of years old, says Feller. How would salt marshes—essentially bodegas to the Queens Giant’s skyscraper—possibly be New York’s oldest living thing? By cloning themselves.
At the end of the last ice age—somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 years ago—salt marshes settled up and down the northeast coast, staying alive asexually, creating genetic clones of itself. Mark Bertness, a biology professor at Brown, says that Cape Cod salt marshes have been shown to be more than 2,000 years old. There’s no reason to think New York City’s couldn’t be the same. It’s possible that a swath of marsh in Jamaica Bay, Pelham Bay Park, Udall’s Cove or Staten Island could be the city’s most venerable crone.
But even if the sea marsh is the oldest living thing in New York City, its reign is as uncertain as the title it (potentially) holds. Global warming means rising sea levels, and rising sea levels means that New York is already losing some of its marsh islands, and more are threatened. And there’s nowhere for them to go. “Salt marshes aren’t going to retreat into midtown Manhattan,” Feller says.
Nevertheless, the oldest living thing in New York, whatever it is, isn’t going to make its way into Sussman’s project. It’s just not definitively old enough. “Saying we don’t know,” Sussman says, “is a perfectly good answer.”
Chadwick Matlin is the senior editor for Reuters Opinion. He likes getting emails. Top photo by Rachel Sussman, used with permission; picture of Queens Giant by BebopPete, via Wikipedia.