Friday, December 12, 2014

The Oldest Living Things in the World by Rachel Sussman

I do not recall how The Oldest Living Things in the World by Rachel Sussman landed on my reading list. Did I read its Chicago Tribune review last may? Did I spot it in a University of Chicago Press ad or catalog? I just recently borrowed it through interlibrary loan, expecting it to be academically scientific but was surprised to find it a sort of travel memoir with pictures.

The pictures are the primary reason for the writing and publishing of the book. They show, as the title specifies, the world's oldest living things. They are almost all plants, and being really old, most are not really very pretty. Many of the oldest trees and shrubs are rough, twisted, broken, and balding, unless the oldest part is actually underground. In contrast, the quaking aspen of the Pando colony who are 80,000 years old look fresh and new; the 106-acre root system is of a great age, but it sprouts new trees constantly. The DNA of every piece is identical, and it is considered a single organism.

Getting the pictures was the reason for all of Sussman's travels. With each picture or set of pictures about a specific old thing, the author tells us how she got to it and took the picture. In some ways, it is like a National Geographic article with its author describing his or her journey and encounters. Sussman is a bit more personally revealing about herself than a typical NG writer, but not enough to call the book a straight memoir. The writing may interest some readers more than the photographs.

I recommend reading The Oldest Living Things in the World at a desk or table. It is pretty heavy and hard to manage with a cat in your lap. At a desk, you will be able to write notes for your travels. Not all of the sites photographed are open to the public, but some of the ones that are would be great to see.

Not many libraries have The Oldest Living Things in the World. You may have to request it through your library's interlibrary loan.

Sussman, Rachel. The Oldest Living Things in the World. University of Chicago Press, 2014. 269p. ISBN 9780226057507.

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