Nautilus

What a 9,000-Year-Old Spruce Tree Taught Me

I had little idea of what I would discover when I set out to find and photograph the oldest living things in the world. I expected that researching, traveling, and photographing would stretch my perspective, and force me to learn a lot of science: biology, genetics, chemistry, geology, and so on. But what I didn’t expect to learn was that sometimes the right person for a scientific endeavor is an artist.

The Oldest Living Things project was motivated not by a narrow interest or a traditional scientific question, but by the idea of something called deep time. Deep time is not a precise demarcation in the way that geologic eras and cosmological epochs are. Rather, it’s a framework in which to consider timescales too long for our shallow, physical experience, and too big for our brains to process meaningfully. And why should they be able to? The earliest modern humans had a life expectancy of around 32 years. What evolutionary need would they have had to comprehend what 10,000 years felt like? What I wanted to do was to find or forge something relatable, something to help process and internalize deep time in a meaningful way: to feel expanses of time that we were not designed to feel. 

It hadn’t occurred to me that scientists might declare themselves unqualified for such a broad project.

Antarctic moss: This 5,500-year-old moss bank lives right around the corner from where Ernest Shackleton’s aptly named Endurance Expedition was marooned 100 years ago on Elephant Island, Antarctica.

When I first had my “light bulb

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