Rachel Sussman: What a 9,000 year old Spruce Taught Me


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...

One of my primary goals with this work was to create a little jolt of recognition at the shallowness of human timekeeping and the blink that is a human lifespan. Does our understanding of time have to be tethered to our physiological experience of it? I don’t think so. Deep time is like deep water: We are constantly brought back to the surface, pulled by the wants and needs of the moment. But like exercising any sort of muscle, the more we access deep time, the more easily accessible it becomes, and the more likely we are to engage in long-term thinking. The more we embrace long-term thinking, the more ethical our decision-making becomes. It is not the job of traditional science to interpret and translate its findings. Art, on the other hand, is a great mediator.

As a 170,000 year old species that until 10,000 years ago lived as hunter-gathers, we under-appreciate the importance of time. Some live for the moment, with little care for two generations out, while others have the curiosity to think long-term. We are lucky to have the latter.