NASA Ames: This Used to be the Future
Visit the LACMA blog for more images, published September 15, 2015
When I began working with the LACMA Art + Technology Lab, I was just wrapping up a ten-year project entitled The Oldest Living Things in the World, where I researched, worked with scientists, and traveled to every continent to photograph continuously living things 2,000 years old and older.
The project (still ongoing) is about looking at time beyond a single human lifespan, or even generations of human time; it’s about long-term thinking and “deep time”—putting the human experience of time into a larger context than we naturally feel at home in. How can we connect with a timescale beyond several human generations in a way that is a meaningful illustration of our personal time in the vast continuum of life on Earth?
Some of my subjects led me beyond geologic time and into cosmic time. I learned that a lichen species I’d photographed in Greenland was sent into space and subjected to outer space conditions. This exposure was shown to have no adverse effect by astrobiologists studying the origins of life on Earth. I also learned that the stromatolites, which I’d photographed in Western Australia, are some of the earliest known life forms, clocking in 3.5 billion years ago, and spent 900 million years oxygenating our planet, setting the stage for all other life on Earth to come. Discovering such things during the Oldest Living Things project, I realized that I wanted to explore our human experience of time in the context of space: space as the source of our deepest past, i.e., the ultimate source of life on Earth, and space as vision for the future, including the commercial race for space and the notion of populating space stations and other planets, should we, as current trends suggest, ultimately make the Earth uninhabitable.
Last spring I began an exploration of ideas around deep time and deep space in conjunction with the LACMA Art + Technology Lab. I spent time at SpaceX, NASA JPL, CERN, and NASA Ames, meeting with scientists and percolating project ideas with the goal of making concept-based installation work that is both felt and understood—for instance, a 17-mile walk that follows the loop of the underground Large Hadron Collider at CERN, serving as a metaphorical 13.8-billion year path from the big bang to the present.
In an attempt to contextualize 20th century space exploration—just a few decades ago, yet already palpably of the past—I returned to Ames this spring to photograph its dated design, archaic-looking equipment, and to capture the overall sense of a moment frozen in time. Ames was originally a NACA (National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics) laboratory. In 1958, NACA was dissolved and its assets and personnel transferred to the newly created National Aeronautics and Space Administration: NASA. Nearly a decade later, we would land on the moon. It was striking to me that at almost every space agency I visited, someone lamented that we have never regained the collective promise and excitement of that era.
In many ways, although still engaged in development and active participation in various NASA missions, Ames functions as a living time capsule, albeit in varying degrees of disrepair. It represents the best thinking of its time, which includes Hangar One, built in the 1930s as a “rigid airship” a la the Hindenburg. A structure so large that fog sometimes formed at its ceiling, Hangar One was built with lead, PBCs, and a layer of asbestos, all draining directly into the Bay. The toxins have since been removed, leaving only its steel skeleton. (It has recently been leased by Google, who will use the vast interiors to test airborne Internet connectivity projects.)
Perhaps what is most striking about NASA Ames is the sense of possibility not quite attained. Ancient computers still operate equipment in the Machine Shop, having long since passed their upgrade capacities. A decommissioned nuclear missile sits in a parking lot. The twin of the International Space Station sits under a tarp adjacent to a sandy, open-air lot filled with aircraft engines, metal tanks, and old lasers.
I approached Ames with an eye for architecture, landscapes, and poetic details, all the while thinking: this used to be the future.
Nautilus: What a 9,000-Year-Old Spruce Tree Taught Me
How photographing the world’s oldest living things pushed me outside the boundaries of science.
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.
When I first had my “light bulb” moment conceiving the Oldest Living Things—which I would eventually publish as a book in 2014—I thought I would find an evolutionary biologist to partner with me. After all, I was an artist with a background in photography whose highest science qualification was 11th-grade physics. It hadn’t occurred to me that scientists might declare themselves unqualified for such a broad project.
After a meeting in September of 2006 with an Assistant Curator at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, I realized that the Oldest Living Things was, in a sense, at odds with scientific specialization. A bryologist might spend his or her career studying one species of moss, or even a single feature or genetic mutation of that moss. In comparison, by the time I’d finished the project, I’d researched two domains, three kingdoms, 12 classes, 21 orders, 31 families, and 39 species of living things, studied by mycologists, bryologists, astrobiologists, marine biologists, dendrochronologists, and climatologists, to name but a few. And while there are many studies on cell aging and death, there is not an established area of study that looks at longevity across species per se. So instead of partnering with a scientific overseer, I was going to have to step into that role myself.
My first task was to begin to curate a collection of organisms to photograph, each a minimum of 2,000 years of age. However, aside from some helpful old-tree lists, there was no such compendium of ancient lives already in existence. This in itself spoke to the fact that I was wandering outside the lines of traditional scientific methodologies. A lot of creative Google searching ensued, as well as reading published scientific research papers and reaching out to authors. The list changed and grew over the years, with new organisms being added even as the book went to print. “New” old organisms were discovered during that time, such as the Siberian Actinobacteria, and others had their ages downgraded, as was the case when the 13,000-year-old box huckleberry in Pennsylvania lost about 5,000 years with the insight of updated glaciation data.
To qualify for inclusion, each organism must have gone through at least 2,000 years of continuous life as an individual. I selected 2,000 years as my minimum age specifically to draw attention to the gentleman’s agreement of what “year zero” means. In other words, 2,000 years serves both as an all-too-human start date, as well as the baseline age of my subjects. The requirement of endurance on an individual level was an important consideration, because we all innately relate to the idea of self. This was a purposeful anthropomorphization that would further imbue the organisms with a reflective quality in which we could glimpse ourselves.
But once I started digging into the science, things were not so tidy. While unitary organisms such as a single tree are not hard to keep a handle on, things like “clonal colonies” are trickier. Sometimes referred to as “vegetative growth” or “self-propagating,” these individuals are able to generate new clones of themselves, as opposed to reproducing sexually like flowering plants do. They create new shoots, stems, or roots without the introduction of new outside genetic material, so that the new growth is genetically identical to—and part of—the original organism. This process can continue indefinitely, or for as long as the environment allows. This is what is meant when it’s said that clones are theoretically immortal.
If I were a scientist, grouping unitary and clonal organisms together under the umbrella of “continuously living” would likely raise eyebrows, as this is simply too wide a view to produce a clean outcome. But this idiosyncratic taxonomy is something that I chose to do as an artist, leading to an idiosyncratic taxonomy. Collectively, its members live in some of the world’s harshest conditions, uniquely adapted to extreme temperatures, low moisture and nutrient availability, and high altitudes that would leave others bereft. Many, instead of exhibiting fast or robust growth, exhibit quite the opposite: slow and steady. They gracefully weather adversity, bear witness to long expanses of time, and make the most of difficult situations. As a result, we can’t help but infuse this ancient crew with sought-after human traits like patience and wisdom.
Continents are drifting away from one another faster than that.
Over the years I packed up my medium-format film camera again and again, eventually landing on every continent, as I went searching for 5,500-year-old moss in Antarctica, a 2,000-year-old brain coral in Tobago, an 80,000-year-old Aspen colony in Utah, a 2,000-year-old primitive Welwitschia in Namibia, and a 43,600-year-old shrub in Tasmania that’s the last of its kind on the planet, to name but a few. Scientists were more than willing to support my cause. I was sometimes invited to join them on their fieldwork expeditions, such as hunting lichens in Greenland or scuba diving amidst the seagrass meadows stretching between two Spanish Mediterranean islands. Sometimes they agreed to meet me on site and guide me to their subjects: the Palmer’s Oak in Riverside, California, the Baobab trees of South Africa, and the alien-looking llareta in Chile.
Other times I was sent maps and directions and GPS coordinates and sent out on my own. Once I was handed a branch snapped off of a propagated sapling in a research garden by a conservation biologist, who instructed me to match the leaf shape with that of the clonal eucalyptus I was in search of. I set out from Perth and drove south a few hours in search of the more than 6,000-year-old Meelup Mallee, which survived a road bulldozed through its center and nearly succumbed to a parking lot before its importance was discovered, just in the nick of time. Guided by roadside markers and the relocated parking area, I took out the branch and dodged through thorny underbrush in the unremitting midday sun in search of my tree. Eventually I found a match to the leaf shape and structure—the Meelup Mallee stood just where I was told to look for it.
Finally, there were times when there was no scientific connection to be made and I had to depend on cultural signposts. In Sicily, I learned of a legend describing how a queen got caught in a severe thunderstorm en route to Mount Etna. She and 100 of her knights—and, presumably, their horses—all took shelter under the expansive canopy of a certain chestnut tree sometime between 1035 and 1715. The so-called Chestnut of 100 Horses has pride of place in the community, and has long been protected by a fence after a gentleman attempted to grill sausages inside the tree and nearly burnt it down. I heard that story directly from the gatekeeper, Alfio, who allowed me enter on my visits to the site in 2010 and 2012. Likewise, on Crete, Sicily’s Mediterranean neighbor, an ancient olive keeps the town of Ano Vouves on the map. Branches are still culled from it to make wreathes to adorn the winning athletes at the Olympics. The tree is hollow, so it cannot be cored, but if the tree is in fact the 3,000 years it’s claimed to be, it would have already been 200 years old at the time of the first Games in Greece, in 776 B.C.E.
Over the years, I discovered much that was beyond imagination. My favorite statistic in the whole project came from map lichens (Rhizocarpon geographicum) in Greenland that grow only one centimeter every 100 years—something both perfectly relatable and utterly foreign. Continents are drifting away from one another faster than that. Then there were the stromatolites in Western Australia, bound cyanobacteria combined with non-living sediments, allowing them to straddle biologic and geologic classification. Some were shaped into strangely bulbous forms, and others flat expanses of microbial mats. Some were above water, and others under it. They are understood to be among the earliest living organisms on Earth, and also just so happened to oxygenate our atmosphere, setting the stage for all life to come. It took 900 million years.
Why is it year “2015” right now? A curious choice for a 4.5 billion-year-old planet.
In some respects, what I was doing was not far from science. I was exploring and recording the world, and relying on the help of scientists and their tools and data. But my goals were also not solely—or even primarily—scientific. The Oldest Living Things is an eccentric archive and time capsule, constructed across disciplines, and at its heart a conceptual art project.
I also financed it on my own. While curiosity and experimentation define the work of both artists and scientists, the money comes from different places. I have yet to encounter a wholly independent scientist, conducting research without institutional funding, whereas there are very few fully—or even partially—supported artists. As for me, I couldn’t not do the work, despite the fact that it came at great personal expense. I racked up credit card debt and student loans from an ill-fated foray into a Ph.D. program, bartered artwork for foreign travel immunizations and dentistry, accepted help from family, and borrowed money from friends.
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.
The dialogue with environmental conservation is a perfect example of the importance of blending art, science, and long-term thinking. Our eyes might glaze over at reading about CO2 levels at 400+ parts per million, as vital as that statistic is, because it is so hard to relate to such an abstraction. But take, for example, the 9,550-year-old spruce tree on a high mountain plateau in Sweden. For the first 9,500 years of its life it lived as a shrubby mass of branches, close to the ground. But around 50 years ago, a tall and spindly center trunk shot up: a direct effect of a warming climate. It is, in essence, a portrait of climate change. Perhaps by visualizing such impacts, by anthropomorphizing these ancient lives and activating the science that tells their stories through an artistic lens, we might engage more readily in the long-term thinking required to extend their lives, and by proxy, our own.
Engagement with the sciences is part of how I measure the impact of the Oldest Living Things as well. Recently, a scientist that I’ve never met sent me an email saying that after reading my book, he is now approaching his work with a different, more open mindset. To me, that indicates something has been set into motion. After all, meaning is not made of lone facts, lone people, or lone disciplines, nor is it found in the valuing of the objective over the subjective. Rather, meaning comes by way of knitting together a bigger picture, filled with color and texture, and meant to be felt and understood. We most fully understand what we can internalize—that which becomes part of us. The importance of specializing can’t be discarded, but working only within one discipline and strictly adhering to its rules is likely only to generate one kind of work, one kind of result.
We very well might end up missing the forest for the trees.
Nature: Telling Stories with Scientists
More to the Story
There may be more that unites artists and scientists than divides them. Practitioners of both search for answers – Truth with a capital T, even – hoping to invent or discover or craft something that shakes up old thinking and makes a lasting impact on the world. They both employ analytic and synthetic approaches, take risks, and engage in sophisticated thinking in uncharted territories. There are a lot of happy accidents. Both art and science can be filled with passion and frustration, setbacks and breakthroughs. But, most importantly, the work is never meant to exist in a vacuum: whether it’s receiving a vaccine or being moved by a painting, it is the audience that completes the picture.
The problems inherent to the conveyance and communication of art and science are not unique, either. The jargon used on gallery and museum walls, for instance, has long induced eye rolls, even as the art establishment still clings to such practices for validation or even as an intentional weeding out of “less sophisticated” audiences. I once saw curator Nick Stillman render a hilarious-because-it’s-true critique by simply reading aloud a selection of current gallery press releases paired with visuals obtained by Googling the term “art.” The Mad Libs-esque results of that, and from applications such as this artist statement generator, underscore the art world’s pretentious, exclusionary tendencies. And yet, as an artist, isn’t the goal to express and engage?
As an artist who works with scientists, I was fascinated to hear an evolutionary biologist share that jargon is strangling communication in the sciences as well, and not just to lay audiences. Conference language, for instance, is often so obscure that even colleagues in the same sub-specialty have no chance of digesting new research in a meaningful way. Are we obfuscating away all the potential synergies and insights? Impenetrable jargon generates solipsism, not engagement. A language of one is a dead language.
Artists and scientists could – and do – argue that their work should speak for itself. Why should we describe the frustrations and turning points in the lab, or all the hours of groundwork and failed images that precede the final outcomes? Because, rarified exceptions aside, our audience is a human one, and humans want to connect. Personal stories can make the complex more tangible, spark associations, and offer entry into things that might otherwise leave one cold. The goal is not to “dumb down,” but rather to give audiences something relatable to sink their teeth into. Whether you’ve discovered a new species or made a new art piece, there is a generosity in inviting your audience to form a personal, substantive relationship with you and your work. Declarations become conversations, and a world of possibility can open up.
I‘m currently working on a book of my nearly decade-long project “The Oldest Living Things in the World,” and am actively engaged in breaking down my own compartmentalized thinking around art, science and the personal. I’m coming to understand they are all part of a fabric of a larger story; a story made all the richer for its idiosyncrasies and interconnections. This does not negate the need for facts and precision. I sometimes remind myself: no one is more of an expert on your own unique experience than you.
I’ve been fortunate to be able to work with a number of scientists all over the world, all of whom are extremely accomplished. But I wouldn’t have understood a fraction of the richness of their lives and work had I simply read their research papers and left it at that. There are stories of frustration, such as the Pando colony not receiving the respect and protection it deserves, or agencies in Tasmania blocking proper research. Sometimes it’s humor, as with some mycologists calling a colleague a nerd for only studying one aspect of the fungus they themselves study. Best of all, perhaps, are the stories of hunches and chance encounters that resulted in important discoveries. One just need be attuned to the possibilities.
I’ve always thought it is my job as an artist to answer some questions, but to ask many more – something I’ve heard a number of scientists say that as well. What’s more, sometimes breakthroughs come from people far removed from the quandary in question. Approaching a problem without a rote methodology sometimes is a blessing in disguise. A fresh pair of eyes can yield a whole new perspective. Whichever way you slice it, how you tell your story effects how the audience completes the picture. And they are the key to whatever may happen next.
Photo: Marie Regan
This story originally appeared on Nature.com on 19 February 2013 as part of the SpotOn NYC #SoNYC event hosting in association with the American Museum of Natural History. View original post on Nature. →
Brainpickings: All the Time in the World
What a charred ancient tree can teach us about impermanence, deep time, and our place in the universe.
The tree had been on fire for over a week before anyone noticed. The Senator, one of the oldest Cypress trees in the world, was killed when a smoldering ignition from an errant lightning strike slowly transformed it into a towering chimney and fuel source in one. Or maybe it didn’t happen like that at all. Perhaps it was an errant cigarette, or a sinister match strategically placed in its hollow berth. The mystery endures, but the fact remains: on January 16, 2012 The Senator collapsed and died, engulfed in flames. It was 3,500 years old.
Back in 2007, I went to Orlando to photograph The Senator as part of The Oldest Living Things in the World, my art and science project consisting of continuously living organisms 2,000 years old and older. I had recently returned home from Africa, where I’d driven around the Limpopo in search of ancient Baobab trees, visited an underground forest in Pretoria amidst a morning threat of ‘smash and grabs,’ and taken a road trip from Cape Town up through Namibia to find the genuinely odd Welwitschia Mirabilis, which looked more like a science fictional sea creature than a primitive conifer punctuating the vast and empty Namib Naukluft. And then I flew to Orlando.
The Senator was the primary attraction at the aptly named Big Tree Park, just twenty minutes worth of strip malls from downtown Orlando. In fact, it was the original Orlando attraction, BD (‘Before Disney’, if you will), visited via horse and carriage. I drove with a friend in her family car. We parked in an orderly lot, walked a quarter-mile on a planked path through the once-swampy woodland, and arrived at the tree just like that. Named for Senator M.O. Overstreet in 1927, it was impressively tall and robust while not overly gnarly, and kept company with Lady Liberty, which at 2,000 years and a noticeably svelter silhouette – save for a knotty eye-level north side bustle – made for a May-December pairing. Families with cameras looked up and strolled between the two, the children quickly bored and retreating to the playground.
I snapped a digital shot for a couple who asked, out of proximity rather than expertise, that I take their picture in front of the tree. I then took out my medium format film camera and made some photographs of my own. I make large-scale fine art prints of my work, and feel that I get the best of both worlds by shooting film, and making high resolution scans of the negatives and making archival pigment prints. When I got the film back I knew I had missed my mark: there were some interesting compositions, but I hadn’t captured the spirit of this remarkable being. I was coming to see my subjects as individuals, and as such I wanted to make portraits of them rather than landscapes; to encourage anthropomorphism, and create a means to connect to Deep Time – thousands of years of a life distilled into 1/60th of a second.
And with that, I made an unceremonious decision to return to The Senator when opportunity allowed. In the intervening years I traveled to Greenland for lichens that grown only 1cm every hundred years, to Chile for the strange and wonderful Llareta plant growing at 15,000 feet and a desert-cousin of parsley, and to Western Australia for the stromatolites, tied to the oxygenation of the planet and the very beginnings of all life on Earth. I went to Tasmania in search of a 43,000-year-old shrub that is the last of its species left on earth, rending it both critically endangered and theoretically immortal. But in five years, even despite having visited Florida a couple of times to see family, I did not make it back to The Senator. It was too easy. It would always be there. Surely, if The Senator had been around for 3,500 years, it was going to be around for 3,505.
But it wasn’t.
Extreme longevity can lull us into a false sense of permanence. We fall into a quotidian reality devoid of long-term thinking, certain that things which have been here “forever” will remain, unchanging. But being old is not the same as being immortal. Even second chances have expiration dates. The comparative ease of access and the seeming lack of urgency bred a certainly complacency in my return to The Senator.
On February 8, 2012, just days before I was to ship out for Antarctica in search of 5,500-year-old moss, I returned to what remained of the ancient tree.
I met Jim Duby, Program Manager of the Seminole County Natural Lands Program, at the locked gate of the park. Jim has been to the site every day since the fire. The investigation is considered ongoing, but after speaking with him, it was hard for me to consider the cause of death to be anything but human intention. There was no lightning recorded in the area during the weeks in question, and the tree had been newly fitted with a lightning rod. The idea that it had spontaneously combusted under its own auspices simply seemed absurd. On the other hand, the tree was visibly hollow before the fire, and an opening at the base of the trunk, once filled with concrete, was now large enough for a person to squeeze through and stand inside. Or to drop a match into, and run. The Senator was likely spared the long-ago ax of the logging industry because it was hollow, but the very same defect ultimately sparked its death.
After spending over six years of my life researching, photographing, and traveling all over the world in search of ancient life, it has put my own mortality into perspective. I have a more immediate understanding of the briefness of a single human life in the face of the incomprehensible vastness of ‘forever,’ and at the same time, when standing in front of these organisms, I feel a connection to the moments, small as molecules, that shape a constantly unfolding narrative on both a micro and macro scale. Any given moment matters.
For the Senator, there is a glimmering chance at a second life: clippings from the tree were taken years ago and successfully propagated in a nursery. The resulting trees are now 40 feet tall, and could ostensibly be transplanted into the very spot after a long and careful root-stabilization process. There are also seedlings at its base that, with a little paternity testing, could prove to be its clones rather than its progeny, or perhaps some new growth will be forced from the existing root system stimulated by the stress of the fire.
My Top 10 highlights of the last 2,013 years
Instead of a list of ten things that happened in the year 2013, here's my pick for some highlights of the past 2,013 years:
10. The founding of New York City. This almost missed the list due to its rocky start, including the marginalization of the Lenape people, slavery, and the annihilation of the beaver population, but it's really been trying to turn things around in the last hundred years or so.
8. The invention of photography. Because otherwise we'd still be making selfies the old way. (Though the selfie itself wouldn't make the 2,013-year cut, as one of first self-portraits was made in ancient Egypt by the Pharaoh's chief sculptor, Bak, in 1365 BCE.)
7. Air travel. The earliest aviation attempts date back to kite flying in 200 BCE, but since it took another 2,100 years to figure out planes, it safely fits with in the margin of error. Tied with Train travel. That's pretty good, too.
6. Comedians taking on serious dramatic roles. While I have no empirical evidence this did not occur BCE, I'm willing to take that gamble, and even up the ante and credit Shakespeare with the idea while I'm at it.
3. Someone figuring out coffee. Also, duh.
2. The founding of UNESCO, with the mission "to contribute to the building of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue through education, the sciences, culture, communication and information." Keep at it. We need all the help we can get.
1. Curiosity rover successfully landing on Mars (Tied with CERN/Higgs-Boson discovery.) I mean, these really make the Top Ten of All Time. Because what is the universe made of, and how did we get here, and is there life on Mars?
New York Times LENS Blog: Dispatch from Antarctica #1
Spanning Seas, Species and Centuries
Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012
The Drake Passage
My first ever overnight at sea is to be spent on some of the roughest ocean anywhere in the world: the Drake Passage. I’m on the last major expedition for my project, where I’ve set out to find and photograph continuously living organisms 2,000 years old and older. The work spans disciplines, continents, and millennia — it’s part art and part science, it has an innate environmentalism and is driven by philosophic inquiry. I begin at “year zero,” and look back from there. The idea is to find the oldest possible representative individual of any given species. Right now, I am in search of 5,500-year-old moss. In Antarctica.
Over the past six years, I’ve photographed nearly 30 individual organisms that have met or surpassed the 2,000-year mark, including lichens in Greenland that grow only one centimeter every hundred years, 100,000-year-old sea grass meadows in the Balearic Islands in Spain, and the Stromatolites in Western Australia, whose lineage can be traced back 3.5 billion years to the oxygenation of our planet and the very existence of life on Earth. There is no formal scientific discipline that looks at longevity across species, so just determining what to look for in the first place is part of the process.
In the case of the moss, I started with rumor and honed my way down to fact.
A couple of years passed between receiving the hot tip on the old moss from a friend’s travel guidebook and getting my hands on published research. Finally, I unearthed what I was looking for: a 1987 paper by Svante Bjorck and Christian Hjort confirming the age and location of the moss on Elephant Island — named for the elephant seals, not the pachyderms — which arcs out beyond the Antarctic Peninsula. I immediately tracked them down at Lund University in Sweden, with a barrage of questions.
There is something especially thrilling about meeting researchers who not only study these ancient organisms, but who are also the first to discover and identify them. It underscores what is so easy to forget in our quotidian existence: there is so much yet to be done, so much we do not know — and brushing against the arm of discovery is invigorating. As far as we know, 25 years later, not a single person has set eyes on the old moss since they discovered it.
Elephant Island is perhaps best known as the infamously inhospitable land mass made home by the marooned Shackleton crew — that is, when they finally made it to land. Their ship had long since been crushed and sunk by the Weddell Sea, and they spent months living on the ice before an impossible journey to solid ground. What was left of their rations steadily tapered off and then disappeared entirely, the tobacco being one of the hardest losses. They took it so hard, in fact, that they attempted to smoke the native lichens, though with little satisfaction. Thank goodness their camp was on the opposite side of the island from the moss bank or they surely would have attempted to smoke that as well.
Antarctica is enormous, and the chance of finding anything, let alone a little dark growth against the glare of snow and ice — well, good luck. It was pre-GPS when Christian and Svante did their field research, so their paper includes some contextually broad maps with photographs and altitude readings for reference. They had been dropped off by helicopter, so they could not provide me with a suggested approach beyond the name of the nearest bay. I put out feelers to NASA, the British Antarctic Survey and Google for help. Ultimately it was Google Earth that came through, connecting me with the Polar Geospacial Center at the University of Minnesota, where they work with some of the most sophisticated remote imaging technologies currently in use. (Speaking of helicopters, I was told the “black helicopters” would be dispatched for me, should I get my hands on the wrong set of images.)
These days it is easier to reach Antarctica from space than from Earth.
But that’s not going to stop me from trying.
New York Times LENS Blog: Dispatch from Antarctica #2
February 20, 2012
The storm in the distance was on top of us within minutes. Snow whipped past the windows and whitecapped, steel-gray waves battered the sides, disturbing the ship’s rhythmic rocking from front to back and side to side, making it something entirely unpredictable. Thick nautical ropes were strung up in otherwise unnavigable open passageways our first morning crossing the Drake Passage, and again on the second afternoon. The porters soundlessly secure them whenever conditions necessitate, and when really bad, batten shut the heavy portholes of the lower decks, too. A dish of meclizine sits on the reception counter like mints.
Despite my best attempts at mind over matter, I spent my first morning doubled over, and the rest of the day in medicated sleep. Thankfully my discomfort was not long-lived. Like so many ships in the night, we had made it through this superlatively open ocean, and something magical started to happen:
We were in Antarctic waters.
The prescient captain had pointed out the first iceberg of the voyage, dark and distant after the weather the previous days. But in the clear light of the third morning, their numbers began to multiply, some of them substantial and reflecting back pockets of saturated blues, others like shards of ice cubes melting in a neglected drink. Dots of land reappeared, mountainous and snow-covered, and the animal sightings started in earnest: Adélie penguins, gentoo penguins, cormorants, crab eater seals, storm kestrels, aggressive skua, giant albatrosses.
A leopard seal captured an Adélie for lunch, batting it about, catlike, though not in play. It was trying to crack it open like a nut to get at the tender parts inside.
Meanwhile, I was looking for something else on our first stop, Cuverville Island.
Large moss banks and orange lichens flanked the steep inclines off the beach, the rich guano of the penguin colony providing nutrients, and the bryophytes literally creating their own turf on rocky outcroppings where the snow and ice have trouble keeping hold. While the moss is probably not as old as the 5,500-year-old moss I’m seeking out on Elephant Island, it was gratifying to see vegetation able to call this harsh and unpredictable environment home.
We pressed further southward through midday, the sky still vividly bright and cloudless as we anchored in Neko Harbor. I stepped from the ship down onto a Zodiac inflatable boat, and as we motored through the bay a pair of humpbacks popped both heads and tails above the surface. When their curiosity was sated they receded back into the deep, and us to a bit of sandy beach, muck boots splashing lightly in the icy water.
I stepped foot onto my last continent for the first time.
I’m gripped, almost physically, with the sheer magnitude of this place, frozen in deep time yet brimming with uniquely adapted life. And I am struck by how incredibly fortunate I am to be here, not just in Antarctica, but here on this planet, bearing witness to the oldest living things in the world.
New York Times LENS Blog: Dispatch from Antarctica #3
February 22, 2012
I woke up several times in the night to the sound of ice chafing loudly against the hull of the ship – growlers, as they’re aptly named. In the morning, I peered out the porthole of my shared, dorm-sized cabin to check our conditions. The open ocean of the previous night was replaced with pack ice and bergs, but our sights were nonetheless set toward the invisible boundary of the Antarctic Circle.
The ice grew steadily heavier through the morning, cleared, then got heavy again as we navigated the Crystal Sound. Anticipation was building as we came within reach.
At 66º 24’.9 S, 66º 50’ W, the ship slowed, then stopped. We were a mere eight-and-a-half nautical miles from this monumental line in the snow. But the sea was clogged with ice, and there was nowhere to go but backward. A somewhat tongue-in-cheek adage attributed to Shackleton came to mind:
Better to be a live donkey than a dead lion.
We had no goal other than the satisfaction of crossing this figment of a boundary. There was something wryly funny in learning that the circle itself changes position, like a chair pulled out from under you just when you’re about to sit down. Different rules apply at the poles. Unlike the Equator or the Tropics, the polar circles move with the solstices in tune with Earth’s orbit.
Last night I wondered if I had taken Shackleton’s message in the spirit in which it was intended when I took a polar plunge, an Antarctic rite of passage. Diving, I went headfirst into the Antarctic Sound dressed only in a bathing suit, emerging moments later through the shock of pure cold, the water palpably heavy and almost viscous at 30 degrees Fahrenheit.
It is yet to be seen what’s ahead. Tomorrow we visit Elephant Island, a day ahead of schedule. I’ll be on the bridge at 7 a.m., waiting to see how the day unfolds and hoping to get what I came for: a shot at reaching this inhospitable spit of land, of glimpsing the oldest-known moss bank on the planet.
New York Times LENS Blog: Dispatch from Antarctica #4
Februbary 23, 2012
We had come upon the island in the night. I was up before the alarm, standing on the bridge with the ship’s captain, looking at a 1987 photograph from the original moss research expedition. I hoped to match the forms in the cyan-tinted, dust-specked picture with the outlines of the rocky coastline.
I realized the photograph’s downward slope to the sea was angled in the wrong direction – the image had been scanned backward. Not only that, but the published scientific paper misidentified the landmass in the background as Clarence Island when it is, in fact, Cornwallis. These understandable human errors underscore the difficulty of maintaining accuracy in this vast and largely homogeneous continent, particularly in the days before GPS. The challenge was so great, in fact, that one of the first ancient mosses discovered in the early 1980s has already been lost to history – discovered once and never found again.
Our first stop was Point Lookout, on the far west. I eagerly went ashore with the staff. My chances of setting foot on Elephant Island had been given single digits, so I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity, even though my ambitions were set eight or nine miles to the east. So many different factors had to align to make a landing. Clear skies aren’t enough; the total of any given days’ weather is compounded many times over, brewing on one shore and actualizing on another.
When we landed on the rocky beach, I parted from the group and scaled a steep, icy slope to browse a number of small mosses. From afar it had seemed improbable that anything could live here. But the cushions of green were luxuriant, and they were hardly the only living things there. The group had shifted position while I was on higher ground, so I had to make my way through packs of chinstrap penguins and less benign, adolescent male fur and elephant seals – one of them so large it hardly seemed real. My heart beat wildly as they barked their complaint and bared their dull, bacteria-riddled teeth at me. Any one of them could bowl a person over with their ungainly body weight, like a couple of angry football players advancing clumsily in a shared sleeping bag.
From the other side of the gauntlet, one of the naturalists waved me through with a big O.K. sign.
When I had safely returned to the ship, I went directly back to the bridge. In addition to the original materials, I was equipped with some of the more advanced tools of the intervening 25 years, thanks to the help of Paul Morin of the Polar Geospatial Center. A high-resolution map of nautical approaches and a marked-up satellite image of Elephant Island were open on my laptop. We neared Walker Point, which morphed from an abstraction into a tangible form jutting out between two blankets of glaciation.
The captain picked up the binoculars, fixing his gaze slightly starboard, and then handed them to me. The skies were clearing, and I could see the moss, a blush of warm green sunning itself on a high shelf of otherwise spiny mountain.
I made it.
I ran down to the mudroom, where the expedition leader, one of the naturalists and the well-known explorer Peter Hillary geared up to join me on a rapid-fire landing. I had an extremely short window of time to get ashore and make some photographs. We climbed aboard a Zodiac suspended alongside the ship on a device that looked suspiciously like a rope swing, and were slowly lowered into the bucking waves below.
We sped across the distance to the shore, pounding hard against every wave while I white-knuckled a thick rope in one, ungloved hand, later bloody from the friction. I clutched a camera inside the pocket of my parka in the other. At moments we were completely airborne, an exaggerated second hanging in the air, bracing for the impending impact. I thought back to my 2008 expedition to Greenland, where Martin Appelt, a Danish archeologist studying Norse ruins – who had already won my admiration by catching trout out of a glacial stream with his bare hands – had coached me to relax my muscles as we careened across the fjord. No one wins a battle of strength against these seas.
Once ashore, Mr. Hillary – who has scaled Everest more than once, trekked overland to the South Pole and served as trusted guide of Neil Armstrong to the North Pole – became my photo assistant, helping me get cameras out of waterproof bags designed to protect against the salty sea spray. We scampered up slippery rocks, stirring up a riot of wildlife as I scanned for a vantage point to make images of the moss. The bank was high on a cliff, at least a couple hundred meters high and still some distance away, but just as we landed it was time to return to the ship.
I depressed the shutter and advanced the film.
Brainpickings: Following Shackleton's Footsteps a Century Later; Antarctica #5
What a seal bodyguard and 2,200-year-old moss have to do with a watershed moment in exploration history.
On April 24, 1916, just four years shy of one hundred years ago, five men led by polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, the third officer on Captain Scott’s Discovery Expedition, set out on an 870-nautical-mile journey on a 22-foot glorified rowboat across the Drake Passage. Shackleton and his crew were marooned on Elephant Island after losing their ship to the Weddell Sea.
They were coming to their own rescue.
I, too, was headed to South Georgia; it was the same trip, though certainly not the same journey. I looked out the windows of the National Geographic Explorer, secure and comfortable, as we rounded the far eastern point of Elephant Island. I saw the cove where Shackleton and his men found some small respite from the icy waters, and drew a mental picture of that place, too depleted after my morning’s efforts to even go get my camera.
Two days later we were in South Georgia, a veritable paradise of animals, vegetation, and exposed geology, like the story of the world writ large on the landscape itself. And here, too, are etched the final chapters of the Shackleton story; the thumbnail of a beach where they first landed, the spot they set out overland across terrain just this side of passable, a hike over a last ridge that separated an impossible journey of perseverance back into a remote outpost of civilization: a whaling station in Stromness Bay.
The captain pulled us so far into Stromness Harbor we were practically on the beach. Despite some cloud cover and a bit of snow coming in, our conditions were calm that day, and I hopped into a Zodiac with Stephanie Martin, a marine mammal researcher, and we zipped back out into the bay and down one harbor to Husvik. The moss I was now after, my “back up moss,” if you will, is 2,200 years old, and growing on top of a 9,000-year-old fossil bed. Fortified with the research and a map provided from Nathalie Van der Putten who discovered this bank, I once again scanned the outline of the topography to home in on Kanin Point.
The beach and tussock grass was so lousy with seals that Stephanie became my de facto seal bodyguard, and likewise instructed me on how to keep them at bay. The first rule is to make loud noises. The second was to carry a paddle from the Zodiac. One might be tempted to smack a snarling male fur seal on the head, but it isn’t necessary — just tapping them on the flippers is deterrent enough. (Which is not to say that no one got bitten over the course of this expedition.)
I climbed through the tussock and saw the ancient mounds of peat. I had found it. I took some photos, this time close in, feeling unbelievably fortunate to have found not just one, but both of these ancient moss banks — the needles in a polar haystack.
Later the same afternoon, I hiked overland from a protected inlet into the plot where Shackleton is buried. My heart was once again clutched with the grip of this place, ancient and primeval in its makeup. It was akin to a wide-eyed first visit to the surface of another planet.
If Shackleton’s story had been written as fiction, surely someone would criticize it for having an unrealistic number of obstacles. He had returned to South Georgia five years after his harrowing circuit, and, as if living on borrowed time, died of a massive heart attack the very night he arrived. He died having no idea he shared Elephant Island with one of the oldest living things on the planet, nor that he would end his journey in South Georgia just a stone’s throw from yet another. But I have a feeling he would have approved of the quiet perseverance of these unassuming mosses, in this landscape that speaks of deep time, the power of the natural world, and the precariousness of life in its clutches.
I poured some whiskey on Shackleton’s grave, and some for me, too.
Book: Making the Geologic Now
Live Through This: Surviving the Pleistocene in Southern California
The Oldest Living Things in the World are continuously living organisms 2,000 years old and older. Starting at "year zero" and looking back from there, they help reframe our personal timescale in a shift towards the long term well beyond a single human lifetime. There are a number of characteristics that many of these ancient organisms have in common, such as slow growth rates and the ability to thrive in adverse conditions. Likewise, there are geographic concentrations of these multi-millennials in the Mediterranean and Australia (and it should be noted that there are many parts of the world that have not enjoyed the same dedicated scientific attentions), but one of the largest known geographical concentrations of ancient life anywhere on the planet happens to be in Southern California.
If you ask someone what the oldest trees in United States are, the answer is often the Redwoods. It's an understandable mistake: they are majestic, breathtakingly large, and admirable in both girth and height. But while the Redwoods hold records for certain superlatives, their cousins to the south, the Giant Sequoias, are older. And even then, the Giant Sequoias are in fact the youngest of the five species in California alone that have surpassed the 2000-year mark.
Some are aware of the Bristlecone pines, which have the Sequoia genus beat out by over a factor of two. The Methuselah tree is the most celebrated, followed narrowly by the infamy of the Prometheus, which would still hold the record as oldest, had it not suffered the indignity of being chopped down in the mid 1960's to retrieve a lost coring bit. There are actually several living individuals proven to be older than the approximately 5000-year-old Methusela, but their exact identities are jealously guarded for their own protection, and rightly so. Certainly no researcher would chop them down today, no matter what the bit. However, visitor "souvenir" taking has proven quite damaging.
But now let's jump another 5,000 years into the past, where we get into a somewhat more complex set of parameters: organisms growing clonally. Sometimes referred to as "self-propagating" or as "vegetative growth," these individuals are able to generate new "clones" of themselves, if you will, as opposed to reproducing sexually. In other words, they create new shoots, stems, roots, etc., without the introduction of outside genetic material. Thus the new growth is genetically identical to, and part of, the original organism; a process that can continue indefinitely, or as long as outside environmental factors allow. It's not that these organisms can't reproduce sexually, it just seems that sometimes it's easier to just do it yourself than find a suitable partner.
The approximately 12,000-year-old Creosote Bush and Mojave Yucca sit cordoned off by wire fences on Bureau of Land Management property designated for all-terrain vehicle use. They have remarkable circular structures, pushing slowly outward from a central originating stem. There is no hole to bore that would prove out their remarkable longevity, but rather a slow and steady continuation of self: new stems replace old ones, getting larger by tip toe rather than leaps and bounds. According to a BLM ranger, native populations used the Mojave Yucca's natural Stonehenge formation to take shelter from desert storms.
Let's go back yet another thousand years. What was going on in California 13,000 years ago? For one thing, camels still roamed the area. In fact, camels originated in North America around 100,000 years ago, and made the passage across the Bearing Straight into Asia. (Imagine what the traffic must have looked like.) Mastodons still grazed the hillsides along with other megafauna, their final gambols before decline and extinction. And the still-living 13,000-year-old Palmer's Oak was there to witness it.
Today the Palmer's Oak lives unprotected, if obscurely, within the bounds of the industrial city of Riverside, littered with garbage and the detritus of discarded meth labs. But don't picture a towering tree; it is a scrub oak, or shrub, that is so unremarkable in appearance that it lived undiscovered on private property until a local botanist happened upon it and knew it was something special.
These organisms survived the end of an ice age, lived through megafauna extinctions, and weathered the meteoric rise in human population. How? Why? We know some of these answers on an individual level, but the science of comparative longevity across species is so new it doesn't yet exist. We don't yet know if, or how, this tantalizing longevity might be applied to human lifespans.
But what does it mean from a relational perspective when the organic goes head to head with the geologic? We start talking about longevity and the quotidian in the same breath. Geologic time, deep time--these concepts that are rock-hard in a way that makes them impenetrable to the human condition start to soften and change with the introduction of the organic. The Oldest Living Things image are photographs of the past in the living present, portraits of indivduals that put a face to a name, and forge a personal connection to a timeframe well outside of our temporal comfort zone.
These handfuls of organisms were able to survive, and thrive, through an explicit conditional shift on the planet.
Will they survive us?
World Science Festival: Hallucinations with Oliver Sacks
Just around the corner from the head shops that line St. Marks Place, the Cooper Union still houses the very stage where the likes of Lincoln, Mark Twain, the leader of the Lakota Sioux, and Susan B. Anthony spoke to presumably packed houses about the most vital issues of their day. Peter Cooper envisioned a place where ideas and concerns could be discussed openly and without censorship. Cooper’s ingenuity is likewise evidenced in the physical building: he designed the first elevator shaft—cylindrical, assuming that would be more efficient—years before the invention of the elevator itself. It’s enough to make 1859 seem like the very pinnacle of innovation and open-minded discourse.
Fast-forward over 150 years to early November, where on a Friday night in New York City, some of the most interesting—and interested—minds were gathered together in that same Great Hall, to ponder the origins, purposes, and implications of hallucinating, guided by famed neurologist and storyteller Oliver Sacks.
NPR’s John Hockenberry opened the evening with great candor by sharing an account of a terrible car accident that occurred in his early 20’s. He’d had a hallucination of his own in the wreckage of that car—a vivid out of body experience—and has been wheelchair bound ever since. It was pure coincidence that Mr. Hockenberry, who hosted the evening’s proceedings, had such a personal connection to the subject matter, underscoring what we sometimes forget: our experiences and stories connect us to one another, and breathe life into facts and figures that might otherwise remain distant.
Dr. Sacks had some stories of his own. His early experiences with visual migraines first piqued his interest in the phenomena of non-psychotic hallucination. Though careful to note that he is not a proponent of unbridled psychotropic drug use, his experiments were not exactly works of unbiased lab research. Sachs spoke wryly of the “pharmacological launch pad” he constructed for the express purpose of finding the true color indigo. (This wasn’t completely random, but rather inspired by a glut of color spectrum research at the time.) He found success, if fleeting, at finding indigo in its vivid purity in his altered state. And he found it only one other time since: under the sole influence of some music and art. As a visual artist myself, I was particularly struck by this. First, that Sacks was so motivated to create a deeply meaningful and personal experience of a color, and second that his only non-medicated experience of equivalent intensity was facilitated by the Metropolitan Museum. (Command of that sort of artistic alchemy is something any artist would give their eyeteeth for.)
Sacks was compelled to follow his hunches into uncharted territory; a necessary risk when driven to make connections where none previously existed. The romantic idea of an hallucination revealing something profound to us is very seductive. But perhaps the real alchemy was there in the room with us that evening. We might not always know why an idea first attracts our attentions, or when a synapse will fire and forge a revelatory connection. But the chances of that happening are amplified by generosity, both from storytellers and audience, gathered in a room together to discuss a mysterious facet of the human condition. As I looked around the Great Hall, its history more palpable than most, I was pleased to see Brain Greene in the audience along side a surprising number of students. There was no need to hallucinate the ghost of Lincoln. Rather, there was Neil deGrasse Tyson, standing in line, waiting his turn at the microphone when Hockenberry turned to the audience for questions.
In the first installment of the World Science Festival’s series, Science & Story, famed neurologist Oliver Sacks joined award-winning journalist John Hockenberry to discuss Sacks’ latest book, which explores the surreal world of hallucinations.