28 September 2010

The Ancient Olive of Ano Vouves

[Olive tree of Ano Vouves, approx. 3,000-years-old (unconfirmed)]

I find I've been talking about "time flying" a lot lately. A blink (and a 19-hour travel day) later, and I'm back home in Brooklyn. It's amazing how 30 days on the road and crossing 7 time zones requires so much recalibration. It feels significant in the realm of personal time, but what happens when pondering the loose fragment of a second taken to capture an image of 4,000 years of growth? Even if we don't think back quite that far, the question remains - what did it feel like when it took months to get from that village in Crete all the way to New York City? Or years? Or how about when the continents weren't even known to each other? To us, it is always now...and now seems to be getting faster and faster. So I wonder: If context shapes our understanding and experience of time, are we therefore temporal relativists?                                                                                                                                     
Ok. I'll stop waxing philosphic for the moment and leave you with this picture of the venerable old tree, holding court in upper Vouves. Stay tuned for the 1,000 words later.

19 September 2010

Posidonia Oceanica

It's amazing how time can fly by on the road. It seems that one minute I was still trying to gain more intimate access to the Castagno dei 100 Cavalli (which I did, albeit in the rain), and in the blink of an eye it's already my last day in Spain. 

In the past week I made four dives to different sites where the Posidonia Oceanica grows, the image here a rather shallow shot, showing off the beautiful color of the grass, and hinting at the expansive meadow. The grass extends all the way from Ibiza to Formentera, and was designated as a UNESCO world heritage site, even before its exceptional age was discovered. 

It was really interesting to watch the biologists at work, hear about the accidental discovery of the clone grass (analysis of the genome of shoots from well-separated plots proved identical), and to hear about the vital role of the meadow in the ecosystem - as well as the invasive species of algae that now endanger it. More details on all of this to come, and in the mean time, see them below, counting shoots of grass in special plots which they've been returning to for the past 10 years.

Tomorrow it's off to Crete, in search of what very well might be the world's oldest Olive tree.

09 September 2010

A tough (chest)nut to crack

It's proving a bit tricky to get accurate information on the age of the tree, or to even get through the gate for that matter. (No, that rope fence isn't holding me back - I'm still relegated to the outer circle of the high metal fence. I stuck my camera through the slats, my arms separated by a post, to get this shot.)

I've gotten a small taste of Italian bureaucracy in trying to gain access and information, but it's been tempered by one of the most helpful people I've yet to meet on my travels. Valentina, jack of all trades at the agroturisomo, sat and made call after call for me this morning, speaking in rapid Italian to scientists in Catania and Florence. The first, it turned out, was an entomologist. He passed along the information for someone he said was an expert on the tree. When we got her on the phone, she told that she would study the tree, except she's not all that interested in forestry. She passed along the name of another 'expert,' this one who was at least offer up the information that there is a book on the subject. Which brought us full circle back to the first call Valentina made, to Sant'Alfio City Hall. Someone will be coming up to meet us here this afternoon, perhaps with book in hand. And then we'll set out together to find the traffic carabinieri to open the gate.

Fingers crossed. 

08 September 2010

Buongiorno Castagno

First look, Castagno dei 100 Cavali (5 exposures)

It's my second morning here in Sicily. Another overcast day, but that's my favorite shooting weather.  After settling in yesterday, I went directly to the Castagno dei 100 Cavali. It seems to be quite happy, large and green and heavy with the season's chestnuts. Today I'm trying to find out how to breach the protective fence which encircles it. I've just been instructed to find the traffic police in the town square -two women in a white car - and ask them to let me in.

I arrived here in Sant'Alfio yesterday afternoon, after a somewhat harrowing drive from Catania, where I had flown in the night before. Street signs, traffic lanes, signals - who needs 'em? Scooters and motorcycles whip by from all directions, pedestrians cross whenever and where ever they see fit, cars push their way towards/into/in front of wherever they're trying to go. One out of five streets seems to have a sign. I laughed aloud while driving up a busy, narrow two-lane street, the scooters scooting comfortably into the oncoming traffic... suddenly joined by an older woman in a motorized chair, wheeling her way up the street as a bus barreled towards them all from the opposite direction. No one seemed to find this unusual except me. 

Good thing I'm not a nervous driver.

And from that frenetic drive in Catania into the country-stillness of Sant'Alfio. It's quiet and peaceful here, birds breaking the near-silence amidst olive, apple, fig and plum trees that dot the still-working farm and one-time monastery where I'm staying. The farm dogs were kind enough to give me a walking tour when I arrived.

And on that note, it's time to get off the computer and back to the tree.  Oh, and feel free to check in on my Flickr stream, where I'm posting more images from my trip.

Ciao for now...

05 September 2010

OLTW TED talk now live

I'm off to Sicily tomorrow, to find the Chestnut of 100 Horses. The owner of an old converted monastery where I'll be staying just shared the email addresses for the biologists who study it, so hopefully I'll get an accurate scientific low-down on the actual age of the Chestnut first hand.

In the mean time, I'm very happy to share my TED talk with you. Enjoy!

16 August 2010

Q: What's 100,000 years old, lives underwater, & hails from a Mediterranean party spot?

The time has come to embark on another OLTW adventure (thanks to my beloved Kickstarter supporters!), this time to the chaparral biome of the Mediterranean, where I'll have my sights set on 3 different organisms comfortably over the 2,000 year mark: an ancient Olive tree in Crete, the surprisingly deciduous addition of the Castagno dei Cento Cavalli (that's "Chestnut of 100 Horses") in Sicily, and the object of the above riddle: 100,000-year-old Posidonia Oceanica sea grass living off the coast of Ibiza of all places. (More about that below.)  As you can see on my OLTW map, they're practically neighbors.

My first stop is actually Budapest, for an exhibition entitled "Neglected Corners of the World", where my work will appear along side artists Bukta Imre and Suzanne Nagy. (Do drop by 2B Galeria for the opening reception if you're in Budapest September 1st.) Then stay tuned starting the week of September 6th: first stop, bottom of the boot. 

In the mean time, here's a little more 411 on these upcoming additions to the OLTW family:


Found in a little town in Sicily just outside the bounds of park that's home to Mt Etna, resides the Chestnut of 100 Horses. I was surprised to learn about this chestnut, with age claims ranging from 2,000 to 4,000 years, because most of the trees that I've found in this age range tend to be evergreens, not deciduous. (Though the Baobabs, as usual, are a good exception to the rule.)

I'm hoping the Botanical department at the University of Catania will be able to share some of their research with me.  In the mean time, Wikipedia provided this lovely gouache illustration by Jean-Pierre Houel of the tree from 1777, as well as an exposition of the origin of the tree's name. As the story goes, the queen of Aragon and her 100 knights (no, it has nothing to do with Middle Earth), were caught unprepared in a severe thunderstorm on their way to Mt Etna. The tree saved the day, providing shelter for the queen and her entire company under its massive canopy.


No, that's no type-0. The clonal Posidonia Oceanica really is 100,000 years old (check out EOL for a few snaps). And if that weren't impressive enough, this sea grass lives between the islands of Formentera and Ibiza -- better known for its international club scene than for its conservation. 

I'm very excited to be meeting up with the team of biologists who discovered the clone by chance while doing some field research on the endemic grasses. They've invited me to join them on this next trip into the field...err...ocean, and hence for my second foray into the depths, I'll be making my art along side their science.


Last but not least on the agenda is an ancient olive tree, with all signs pointing toward it being the oldest in the world.  There are ancient olive trees in Portugal, Israel and Palestine (both which claim the oldest) around the 2,000-year mark, but from what I've gathered pre-visit, the tree in Crete sits somewhere in the 3,000 to 4,000-year range. I'm hoping that some contacts at the University of Crete will help shine some accuracy on the estimates.

According to the internets [YIK], apparently this tree had a rather sordid past as a dog kennel in its partially hollowed-out trunk, but has since cleaned up its act, and can now boast that its branches have been the source of some recent and future Olympic wreaths. 

More on that from the field....

20 June 2010

Dear Readers,

I usually reserve this space for talking about the Oldest Living Things themselves, and for my related travel (mis)adventures, but I have so much good news to share about the project I wanted to keep you updated!

(This information was sent out to my mailing list last week. Feel free to sign yourself up here.)

Success! A heartfelt thanks to everyone who donated artwork, services, encouragement and pledged their support to my work!

I'm humbled and honored to announce that I've been invited to speak about my work at TEDGlobal next month in Oxford, UK. If you haven't heard any TED talks yet, explore their site. You're sure to come away inspired.

Check out the WSJ for an article entitled "Earth's Real Senior Citizens," written by Julie Steinberg, who came out to my studio for an interview last week.

 prix pictet
I'm thrilled to announce that I've been nominated for the Prix Pictet for the second year in a row. This year I was nominated by Elie Domit, Director of the Dubai-based gallery The Empty Quarter. Elie has also invited me to exhibit in the gallery in 2011.

Ian Sample, science correspondent for the Guardian wrote a wonderful profile on my project last month, which ran in The Observer along with a two-page spread of my images.


long now
A little later in the year I'll be giving a talk at The Long Now Foundation as part of their series of seminars on long term thinking in November (Details TBA.)  In the mean time, check out their brilliant 10,000-year clock

Weren't able to see my GEL talk in person? It's now available online on the GEL site. While you're there check out great talks by Sal Khan, Randy Garutti, Rob Kapilow and others. Thinking about attending GEL 2011? I highly recommend it.

06 April 2010


Hello dear readers! 

As you can imagine, searching out the world's oldest living things is no cheap undertaking. That's why I've started a fundraising campaign on Kickstarter.com to try to raise some money to continue with my work. Have $5 to donate? Every contribution helps, and there are some great rewards for pledging.  I have until June 20th to reach my $10,000 goal - please help me get there, so I in turn can get to places like Antarctica, Tasmania and Sri Lanka. 

Just click below for more information, and please pass this along to anyone else you think might be interested. Thank you for your support!

17 February 2010


2000-year-old Brain Coral, Speyside, Tobago

When I last checked in, it was about mid-way through my stay in Tobago. It was raining at least part of every day, windy (much like Brooklyn this morning), and the waters were dense with suspended particles. Speaking of the moon-like qualities of the coral in my last posting, I learned an important lesson in dive planning a little late in the game: the closer you get to the full Moon, the more detritus is likely to get kicked up into the water, decreasing visibility. It was an unknown unknown to plan around the lunar calendar. (Digression: I'm just reminded of one of my favorite song lyrics from the B52's..."There's a moon in the sky / It's called the Moon." Ahem.)


Every morning I went out to dive, wondering if the visibility would improve. That Saturday was to be our last scheduled day in Speyside, and the moon was to be full. I had secured my Open Water Diver certification. From a technical standpoint, I had more control over the under-sea white balance settings on the borrowed G10 (at the dive master's suggestion, I brought a white hand towel from the hotel in the pocket of my BCD - that's "buoyancy control device" - to set the white balance at the bottom, lest everything turn out a wild shade of turquoise.) We took the speedboat out to a spot off of Little Tobago island, me clutching the cameras to my body as we tipped ourselves backward into the water, and descended down to the coral again and again. (Luckily there weren't too many other divers clamoring for the attentions of the dive master, requesting to dive other sites.)

Each time I saw the coral coming into focus in front of me I had to catch my breath a little. Its scale unnerved me a bit, and it was beautiful in the hazy water. I swam around it, trying to keep still -- the first time I photographed it, I looked up from my camera only to find that I had drifted upward at least 10 feet in only a few seconds. We had since added an extra pound to my weight belt to help stay a bit more stationary. My control underwater improved, but visibility never did despite adding a couple extra days of diving.

By the end of the trip my fears about SCUBA had receded -- save the time when my BCD failed to inflate -- and I would venture to say that I now would actually seek it out. All the better to find the 100,000-year-old clonal sea grass in Spain.

But I'll be sure to check the lunar calendar first.

26 January 2010


Seaweed “garden” and detail of the ancient Brain Coral

It’s day 4 of a trip to Tobago, where I’ve just completed dive #3 towards my open water diving certification and my first opportunity to see the 2,000-year-old Brain Coral which brought me down here.

The real test for me started on Sunday with my first SCUBA dive outside of the reassuring confines of a swimming pool. SCUBA is one of those things that I doubt I ever would have tried without a motivator like the OLTW project. The sheer vastness of the oceans and the physiological wrongness of breathing underwater kept me happily on the shores (or on the surface, snorkeling, at least). Until now. The Brain Coral is the first underwater subject my list — a welcome tip from a biologist in London who happened to vacation here a couple years ago — and so here I am, overcoming a fear and working to advance my project in the process.

(Next on the underwater list: 100,000-year-old clonal sea grass in Spain, and another species of coral in the South Pacific over twice as old as the Brain Coral.)

Thankfully, I had the opportunity to start my training at home in NYC, thanks to Robert Elmes who supported OLTW by generously purchasing SCUBA lessons for myself and my sister Lisa (whom you may remember from the excursion to find the Clonal Spruce.)

A baby step. We started on the shore and made our way down into a bit of reef after a skills review – removing your respirator then clearing it and breathing again, taking off your mask and replacing it, exhaling sharply through your nose to clear all the water back out, towing the limp instructor back into shore, etc.)

The following day we got into the dive boat and headed out of the bay around to Little Tobago Island for my first real dive. I took some preemptive Pepto lest seasickness or nerves get the better of me. After the initial grip of fear (Robert reports my eyes were wide as saucers when we first rolled back-first off the boat and into the water), I was able to stop thinking so hard about my breathing and stat to look around. The visibility was around 20 to 30 feet, which I was told wasn’t very good…until I got in the water today.

Today was my first trip to the coral and my first time shooting underwater. I was still nervous, though not nearly as much. The dive was far more difficult today, however. The water had been churning and particles floated everywhere, casting a yellowish haze. Anything beyond 5 feet in front of you seemed to lose its clarity. It was rough going with the currents, though diving was far more to my liking with a camera in hand. The last stop on our dive route was the coral. It loomed in the low light, larger than that I had imagined – I’m told about 18 feet across and I’d venture to guess (water distorts your sense of scale) around 14 feet tall. It looked like a moon from an old science fiction movie, a little ragged around the edges (about a decade ago it was attacked by a school of fish which have since moved on, apparently), and imperfectly round, like it had been hurtling through space for a while. (I was also reminded to the Llareta, which, albeit terrestrial, shares some similarities of form.)

I don’t know if it’s the pressure of all that water, the swimming, the psychological hurdles, or all of the above, but each dive leaves us spent. So I leave you this evening with a max depth of 57 ft and total dive time of 133 minutes… and the plan to go back out their tomorrow in hopes of making more photos in better conditions.