Far, far, far away is a great place to be — if you want to stay marvelous. There is a plant, called Welwitschia mirabilis (mirabilis being Latin for marvelous), found only one place on Earth. You can get there, as artist/photographer Rachel Sussman did, by driving through the vast emptiness of the Namibian desert, the Namib Naukluft, in Africa.
Welwitschia, when you finally get to see one, sits apart. It's very alone. All its relatives, its cousins, nieces, nephews have died away. It is the last remaining plant in its genus, the last in its family, the last in its order. "No other organism on earth can lay such a claim to being 'one of its kind,' " writesbiologist Richard Fortey. It comes from a community of plants that thrived more than 200 million years ago. All of them slowly vanished, except for Welwitschia. It has survived by doing very little, very, very slowly — sipping little wafts of dew in the early mornings, otherwise minding its own business, as the big, busy world goes by.
Here's one. It looks like something that blew off the back of a truck, a tangled heap.
In fact, it has two main leaves. Just two. Over the years they become enormous. Down below, it has a deep taproot that looks for water in the sand below. I imagine it, in full silhouette, as a shaggy version of the letter "T" — with a long stem and scraggly top:
Looking the way it does (ugly), it's not a coveted plant. Which is a good thing. "Though you might not guess it," Rachel Sussman writes in her new book, "Welwitschia is a tree." It has a trunk — a very short one — and it grows extremely slowly, with both leaves splaying or pushing out, "like dark green never-ending conveyor belts," writes Fortey. "They often split into several lobes, so old plants look like a weird species of giant starfish stranded on the sands."
"When they get to a couple of meters long, the ends of the leaves simply wear out and curl up and fray into gray, whiskery threads, so it is only their continual renewal from the center that allows the plant to carry on growing and photosynthesizing," says Fortey.
Welwitschia was "discovered" in 1859 by an Austrian explorer and botanist — Friedrich Martin Josef Welwitsch — but dinosaurs "discovered" them, too.Welwitschia plants were around when the killer asteroid hit our planet 65 million years ago. They stayed when the ice came. They stayed when the ice went. They have survived fires, pests, seen an endless parade of new insects, viruses, parasites, people, roads, local wars — and somehow, even today, there are thousands of them in the Namibian desert.
How they've survived, I don't know. Why they've survived, I don't know. That they've survived, being so slow, so un-needy, so ignorable, so modest, so quiet seems — what's the word I'm looking for?