Ming, as most people know by now, was an arctic quahog clam killed recently by British scientists. It was no accident as first reported, and by counting the rings inside of his shell they discovered that the mollusc was nearly a century older than assumed. He’d been born at the start of the Ming Dynasty in the final years of the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I, but had nothing else to do with China or England, minding his own business beneath Icelandic seas. Scientists sacrificed Ming and others to study ageing and historic sub-maritime conditions, not unreasonable propositions.
Superficially, his premeditated murder alerts conservatives to what was, in many ways, Ming’s ideal conservative existence. They don’t get MSNBC on the arctic seafloor, and ObamaCare means nothing to them. Elder quahogs keep to themselves, engaging in centuries of quiet reflection and fine dining, as his grandparents did during the days of Charlemagne. Ming lived through, yet brilliantly failed to notice, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, Freud, Marxism, ideologically-driven 20th Century mass slaughters, Keynes, Progressivism, Quantitative Easing, and twerking. One needn’t be a mollusc to feel jealous.
He didn’t care a fig for man walking on the Moon, which in frank physical terms affected clams as little as it affected us. Moreover, his premature demise may still leave countless multitudes of equally old clams alive, even though Ming ended his days in a lab and a few of his kinsmen wind up breaded and deep-fried or dipped in drawn butter.
Ming’s surviving peers, if they bother to pay attention, must regard Howard Johnson’s and its copycats as so many clam-killing Dachaus and Bergen-Belsens. While I’ve enjoyed my share of Ming’s kinfolk, something about killing and eating anything venerable is upsetting to both thinking and visceral conservatives, as the popular outrage over Ming’s murder confirms. At Washington, DC’s decadent Palm restaurant, where lobbyists and lawmakers gorge themselves on vast portions of food at eye-watering prices, I once saw for sale, captive in a tank of seawater, a gigantic live lobster weighting nearly ten pounds. It was ostensibly born before the Civil War; there was nowhere nearby in which I could turn it loose, so its imminent demise ruined my appetite, even for their “small” bushel of salad. But that is not the primary Message of Ming, our source of conservative joy.
Beyond the wise clams, plenty of endangered, or even allegedly extinct, species are thriving in secret. Thylacines or Tasmanian tigers, supposedly died off in a 1930s zoo; now scientists have found recent skulls and local testimony suggesting that the animals still exist deep in their wilderness. Asian cheetahs are said to survive only as perhaps two dozen individuals in Iran, with the last subcontinental specimen shot in 1947 by the Indian Maharajah of Surgujah. Yet fifteen years ago, while acting in a film made in Pakistan’s remote Salt Range, I was told by a local natural resources officer that he found cheetah pugmarks in the jungles, and occasionally caught a fleeting glimpse of one. Wagging his head and talking in an endearingly sing-song Pakistani accent, the official whispered joyously: “The cheetahs, sir, they are still here but they are not notifying my department.”
Most startlingly (and a global scoop for The Imaginative Conservative), Afghanistan’s last tiger was supposedly shot on a swampy island in the Amu Darya river in 1928, yet only 25 years ago a friend saw a large one, clearly at 100 yards, in a Central Afghan province to remain nameless. Any flight over Afghanistan, or a visit to Google’s maps, shows how little of that rugged Texas-sized country contains humans. While the landscape may not be as lush as what tigers prefer, there is room for many. Any real conservative, whose blood contains at least as much conservationism as haemoglobin, takes pleasure in (a) the survival of so many rare species, and (b) their outwitting even the experts committed to their survival. Just perhaps, South Asian cheetahs and Tasmanian thylacines, Afghan tigers and highly civilised 500-year-old clams can count among Eliot’s Permanent Things.
Russell Kirk once told me how fast Britain’s stately homes collapsed into ruins, starting in the 1930s through the 1950s, once their occupants departed and the roofs were removed by British socialism, death taxes, and class warfare. Within only a generation they became as medieval relics, and now only a few foundation stones remain. His point was to conserve as best we can, but also to recall what inevitably falls beneath the scythe of Father Time.
Impermanence, too, is part of Ming’s Message, what Samuel Johnson called “The Vanity of Human Wishes.” Ming lived, quietly and perhaps reflectively, through 20 human generations of 25 years each, amid Johnson’s multitudes;
“Athirst for wealth, and burning to be great;
Delusive Fortune hears the incessant call,
They mount, they shine, evaporate and fall.”
The Japanese maintain a balance most beautifully. Their ancient wooden temples contain few, if any, old components; rebuilt every few years to keep them sturdy, preserve craftsmanship and feed a dynamic love affair between the present and the past.
As Kirk walked amid ruins and planted new trees so assiduously, we are honour-bound to practice real stewardship throughout our allotted time, even as old clams watch our dreams rise, be dashed and rise again. More important than dead stones is the past kept alive, for Life matters most, from the past to the visible present and the eternal hereafter. To live both responsibly and joyously, while recognising what will pass away, is to heed the slave on the back of the chariot during the formal Roman Triumph. Recognizing mortality affirms the immortal as well.
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