On Stars and Mules

Before I knew the Wordsworth poem, “The Stars are Mansions Built by Nature’s Hand,” I knew stars. When one grows up in an isolated place, one of the gifts you are given are a riot of stars. In some parts of the world, the sky is still visible with stars you take for granted until you leave them. Their mortal glow is not yet tainted by buzzing overhead lights, porch lights, street lights, stoplights, office lights, billboards, motion-sensored lights. The lights of progress, safety, commerce, and glitz. The blue light of a hundred cell phones begging for our attention, our lust for information, our coveted gaze.

As a teenager in the early 1990s, it was not uncommon to find me after dinner, lying on the trampoline amid a chorus of frogs and the lowing of cows, watching the sky turn an inky blue-black. I loved identifying the Little and Big Dipper, Cassiopeia the Queen, Draco the Great Dragon of the North, Sagittarius the Archer, and Virgo, my birth sign.

At 15, I knew the value of stars. My parents had divorced when I was 7: Mom to the light-polluted suburbs and Dad to a run-down hog farm. While my father’s farmhouse was a source of shame—a floral sheet tacked up as a makeshift bathroom door; mousetraps, plural, in a brownie pan on a shelf; and exposed two-by-fours where my father had torn sheetrock from the studs only to sit on a bathroom remodeling project indefinitely—our view of the heavens from the wraparound porch was, and still is, achingly exquisite.

Dad’s 120 acres were situated between Plattsburg and Lathrop, Missouri, about an hour’s drive north of Kansas City. My father’s postal address, though, said Lathrop.

These days Lathrop’s claims to fame rest on what the town used to be. In 1899 Lathrop once held the Midwest’s largest sunbonnet factory, it was one of the first in the region to bottle Coca-Cola, and perhaps the town’s most notable honor was its reign as the former “Mule Capitol of the World.”

At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, Lathrop had the largest pack mule production farm in the world. During the gold-rush motivations of the Second Boer War, approximately 170,000 mules were shipped from Lathrop to South Africa. During World War I, another 90,000 mules were sold and billed as “one of Missouri’s greatest contributions to the war effort.” Missouri mules were coveted by Allied and American forces as the mules could deliver ammunition and gasoline to tanks and move men and equipment through war-ravaged terrain more reliably than trucks. In June 2018, the United Kingdom unveiled Poppy, the War Horse Memorial, to pay tribute to the millions of UK, Allied and Commonwealth horses, donkeys, and mules killed during the Great War.

And while mules and stars seemingly inhabit polar spheres of earth and sky, there is something simultaneously comforting and sad about these relics. Eighty percent of Americans can no longer see the Milky Way due to light pollution. Part of me wonders if stargazing, like using mules in warfare, may go on its obsolete way. “Ancestrally darkened landscape,” as Michelle Z. Donahue wrote in National Geographic, is a birthright we no longer inherit unless we are willing to travel to places such as Chad, Madagascar, the Azores, the western Sahara, or an International Dark Sky Park. Part of me hopes stargazing will never go out of style—it is a practice that has inspired the sciences, poetry and prose, religion, art and music, and humanity. Yet, there is also a steep price to pay for progress. Let us hope we look up more, and refamiliarize our eyes to the clarifying beauty of a dark sky.