Goats are my white whale. The idea of using goats to clear brush and vines draws me. It fills me with a steely determination, like the passion that drove Melville’s Captain Ahab to pursue the whale, Moby Dick.
That does not mean the proprietor of my local herd returns my calls. Alas, he did so once. But I was meditating. So I chose not to pick up the phone. He has ignored me ever since. Neither Facebook nor filling out his Internet contact form nor email nor a simple phone call gets results. You can see the Captain Ahab condition developing. (Eye twitch, gazing to a distant horizon.)
Hiring goats, and sheep, and donkeys, and even llamas to clear land is getting to be a thing. Chicago’s O’Hare airport did it. Photographers swarmed the critters. The city of Anaheim, Calif., did it for an overgrown right-of-way off a road. The historic Congressional Cemetery in Washington and the Gateway National Recreation Area of New York and New Jersey used goats to remove brush and poison ivy, until the government shutdown of 2013 forced them to cease grazing. Those goats were federal contractors.
Praising Goats and Sheep
Private citizens can hire goats, too. It does not have to be a governmental endeavor. Realtor blog posts, conservation group newsletters, and agricultural forums have sung the praises of goats and sheep.
It has practical benefits. A herdsman brings the creatures, installs electric fencing, brings herding dogs to protect them, and lets them do their thing. He checks on them, but mostly they just go about their grazing animal business. They can go where a mower could not go. They can gnaw invasive plants to the ground, without hurting and compacting the soil the way a Bobcat or a tractor would. If you bring in pigs afterward, they will dig up roots.
Booking a herd costs less than half what it would cost to hire a landscaping crew to do the same thing. But even a landscape crew has trouble with certain terrain, like steep stream banks that the four-legged landscapers handle easily.
And don’t even get me started with the chemicals. First of all, English ivy laughs heartily at Roundup. Second, (and this is really first) herbicides poison soil, water, worms, birds, everything in between, and us.
Where I live, that would be an unacceptable risk. It is rich in life. Hawks and owls are at this very moment sending their young ones off to raptor college. Two cardinal couples get almost all the blueberries as soon as they turn color. A great blue heron passed over my roof last night, just as the super moon rose. The night is full of lightning bugs, pulsing in unison. Got to respect all that. Drenching the privet and English ivy and poison ivy in herbicide—no.
But those opportunistic species, the privet and the ivies, are warping the mixed hardwood forest and the wetlands here. So the civilized gardener (moi) wants to nudge it all into greater beauty.
The reasons brush-clearing herds are taking off are more than practical. Each time they visit somewhere people stop and take pictures of them. When they work in a neighborhood, children give them names. This spring I saw sheep and goats clearing steep slopes in a big park. People clustered along the fences, smiling, laughing, holding up their toddlers for a better view.
Even the most urban people hanker for life and nature. It does something good for our hearts to be near plants, animals, rocks, soil, and water, to experience the rich variety of lives. I think this goat rental idea, like urban gardens, like farmers markets, feeds a hunger. The way we mostly live in America cuts us off from something we need.
We get imprisoned at our computers and in our offices and homes. We need more nature, and we need to take care of nature. Our culture has gotten too cut off from the earth, and we miss it. Non-Americans note how much we complain, despite our cushy lives. Partly, complaining is just a bad habit, but there is more to it. I think we complain because our culture has been damaged so that we are deprived of some kinds of companionship, affinity, joy, that would come from being closer to the real, natural world.
I want goats. Want them bad. Got a goat jones. Got a goat monkey on my back.
Call me Ishmael.