The Good, the Bad and the G.o.a.t.

What goatscaping can teach us about change

the good the bad and the goat gif
Goat versus buckthorn | Image by TOPIA

Thorny invasives got your goat? Not sure if seeds are poisonous or useful? The answer might just lie in the stomach of a goat…

Forests are burning and oceans rising.

The natural world feels unstable as the spectre of climate collapse looms.

Whatever land is not farmed or urban is being choked by myriad invasive species,

tangled and unseen beside McMansions of yore.

Yet I keep seeing the “goat” emoji proliferating on social media, referring to people who are masters at their work. The image, of course, stands for G.O.A.T: Greatest of All Time, the words and ethos of Muhammad Ali. 

Wouldn’t it be a blessing to walk toward change the way Ali walked into the ring, with a tune on the lips, and a swagger, confident and scrappy as… an actual goat? Goats are re-emerging as useful and inspired solutions to invasive species mitigation and eaters of low lying fuel for forest fires.

savannah goats rainbow

And more, they represent a joyful,

small scale, and radical approach to land management

as ecologies continue to change.

Lately, a prairie is a rare site. The southern central region of Minnesota is prairie and savannah. Both landscapes have low rolling hills and are home to plants and animals that live on the cyclic freezing, thawing, raining, and burning seasons. It’s the native and sacred land of the Sioux, Ojibway, and Chippewa. For thousands of years the people lived alongside the bison, elk, and moose that grazed the land. The ecosystem runs on a series of rivers and shallow lakes, sandy soil is left from the last glacier.

At one point, herds of bison roamed,

rising like small hills over the grasses.

These powerful creatures represented abundance

and manifestations of hope in first nations myths.

In the late 1800s they were poached nearly to extinction while settlers spread over the land building farms. At the time of the decline of the bison, European settlers began to plant hedgerows of buckthorn, a shrub brought from Europe to establish decorative property lines. In addition to its dense growth it could be used as a poultice and an antifungal remedy. Slowly, the buckthorn began to creep out of its wall shape, without predators, through the harsh landscape where winds rush, unsheltered by anything but stars and oaks.

How a forest becomes a desert

Though classified as a shrub, buckthorn can grow up to 25 feet tall and look like a small tree. The leaves are small and jagged, the size of a child’s palm. Each summer deep purple berries hang from the lead hued branches. Bird flights and deer paths drag the shrub wherever these animals eat, this way seeds spread quickly from region to region.

buckthorn goats

From a distance forests look like nothing more

than a mess of shrubs among oaks. 

However, buckthorn is one of the most prevalent invasive species of the midwest and is heading northeast. Between the two buckthorn species: the common, growing in dry soils, and the glossy that begins in wetlands, the expansion is not slowed by climate and so it grows rapidly throughout forests, lacing the underbrush with a killing shade. 

Despite being placed on the state’s noxious weed list in 1999, Minnesota has only begun to take steps to manage it in earnest in the last five years. The problem was largely unseen and developed exponentially throughout the years. Recently it has become a direct threat to agriculture as overwintering soy aphids find home in the leaves before migrating to crops in the spring. Now, forests replete with buckthorn are known as deserts because what was once a biodiverse ecosystem of food, shelter, and life, is replaced by a monoculture, which, from an ecological perspective, is about as useful as a pile of sand.

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Invasive species are a contentious subject, both ethically and ecologically. Arguments abound about the best way to manage species that are non-native. According to Timothy Lee Scott in his book Invasive Plant Medicine, “invasive” is a term that implies a rupture, the species that has no predators will grow over a land that has had its plants uprooted from it. Eventually these species will die down and equilibrium will be returned, folding the species into the climatic cycles of the environment. But at the rate that buckthorn is travelling, more species of plants and animals will be in danger.

Enter The Buckthorn Brigade

In 2021, a group of about 15 volunteers in the small town of Glenwood, Minnesota adopted a land management strategy that is at once ancient and new, by using a herd of goats to manage their overgrown 240 acre park. By putting goats onto the land they are beginning to reestablish grazers.

Glenwood lies in central Minnesota, overlooking the 8,000 acre Lake Minnewaska, an ancient basin formed tens of thousands of years ago from glacial runoff. Wayne Zimmerman was a social worker before he retired. Now he spends his time chainsawing buckthorn, and biking in the local Barsness Park. He’s a powerful and slight man who carried a weed whacker when I met him and wore a sign on his back that said “heavy machinery keep 50 feet back”. 

He is a community organiser, described by his volunteers as a force, difficult to say no to, yet careful with his words. In 2020 he and his son found that the bike trail in the park was consumed by buckthorn. Within months Zimmerman had gathered a volunteer group who called themselves the Buckthorn Brigade. 

“I would not have chosen that name” said Carolyn Woehle when I mentioned how militaristic it was. Woehle is one of the few who was pulling buckthorn back in 2012 before many could see the effects it was having on forests. She is also retired, but dedicated to the cause. It was not long before Zimmerman discovered goats could be used to manage invasive species. Through various connections Zimmerman was directed to Bryan Simon and his family, the owners of Lakeside Prairie Farm, whose practices value the ecological health of the land. 

Starting in autumn of 2021, with the help of Simon, the group now has 35 goats browsing the park from May through October. Militaristic words don’t need to be used, but when designing the shirts, Joann Boyle, a volunteer with the group, took inspiration from Clint Eastwood’s expression in a poster of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. The goat glares from the centre with a sprig of berried buckthorn in its mouth. “This is not a cute operation, people need to understand.” Boyle insisted.

Following the goat

Goats have been used to manage land for over ten thousand years, beginning in early civilizations of Mesopotamia. If dogs are a man’s best friend, goats are most certainly his strong willed sister with a spot-on sense of humour. They have been used for milk, meat, textiles, they have also been used in military operations to eat highly sensitive documents. Goats have also been used to manage agricultural areas because of their ability to access inconvenient places for both humans and machines.

They are browsers, which means that, unlike cattle and sheep, they can differentiate what they eat, without ripping out the roots. Once eaten, the goat will ruminate, meaning the wad of food will be brought back into the mouth after a primary digestion in a stomach known as the rumen. In this way goats are able to digest heavily fibrous substances.

Coupled with their ability to climb difficult terrain
and survive in almost any climate,

they are a perfect solution to shrub management.

In the case of buckthorn, herbicides have proven a temporary and, ultimately, useless form of management alone. Machines and human labour to rip out the shrub is also expensive and physically difficult because the shrub will quickly grow back within the season. In 2017 the Minneapolis Parks Department began experiments in buckthorn management using goats and word slowly spread. In local news articles about the initiatives, goats have been described as “loving” buckthorn, and eating it “with glee”. In a study with the University of Minnesota, 2% of buckthorn seeds pass through the goats’ digestive systems intact. Of that number, only 11% are viable.       

Buckthorn seeds can lay dormant for five years, so the Brigade is looking at a six year grazing plan to give other plants a foothold. Bryan Simon of Barrett, Minnesota, started using goats as part of his vision to reestablish a plot of prairieland. The milkweed, echinacea, and alfalfa sweeten the air in late July when I visit. Simon is subdued but has an infectious passion in his work. He greets me with his wife, Jessie and two children, who tell me about the goats, their names and their personalities. Lakeside Prairie Farm skirts Cormorant Lake. Large burr oaks hug the shore, and what was once impassable buckthorn, is now space so open you can hear your voice echo against the trees. After ten years of management, shoots of buckthorn still grow. But Simon continues to plant native seeds, use his 130 goats, and weed the land, now native plants begin to sprout. The job of establishing a balanced ecosystem is ongoing. Simon rents the goats to the Buckthorn Brigade for $200/goat per season. With a plan of enclosing the goats in approximately three acres at a time, they transfer them every month so the goats eat multiple growths per season.

Through Simon’s operation, word is spreading in the region. He looks over the expanse of buckthorn shoots and sighs, “I’d like to see mid-sized operations so you have the efficiency of scale…[managing goats] is a lot of work.” Simon insists that people need to learn to familiarise themselves with what’s growing around them, “it’s a wooded area, they all look the same,” he says, “It just takes knowing the name of one plant. And then you can’t unsee it.” 

People are beginning to learn how to see the buckthorn now. There is a tiredness there, not only out of managing plants, but working against a system that pushes Simon to plant corn, soy, or run cattle feedlots, all of which are generationally embedded on the land and have serious ecological repercussions, of which buckthorn is only a part. “We can’t make the system dance.” Simon says. 

His goats will not eat all of the buckthorn in Minnesota, but that isn’t the goal. The goats are doing more than eating buckthorn, they’re inviting people to the forest, people who might not have learned how to differentiate plants.

The implementation of the goats is showing people
that there is a deep world to see,

to love and fight for

right in their backyards.

The goats collected by the water at the farm, eating greenery down the hill, climbing on fallen trees. Goats prefer to eat above the ground. They have adapted in this way to avoid worms. So they find elevation, or use their necks or legs to push tall shrubs down allowing the others to eat. They follow their matriarch who decides when and where they move. If you call them they will answer. If they know you they may all come running, full of unique character. 

The Mythic Goat

The goats of myth bring all sorts of mishap and cunning. Goats have taken the form of Pan and the devil, even the term of the scapegoat comes through within these two characters. They carry the sins of humans.

According to The Book of Symbols published by Taschen, based on the work of C.G. Jung, goats are the point at which the animal and human meet. A nanny goat suckled the young Zeus. “Tragos” is Greek for goat song, and where the word tragedy comes from. And yet, it is the clever goat climbing to limitless heights, or just whatever there is to climb. It is the goat who will play a trick on you. Because, in addition to their hard demeanour, they are silly, and the two themes marry to epitomise the goat as such, “the wild and striving goat of our imagination stirs trouble and follows his own…shameless lead, at the same time often attaining the highest heights.” (Taschen, 320)

A dense proliferation of anything will accumulate white noise until it is impossible to ignore. This is that point of rupture, once the problem is acknowledged it can be easier to move forward, perhaps unsteadily, but necessarily. The goats can give us cues about adaptability, magnificent endeavours, and the power of movement in herds. It is also in the goat’s nature to disrupt, and if we too had the courage to stumble together, perhaps laughing, into the unknown, we too might find solutions to our problems might not be far, they may be steeped in joy. Regaining our balance we may step ably into our place on the land.

What’s so good about this?

Goats offer an unparalleled solution to land management. And they can teach people how to participate in the health of their forests, teaching us that climate solutions are not dreary at all.They might, in fact, be full of joy.

Meet the writer

Irene Lyla Lee is a writer, publisher and educator dedicated to storytelling and the places where land and imagination meet. Irene’s writing has appeared in Visitant, The Rumpus, The Brooklyn Rail and more. She is founder of the small press, ilylali, and co-founder of Oreades Press with Rachel TonThat and Boar Hair Books with Debo Mouloudji. She organises with the Brooklyn Women’s Writing Group. Irene holds an MFA in Writing from Pratt Institute. She is teaching herself to dance on unceded Lenapehoking, Brooklyn, New York.

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