I was on the Genehouse walk on Wednesday, River Road walk east to LaVista Park, when I came upon a curious sight. Lining the bottom of the bluff was a fabric-like white fence (it had a slight charge of electricity and a sign: “Goats on the Go.”
Inquiring minds, you know, so I took a photo of the contact information and called farmer Dustin Ellinger, who has a seventy-acre spread outside of Litchfield. He told me his herd of fifteen or so goats was eating all the weedy stuff on an almost vertical plain of two hundred feet straight up.
“They love poison ivy and honeysuckle,” Dustin said.
The goats are in residence on this bluff for several days, sleeping in the client’s yard at night. They just climb up and down and chow down—no human guidance or commands.
“Have you ever had a goat snake bit (copperheads live there), or eaten by a predator?” I asked. “So far, no,” said Dustin.
Goats eat most anything, including human things like shoes. Poison ivy is lettuce to them, and honeysuckle is dessert. They have no fear of heights, moving in leaps and bounds to the next salad bar. On the day I saw the sign, the bluff was heavily blanketed in tall weeds. This morning, there was nothing but trees and limestone formations.
The woods we all knew as kids are not what woods looked like pre-1800. Sodbusters took one look at the wilderness and decided to tame it, often citing the will of God and Manifest Destiny. They plowed down the ninety percent prairie that was the Illinois Territory and introduced their European crops such as wheat and barley. Had they just harvested the prairie every fall, they would have made the finest and healthiest bread one could eat. Instead, hey plowed under the plants, filled in wetlands and straightened creek and river courses. Today, only prairie remnants exist, with most of them in northern Cook and Lake counties and tended in a never-ending fight by volunteers from the Nature Conservancy and other groups.
With two exceptions. Illinois now has the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, along the Kankakee River just east of Interstate 55, a huge reconstruction of what pioneers would have seen. To walk there in July, when the prairie grasses are over your head, is to be swarmed with countless species of butterfly. And there is Nachusa Grasslands, on the Rock River near Oregon, Illinois, a Nature Conservancy site that has its own herd of bison living in contentment, and native cacti and abundant prairie flowers and wild animals.
If you want to see what Illinois looked like in 1840, take the family to Midewin and Nachusa. We know what was here in the nineteenth century because a Brit tourist, Eliza Steele came to take in the view, traveling from Chicago down the Illinois and Mississippi rivers (and dining in Alton with Benjamin Godfrey among many luminaries), and writing meticulous descriptions of what she saw, plants and animals.
In “Journey to the West,” Ms. Steele describes wolves in the prairie, and near Peoria, the Illinois River so plentiful with alligator gar, she pets their backs from the deck of the boat.
In 1998, I was commissioned by the National Park Service to write a play, “Water Brought Us and Water’s Gonna Take Us Away,” which would debut at Prop Theatre in Chicago and Columbia College, about the Underground Railroad in Illinois. For research, I walked escaped slave routes north from the Ohio River.
The Midewin site, near Wilmington, was being restored. In history, the area was an escape route for slaves from St. Louis and Kentucky who had to navigate by the North Star because the prairie was an all-enveloping wilderness one couldn’t see over or through. They were aided and abetted by Peter Stewart, friend of the Lovejoy family, and an engineer on the Illinois and Michigan Canal project. I spent a lot of time at Midewin before it opened as a park.
Post the pioneers, oak savannas once open and clean and pristine, were slowly choked with weeds and non-native trees and brush, and so were open spaces and the woodlands, leading to what we see today—pretty trees the bases of which have predator plants spreading out and climbing the bark. Honeysuckle—we used to eat the flowers when I was a kid—is an invasive species. It grows almost as fast as kudzu, and it overcomes everything in its path.
And so we come full circle to Goats on the Go and its ilk, its employees willing to chow down on all things green and foreign, and a green business that can only grow exponentially.
This morning, I climbed the bluff to the client’s house, and there before me were happy vegetarian goats, and below me, the bluff wall was clean and pristine. The herd was resting and waiting for Dustin (they come running when they hear his voice), and the smell was overwhelming, and the cuteness factor was off the charts. Big goats, little goats, twin goats, and an overseer with large hooves and horns who faced off with me in case I wanted to steal a goat.
I suspect bands of goats might play a significant part in the fight against climate change, as they voraciously gobble those damn pioneer-induced weeds. In their wake must come wildflower seed planters and stewards of the land. And people smart enough to know that land and water courses ultimately cannot be tamed, that a human skyscraper cannot supplant wild architecture of trees and even a symphony orchestra will never play as sweetly as Carolina wrens and finches and song sparrows, and they will work together in ultimate harmony, the land and its creatures restored.
As the good book says, “consider the lilies of the field”… and the birds and the trees and the rivers. Or not.