Perhaps an Ivy League Education

Blackberries, genus Rubus.

We live in a world of tangles and thorny situations. But long before the human species discovered the difficulty of extracting itself from a tough set of circumstances, plants in the genus Rubus proved to be masters of deception, trickery, and entrapment. Of course there are other life forms found in the natural world even more adept at trickery and deception. I know, I’ve experienced them the hard way.

Back in the early 1970′s when I first started clearing land on the north facing slopes of our property I had visions of small pastures and gardens. At the time the property was densely forested; it was an interesting mix of hemlocks and hardwoods. Most of the trees were about the same age, 70 years or so, meaning that they had all recovered from cleared land in about the same time frame. There were a few larger trees with low spreading branches, commonly referred to as wolf trees, meaning they had grown up within the boundaries of pastures where the great amount of sunlight allowed the low spreading branches their eye-catching growth pattern. I was young, full of energy, and the clearing was done both with chainsaw and crosscut saw, the latter being used during the frequent break downs of a machine from hell. In all I cut hundreds of trees saving the softwoods for lumber and bucking, splitting, and stacking the hardwoods for firewood to be used by myself, family, and friends.

Once the land was cleared, for a building site, gardens and a few homestead animals, I knew I would have to deal with coppice growth from the hardwood stumps. I had no intention of removing the stumps with a bulldozer; a method recommended by a few of my friends. A lack of funds and a concern that the soil disruption might really impact what grew there were the main reasons I avoided this activity. Rather, I reasoned, I would keep cutting the stump sprouts until they ran out of energy from the remaining tree root system. Typically a couple of years of cutting would take care of this problem.

What I had not counted on was the immediate and massive take over of the cleared land by blackberries. By the end of the second year the cleared land was 90% covered with brambles. It seemed as if they had arrived by magic! Such a complete and nearly perfect takeover by this plant, which made the land terribly hard to navigate, was mind boggling.

A single branch of thorns can hold infinite pain!

The canes were gigantic and stout. They were thick and thorny. They made a dense layer of nearly impenetrable thicket that limited my access to the land unless I was willing to risk injury! I considered mowing them and started out with a scythe. At the end of the first day I had mowed only about a quarter of an acre. Scything was difficult given all the stumps. Hidden by the dense brambles I constantly struck the stumps with the scythe dulling the blade and making me take time away from the task to keep the scythe sharp. Discouraged, I left the land on a Sunday and resolved to start again the following weekend; the very next chance I had to tackle this activity.

The following Saturday I arrived at 7 AM sharp. I was revved up and raring to go. I had mentally prepared myself for a full day of swinging the sickle and cutting the brambles. About to start off I could not believe my eyes. A sea of green briars had reappeared. There were hundreds of plants of about the same height. Each stem stood straight up like a huge classroom full of raised hands and they waved about as a breeze blew through. The show of hands seemed to be saying “Have you noticed that we are already back in the classroom?”

I could barely tell where I had stopped!

In a week’s time the blackberries had grown to more than calf height. They seemed thicker than when I cut them! And considering I had barely put a dent in these invaders during the previous weekend I could feel the enthusiasm drain out of my spirits like air exiting a ruptured balloon. I knew immediately that I had to change tactics.

That weekend I spent my time doing other tasks. Cutting up hardwood logs, rolling hemlock logs with a peavey into a pile so they could get taken to the sawmill, and all the while mulling over the blackberry bramble problem. Somewhere along the line I thought of bringing in goats to do the work. It was one of those Eureka moments! Why break my tail end when I could get goats to do the work for me?

Forty years later our land is over run with brambles!

The next Tuesday I went to the local animal auction and bought a herd of goats. Well, not exactly a herd, but a few. A few plus one to be exact. I like even numbers. I saw no need for fencing and simply attached each goat to a stake and rope tether. Unloading the goats on Wednesday morning I tied each one to a long nylon rope attached to a metal rod pounded into the ground. I spread the tethers out so the goats could not get tangled with each other. I had raised goats in the past and knew they could be clever but nothing warned me of the battles that were about to begin.

First of all, nobody told me that these particular goats had gone to an Ivy League school. I should have named them Harvard, Yale, Cornell, and Columbia. I say this because they obviously all came with Doctorates in escaping, trickery, and deceit. I know I’ll never be invited to join the Mensa Society but how can a goat be smarter than I am!

I decided to camp on the land for a few days to watch the goats and make sure they were OK. Once I felt comfortable I thought I might come up every morning and move them around. After all, the object was to clear the land of brambles. If this worked out as I planned I would be on easy street and my genius plan was golden!

Steep hillsides prove difficult to mow!

Everything with the goats went OK for about fifteen minutes when the oldest of the goats slipped her collar. The only reason I knew this was that while I was stacking wood I could feel something staring at me. Sure enough, I turned around and this old nanny stood there with her sideways yellow pupils giving me the evil eye. It looked like she was looking right through me. OK, I thought, time to round her up and put her back on the tether. I approached her. Every step I took was responded with a step away from me from her. She nibbled at various pieces of vegetation between each elusive step And, incidentally, none of her nibblings were taken from blackberries.

I rushed her, but she artfully dodged me. I tried coaxing her with some of my precious lunch. She ate what I put out for her but would not let me approach! So, after about an hour of this I just decided to let her amble about on her own and eat what she may. I still had three other goats in the brambles doing their intended work.

This clever gal stood on a knoll above the other three goats taunting them. I kind of liked her wicked spirit. She really enjoyed flaunting her freedom. It wasn’t long before I saw that another goat had joined her. This one had a rope tailing behind her; obviously a rope that had been gnawed in half by the goat attached to it. And here I thought the goats were going to eat brambles!

They didn’t seem to be going anywhere so I let them be. Sure enough, before noon I had four goats running about freely. Two had slipped their collars and two had cut through their ropes. Now I knew that I had a problem on my hands.

I thought briefly of just letting them go wild but that seemed terribly lazy and wasteful not to mention there might be some serious explaining to do when the woods ran wild with herds of goats (yep, that’s right, one of them was a young fertile male). I really wasn’t looking forward to an intimidating interview with the local game wardens so I let that idea go as fast as it had flown into my mind.

I knew that it would not work if I tried rounding them all up. I am not a cowboy nor am I a gaucho. My rounding up skills are limited to basic math operations. But I did know from previous experience that goats loved grain. I had already given them my lunch trying to corral them so I had to go to the local grain store to retrieve some goat food. I reasoned that they wouldn’t go far. I could be to the grain store in back in under an hour. What could go wrong?

I sped away in my old beat up Dodge pick-up truck. As I rumbled down the dirt road I looked up into the clearing on my land and thought I saw the goats taking off into the woods. Pretending that nothing could go more wrong on this fateful day I continued on my way believing that what I saw was imaginary.

I bought the finest goat food available at the grain store. It was laced with molasses and contained oats, corn, and barley. It was a food that no goat could refuse! As I hurried back to the homestead, my rattletrap of a truck shaking the entire distance, I had confidence that this would solve my problems.

When I arrived I threw the 100 pound sack of grain over my shoulder. I’m not sure why I bought so much but this was the one good decision that I made that day. The 100 yard hike to the clearing ended with an open view of brambles…..and no goats. Not a baaa to be heard anywhere. The goats had left for parts unknown.

As an experienced woodsman I reasoned that I could track them. I filled my pockets with goat food. The molasses did a pretty good job of sticking everything together and I knew it wouldn’t fall out. I soon found that I could follow their nibblings. Browsed branches leave a trail and this was a pretty easy trail to follow.

It’s amazing how much browse four goats can consume in an hour while traveling through the woods. I figured I’d catch up to them in fifteen minutes but after an hour they were nowhere in sight. I was deep in the woods. Making matters worse it was getting very hot. The molasses in my pockets had changed consistency and oozed through the threads of my pants. I smelled like a rum factory, but that could only be good. Perhaps the goats would smell me.

After another hour of trailing these beasts I sat down to rest. I was totally discouraged and considering a retreat from my present position. I had been defeated by four clever goats who were evidently more savvy than me. I had just about made up my mind to head back to my land when I heard a bleet. It could have been a baaa, I’m never sure how to describe the sound that a goat makes. Anyway, without warning all four goats arrived on the scene. I presume they smelled molasses.

As soon as they caught a glimpse of me they stopped in their tracks. Evidently I didn’t look like the giant keg of molasses they had envisioned. Weary, the four goats circled around me with great hesitation. They looked at my suspiciously as they all walked in a queue, stalking the grain like Sitting Bull and his 3000 Sioux braves surrounding Colonel Custer. Now, it must be remembered that I had no real relationship with these goats. From their perspective I was just somebody that took them from an auction and tied them up in a bunch of prickers. And I have to admit, it sounds kind of cruel when you look at it like that. Nevertheless, they seemed attracted to the smell and kept circling.

I stuck my hands into my pockets. The grain stuck to my hands. I could barely separate my fingers because the molasses was so sticky. Extracting my hand from my pocket I couldn’t get the oozing mess off of one hand without raking it off with the other hand. The result? Two hands rendered useless my molasses. I resembled human fly paper. You know, the rolls of sticky film that we used to hang from the ceiling in the old days? And the fly paper thought was confirmed when the flies began aerially orbiting my body like little sputniks attempting a landing on a molasses Mars Bar!

I thought about taking off my pants and letting the goats approach my pants and the sticky goat food in the pockets. However, even though the odds were good that this might work I thought it might look pretty strange if someone encountered me running around the woods in my just my underwear!

I tried to get the goats to follow me back to the land. One piece of grain at a time I dropped the morsels on my trail. This seemed to work! Too bad I ran out of grain inside of a quarter mile of travel. Discouraged I headed back to the land.

When I got there I forced my way through the brambles. Thorns cut my bare arms and the thicket tore at my T-shirt. I was pretty much a bloody mess when I arrived at the bag of grain. I was tired and it was getting dark. I left the bag behind and went home leaving the goats on their own. Nobody likes the feeling of defeat, especially at the hands of four defiant goats.

Sunrise on our land.

The next day I woke up, gathered up some used fencing on the chance I ever saw the goats again, and headed back to the land. Upon arriving I broke out some tools and began splitting some wood. As I threw the mall for the first time I heard a familiar noise. A long drawn out series of Baa’s.

I ran to the clearing. There stood all four goats over the grain bag. They were looking rather rotund and very happy. They thought they were in goat heaven. In their limited experience it seemed there was never ending molasses. I immediately ran back to my truck, gathered up the old roll of fencing and returned to the bramble filled clearing. Although it took about an hour I fashioned a temporary fence with stakes made out of thick branches and the old woven wire and surrounded them within the confine at a distance. I finally had them contained.

The old nanny, clearing the ring leader of this gang, walked over to me. She was chewing away. Her muzzle was stained with molasses. She looked me straight in the eye. Those crazy horizontal yellow pupils gave me the heeby jeebies! The nanny made her goat noise and then jumped over the fence. I was horrified. She stared me in the eye again and then she jumped back in. I got the message. She’d stick around, and so would the others, as long as there was plenty of molasses and grain.

I’m not sure why but I was offended by her intelligence. Nevertheless I had learned a lesson from her. And when I thought about it I really didn’t mind. Receiving and education from a Ivy League graduate is more than any young man could ask for.

And the bramble problem? Nah, the goat idea didn’t work. They couldn’t keep up to the bramble growth. I would’ve needed a hundred goats! And that would have been a gigantic problem!

I had another idea! Hogs! Yeah, that’s the ticket!

But that is another story.

Porcupine! Something even more prickly than brambles!

Written for in January, 2013.

  • Teresa Evangeline

    You are the very definition of persistence. You have so much stamina for this homesteading thing, something that would have sent me screaming into the woods, living in a cave. So glad you kept at it, and are sharing all your adventures now with us. Again, I laughed. In a most affectionate way.

  • Barbara

    Oh my goodness Bill – I agree with Teresa Evengeline – you certainly are persistent. Blackberry brambles have to be among the most wicked of all Gaia’s creations. What was she thinking? Maybe to protect bunnies and small things from bigger critters. But they have produced many a sore footed critter in my household, and almost torn through my jeans. I avoid them now if I can – and there aren’t too many where I travel.

    That was a funny story, I chuckled and then guffawed… you’re becoming a humourist as well as an ecologist! Well done!

  • Wild_Bill

    Like the blackberry I am persistent. But, I no longer have goats. They ate too many of my gardens and I found them another home.

  • Wild_Bill

    The different Rubus species are unique and have many wonderful purposes. I’ve written an article about this for another publication but it will appear here in about a month. Thank you, I’m glad you think I’m funny. I laugh at my own jokes all the time, you can ask my wife, who laughs at me laughing at my own jokes.

  • Montucky

    What a great story, Bill. I got a big kick out of you “butting heads” with the goats! I have had some personal experience with blackberry brambles when I lived in Seattle and not very fondly remember them as the terrorists of the floral world.

  • Annie

    Goats were a part of my childhood as one of my sisters was allergic to cows milk so we had a few goats, to provide us with milk. My sisters and I remember fondly both the goats and their grain, a mix of oats, raisins, molasses and maybe some corn, I can’t remember after all these years but I do remember how we loved to eat their grain and chase and play with the young goats. We even would try to ride them which was never a success but it didn’t stop us from trying. Of course we always did these things when our parents weren’t around. Goats are indeed smart and very stubborn. We always used chain when tethering them. I’m sure you can guess why.

    I can also relate to the blackberry brambles as I have done restoration work with the Nature Conservancy where we try to eliminate growth of non-native species in the hopes that the native species will have a chance to hold its ground. Nasty work and as you found out it can be very frustrating since the canes grow back so quickly. It’s a constant battle. I have since decided that is work for much younger and more determined volunteers than I.

    Great story, had me laughing out loud. Especially loved the part where the nanny gave you the evil eye. I remember that look. It was usually followed by her charging us.

  • CC

    Blackberrry brambles are like our wild roses here it seems. After I clear out the elm tree volunteers, the wild rose canes fill in. This happens in an area where there is fertile ground and ditch irrigation. Connected in deep roots, it did not seem to help when I dug a lot of the rose roots out. A lot of tenacity and patience shown by you long ago, being a homesteader. Satisfyin to be on the land, learning by trial and error, and the days when things work. But even the times when things don’t work, the goats did stay around and your decision to leave them be worked.

  • Wild_Bill

    I’m glad I did’t actually butt heads! Might have hurt! Terrorists of the floral world is a good description.

  • Wild_Bill

    Glad you had fun reading it! brambles are quite valuable for native ecosystems despite their perils!

  • Wild_Bill

    The goats barely kept the brambles at bay. Hogs were used later as amore effective control, but now witHout livestock the prickles have returned! Hans for reading!

  • Guy

    Hi Bill

    A fun story. I guess the moral is goats will do what goats will do.

    You asked for my link.

    All the best


  • Wild_Bill

    Thanks Guy, yes goats have a mind of their own. They do have quirky personalities and can be fun. At least, most of the time!

  • Ellen S

    Loved this amusing tale of man vs. goat. I have never known a goat that couldn’t escape from any enclosure but occasionally still consider getting some goats for weed control. After reading this, maybe I’ll wait another year

  • Wild_Bill

    Thanks for stopping by! Goats are good for weed control. They are also good for cleaning out a garden before it is harvested, flower bed inspections that leave their mark, and leaving little surprises right where you don’t expect them around your yard. Nevertheless, goats are loveable creatures that can entertain you for years. Good luck!

  • Jansen

    Okay, folks keep telling me that we should have goats. (In some ways, I’m now where you were at those years ago). I’m stubborn and sometimes impatient, so your story here, while wildly amusing, gives me several more reasons why I don’t think goats and I should try to coexist on our land. :-) We’re thinking of starting with some chickens, but then I’m going to worry about the coyotes getting them… Eh, I still like these problems better than most that I get paid to solve. :-)

  • Wild_Bill

    Goats are pretty darned smart and good at cleaning out brushy areas but they are also great at escaping fencing/gates and foraging your gardens. Given we grow about half the food we eat goats were not compatible with our gardens. Also, we raised chickens for many years. It wasn’t coyotes that were a problem. Racoons, fisher, and weasels killed off all our flocks several times. If they are locked up tight at night it will lessen the carnage but given we live in a predator heavy area keeping the flock safe is imperative but doable.

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