Just outside the city center of Minneapolis, Cedar Lake East Beach lies nestled along a wooded shoreline, secluded from the public eye by train tracks and a tangle of leafy residential streets. A summer day at this party spot—known locally as "Hidden Beach"—will see dreamy hula hoopers, lounging families, Rastas, fire dancers, and, ideally, the Mud Man, all coexisting beneath wandering clouds of Purple Kush.
One Friday afternoon I explored the woods at Hidden Beach with Jesse Dale, an employee of Diversity Landworks, a forestry service that operates throughout the Upper Midwest. Dale wanted to introduce me to his team of contract workers, who were taking part in an experimental program to rid the parkland of buckthorn, an invasive shrub that erodes the soil along the forest floor. Drawn by their plangent bleating, we found them in a newly cleared elm thicket: 56 Kiko goats, thigh-high and butter-colored, bent to the work of extirpation.
Hidden Beach is frequented by members of the traveler and gutter punk scene, and in a certain light, Dale could have been mistaken for one of their tribe, with blonde dreadlocks tucked under a cap, formerly gauged earlobes, and a lip disc. He had hopped freight trains in recent years, he told me, seeing the country with friends and sleeping in the open air, but he was happy working now for Diversity Landworks as an urban goatherd, a job that complemented his genial and contemplative nature. As we toured the buckthorn removal site, a summer snowstorm of white cottonwood fluff drifted through the elms. Two young goats were grappling and play-fighting nearby, while several other members of the herd ambled over to observe us, heads cocked alertly. The rest munched leaves and stripped bark. Throughout the glade, buckthorn demolition continued apace.
Dale was proud of his charges. Just four days into the project, they were already well ahead of schedule. As we surveyed the site, he explained how the goats worked in concert to attack the buckthorn. One or two of the older females would climb onto a tree and bend it over, allowing the younger animals to strip leaves they couldn't reach on their own. This specific team was comprised almost entirely of females and kids, with just a few wethers—castrated males—included in the herd. Intact males, Dale explained, were counterproductive to a project like this, known as "prescribed browsing." They were intensely odoriferous (the result of pheromones and the practice of dousing themselves in their own urine), and could distract females from the work with aggressive rutting behavior.
Diversity Landworks is part of a burgeoning cohort of agribusinesses that use goats to solve specific land-management problems. In the South, their target is invasive kudzu; in the West, goats are often used to create firebreaks; and along the Eastern Seaboard, teams of caprine commandos were dispatched after Hurricane Sandy to eat through organic debris. In Minneapolis, where the parkland is too dense for a prescribed burn, and often too steep to haul in stump grinding equipment, Jesse Dale and the goat patrol present an elegant and herbicide-free solution to buckthorn. The goats find even the most abrasive plants alluring, having evolved in arid environments where spiky flora are the norm.
One night, I returned to visit Dale, who was living in the woods with the herd throughout their contract at Hidden Beach. It was approaching midnight when I texted him from the edge of the elm thicket. A moment later, I followed the glow of his phone as it bobbed through the bosky darkness like a firefly. Dale emerged from the gloom trailed by several Kiko goats, who took in my presence through uncanny rectangular pupils and then wandered off to a late buckthorn snack.
Dale and I made our way across a tangle of roots and fallen deadwood to his camp, where he had a hammock strung between trees, a tarp, and a low smoldering campfire. A multi-colored knot of Christmas lights—solar-powered—hung from beneath the tarp and served as a mellow deep-woods reading lamp. As we sat beside the campfire, Dale talked me through his daily routine. Throughout the day, he checked the fences to make sure there were no breaches, did occasional head counts, attended to the goats' water supply, and generally looked after the animals' well-being. He had also become, to his own surprise, an easygoing ambassador for the goat patrol, which drew many inquisitive beachgoers to the fence. "Normally I'm super shy and reserved," he said, "but here it's been Blah, blah, blah, goats, goats, goats. It's been really fun to talk to people."
At night, the main concern was security. Hidden Beach had been nude-friendly back in the 1980s, and it retained a shaggy bohemian vigor into the present day: At dusk, stoned fire dancers often whirled amid a network of double- and triple-decker hammocks strung between the trees. A similar goat treatment had been attempted in the neighboring city of St. Paul, but one of the goats was abducted in the night (and later safely recovered following a police chase). Dale intended to see that no such hircine hijackings occurred on his watch.
Once darkness fell and the goats settled in for the evening, Dale said, he would cook a small meal, often with foraged ingredients (his dinner that night featured nettles paired with spikenard tea), and then strum his guitar or read. During his time at Hidden Beach, a handful of intruders hopped the double fence, but he had no major confrontations. Most people he caught were apologetic and vaguely embarrassed, some were drunk, and everyone left peacefully, disarmed by his amiable demeanor.
The night I visited to discuss goat herding techniques, no one tried to sneak in. The woods were pacific. Our conversation was scored by the chirping of tree frogs, the hum of insects, and the soft lapping of Cedar Lake. Eventually it was time for me to go, and, as Dale escorted me to the tree line, a cadre of goats joined us, trundling and snapping through the darkness. They watched me impassively at the fence, then returned to the woods and hunkered down to sleep.