Thursday, July 1, 2010
I was walking down Berkeley's Wild Cat Canyon road, to my left the grassy hills of Tilden Park and to my right, a series of rustic modern homes perched on the sloping terrain. As I approached a blind curve, I heard a plaintive moan. It was a nasal, insistent, baritone in a pitch not uncommon for a male voice. The sound, however, was not human. And while there are several herds of cows in Tilden park, it wasn't bovine either. The mystery resolved itself when I rounded the bend: Before me was a vast, standing-room-only herd of goats, in the throes of a feeding frenzy. Never mind that the menu consisted of thorns, thistles and knee-high, dry, dead grass. It was an all you can eat buffet.
Fire season is serious business in California. One carelessly tossed cigarette and a brush-covered hillside can burst into flame like a fourth of July sparkler. A sizeable chunk of Oakland, Piedmont and Berkeley was virtually vaporized in the Oakland Fire Storm of 1991. 2,800 homes and all the surrounding old growth vegetation went up in smoke. The neighborhoods have been rebuilt, but they can also be re-burnt if the surrounding hills aren't groomed on a regular basis. Ergo, the goats.
As a fire hazard reduction system, the eco-friendly goat method has really caught on. The tactic is both green and efficient: Four hundred hungry goats can level an acre of vegetation in one day! The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission rents the four-footed mowers to help chew away potentially hazardous vegetation growing too close to their water pipelines. Google uses a herd to trim the open spaces around their headquarters. Even private citizens are going goat. A lady in my business women's networking group recently posted an inquiry for a herd to come chomp on the daunting thistle patches that were encroaching on her property from the hillside behind her house. (Goats don't really eat tin cans, but they are partial to weeds - a belly full of poison oak or poison ivy only leaves them itching for more). She got multiple responses, including a link to Goats R Us, a family business located right here in Orinda.
I don't know exactly where the Goats R Us folks have their farm, but I have seen their herd in action at Briones Regional Park. They employ a goatherd who stays on site, in a shabby old trailer. He works with a pair of energetic and ostensibly Spanish-speaking border collies. If the goats begin to stray, he grunts something en espanol, and the dogs spring into action. When the hillside has been thoroughly cut back, the goats are carted off to do their baaaaaaaad thing somewhere else.
Goats live about as long as dogs do, and when they get to be a decade or so old, they're not so keen on boarding a truck to go grazing. Goats R Us pampers their old nannies and billies, whom they affectionately refer to as retirees, and put them out to pasture close to home. This is kinder than what is happening in a lot of Bay area restaurants, where ( sorry, vegans) goat meat is all the rage. I had cabra stew once in Mexico and it was not an experience I am anxious to duplicate. Goat cheese is another story. As proud as I am of my French heritage, I have to admit that Californians make some damn fine goat cheese. Humboldt Fog by Cypress Grove Chevre, has plenty of character. Redwood Hill Farms makes a great French style "crottin" and their website is fun to visit, although the use of Vivaldi for their video tour is slightly, if appropriately, cheesy.
So next time you find yourself at a petting zoo, give that little goat an extra handful of pellets to say thank you. For its meat and milk. For mohair, alpaca and pashima. And for helping the State of California keep the annual fire season under control.
I once dated a guy who looked like this.
Goats in the Smithsonian