Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ol' Man River and The Lonely Goatherd

Over on FAD, Brett Milligan has been dutifully documenting a delightful little landscape intervention in downtown Portland, starring a vacant lot and a flock of goats.  Realizing that the property owner is required by the city to keep the lot mowed, FAD brokered a deal between the owner and a goatherd owner to have the lot mown by goats.  It is something that has evidently delighted passersby and is a great little study in landscape ecology, landscape management, and the social life of small urban spaces.

Goats and people share a long, tortured history in the landscape mythologies, stretching back to the kingdoms of the ancient near east and including the unforgettable lonely goatherd.  To dig into one of these a bit more here on our own side of the Atlantic, we dispatched southern correspondent H. Willis Montcrief down the Mississippi to the New Orleans, Louisiana.  The following is what he came back with.
[the sweet, sweet lonely goatherd, heading to New Orleans]


Down here in New Orleans, everyone knows 'bout the mess created by the city and the Army Corps of Engineers in the 20th century, culminatin' in the Katrina fiasco in 2005.  A lotta folks had their lives uprooted, and lot made money writin' books about it since then.  The thing is, as some 'a them writers noted, in a certain manner of thinkin' the catastrophe was man-made, and the politically motivated flood-defense system for Ol' Man River was a big reason for it.  That system has been updated and changed through the years with new landscape infrastructures, includin' the Bonnet Carre Spillway.  And it's there that we find our goat story.

A coupla' quick things:  as geographer Richard Campanella has noted, the Ol' Man is a "great land-makin' machine", like a garden hose sprayin' middle America back and forth across the Gulf.  You can see this by lookin' at a map an' noticin' how the edge of Louisiana is all jagged and hangs out into the Gulf a' Mexico.  The land of New Orleans is real young, only about 10,000 years old, and the River woulda' switched course down the Atchafalaya River fifty years ago if it had its way, but the Army Corps built the giant Old River Control Structure and changed that.  That's nothin' if not impressive.

In 1927, the Great Flood gave impetus to the Corps line the River with levees and freeze New Orleans where it was, the result of decades of planning.  So be it.  But this decision had some real deleterious effects on the larger delta, robbing it of fresh water and sediment and allowing salt water from the gulf to push into the marshes, killing the cypress swamps that were previously a great buffer from gulf storms.  It also required more constructions in the name of taming the Ol' Man:  the Davis Diversion project, the Old River Control Structure, and the Bonnet Carre Spillway.  
[the Old River Control Structure, where the Atchafalaya and Mississippi River meet]

The Bonnet Carre Spillway
The Bonnet Carre came about as a result of the realization that the levees-only flood-defense system was not sufficient:  during big floods the water couldn't get through the channelized river bed fast enough and would threaten the levees near New Orleans.  In 1927 the levee below New Orleans had to be dynamited to save the city, consequently destroying the poorer St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes, an injury that is still smartin'.  The Army Corps realized they needed a pressure release valve.  So they built the Bonnet Carre.
[the river levee being dynamited in 1927, washing out St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parish below New Orleans]

The Bonnet Carre is located at the site of previous breaches of the natural levees- it's one spot where the river wants to jumps its banks.  It is a massive dike system of 350 identical bays with timber 'fingers' and guide levees that shunt flood waters inta Lake Pontchartrain.  During a flood, the Mississippi River Channel can move 1,250,000 cubic feet of water per second without jumpin' its banks or breakin' a levee.  The Bonnet Carret adds 250,000 cfs to this capacity.  It also creates a strange hybrid landscape.  Ya' see, the spillway has only been significantly opened seven times- about once a decade.  In the meantime, it is a low-lyin' spot between the River and the Lake that has to be kept mown in order that flow between the two can be kept clear.  Yearly 'leakage events', where the Army Corps pulls a few 'fingers' in some of the bays, allow a little bit of the annual spring floods into the spillway to replenish the water and sediment.  The result is a landscape maintained in a perpetual state of semi-flood, a patchwork of grassland, scrubby swamp, ponds, and channels.

But there's a problem.  The Spillway is over 7,000 acres!  And given its geographic location- the rich, humid Delta- all manner of vegetation is constantly bursting forth- it'd be a jungle in a decade.  Well, back in the early 40's when petrol was more expensive and machines a little more rough, the Army Corps decided to try usin' goats for the task.  They put 6,000 out on the spillway and let 'em roam.  In the 1941 Guide to the State, we can see that there spillway "has been set aside as a game preserve and is reverting to a wild state, and ponds of water remaining after the [flood] waters receded have become good fishing spots.  More than 6,000 goats have been turned loose in the spillway between US 51-61-65 and Lake Pontchartrain to eat the grass and weeds that would otherwise retard the flow of water."

Word has it, the Bonnet Carre goats met their untimely end a few years later when the river flooded and the goats refused to get their feet wet for a meal.  I reckon they starved to death by the time the flood waters receded in the spillway.
[the Bonnet Carre spillway]

The lonely, poor goatherds of Central Park
I reckon the utility of goats had been known for a while.  Not only are they domesticated and willing to eat almost anything, their four-chambered stomachs break down all that fibrous stuff  they come across and make it into rich fertilizer.  But this utility is also bad.  In Rosenzweig's story of Central Park we can read how a New York Times reporter in 1856 "described the residents [of the lands to become Central Park] as 'principally Irish families' living in 'rickety... little one storie [sic] shanties... inhabited by four or five persons, not including the pigs and the goats.  The park site allowed Irish immigrants, many of whom came from rural areas, to grow food or keep hogs and goats as they had back home."  Keepin' pigs and goats, while pretty hip these day, was not urbane in the 1850's.  
[goats are out, bush hogs are in]

Recreation and Spectacle- basically, an Urban Park
Today, the Spillway is a big-time recreation destination; mostly anglers, hunters, and atv riders- sportsmen.  Yearly 'leakage events' through the spillway are engineered to replenish ponds and swamps here with water and sediments, and when needed the Bonnet Carre stands ready to move water at 250,000 cubic feet per second from the River to Lake Pontchartrain.  Historically this happens about once every ten years, and every opening is an event:  men marvel, women gasp, children frolic about.  The news media descends and fireworks are shot off from the NORCO petroleum refinery on the banks of the river (I made one of those things up).  It's a real spectacle:  people controllin' nature, as long as nature has no objections, that is.
[goats in a vacant lot in Portland; image from FAD]

SO, there's a couple of things that grab my attention.  This notion of spectacle and recreation is exactly what FAD's got goin' on up in Portland.  Of course, up there it's a byproduct of a useful strategy and it's in exactly the opposite context- the goats are a strikin' contrast to the rubble-strewn vacant lot and surrounding city.  Here at the Bonnet Carre, the scale is so vast and everywhere is petroleum plants, cypress swamps, earthen levees, and the Ol' Man.  But, imagine 6,000 of those furry little fellers moving around on the high ground, munchin' and gruntin' en masse!  You come upon 'em in your atv and as you fly by they casually look up, grinnin' and chewin'.  Spectacular.

The second notion that crosses our mind is that of efficiency.  When the first herd of goats died and post-war gas prices went down, they were replaced with machines and petroleum in the name of efficiency.  But efficiency, like design, is really a question of perspective and values.  Sure, it takes goats a while longer to mow 7,000 acres than it might a bush hog, but their four-chambered stomachs process the vegetation more thoroughly than simply chopping it with a quickly spinnin' steel blade.

The Army Corps dismisses the demise of the goats as an experiment in maladaptation.  This justifies the change in policy to reliance on cheap fuel and machines.  But perhaps their untimely demise is more a question of proper management- would it take much to have an elevated pen to keep them in when the spillway was flooded each spring?  Goats are probably not always the best option.  But there is also no reason (other than stupidity) that stupid machines and cheap fuel should be defaulted to.  At times, goats would likely be much more economical environmental management regime, in addition to the social and fertilization benefits they may offer.  And at the Bonnet Carre, when they have to be rounded up for the 'leakage events' and floods, perhaps they can be put to work on the myriad vacant lots that pepper New Orleans, FAD-style.  
[john darnielle wants you to use more goats]

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