Published in the March/April 2021 Issue of Memento Mori 

By Susan Cushing 

The Historical Congressional Cemetery is a serene, pastoral setting and the final resting place for such notable figures as former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Philip Barbour, and Vice President Elbridge Gerry (co-signer of the Declaration of Independence). Established before the Civil War and recognized as the only American “cemetery of national memory,” obviously this Washington, D.C., site is steeped in history. But while the roots may stretch across centuries, those who are entrusted with its care are very progressive, modern thinkers. 

According to Paul Williams, president of the Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery (APHCC), the mission is “to preserve, promote, and protect this National Historic Landmark. “A significant part of preservation includes addressing the ever-present issue of invasive plant removal and weed management.  

“We have a wooded area just outside our fence with all sorts of English Ivy, Poison Ivy, and other vines that are killing the trees and then the trees fall into the cemetery,” explains Paul. “We were facing an ever-growing battle and wanted to find an alternative to the more invasive removal efforts involving the use of chemicals and mechanical equipment, which are both expensive and with possible negative impact on the nearby Anacostia River as well as our visitors and employees.” Of course, Paul added, “we also had to consider protecting the integrity of the historic monuments.” 

The solution was nothing short of inspiring and perfectly “green.” 

For the Love of Poison Ivy 

“We’d heard of people using goats to maintain overgrown landscaping,” says Paul. “Once we connected with Mary Bowen, owner of Browsing Green Goats, the rest, as they say, is history.” 

And so, they came! A tribe of eager, little billies and nannies happily chomping down everything that was causing problems for the cemetery, including the notorious Poison Ivy. 

“Actually, goats head for the Poison Ivy first,” says Paul. “They’ll go all through the woods to seek out and eat that first and then go after the other encroaching vines climbing the trees. What’s interesting is, their digestive system is such that the seeds will not germinate once they pass through their system.” 

Paul explains that the weeds are relentless, but the goats keep it all at bay. “For instance, if we were to go in and hack it all down, it would take just one season on the ground and it would all grow right back,” he adds. “[The goats are] certainly benefit. And they are climbers, so they were very thorough. Everything from about 10 feet down was bare. We were thrilled with the results.” 

Not only is this option environmentally friendly, it’s also extremely cost-effective for a nonprofit organization.  

“First of all, with goats you don’t have any union issues,” Paul jokes. “If you break it down though, with a herd of 30 goats, it comes out to about $1 an hour per goat!” 

An Amazing Grazing Match  

Equally happy is the “goat-whisperer” herself. A passionate environmentalist, Mary Bowen and her family have lived, owned, and nurtured the lush land known as Prosperity Acres in Sunderland, MD, for about 30 years.  

As her interest and concern for protecting the environment grew, in particular, for the waterways that surround her area, Mary began to explore advantages to using her goats. With the help and mentorship of a local professor, who has conducted extensive studies on the subject, Mary decided to venture into this new enterprise. 

“We all want to be responsible for our environment especially from at-will use of herbicides,” Mary says. “Rather than use herbicides that inevitably end up contaminating our water, the goats offer a wonderful alternative to battling the invasive plants and they have a great time doing it. Plus, they leave a helpful fertilizer. As the goats graze, they eat and digest, leaving a natural source of nitrogen and enriching the ground.”  

For Washington, D.C., residents and other visitors to the historic cemetery, the sight of goats was so surprising and unexpected that the response was overwhelming. “There was so much interest and excitement around this event,” says Paul, “everyone seemed to love the idea. Based on this response, we talked to Mary and her daughter, Jacqueline, about the idea of hosting a Goat Yoga event.  

“Wouldn’t you know, Goat Yoga turned out to be a hit. “I was delighted with the turnout for that!” Paul recalls. “Not only did we bring attention to our beloved grounds but raised a significant amount of money for the ongoing efforts to maintain and preserve this sacred place,” he adds. “We’re very proud of our unique events. Dog-walking was one of the earliest and almost self-created. Today, with roughly 800 dogs and 600 humans strolling through here annually, it translates into almost $250,000 for our nonprofit.” 

With so many popular events, the cemetery continues to draw sizeable crowds. “We’re always looking for ways to honor this historic place and keep our coffers full enough to be able to provide the care and maintenance it and those laid-to-rest here deserve,” says Paul. “Our events always draw a crowd, but I’d have to say, the goats have been the biggest crowd-pleasers.” 

Susan Cushing is a freelance writer for Memento Mori.