It was, as they say, a ritual. Sunday meant church, a change of clothes and a relaxed dinner. Sometimes it meant football and other times a bit of yard work but always, if the weather allowed, it meant a drive in the country.
Even without a visit to nearby grandparents, there were excuses to be out and about. There was growing corn that needed checking, bittersweet to be cut from the ditches, fresh gravel to be tested. In spring, we looked for the first robin. In autumn, the last leaves swirled and scudded like vast, colorful clouds while we counted the bundles of snow fence waiting along the shoulders of the road. “They’ve got more fence out than usual,” my dad would say. “Must be expecting a hard winter.”
On the rare afternoons when corn, cattails or bittersweet failed to entertain, we’d read the Burma Shave signs or “collect” out-of-state license plates. There went “Minnesota”, a common enough sight. Here came “Illinois”, a reminder of far-away relatives. “But look!” I squealed from the back seat. “Montana!” We might as well have discovered a Bedouin galumphing through Iowa on his camel.
In the midst of all the looking-about, my mother always was ready with her cue. “Have you seen a purple cow?” Dissolving into giggles, I’d hang over the car’s front seat and recite Gelett Burgess’ poem:
I never saw a purple cow,
I never hope to see one.
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I’d rather see than be one.
At the time, I knew nothing of the poem’s history. Burgess published it in 1895 in the first issue of The Lark, a small magazine he began after leaving the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley under dubious circumstances. An MIT graduate, Burgess had traveled west to take a job as draftsman for the Southern Pacific Railroad. Hired by UC Berkeley as an instructor of topographical drawing, he became involved in the toppling of one of temperance crusader Henry Cogswell’s free water fountains – a prank that either did or didn’t cost him dearly, depending on your perspective.
Cogswell himself was an interesting sort. Convinced that the availability of free ice water would reduce the consumption of Demon Rum, he’d made it his mission to donate public fountains here and there around the country. San Francisco had three, all of which had been targets of petty vandalism. In the early hours of January 1, 1894, things became more serious. As the San Francisco Morning Call reported,
Some iconoclastic spirits, probably made bold by too freely indulging in the convivialities of New Year’s day, found vent for their destructive proclivities in the small hours of the morning yesterday. With the greatest deliberation, apparently, a rope was coiled around the mock presentment of Dr. Cogswell and with a strong pull, and all together, he was toppled from his fountain pedestal at the Junction of California and Market streets.
Burgess was suspected to be involved in the caper. The suspicion contributed to his resignation from the University, a turn of events also reported by The Morning Call on March 10, 1894, and made effective at the end of the year.
The good news, of course, was that Burgess had been freed to create The Lark and compose “The Purple Cow”, both of which were received with as much amusement and bemusement as Cogswell’s water fountains.
According to the New York Critic, “The faddists have produced some extraordinary things in the way of literature, but nothing more freakish has made its appearance in the last half century than The Lark”. The St. Louis Mirror added, ” The Lark continues to be odd and ridiculous. Its humor is quite unlike any other humor ever seen in this country. There are good men with good pens working on The Lark” . Less enthusiastic, the Richmond Times demurred. “We do not understand upon what the editor of The Lark bases anticipation of interest and consequent demand.”
Whatever Burgess anticipated, he clearly wasn’t prepared for the popularity of his poem. After two years, he’d become heartily sick of “The Purple Cow” and composed a new verse entitled “Confession: and a Portrait Too, Upon a Background that I Rue” (The Lark, Number 24, April 1, 1897).
Ah, yes, I wrote the “Purple Cow”–
I’m sorry, now, I wrote it!
But I can tell you anyhow,
I’ll kill you if you quote it.
Unlike Burgess, I never tired of “The Purple Cow”. I quoted it with abandon, and if my parents tired of my recitations, they never let on. As time passed, I became convinced that somewhere, in some verdant field among the Herefords, Angus and Guernseys, a Purple Cow was grazing. I intended to find it.
Of course I never saw a purple cow, and I forgot Burgess’ poem until recently, when a friend and I drove down to Galveston to ride the Bolivar Ferry. Despite decades in the area, she’d never made the trip to the Bolivar Penninsula and hadn’t experienced any of its delights – dolphins surfing the pressure waves of vessels in the Houston ship channel, the old Bolivar lighthouse, fishermen clustered at Rollover Pass, the beach encampments stretching for miles.
As we made our way down the Penninsula, chatting about the sights and the still-visible effects of Hurricane Ike, we discovered neither of us had been to the Anahuac Wildlife Refuge. Following a pair of signs, we found our way to the refuge and stopped at the tiny office. A congenial volunteer with a British accent offered us fresh coffee, an assortment of guide books and helpful maps of the extensive marshes, ponds, sloughs, salt cedars and bayous.
After a walk through the butterfly garden and an all-too-close encounter with a snake, we set off by car to explore the loop road around Shoveler Pond. Stopping at a ditch to look at a particularly lush assortment of wildflowers, my eye was caught by flash of magenta.
“Look at this!” I said, pointing to the iridescent beauty that had paused atop a bent reed. “Have you ever seen a purple dragonfly?” She hadn’t. “Well,” I said. “We’ll have to figure out what it is.”
Later, using “magenta” as a search term led me to the crimson dropwing, a dragonfly native to the Indian subcontinent. Excited by the possibility of a rare sighting, I searched for confirmation of its identity using Odonata Central, an information clearinghouse for dragon-and-damselflies. The truth, I found, was rather more pedestrian. My friend and I had bumped into a roseate skimmer, native to our Southern states and entirely common.
Initially I was disappointed, unwilling to let go of the excitement of finding a rarity – my very own Purple Cow of a dragonfly. Then, I stopped to reconsider. In the context of my experience, this roseate skimmer was rare. Until that day I’d never seen one, and I’ve seen a lot of dragonflies. For all I knew, thousands of roseate skimmers could be cruising the Texas marshes, eliciting nothing more than a yawn from dragonfly enthusiasts. But this was my roseate skimmer, and a treasure he was.
When I imagine that glimmering jewel of an insect skimming through its day, hovering above the still marsh-waters to admire his reflected image, I wonder – what other unexpected treasures might heaven and earth contain?
I suppose to one degree or another we’re all Horatios – our vision imperfect, our grasp of the world’s wonders limited. Still, we may have the last laugh on Burgess. Just over the ridge, out of sight, flank-deep in fields of unimaginably rich grasses, they stand there among the Herefords, the Angus and the Guernseys – waiting to be discovered.
I’ve not yet seen those Purple Cows,
but now I’ve grown more wise.
They won’t be hidden – not at all! -
if we open up our eyes.