Purple Cows on Parade

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.

Many thanks to Lois Allison, who allowed use of her watercolor – possibly the best “Purple Cow” on the web. You can visit her site at Allison Fine Art.
To leave a comment or respond, just click below. And please – No Reblogging. Thanks!

103 thoughts on “Purple Cows on Parade

    1. Julie,

      Glad you enjoyed it. I must confess – I have no trouble at all seeing Woodroffe hanging out with a purple cow. I think they’d make a marvelous pair!


  1. I think I may have heard modified versions of The Purple Cow, but certainly never its history. I appreciate the context of your rare dragonfly — it’s certainly rare to me!

    1. nikkipolani,

      I’d never heard the history, either. And I’m not certain our version was exactly like the original. But it always was a lot of fun, and it was funny to me that it came to mind as soon as I saw the dragonfly. Never mind what still is lurking around in the world – I wonder what else is lurking in the depths of my mind!


  2. I agree with jmgoyder! I savored every sentence! Great narrative.
    I also agree that Lois Allison’s watercolor is incredible! Of course I visited her site!

    What a great bed-time story.. I am going to sleep now, and perhaps I’ll dream of purple cows!


    1. Z,

      Vibrant color is great no matter which form it takes – molas or moo-cows! I wish my friend and I could have gotten a better picture of the dragonfly, but of course the first order of business was to get any picture at all. They’re active little creatures, although this one did seem more willing than usual to hang around on his reed.

      I hope your dream-field was filled with purple cows – or something equally pretty and fun!


      1. thanks! i loved the image of the dragonfly! yes, any picture at all helps one identify something later.

        it’s been a great day – i worked outside for a few hours then painting bodega walls – am about to upgrade to a large studio!


          1. si.. i marveled today that i feel as if i have never been sick! it’s amazing – as fast as it hit, it seemed to have zapped back into never never land. i will still see a specialist at the end of the month.

            ah, the studio is going to be so great! i love it already!

            thanks, amiga!

  3. I heard snippets from a story on NPR about the monarch butterfly and its travels from one far place on the planet to another one many many miles away. It’s amazing that you can come across an insect that spent its life far away in India.

    1. Snoring Dog Studio,

      Now and then, I’ve been in the right place to see the Monarch migration across Texas. It’s an amazing sight, for sure. I saw another migration of small yellow butterflies when I lived in Liberia. It was even more impressive, lasting three full days. Those butterflies traveled more compactly than the Monarchs, too – it was like seeing a yellow ribbon pulled through the air.

      Thanks for stopping by, and for reminding me of those marvelous butterflies!


    2. Here’s a link to that NPR story (which is about a new IMAX 3D movie about the Canadian scientists who, in the 1970s, first located the Monarch butterflies’ Mexican destination).

      From NPR:

      “The migration of the monarch butterfly is a staggering natural phenomenon. It takes two or three generations for the creatures to make their way north to Canada — but then one ‘supergeneration’ makes the 2,000-mile trip back to Mexico for the winter.”

      1. Al,

        The story is beautiful and stunning and so fraught with anxiety. Loss of habitat for these beautiful creatures is a terrible problem, from the loss of midwestern milkweek to clear-cutting in Mexico. Every time I see one of these clips about them, I’m moved to tears. Part of it’s amazement at the beauty and complexity of their life, but a good part of it is just frustration and anger at people who so blithely assume human gain always is better than the loss of a species.

        The phrase “tipping point” seems much in vogue these days. I think we’re closer than we realize with the Monarchs.

        Thanks for bringing the link – it’s a wonderful film that helps to make the story real.


  4. Those of us of a “certain age” fondly remember the Sunday drive. Before we moved to Cape Cod when I was 12 we lived outside of Boston. In the Fall we’d take Sunday drives up into New Hampshire to gaze in wonder at the foliage. Now, in the Fall the television stations have segments during the foliage season that show where the colors are the best each week.

    We also took longer trips, too. Trips to Cincinnati, Ohio, Washington, D.C., and Gettysburg stand out to this day. Back then the Interstate system was just getting started so you drove down what are now secondary roads and through the small towns along the way. While we checked out license plates there was one game my brothers and I never tired of. The “Alphabet” game. Starting with the letter A (no Sesame Street then) you’d look for signs that had a word that started with an “A.” Then for a “B” and so on through the alphabet. The letter “Q” was exempt although you got extra points if you found one, and at the end as you went through a town you kept your eye peeled looking for a store that sold televisions for one that sold Zenith sets.

    Now, sadly, people get in their cars, get on the Interstate and zip past all that. Sigh!

    1. oldsalt,

      Here’s the important question – where did your Sunday drives end? We almost always stopped at the A&W Rootbeer Stand, or Hesse’s Ice Cream Parlor. It’s funny that for all the Purple Cow poetry I spouted, I never heard of Purple-Cow-the-Drink until about two years ago. I think it might have been an Eastern thing.

      It is amazing to realize we saw the beginnings of the interstate system. Even if we took an Iowa “highway”, they were two-lane, narrow things that had concrete gutters. On the other hand, the posted speed limit was “Reasonable and Proper”. Can you imagine? As the driver, you got to make the decision about your speed. If you got stopped, you and the officer talked it over. How quaint!

      We never played the alphabet game – that would have been a good one.We did sing, though, especially around the holiday season. “Jingle Bells” always was a big hit. ;)

      Today, people not only get on the interstates and zip past most of what’s worth looking at, they tend to do it plugged into their i-whatevers, completely isolated from their traveling companions. We may not have been so sophisticated, but we surely had fun!


      1. You know, I was trying to remember, earlier, about where we ended up and I don’t have a clue. I remember a trip to Franconia Notch in New Hampshire to see the Old Man of the Mountain (now slid into oblivion) and we must have stayed somewhere but I can’t remember any of the overnight stops.

        The only one I DO remember was shortly after my dad got back from the Pacific when the war was over. We took a trip up into Quebec and the Gaspe Peninsula. I do remember spending one night in a hotel with a feather pillow and the damned feathers kept sticking through the ticking and I pulled dozens of them out in the dark.

        I also remember one awfully rainy day. We stopped at a small store to get something to eat, and I remember a girl, probably a little older than myself (I was about six at the time) coming out into the store, dragging a chair over to a telephone mounted on the wall. One of those old-fashioned phones with the separate ear piece. She got up on the chair to make the call and I vividly remember she had a HUGE scab on her knee from a recent fall. For some reason girl’s scabs were always much more gruesome than boy’s scabs. My mom, with her little bit of high school French, got us some crackers, cheese and sardines and we went out to eat them in the car. The sardines were huge and boney and, well, still possessing a good portion of their innards. I didn’t eat another sardine for probably half a century.

        1. You’ve just solved a mystery for me. I have a pair of earrings I love beyond words, but the stone’s uncommon, I forgot the name of it, and haven’t been able to find it among all the peridots and emeralds that google coughs up when I search for “green stones”. Now I remember: gaspeite, from the Gaspé penninsula.

          I’m not sure I ever heard about the Old Man of the Mountain. I I don’t even remember hearing about his demise, and that was in 2003. It’s amazing that a rock formation like that can be just as much “now you see it, now you don’t” as a dragonfly.

          As for those sardines – I’ve never been much of a fan, myself. At least in Liberia they were smoked, and usually in some sort of sauce. On the other hand, their name told the tale: “boneys”.

  5. I went to a prairie conference in Minnesota a few years ago, and a group of us Texans spotted a Bald eagle on the cliff overlooking the Mississippi. We were so excited and awe inspired that the tour we were on all of a sudden had no interest to us.

    A lady asked us what were we looking at and we excitedly said a Bald Eagle!! Her response was “ah they’re like sparrows”. Our visible excitement diminished a bit not wanting to embarrass our State by bad behavior, but internally feeling giddy. As we went back to the tour another woman Said ” I’m sorry I didn’t know that you had never seen a bald eagle before I would have lent you my binoculars”.

    I give a lot of tours of the Nash Prairie to people who have never seen a prairie and I always try to be like the women who offered her binoculars. Even though I have seen Indian grass a thousand times now, I still remember the first time I walked on the Prairie and how giddy I felt. I am also aware of how fragile this island earth our home is and a lot of what we might see seems common place but in the big picture could be rare and becoming more rare. I have had people come all the way from Illinois just to see our common wildflower pink buttercup.
    Wonderful article !!
    Susan Conaty

    1. Susan,

      When I was a kid in Iowa, sometimes we’d do longer trips than our “Sunday afternoon drives”, and one of our favorite destinations was the Mississippi between Davenport and Dubuque. It was a wonderful place to see fall foliage. Now and then, we’d see the eagles, too, and it always was exciting.

      Even when we “know” something exists, actually experiencing it can be extraordinary. My fourth grade teacher read every book in the “Little House on the Prairie” series to us. I have a photo of relatives in their sod shanty in Nebraska. Other kinfolk moved to Saskatchewan, and lived as “sod-busters” – the three or four photos I have of them on the Canadian prairie show a life so far removed from mine they might as well have been on Mars.

      But when I finally got to the piece of blackland prairie (in Collin County) very near to where my great-great-grandmother camped, east of Melissa, it was quite a different experience. It’s marvelous to see the flowers and grasses – it’s even better to know I’m seeing them much as my grandmother did in the 1880s.

      One of the things I liked best about Anahuac was a board in the little office where people could record what they’d seen during their visit. It serves as a record, but also alerts people to things they might expect to see. Now that I’ve identified the dragonfly, I’m going to call them and give them the date and location for it. It’s a little like passing the binoculars!


  6. It is all new and rare to the person who has never seen it before. Though it be as common as grains of sand on the beach it does not diminish the excitement for the viewer. I am often excited by the things I find in my new environment… rare or no, they are new to me! And. by proxy, I share your excitement in discovering a roseate skimmer. I never knew they existed till now. Gorgeous!
    Great story and writing, Linda.

    1. Lynda,

      You should keep your eye out for the roseate skimmer, as you’re included in their range – California to Florida, and as far north as the Carolinas. One interesting detail – they tend to fly at midday, when other species are less active. That’s exactly when we saw our little fellow – apparently we can add roseate skimmers to Mad Dogs and Englishmen as lovers of the mid-day sun.

      Your point about things being new and rare to someone who’s getting their first glimpse is so true. I still remember the first time I saw water striders in a small fern-draped pool in the hill country. Watching them scoot across the surface of the water fascinated me. And now, thanks to the wonders of our web, we can see how they do it..

      I’m glad you enjoyed the story!


  7. Linda, I always enjoy your posts because they mix together so many things that I love: a good growing-up story, place details, little known facts, poetry, and wonder. Per your roseate skimmer, I had a similar experience with a sooty wing butterfly last spring. First excitement, then disappointment at its commonness, but then appreciation. Any day I come to know the world a little more deeply, after all, is something to hold up in happiness.

    1. Emily,

      My favorite aunt lived in New York, but came back to Iowa each year for extended visits. I’d always go to my grandparents’ while she was around, and we’d have fine times together. After breakfast was eaten and the dishes done, she’d say, “Well. Shall we go see what we can see?” Off we’d go, with no expectation but great anticipation.

      I’d come back from our trips with catalpa beans, huge sycamore leaves, colored rocks, an old railroad spike. Some of those things were as common as your sooty wing, but I was happy, and I was learning something important: perfectly ordinary often is more memorable than imperfectly extraordinary. ;)


  8. Good morning, what a delightful post, Although i have two cows neither of them are purple, however i might pop out and recite this to them anyway! Lovely.. c

    1. cecilag,

      Welcome to my blog! I’ve been over at your little home on the web, enjoying myself beyond words. Personally, I think you’re right that an additional Jersey would be the proper addition to your herd. I get my milk from an all Jersey herd, and it’s the best in the world!

      I may try that Dutch apple pie, too – it’s almost baking season here. I tend not to turn the oven on during the heat of the summer. It isn’t just the added heat, it’s that so many things prepared in the oven don’t appeal when it’s so hot.

      The nice thing about the Purple Cow poem is that it’s quite flexible – I’m sure you could come up with some verses just for your darlings!

      Thanks for stopping by, and for the comment. You’re welcome any time.


    1. Gary,

      I’ve been thinking this over. It might be easier to go with a can or two of Krylon. I can just see you – on a dead run across the pasture behind that cow, spraying away. ;)

      Glad you enjoyed the tale. I do think you ought to paint a cow. That would be the kind of story Leon Hale might tell. I can’t think of anything better than being a character in one of his stories.


  9. Well, I can only say that a roseate skimmer ain’t common to me! You had me going down memory lane there, BTW, right from the get-go, with those Burma shave signs. I haven’t been to Montana, but I’ll never forget going west on I-80 from Illinois during college, through Iowa, Nebraska, and into Colorado. As the sun rose, we had our first glimpse of the Rockies, and beneath them a diner over which presided a couple right out of Grant Wood’s American Gothic. Purple cow after purple cow, and every one a treasure.

    1. Susan,

      Even minus the roseate skimmer, New York has some delights – the variable dancer, powdered dancer, ebony jewelwing and lancet clubtail among others. I found the best article called Flying Jewels of New York . There’s a photo of the variable dancer – believe it or not, it’s a true purple!

      Depending on the year of your trip across I-80, I might have been sitting on our front steps, listening to you go by. We weren’t very far from the interstate, and as much as people can’t believe it now, those new roads were romantic and appealing. I’d hear the trucks, especially, and imagine Nebraska, Colorado, California. I didn’t necessarily want to BE there, I just wanted to GO there – to be part of that great parade of covered station wagons heading West.

      I think most of us are a little like that bear – we want to go over the mountain, just to see what we can see. The marvel is that there’s so much worth seeing – most of which we’ve never imagined.


  10. What a pretty purple cow! I love the history of the verse – which we used to chop up & serve with different animals or things (we thought we were SO clever). I’ll tell Mike to keep his eye out for a purple cow. You know if he finds it, it will be staring at him :)

    1. The Bug,

      The first thing that crossed my mind was that crazy concrete goose you show us now and then. I’ll let you finish it: “I’ve never seen a purple goose….”!

      If anyone’s going to get a photo of one, it would be Mike. Wouldn’t that be a neat photo challenge? Metaphorical “purple cows” – things we’ve never seen before. It certainly would encourage folks to look a little more closely at their worlds!

      As for that staring business, you reminded me of something Flannery O’Connor said: “The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention.”


  11. A wonderful post, both for enlightening us on the appropriately quirky background of “A Purple Cow” and for the tale of your encounter with the roseate skimmer (certainly a new one on me!).

    I chuckled immediately when I saw the topic, because I have often used a variation of “A Purple Cow” when teaching religion classes to kids. With a couple of new lines, it restates, and wildly oversimplifies, St Thomas Aquinas’s idea of knowing the existence of God through his effects: “I never saw a purple cow / I never hope to see one / but from all the purple milk I’ve seen / I know there just must be one.”

    1. Charles,

      I must say – I never imagined a leap from the Purple Cow to Thomas Aquinas! That’s as funny as the original, and even more creative. I wish both Burgess and Flannery O’Connor could read your version. I suspect both would appreciate it – Burgess for the addition of substance, O’Connor for the beautiful simplification of Aquinas’ thought.

      I mentioned the variable dancer to Susan, above – a lovely purple dragonfly. As it turns out, New Jersey has a subspecies known as the Violet Dancer. Keep your eyes open!


    1. montucky,

      Who knows? You may be the one to find the Purple Bear, or the Purple Elk. You’re already in the land of Purple Mountains’ majesty, so it only makes sense!


  12. Hi Linda,
    I don’t believe I’ve said much more than once since first finding you over a year ago, but have to comment on this one.

    I too, being of that “certain age”, remember “The Purple Cow”, Sunday drives and the great end-up places at the end of the day. We had a locally (Delaware) famous ice cream stand run by a farmer from his front porch that became so popular for its homemade, hand-dipped cones he expanded to a multiple window roadside attraction with long lines at each of them every weekend. Sadly, while searching hometown blogs and sites for something to include here, I find a scarcity of useful info survives.

    However, serendipity prevails! This wonderful connection fell across my path, and nicely compliments your “Burma Shave”. I’m sure you will enjoy its sights and sounds. The Burmas drive by while photos change in time to the lyrics of the Statler Brothers!

    Hope you enjoy it.


    1. Tom,

      I didn’t just enjoy it – I loved it! In fact, I played it three times in a row just to catch everything. It’s amazing how much we forget, and how quickly it comes back.

      I suspect I never would have thought of cigar bands, heel taps and moron jokes if not reminded – but the best of all was “Good-Bye, Tonsils”. I had that book when I had my tonsils out! It was a terrible experience, actually – the book didn’t do it justice. Even worse, my folks told me I could have anything I wanted once it was over. I wanted a chocolate malt, and couldn’t drink the thing. I wasn’t pleased with adults for a while.

      I noticed, too, that one of the Burma-Shave ditties fit right in with our theme: “Cattle crossing means go slow – that old bull is some cow’s beau!” ;)

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post and shared some of your memories – thanks for stopping by, and for the comment. I finally figured out that I have Joe Perry to thank for our “introduction” – I wonder if there’s a Purple Pufferbelly out there somewhere?!


  13. Once again I find affinities with your post even though I grew up in a part of the country (Long Island) very different from the one that you lived in (Iowa). Almost every Sunday we would pile into the family car and go for a ride. Sometimes we went over the Whitestone Bridge (then 25¢, now $6.50, I’m horrified to find out) and into the Bronx to visit my long-widowed grandmother, but more often we wandered Nassau County and occasionally Suffolk County, and what the destination was usually didn’t matter. Over time the closer towns became very familiar, but there was always ultimately something new awaiting us.

    My father used to quote “The Purple Cow” to us from time to time, and he even told us about Gelett Burgess’s weary follow-up. The popularity of the original ditty has led to many a parody, some of which you can see at:


    That said, I guess I’ll have to give it a shot:

    I’m not a fan of purple prose
    Nor much that’s found online now,
    But your well-crafted words are those
    I’m reading by design now.

    1. Steve,

      It seems as though that was the heart of it for so many of us. The destination rarely mattered. The memories are tied simply to being together, enjoying the trip.

      One reason for our Sunday drives is that it was Sunday. There wasn’t any running to the grocery store, or going to the movie, or spending the afternoon at the mall. In the first place, the mall hadn’t been invented. Beyond that, only gas stations were open. It was expected that you’d do church and dinner, then visit neighbors or spend time with the family. Our first Sunday-opening grocery store was enough of a scandal and an offense that I still remember it.

      I love that your father quoted both of Burgess’ poems – and the parodies are terrific. Of course, we shouldn’t forget that “other” cow – the “how now, brown cow” beloved of elocutionists! I didn’t see “Anchorman”, but now I know Ron Burgundy shook the dust off that oldie and gave it new life.

      I enjoyed your “purple prose” verse, and of course it pleases me that someone who values well-crafted words thinks mine deserve the description. One of these days I’ll miss the mark, but I don’t expect it’ll kill me. ;)


  14. Although I don’t remember my mother reciting “My Shadow” or “The Swing” by RLS, verses she recites for the grandchildren and great grandchildren as I mentioned in a former post, you took me back with this one, “The Purple Cow”.

    Our Sunday drives were received with groans by us four kids. As our parents couldn’t leave us at home, we had to go remaining captives for hours on Sunday afternoons. I’m sure we heard it on those drives. My serious mother could be quite playful and I do remember this one. Those Sunday drives took us sometimes almost 100 miles south of our small town and taking a rest stop. As much as we resisted, we certainly remember them. Among the best memories? You’re right, winding up at the Frostop for a hamburger, fries and a root beer was a highlight.

    If anyone could find the name of your magenta dragonfly, it certainly is you! Glad you found it, a roseate skimmer. Thank you for this introduction. I have never seen one either, but now the quest begins. Love your posts. They always take us on an adventure.

    1. Georgette,

      Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to have brothers and sisters, or to make those trips with more than just my folks. It’s funny – I envy people with siblings a bit, and my friends with brothers and sisters often sigh and say, “If only I were an only child.” Greener grass on the other side of the fence, always.

      Root beer seems to be making a comeback. There was a great article in the Huffington Post back in March rating the top brands.. A&W came out on top – the classics never go out of style!

      I just searched for the nearest A&W – it’s over in Friendswood. I guess I’ll have to schedule a Sunday drive!


  15. after i read the purple cow poem, i vaguely recall hearing it, but never memorized it myself. wonder if that’s what the restaurant chain was named after? i can identify with the sunday afternoon drives. my parents weren’t church goers so that’s what we did every sunday when i was young and typically it was only me who accompanied my parents even though i was the youngest of five children. couldn’t tell you what the others were doing now that i think about it. as i read your memories it triggered flashes of scenes from country drives. hills on the road where my dad could let off the gas at that moment to make you lose your stomach. love the werds.

    1. sherri,

      I’d never heard of the restaurant chain until I wrote this, but it does seem to have taken its name from the poem. Of course, I’d never heard of the drink, either, so my education is getting broader by the hour.

      My dad did the same as yours. I never got that over-the-top-of-the-hill thrill on our Sunday drives. I suppose Dad was too smart to pull that with Mom in the car. But when he and I would go out together to “run errands”, we’d often make a detour out into the country and run those gravel roads at speeds designed to thrill the dickens out of a grade-schooler. I called it my roller-coaster rides.

      I think one reason many of your photos appeal to me so strongly is that they have the ability to evoke those times – especially your images of the country, and country roads. We did our own skimming back then – light as could be.


  16. Down at Surfside Texas along the Blue Highway there is a small hamburger place called the Purple Cow. The owner collects all things with a purple cow theme and she also painted her purple martin houses purple. During Huricane Ike the resaurant caught fire. I haven’t been inside since the huriccane but it is still there. We should all meet there sometime. Susan

    1. Susan,

      I’m in! I’ve got more work than’s good for me scheduled just now and have a little out-of-state travel to be done, but I’ll be back home and settled by mid-November and will get in touch. I found her website, adorned with all manner of purple and a fine menu, too. I’ll bet her chicken-fried steak is good. Hamburgers, too.

      I’ve got so much I want to do down that way – including trying to run down Old Man Bailey on his prairie. I need to start doing and not just thinking about!


  17. Never saw a purple cow, but we used to make “Brown Cows” at the Snack Shack. That’s a scoop of vanilla ice cream in a mug of root beer.

    1. Richard,

      Well, look at that. I just was talking about the old expression, “How now, brown cow” – and here you’re telling me it’s a drink, too. Amazing.

      We just called those root beer floats, and my goodness, they were good. They’d be good with your onion rings, too!


  18. I appreciate your perspective and I heartily subscribe to it. From this day forward, when I experience something I believe to be rare, it will be my “purple cow.” Who’s to say what is rare? It’s rare if we rarely experience it. After all, it is the experience, the excitement of discovery, that counts.

    Love Lois Allison’s purple cow. What a beauty!

    1. Bella,

      It is the excitement of discovery that counts. When you get right down to it, that’s the heart of the collecting experience. It doesn’t matter if you’re collecting stamps, china, butterflies, rocks – the search and the learning bring pleasure, but the actual discovery? There’s nothing better.

      Even folks who don’t actually “capture” their prey – like bird watchers – still have their lists and their goals. I know a guy who drove many, many miles following reports of snowy owl sightings. He’s not seen one yet, but if he gets another report, that’ll be his dust going down the road. In some regions of the country, there are plenty of snowy owls. In his, not so much. So he keeps his eyes open. As he says, he may see the owl – but he may see something else, instead, and be just as happy.

      Didn’t Lois create a fine cow? The dandelion’s a particularly nice touch.


  19. And all this time I thought a purple cow was milk, grape juice, and vodka! Now that’s rare! But beyond all that you have written something here that is just marvelous, bouncing about like a ball in a run away trolley, you have given all your readers much information while thoroughly entertaining us. Brilliant!

    1. Wild_Bill,

      My goodness. I had figured out the grape juice and ice cream purple-cow drink, but didn’t know there was one for big people, too! I’m all educated now – though I do wonder if you could use a Salty Dog to herd Purple Cows. :)

      Information and entertainment is a great combination – I’m tickled you think I managed both here. I’m glad you enjoyed it – I do love poking about in these old corners of our culture.


  20. Your reporting here leaves a very clear view of a very different time! My grandmother, born in 1898, would tell me of her girlhood in St. Louis around 1910 + … imagining that city more than a decade earlier being open to the Burgess mind.

    Roseate Skimmer. Roseate does seem a term from Victorian times. You on the Gulf Coast have your Roseate Spoonbills, too.
    A 3rd grade teacher colleague used to use the rhyme as a writing prompt. Burgess needs to know his ditty is timeless!
    Fun to hear of your youth, as always.

    p.s. Oh, and I, too, was brought up on that same Sunday regimen … it was nice to hear it recounted.

    1. C.C.,

      Your grandmother was enjoying life in St. Louis at the same time as my favorite poet, T.S.Eliot. He was born there in 1888 – you might get a kick out of this photo of one of his visits there after he’d moved to England.

      The roseate spoonbills are one of my favorites. They’re a bit uncommon here now, if not rare. You have to travel away from Galveston Bay to find flocks of them – urbanization and habitat loss have taken their toll. You’re right about the word. It used to be used for commonly for things like “a roseate outlook”. Today, I think we tend to use “rosy” instead.

      I wish some of those practices from our youth were more common.
      The thought of families just spending time together on a Sunday afternoon has the feel of fantasy these days. But I’m glad you enjoyed the reminder!


  21. Since you were so enthusiastic about purple cows, I hope you were fortunate enough to meet some of James Thurber’s animals (“The cow is of the bovine ilk./One end is ‘moo,’ the other ‘milk.’).

    I remember with great fondness being on a regular Odyssey of a family vacation in a powder blue 1957 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 sedan of epic proportions, having to lean on the front seat back and watch out the windshield to catch the Burma Shave signs because my assigned location was behind my dad (which put me on the wrong side of the car for optimum reading). I did, however, get first crack at the signs meant for the oncoming lane, although I had to look sharp as, at 65 mph, they receded rather rapidly out of reading range.

    I’ve never spotted a purple cow, either, but I’ve spotted some with rather extravagant horns at the old Johnson place just outside of Johnson City.

    1. WOL,

      I met Thurber, but not until about high school, when I found some excerpts in a humor anthology. I knew about “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”, and can recognize a Thurber cartoon, but that’s about it. Clearly, my education is lacking. I’ll have to do something about that.

      My dad was an Oldsmobile man, too. It was an Olds that I put in that ditch my 16th year (no damage to me or the car – spring mud can be treacherous!). After Dad died, Mom bought one new car – in 1099, making it another sort of Olds ’88 – and that’s the car that I finally let go of about two months ago. I hated to make that move from steel to fiberglass.

      I can’t remember who it is now, but someone I’ve run across through the blogs raises Longhorns. I didn’t realize there are so many color varieties – they compete very well with those Purple Cows.


  22. What a wonderful cascade of recollections this post has released! It triggered one of mine. My brother and I have always been close, despite a 15-year age difference. When he was a little fellow and I was home on vacation from university, I would take him for walks around our small home town, and make up stories as we went.

    One summer’s evening, we stopped by an empty parking lot – all the cars had gone home – and little brother noticed this huge ” P ” sign right by it. “What is that for?” he asked.
    “OK,” said I, very seriously. “You stand right under that sign and look up at the sky. The ‘P’ is for Pink Elephants, and if you stare hard at the sky right up there, you might be lucky enough to see one!”

    We both stood and stood, and stared and stared. “I see one, I see one!” he shrieked. ” I can see a pink elephant! “.

    It took me years to tell him the truth, We still laugh about it.

    Maybe the “P” could just as well do for “Purple Cow”?

    1. Anne,

      Isn’t it marvelous how a word, an image, a taste or smell can release those memories?

      What a good sister you were! I had an aunt who functioned in very much the same way for me – she didn’t tell so many stories, but she made sure I saw the world. I can just see you, completely straight-faced, telling him those elephants were in the sky. The joke would be on you, of course, if he really did see one!

      When I was writing this, I started thinking about the other marvels I’ve seen in the sky – my favorite is the circumzenithal arc, which looks like an upside-down rainbow. It also looks exactly like the Cheshire Cat’s grin, up there in the sky. Who’s to say it isn’t?


    1. belleofhecarnival,

      I didn’t know anything about Seth Godin until ten minutes ago. Now I have a new phrase for my vocabulary (“permission marketing”) and know that he’s behind Squidoo.

      I love the way he uses the phrase “purple cow” – and that he makes clear the “purpleness” isn’t an added value. It’s just what makes that cow stand out. Essence of purple, you might say. I may read the book myself – thanks for mentioning it.

      And thanks for stopping by – it’s always a delight.


        1. Thanks for reminding me…I read Seth everyday in my news feed, but, I had forgotten the book. He gave it away back in the day and shipped it in a milk carton. I kept the milk carton on my desk for years as a reminder to think outside the “carton”.

          1. What a great idea – shipping in a milk carton. And what a fun variation on thinking “outside the box”. We all need reminders to do that from time to time!

          2. I hear him on CBC from time to time and really enjoy his insights! It is a great reminder to think outside the carton something I have to remind myself every day.

  23. Without your telling me, I wouldn’t have known about the Purple Cow. And without your showing me, I wouldn’t have seen a purple dragonfly. What interesting discoveries one can behold upon stopping by your blog. And you’ve shown me too that the prestigious educational institutions in your country are not so much ivory towers but can and do produce down-to-earth people tightly connected to the grass-root and common folklores.

    1. Arti,

      Another perspective would be that those who graduate with their down-to-earth tendencies intact have managed to survive their trek through academia, but that’s another discussion for another day. ;)

      I’d never thought much about the distribution of dragonflies, but you seem to have plenty of them, too. In fact, I found a few on Flickr whose photos were taken in Riley Park. That made me wonder how far north they spread, and it didn’t take much to learn that Alaska has 32 varieties. In fact, the dragonfly is Alaska’s state insect – I never would have imagined that.

      It’s a big world, with so many delights. I’m happy to share the ones I discover with you!


  24. I really enjoyed this (that dragonfly!), but I could not get the idea of my mother’s version of a Purple Cow drink out of my head. And I didn’t know there was an “adult” version either, but I guess you can tip vodka into anything…

    I wonder if the PC drink is regional, like “cheese toasties”. No one but people from Illinois seem to know what that is. How about Iowa?

    I’m really off subject now!

    1. Martha,

      Truth to tell, that “adult” purple cow sounds pretty bad to me. On the other hand, long, long ago in the days of Sergio Mendes, Astrud Gilberto and Gordon Lightfoot, even the kids from the cornfields were sitting around smoke-filled lounges at the edge of campus with White Russians and a world-weary attitude, so there you are. I suppose we should have been drinking the purple cows, but there’s nothing that sounds sophisticated about that, and don’t you know we thought we were sophisticated!

      I’ve never, ever heard of a cheese toastie. So, I went off to google and typed in “grilled cheese or cheese toastie”. There are some Brits who swear it’s an open-faced thing, and some who say no, it’s just another name for grilled cheese. Everyone seems to agree they go with tomato soup, though. Is yours the same as a grilled cheese, or open faced?

      My favorite actually is a lightly toasted English muffin with good cheddar cheese and sliced tomato, finished under the broiler. I don’t know what to call that! But in Iowa, we only had grilled cheese. Eventually, Kraft singles saved us from Velveeta. ;)


      1. Bleech on the Purple Cow with or without vodka!

        OK- apparently a very small and exclusive clan in Central Illinois has the secret behind a cheese toastie.

        It is two pieces of white bread buttered on one side, the outside, and slices of cheddar cheese laid on each piece of bread inside. Put the thing together and into a saute pan and let the buttered sides toast nicely and the cheese melt beautifully.

        And yes, we often enjoyed tomato soup with them! And a side of Fritos for our little hungry hands.

        My mother was very German. Doesn’t sound German, tho.

        1. That’s it! An Iowa grilled cheese, exactly. No artisanal 48-grain breads or imported smoked cheddar for us – we took our comfort straight and plain. No fritos, though – at least as a child. They weren’t invented until 1961, when I was in high school.

          I need to start keeping a list of things that were/weren’t around when I was a kid. It’s pretty amazing.

          1. Wonder where “cheese toastie” came from, though. It wasn’t just my family that used that term. The whole town did. But we won’t go there…

          2. Your comment about the Fritos being “invented” in 1961 struck a nerve with this native Texan. I remember the “Fito Bandito” hanging on the sign on the Frito plant building alongside the Gulf Freeway heading into Houston as a kid. The plant was somewhere north of Gulfgate… And all my life we have been eating Fritos. How else can you eat Frito Pie?

            According to Wikipedia Elmer Doolin bought the recipe for $100 in San Antonio and started the company in 1932. Must have been a “Texas thing” for most of those early years.

            1. Ah, ha! We’re both right. 1961 was when the Frito-Lay merger took place. But I still don’t remember ever seeing them as a kid. It may be that the merger opened up distribution channels to the wilds of Iowa!

  25. Another one of those grand posts where you start us off on one path, the Sunday afternoon and the Purple Cow poem, and take us in delightful swirls and circles and bring it all back home. You have such a gift for this kind of writing. It entrances. (And you never know, when you will see YOUR purple cow!)

    1. Jeanie,

      Just like one of those Sunday afternoon car rides – maybe I enjoy writing the way I do because the routine got so firmly established. Start from where you are, circle around, see the sights, then land back at home. Who knows?!

      I’m just glad you’re along for the ride. You’ve got a gift for noticing the extraordinarily ordinary – it’s what makes your travel writing so enjoyable. Just one request – if you see the purple cow first, be sure and let me know!


  26. I didn’t know about the poem but, of course, have long known about Kitty’s place at Surfside. The cheeseburgers are wonderful, so I’m glad you’ve made firm plans to try them out soon.

    We dashed down for a quick Dow trip a few weeks back — we were in and out so fast I don’t think I’d label it a visit — but we were there long enough to see Kitty’s business booming. And to connect with a few friends.

    Early birthday wishes to you, in the event I don’t make it back here between now and then

    1. Janell,

      It’s always so good to see someone like Kitty come back from disaster – in this case, not just the storm but the fire. I haven’t been down in that area for such a long time. You’d think it’s the other side of the moon, but of course it isn’t. To paraphrase the old saying, so many destinations, so little time!

      Thanks for the good wishes. I’ll be on the road that day myself. I’m heading north to visit family and a couple of pieces of prairie I didn’t get enough time with last year. With luck, I’ll get Indian Summer instead of an early Oklahoma ice storm!


  27. I know I’ve told you this before, at least I think I have. My mom used to make us a purple cow drink. It consisted of milk and grape juice. It was actually pretty tasty and sweet. Your blog reminded me of that sweet tasting concoction!

    1. Karen,

      I just can’t get my mind around that combination. I think, in the spirit of scientific enquiry, I’m going to have to get some grape juice and give it a try. Having made your mom’s mac and cheese now, I’m inclined to trust any recipe she comes up with!


    1. Gerry,

      It certainly would be a compelling twist on “When I get old, I shall wear purple”. Maybe we could add in The Red Hat Society in the form of a red ribbon for a nice bell – we’d follow you anywhere!


    1. Steve,

      Like Father William, he was old when he died – amazing that our lives “crossed”. Maybe writing nonsense verse is life-extending. Lewis Carroll didn’t do quite so well, but he probably didn’t have some of the advantages of Burgess. There’s a thesis in there somewhere.

      I wonder if we’d begged he might have recited his poem for us? I’m betting on “yes”. ;)


  28. What a delightful post! Love everything about it, from the Burgess poems and story to your magenta dragonfly. My curiosity is tantalized enough to want to find more info about Burgess, and The Lark.

    1. Maria,

      I’m suddenly curious – do you see many dragonflies in your garden? With your nearby water, I’d think you might. I’ve seen your butterfly pics, of course, but never a dragonfly. I may have missed it. I’m newly fascinated by the little creatures – they certainly are interesting. I found and then lost a slow-motion video of their flight. If I can find it again I’ll drop it by.

      Burgess and his friends sound like quite a crew. “The Lark” had a short run, but it sounds like it made the most of it. I’d love to find an issue – but I’m not willing to pay what they were selling one for on eBay!

      I’m glad I piqued your curiosity – we’ll have to both search. If you find something, you could say, “Hark! Hark! A Lark!” ;)


    1. Claudia,

      Isn’t that the truth. William Blake said it well – “To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower”. Paying attention is the first step, of course – and learning how to look without expectation. We hear so much about the importance of “focus”, but sometimes a little unfocused looking reveals things we never would have imagined.


  29. Good golly Linda 89 comments!
    You never disappoint us. You took us in the car on a Sunday afternoon car trip, meandered to the marvelous Burgess poems, added some history, and ended with the roseate skimmer. Brilliant!

    I’ve never seen a red dragonfly. I think you found a treasure :-)

    It seems that you have a birthday coming up. Happy birthday!

    1. dearrosie,

      Isn’t it interesting how things we do on a regular basis make the opposite interesting and fun? You spend so much time in a car, and you go hiking. When I was growing up, I walked to school all the way through high school and even in grade school rode my bike to the playground, the gas station with the penny candy counter and so on. For us, a drive in the car was a real excursion – and so much fun!

      As for the roseate skimmer – it’s been seen in your territory, too! What could be better than dearrosie discovering a roseate skimmer? Keep your eyes open on those hikes!

      Thanks for the birthday wishes. That faint clicking sound is the years passing by!


  30. What a fun post -( I finally got to read it without interruption). Glad you got the Frito history straightened out. San Antonio at its best!

    There was a Purple Cow hamburger chain – there was one in Palestine / East TX, They were white painted buildings with a purple cow jumping over the moon – I think there was even a spilled bucket of milk painted under hoofs. We loved to shout that poem , but not sure we ever ate there as my mom “wasn’t going to waste a chance of eating out on hamburgers she could make at home.”

    We used to take Sunday afternoon drives around Houston – it was cooler in the car with breeze blowing in windows ( not so many street lights). There was a regular: downtown to check out the color of the weather ball ( near the red flying horse on the Mobil building), down by Nabisco bakery to smell the yummy bread, past a big colorful fountain in front of a Motel on the Gulf FWY (Don’t think it survived). Life was at a much slower pace – and simple things were fun.

    Nice little helicopter nature sent to ya!

    1. phil,

      I can’t get over the thought that people were eating Fritos while we still were making do with tinned shoestring potatoes and popcorn. That’s ok – we had homemade apple pie with cheddar for breakfast, so things evened out.

      I read about the chain while I was doing research for this post. Again, it seemed to have spread east and south, bypassing us. We did have the fun of “Hey, Diddle, Diddle”, but that was the extent of it. What I did have was one of “those” mothers – she wasn’t about to eat in any establishment that couldn’t match her cooking. That covered a lot of territory, too. I’m still that way with desserts. I can equal nearly every pie, cobbler or bread pudding in existence – although I’m not often moved to mess with meringue and will buy lemon meringue in diners where that lady with the hairnet still does the baking.

      I still remember taking visiting relatives for drives around 610 in the early 1970s. It was as new and exciting as the first interstates that crossed the Iowa cornfields. On his first trip, my dad wanted to turn around and go over the ship channel a second time. It was fun.


  31. It struck me as I read this (and as I’m sure you intended) that people don’t notice things the way they used to. Maybe we’re too busy checking our email or sending a text to spot that first robin or the last leaves of autumn. If we passed a purple cow, would we even see it? As you said so perfectly, the common roseate skimmer wasn’t common to you. I’m going to slow down today, and try to notice what I otherwise might have missed. Thank you, Linda, for this reminder.

    1. bronxboy,

      I just mentioned to someone a day or two ago that I more and more often I feel like the only living person in a crowd. At the grocery, at Starbuck’s, even walking down the street, everyone is staring into those devices. Why you’d need to be checking “whatever” as you push your cart down a grocery aisle I’m not sure, but I’m weird.

      It’s a fact – there’s a lot in the world to be noticed, and a good bit we’d never expect to see. It’s an amazing irony that our connectedness to our gadgets often is precisely what disconnects us from the world and other people.


    1. Thanks so much. The laptop’s going with me, but you’re right that I’ll be a little less attentive. I promise to stop for photos of any purple cows I happen to see.

    1. ljgray,

      Sometimes it takes a little time to get over the disappointment of not having a “rarity”, but it doesn’t take much longer to begin appreciating the beauty of the commonplace!

      I’m glad you enjoyed the tale, and thanks so much for commenting. I appreciate the visit – you’re always welcome.


  32. Hello Linda, this is another interesting post of yours I missed but I am glad to have made the acquaintance of the Purple Cow or purple dragonfly ! Beautiful.

    Depending on how you look at something, it can be rare and totally new. At least to you.This is why I find it so important to be “present” during my daily walks. Hardly a day passes without noticing a change in the landscape or on a tree trunk or a flower that has come out of nowhere. Or so it seems.

    Thanks Linda, I hope your weekend will be full of discoveries.

    1. Isa,

      How funny that you just popped up here today. A friend and I were talking about going down the coast a bit, and having lunch at a little café called The Purple Cow. It’s been rebuilt since our last hurricane, and the reports are that the food is as good as ever.

      Context is everything, and the context for so much of what we see constantly is changing. Annie Dillard says there are two ways to travel. We can travel far, or we can travel deep – and even those who are forced by necessity to stay in one place can enjoy an ever-changing panorama of delights.

      Just yesterday, I found the answer to my month’s old question about a bird I couldn’t identify. I heard it singing and singing in my palm trees, but never could spot it. Yesterday I heard the song again – but this time it was coming from a balcony two stories up. I ran for the camera, zoomed in, uploaded the photo and had my answer. It’s a red house finch, and it has a sunny, cheerful song.

      So, you see I’ve already had the best possible discovery for the weekend!


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