Your cow must be a miracle

If you haven’t already done so and you can afford it, please consider becoming a paid-up subscriber of this newsletter. “Working” on it is often the highlight of my day and I’d like to continue sending it out for as long as I’m able. I mean, if I have to stop, who else is going to send you letters about cows? Nobody, that’s who. Just look at the archive.

No offence but it was not my intention to send out a newsletter today. I have a book going to print in 10 days1. We’re putting on a Letters Live show2 this month. The dog has just been spayed and is shuffling around wearing a full-body suit. Our kids have been isolating since what seems like 1982. My wife is seven months pregnant with our third. Our bathroom has been demolished and is unusable. It’s all too much.

And then I realised it was Cow Appreciation Day and I thought of you lot, and I imagined your crestfallen faces when the email full of cow letters didn’t arrive, and I thought of all the cows who deserve to be appreciated, and I realised very quickly that I needed to clear my schedule for a couple of hours.

Happy Cow Appreciation Day. Please appreciate cows.

Can you photograph cows well? I did one of cows in the Borghese so marvellous that I destroyed it: I was afraid of being called the modern Paul Potter3. Cows are very fond of being photographed, and, unlike architecture, don’t move.

Oscar Wilde to Robert Ross, 21 Apr 1900 | Oscar Wilde: A Life in Letters

I think you should know about our Remarkable Cow. She is a black & white Holstein, one of a herd that grazes in the opposite field. During the drought, when there was nothing to graze on, she took to wading in what was left of the river, & grazing on brooklime; and developed this into long solitary walks up the river. The weather changed; the river rose; she went on walking. When the river was in spate she went on imperturbably walking, with the water over her back. It is her daily routine: she sets out in the morning, climbs the other bank, grazes in a field she has no right to graze in, comes back about an hour before sundown looking ineffably calm and righteous. I have grown very fond of her—and use her as a river-gauge. I used to know the river’s level by how far it rose up a stake. I now go by how far it goes up the cow.

Sylvia Townsend Warner to Joy Chute, 21 Oct 1976 | Letters of Sylvia Townsend

We began mooing at a pasture of cows, and they all looked up, and, as if hypnotized, began to follow us in a crowd of about twenty across the pasture to a wooden stile, staring, fascinated. I stood on the stile and, in a resonant voice, recited all I knew of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales for about twenty minutes. I never had such an intelligent, fascinated audience. You should have seen their expressions as they came flocking up around me. I’m sure they loved it!

Sylvia Plath to her mother, 8 Apr 1957 | Letters Home

Your cow must be a miracle. It has produced the best cream and the best milk that Leonard and Virginia Woolf have ever eaten.

Virginia Woolf to Dr. Octavia Wilberforce, Xmas Eve 1940 | Virginia Woolf: The Complete Collection

Beyond, in an indistinct field, a number of surly looking black and white cows (many of them with crumpled horns, I’m sorry to say) float about in the mist. I often single one out on my afternoon walks and try to hypnotise her by gazing into those great idiot eyes and willing her to (1) lie down, (2) shake her head three times and (3) moo. So far, alas, with no success at all.

Patrick Leigh Fermor to Ann Fleming, 7 Jan 1956 | Dashing for the Post: The Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor

In back of Holly House is a very steep narrow valley, just like my idea of Switzerland. On one side of it lives an old, old white horse named Joe. We take him apples every evening and he is so lonesome and so affectionate that he almost sniffles one’s clothes off, and whinnies loudly when we leave. On the other side is a very pretty small-sized tan cow named Betty. Her owner is very fond of her. She stands at the bottom of the pasture in the evening and as soon as Betty sees her, she comes running down the side of the mountain with her cowbell jangling. I said I thought she was very intelligent and the mistress said, “She’s the damn pettedest cow I ever seed.” We use her butter and buttermilk here.

Elizabeth Bishop to Marianne Moore, Sep 1941 | One Art: Letters

Portland4 and I are thinking of getting a cow. We can keep the cow in a closet and every morning we can open the closet and get fresh milk. During the balance of the day we can turn the radio on and if the cow likes music and starts dancing a little we will have butter for the rest of the year. If we keep the cow in a closet we can use the cow’s horns to hang things on and when we go to Hollywood we can tie mothballs on the cow so the moths won’t eat her coat off while we are away.

Fred Allen to a young fan, 4 Sep 1943 | Fred Allen’s Letters


A freshly-painted, updated edition of the original volume of Letters of Note. More on that soon.


At the Roundhouse in London. It’s being streamed on July 31st. Tickets here.


Dutch artist Paulus Potter, famous for his paintings of bulls and other animals.


Comedian Portland Hoffa, then married to Allen.