Did a Bird Paint This Picture?
Photograph by Web Kiefer (and Raven)
Yesterday, Modern Farmer received what we believe to be the single greatest pitch in the history of story pitches. We spent much of yesterday pondering its mysteries: who is this "Web Kiefer"? What does magic mushroom mold taste like? Could a bird make this painting? In the end, we decided that we should just publish the pitch in its entirety and let you, dear reader, make up your own mind. Published with the writer's permission.
I am sending you a copy of a piece of art work that was painted by a wild raven who inhabits my small mushroom farm. While there might be other examples of paintings by trained domesticated ravens, I have never heard of such a thing by a wild bird. I am unsure of the exact nature of the connection between this painting and my way of life — other than the friendliness to wild things that is part of my ethos – but I have no doubt that it is a direct result of my growing practices, and by extension, of the deeply thoughtful way of life that informs those practices.
I produce and sell organic mushrooms at local farmers’ markets in the East Bay. Like most small scale organic growers, my work is much more than simply a livelihood, it is a total way of life. Many of us local agricultural artisans refer to ourselves not at farmers, but as stewards:
• of the soil and biota that sustain all life, in the face of destructive profits;
• of the value of healthy food, in the face of cheap, abundant, low-grade fodder;
• of the truth of personal experience, passed through generations, in the face of the artificial findings of industrial “science;”
• of the dignity of hard work and simple living, in the face of overabundance and the strain toward ease and prestige.
Growing mushrooms is painstaking work. In the early phases of cultivation, one must constantly struggle to protect the matrix, or mycelium, from the thousands of alien spores and bacteria, found in any growing environment, that can ruin part or all of the crop. Only through long experience and a grounding in the age-old lore of fungus cultivation can one confidently distinguish between healthy and infected mycelium. Even then, one must embrace a lifelong habit of creative experiment, as the variety of possible problems is so great that no source of knowledge can cover them all. Mushroom farmers are essentially shamans, students of the mysterious and occult, as well as scientists. Never mind the views of our families and friends, that our brains have been infected by our beloved spores.
By these lights, the steps that I strongly believe led to the production of paintings by a wild crow can be understood as quite reasonable. Around this time last year, I was preparing a large batch of mycelium for my shiitake, and I noticed that one of the incubators had been infected in spite of my usually reliable sterile measures. Instead of the usual white, it had developed a pinkish blush that I didn’t remember having seen before. As with any new phenomenon, I studied its color, growth rate, microscopic structure, and smell, but I could find nothing in my notes or on the internet that satisfied my attempt to identify it.
This is a typical situation in which steward-focused organic growing has an advantage over industrial agriculture. Our food culture has evolved over millennia, to the point where thoughtful human gardeners who are the keepers of this lore can thrive in the most extreme environments and survive the most unpredictable natural events, without recourse to expensive, remote technology controlled by a tiny ownership class. Our ancestors knew how to learn the properties of natural things by patiently studying their behavior, and the behavior of the plants and animals that interact with them.
I have a motion-activated light and camera near the entrance to my green house, having been robbed more than once. As a result, I know that my small unfenced farm yard is visited not only by stoners looking for psilocybin, but also by deer, raccoons, skunks, possums, bats, snakes, woodrats, mice, bobcats, coyotes, owls, squirrels, rabbits, gophers, tarantulas, and an occasional fox. I was curious what the intelligence of a wild creature of whatever species would say about my new mold, so I placed a large piece of it, next to a bowl of fresh vegetables, where my security camera could see it. The same night, a family of raccoons came to help themselves to the vegetables, but they ignored the mold. A couple of nights later, a pair of yearling bucks stopped by, but they too ignored the mold. When I went to fetch the experiment later the next afternoon, though, the mold was gone. I didn’t know who took it, as the camera automatically switches off in the daytime to save juice, being solar powered like everything else on the farm.
I decided to give up the mold experiment, although I was careful to preserve a supply of spores from it. A couple of days later, however, my wife Sandy came in from the yard with a puzzled expression. She likes to paint the picturesque gardens and shacks on our property, using paints that she produces herself from organic soya oil and natural pigments. While painting that day she had seen a raven acting very strangely. We both know that ravens are highly intelligent and playful birds. In his book, Mind of the Raven, Bernd Heinrich claims that they can accomplish complex, multi-step tasks perfectly by thinking them through, without trial-and-error rehearsal. Sandy had watched this bird dance around in a circle in one spot, pecking the ground and cawing furiously. Every once in a while it would stop, cock its head to one side, and make a sound she had never heard from a raven or any other bird – a sort of long drawn out moan. I asked her to show me where this happened, and she indicated the place where I had put the mold, near the greenhouse entrance.
Without much optimism that there might be a connection, I decided to put another piece of the mold out, and keep an eye on it in the daytime. Sure enough, within a couple of hours the bird (or could it have been a different raven?) was back. To our delight, after perching in a tree and making sure the coast was clear, he flew down and began to eat the mold. Time after time he would peck at the offering, then take off and circle the yard in looping swoops, then land and feed again. I was of course very excited, and began to fret out loud that I now had to see if I could grow another batch of this stuff for further research, as there was very little left. Sandy grunted that it was nothing to crow about, and headed back out to finish her painting.
In a little while she called to me to come look. From the back door I saw nothing at first. “There he is again. He’s been watching me for half an hour,” she said, pointing to a tree to my right. He (if it was indeed him) did indeed seem very interested in what she was doing. I was in the middle of incubating a batch of mycelium, so I went back inside at that point. I thought I heard her calling from the yard later that day, but we have an understanding that when I’m in the midst of incubating I can’t be disturbed.
Nothing more was said about the raven until that night, when Sandy casually tossed a piece of drawing paper on the dining room table, with the painting attached to this narrative. My wife has a great sense of humor, and I immediately suspected she was going to tell me a tall tale about how the raven had painted this.
“He came and lit on the porch rail, right next to where I was working,” she said. After a bit, I had to get some clean water to mix with my acrylics, so I left my easel and went to the faucet. When I came back, I saw that he had flown over to my canvas and was inspecting my brushes and paints. I waited to see what he would do next. He looked like he was trying to eat the stuff on my palette, but then he would turn to my canvas and smear little dabs of the paint on it. He did this several times. It was highly amusing, but he wasn’t much of an artist, and I finally decided that I got the point, and it was time to save my painting. He flew away as I approached. I tore off a clean sheet from my sketch book and put it on the ground fifty feet away, then using a little mixing dish, I made him a little palette of his own, and put these on the ground a safe distance from where I was working. He flew over to it, but only stood there and studied it, and me, then flew away again. I thought maybe he wanted a brush, so I put a small one there for him and waited. Again, he came over to look, then flew away. I took another brush and cut the handle off with my canvass knife, leaving only a couple of inches. This did the trick. When he came back to his atelier, he quickly took the modified brush in his beak, dabbed it in the paint, and went to work.”
I said thank you for the entertainment, and went on eating. “I knew you’d say that,” she said with a shrug. “I guess you’ll just have to come out tomorrow – or if and when he comes back – and watch. But you’ll have to lay out another serving of your precious mold, I’m afraid.” I needn’t have asked her why she hadn’t simply filmed the event with her cell phone, because we don’t have them on our farm. Cell phones are in every way a sellout to corporate domination. They’re unnecessary and costly; they pollute the environment with microwaves; their lightning-fast obsolescence bloats the toxic waste stream; they’re produced in miserable sweatshops for the profit of the obscenely wealthy; they completely cement our dependency on the global monoculture, and in the process they absorb time and attention better given to honest work.
At any rate, the raven painting was now a tremendous dilemma for me. I doubted that Sandy would go this far to tease me, but I’ve been wrong about her before. And if she was not teasing, there was no guarantee: (a) that eating the mold was a necessary prequel to the bird’s painting behavior, or that the eater and the painter were even the same bird; (b) even if both answers were yes, that he would still be interested in painting or in any other notable behavior; (c) even if all the answers were yes, that I could successfully cultivate the exact same mold again; (d) even if I could, that it would ever produce any other valuable results.
But there was nothing I could do but push ahead with the experiment.
How much mold was enough to repeat it? I put out about a gram of the precious infected mycelium and we waited. For the next three days ravens came and went through our garden, alone and in flocks, but none approached the mold. I put out another portion – all but a tiny speck of my sample, but without results. On the sixth day I saw at first light that the experiment had been taken over by a completely different, familiar blue mold, and I had to throw it away. Organic farming teaches us that what is, is, and the best way to meet any crisis is to thank the earth for the bounty that remains.
Later that morning, in desperation and with little hope, Sandy set up a raven’s painting studio, with paper, modified brush, and paint. Luckily her homemade oil paints take several days to dry; but that night, one of those heavy, wet coastal fogs moved in, and the next day when Sandy went out to check on her raven studio, she came back holding a soggy piece of drawing paper, on which there were a few runny blobs of color. Someone, or something, had used the studio, but that’s all we know. Nowadays we’re constantly visited my many of our artist bird’s species, but if he’s among them he gives us no sign. Wherever he is, he now has mythological status in our household, and a name: Edgar.
Sandy and I have discussed the possibility that to Edgar, the whole thing was a delicious joke; or possibly more than a joke, a deep commentary on our special relationship with nature. I’ve tried to cultivate the mystery mold again, and although I’ve gotten something that looks and smells very much like it, all attempts to repeat the experiment have been fruitless. One takes many deep breaths in life. I’m sure that other, perhaps more exciting adventures lie ahead as long as I keep focused on my values and steady at my work.
(Here, I need to know how to upload a graphic — Edgar’s painting.) [Ed. note: Image uploaded above.]