Once upon a time, a long long time ago, birds were all white. Eagle and hawk, heron and plover, rooster and duck, each one of them had feathers pure as snow.
– How sad! How boring!
This lament came from a small owl perched up high in a cherry tree.
– Everywhere the world bursts with colors. Clear greens! Bright blues! Vibrant yellows! Yet us birds, we all look blank… I wonder how can nature hold so many hues…
The lone bird though and thought. Then one day, she had an idea.
The owl gathered plants, bits and bits, here and there. She settled a workshop near a singing creek and started experiments.
Everywhere on the bank, the owl put makeshift jars and pots, all filled with bubbling decoctions, smelling and very strange. She then took off some of her white feathers, and plunged one in each jar.
Flying too and throw, the owl muttered:
– Let see, let see. Safflower gives sunny red, murasaki luscious purple, birch bark soft pink. Oh! And what a deep brown nuts makes! I wonder if I can make this one lighter…
At the end of the day, the owl had her coat spotted from head to toes. Mixed dyes had turned her white feathers into a funny canvas.
She looked at herself in the river, comically tilting her head.
– Well, well, I guess I’ll never feel blank again!
The next day, the owl went flying all across the land. Over lakes and mountains, in the forests or by the sea, she hooted:
– Are you tired of being pale? Come, come to my dye house and I’ll paint you with every colors of nature!
She then returned to her creek, and waited.
Her first customer was not long to appear. It was a tiny nightingale who perched unsure on the cherry tree. The owl hooted softly:
– Welcome friend, how can I help you?
The nightingale chirped prettily:
– I… I feel my timid looks do not match my voice. Could… could you do something about it?
The owl smiled and got to work. Moments later, the nightingale gasped: he was now wearing a vivid yellow-green coat.
– Thank you, oh thank you! I’ll sure spread words of your great work!
The owl’s second customers arrived soon after. It was a gracious crane couple who bowed low and asked:
– We wish a matching dress, something delicate yet striking.
The owl happily flew to one of her jars:
– I know exactly what would suit you!
And she started painting. Soon, the cranes admired their black matte wings and necks beautifully balanced with a dashing hint of red on their heads.
After that, all kind of birds went flying to the owl’s dye shop. She painted feathers after feathers, some bright and loud, others subdued and quiet, glad she could make her fellows happy.
Then, long after the others, a crow came to the creek and eyed the owl with plain curiosity:
– You are that amazing dyer right?
The owl look at him, unabashed:
– I am indeed, what can I do for you?
The crow puffed himself up and said in an imperious tone:
– I am the most intelligent of birds and all I wear is this sad frock. Give me a coat of such an amazing color everyone will remember me.
The owl titled her head pensively.
– A color to remember… yes I know what will suit you!
She flew to a jar filled with a dark, foaming liquid:
– Mr crow, please take place inside and don’t move.
The haughty bird entered in pungent water reluctantly.
– What an horrible smell!
He started writhing and flapping his wings in wide movements. His feathers first took a greenish tint as dye splashed everywhere. The owl shrieked:
– Please, please don’t move like that. This color is delicate! It will not turned right!
But the crow kept fidgeting, immersing and emerging from the dark decoction.
As he wrestled in the jar, the color turned blue. The owl opened wide eyes:
– That’s enough, you can get out.
But the crow didn’t seem to hear. First light, the shade turned darker and darker. The owl hooted loudly:
– You must get out now you silly beast!
The crow took its flight and dove to the creek. He looked himself in the river and croaked:
– What! What kind of color is this? It’s hideous!
Once white, the crow’s feather were now of the darkest black. Here and there, a blueish shimmer remained.
The owl cried:
– You should have listen to me. What a pity, a royal blue would have suited you so well…
The crow squawked and plunged into the river, hoping water would wash off the dye. But, it was useless. His feathers were now oily black.
From then on, day after day, the crow chased the owl. And that is why today still, owls hid in forest and only came out at night. And why crows are such bitter creatures clothed in a black mantle.
Before the invention of chemical dyes, natural dyes were the only way of mimicking colors. In Japan, one of the most useful dye was the ai, better known as indigo and made from Persicaria tinctoria. With murasaki (an imperial purple made from red-root gromwell) and beni (a bright red made from safflower), ai is one of Japan’s most emblematic colors.
Indigo can be used to make a wide gradation of hues, from palest blue to dark near-black one, in a process named aizome (indigo dyeing). Indigo is prepared into big sunken jars and dyers immerse spools and fabrics rolls one or several times depending of the hue they wish (sometimes indigo is layered with other colors, mostly red or purple). First light greenish, the indigo would turned blue with oxidation. This video details this somehow magical technique.
Owls are seen as benevolent animals in Japan, as their name, fukurou, sounds like “luck’ (fuku). On the other side, crows and ravens (both called karasu) have a much more ambivalous aura. Considered auspicious signs of the gods (like the three legged yatagarasu or some tengu), they are also birds of bad omen… and pests. Any visit to a modern Japanese city will lead you to encounter those highly intelligent birds who raid garbages and steal food straight from your hand!