Flaking Out


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Wilson Alwyn Bentley was a snowflake man. So much so that he came to be known as “Snowflake.” Bentley was a Vermont man; it’s easy to understand his fascination with snow. I was just in Montpelier, the capital of Vermont, last weekend. Driving down Route 2 at night with the high beams on as the light catches the white flakes rushing horizontally at the windshield creates the feeling of warp speed.

A couple of years ago, you could hardly get through a winter week without someone telling a version of the Eskimos-words-for-snow story. We’ve only got one word for snow, the story went, but those Eskimos have 20, or a hundred, or a thousand, depending on the yarn-spinning skills of the teller. Hm, we’d say, ain’t it interesting how much language determines experience and vice versa. It turns out, unfortunately, that this story isn’t true. As Steven Pinker pointed out in The Language Instinct, Inuit languages have about a dozen words for snow, roughly the same as English: snow, sleet, slush, and so forth.

But it makes sense that stories about snow have come to stand as metaphors for the variety of experience in general. Snow changes everything. It is a world-cloaker and a land-blanketer. When the snow comes, everything gets slower and more deliberate. Just look at how it falls, meandering without a care in the world. Contrast this with the rain, which quickens things most of the time. Snow living is dominated by preparing to go outside and then de-preparing when you come back inside. It is marked by the blindness of limited vision during a blizzard and the blindness of too much light in the bright sunshine bouncing off the layers of white.

And yet, for as much as snow is a muffler and a homogenizer, for as much as it coats the world in a uniform sameness, it is composed of tantalizing bits of absolute singularity. We’ve all heard about the individuality of the snowflake, the way that no two are exactly the same, structurally. Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley figured out a way to photograph this singularity. He did it by putting the snowflakes on black velvet.

Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others. Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.


With the insanity of the collector, Snowflake proceeded to photograph and publish over 5,000 individual snowflakes. In the grand scheme of things, it is a pitiful gesture against infinity. In the effort to preserve the beauty of the snowflake, Wilson accomplished very close to nothing. Which makes his little guys all the more special. Looking through the plates, you’re rooting for each and every one of those scoundrels. Personally, I’m fond of number 892. Roughly stellar in category, he’s an irregular sort. The top left arm lost its hat. But that can happen to anyone in the wind. 892 didn’t let it hold him back. You can see 154 of Bentley’s snowflakes at the online Bentley Snow Crystal Collection of the Buffalo Museum of Science.

Oh, by the way, Snowflake Bentley was wrong. In 1988, in Wisconsin, two identical snowflakes were discovered and photographed. Every time we think the universe is one way, it turns out to be another, a fact that would probably have pleased Mr. Bentley even in his disappointment. • 13 January 2010