The Story of the Snowflake Hunter

The harsh life of a farmer. Harsh Vermont winters. Now imagine being a Vermont farmer whose son has declared a different calling. Your  teenager wants to dedicate his life to capturing the beauty of snowflakes. Such was the backdrop of the Bentley family in Jericho, Vermont. Wilson Alwyn "Snowflake" Bentley was born in 1865. At 15, his mother gave him a microscope and it was under that microscope that he discovered his passion for the crystals of water we call snowflakes. Bentley was one of the first photographers of snowflakes. But let’s call him a snowflake hunter.

pencil in hand 
holding his breath: 
to keep a snowflake

Originally, he tried to capture their beauty by drawing them. He held his breath as he drew so the heat of his breath didn’t melt the snowflakes. Then he switched to photography. By attaching a bellows camera to a compound microscope he photographed his first snowflake on Jan. 15, 1885. According to Wikipedia, Bentley described snowflakes as "tiny miracles of beauty."

He caught flakes on black velvet so their images could be captured before they melted. A collection of Bentley's photographs can still be found in Jericho. He thought of snowflakes as works of art and he spent his days searching for perfect specimens. Many said his passion for them tainted his work. Meteorologist Gustav Hellmann was a rival snowflake hunter. He aimed to set the record straight. Snowflakes are not symmetrical works of art, he said. Hellmann found them to be clumpy, lopsided, broken bits.

snowflake drifting
in the sun
you are melting

It was the WNYC radio show "Radiolab" that introduced me to this snowflake hunter rivalry. On these two fought. Bentley insisting the flakes should not be represented by their flaws and Hellmann insisting Bentley was a fraud, whose passion was slanting the truth.

Bentley cleaned up his images of snowflakes, so that they better represented the beauty of nature. This made Hellman all the more hell-bent to expose Bentley as a bad scientist, a smitten artist. But still, Bentley held his ground. His photos can be found on greeting cards and holiday sweaters to this day. Bentley kept at it his whole life. He took thousands of pictures of snowflakes.

Bentley died of pneumonia on Dec. 23, 1931 after walking for miles in a blizzard to photograph snowflakes. Modern day snowflake hunter Kenneth G. Libbrecht of California said it best when talking about his own passion for finding ideal snowflakes.

“Here I am with my little piece of cardboard in the middle of a continent where it’s snowing all the time. I am catching some incredibly small number of these things for a brief period and getting some really cool pictures. You kinda wonder what else is out there? What are you missing? Imagine all of the beautiful little works of art that are just falling down totally unnoticed and then they just disappear. They are far prettier than the pictures I have. You know they are out there statistically," Libbrecht said.

the snowflake fades

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