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The Haunting Beauty of Snowflakes: Wilson Bentley’s Pioneering 19th-Century Photomicroscopy of Snow Crystals

The quest to capture nature’s vanishing masterpieces, endowed with the delicacy of flowers and the mathematical precision of honeycombs.

The Haunting Beauty of Snowflakes: Wilson Bentley’s Pioneering 19th-Century Photomicroscopy of Snow Crystals

Hardly any scientific finding has permeated popular culture more profoundly, transmuted its truth into a more pervasive cliché, or inspired more uninspired college application essays than the fact that no two snowflakes are alike. But for the vast majority of human history, the uniqueness of snowflakes was far from an established fact.

In the early seventeenth century, while revolutionizing science with the celestial mechanics of the macro scale that would land his mother in a witchcraft trial, Johannes Kepler turned his inquisitive imagination to the micro scale with a rather unusual Christmas present he made for a friend — a booklet titled The Six-Cornered Snowflake, exploring in a playful and poetic way the science of why snowflakes have six sides. When one landed on his sleeve in the bitter Prague winter, Kepler found himself wondering why snowflakes “always come down with six corners and with six radii tufted like feathers” — and not, say, with five or seven. Centuries before the advent of crystallography, the visionary astronomer became the first to invite science into this ancient dwelling place of beauty and to ask, essentially, why snowflakes are the way they are. But it would be another two centuries before this intersection of science and splendor enraptures the popular imagination with the nexus of truth and beauty in the form of ice crystals — a task that would fall on a teenage farm-boy in Vermont.

Wilson Bentley (February 9, 1865–December 23, 1931) was fifteen when his mother, aware of her son’s sensitive curiosity and artistic bent, strained the family’s means to give him a microscope for his birthday. Over the next four years, while Walt Whitman was exulting a state over that “a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars,” Wilson placed every curio he could find under his microscope: blades of grass, pebbles, insects. The day he managed to place a snowflake on the glass plate and to savor its microscopic perfection before it melted, he was besotted. Snowflakes became his life. “Miracles of beauty,” he called them. He began sketching what he saw through his microscope, but felt that his drawings failed to capture the full miraculousness before it vanished into liquid erasure. Although his father was already irate with the boy’s artistic deviation from farm labor, “fussing with snowflakes” rather than pulling potatoes, Wilson somehow persuaded him to invest in a camera.

Weeks before his twentieth birthday, he mounted his new 1.5-inch microscope eyepiece to the lens of his enormous view camera with its accordion-like body fully extended. On January 15, 1880, Wilson Bentley took his first photograph of a snowflake. Mesmerized by the beauty of the result, he transported his equipment to the unheated wooden shed behind the farmhouse and began recording his work in two separate sets of notebooks — one filled with sketches and dedicated to refining his artistic photomicroscopy; the other filled with weather data, carefully monitoring the conditions under which various snowflakes were captured.

For forty-six winters to come, this slender quiet boy, enchanted by the wonders of nature and attentive to its minutest manifestations, would hold his breath over the microscope-camera station and take more than 5,000 photographs of snow crystals — each a vanishing masterpiece with the delicacy of a flower and the mathematical precision of a honeycomb, a ghost of perfection melting onto the glass plate within seconds, a sublime metaphor for the ecstasy and impermanence of beauty, of life itself. A generation after the invention of photography recalibrated our relationship to impermanence, Wilson Bentley devoted his life to popularizing the uniqueness of snowflakes and helping others appreciate the ephemeral “masterpiece of design” that each snowflake is, its singular and fleeting existence never to be replicated, its beauty gone “without leaving any record behind.”

Wilson Bentley at work

In his later years, he reflected on the adolescent passion that would become his life’s work:

I became possessed with a great desire to show people something of this wonderful loveliness, an ambition to become, in some measure, its preserver.

And so he did. Wilson Bentley, who comes alive in Duncan Blanchard’s wonderful 1998 biography The Snowflake Man (public library), grew famous as Snowflake Bentley, establishing himself as the world’s first snowflake photographer and enrapturing vast audiences with nature’s masterworks of ephemeral perfection.

Half a century after he first grew enchanted with the photomicroscopy of snowflakes, in a 1922 article for Popular Mechanics, Bentley extolled the rewards of this art purchased by physical hardship in below-freezing temperatures:

Every snowflake has an infinite beauty which is enhanced by knowledge that the investigator will, in all probability, never find another exactly like it. Consequently, photographing these transient forms of Nature gives to the worker something of the spirit of a discoverer. Besides combining her greatest skill and artistry in the production of snowflakes, Nature generously fashions the most beautiful specimens on a very thin plane so that they are specially adapted for photomicrographical study.

Months before his death, his life’s work was finally published under the title Snow Crystals — a scrumptious monograph of 2,500 of his most beguiling photographs, which remains in print today as Snowflakes in Photographs (public library).

Complement with artist Rose-Lynn Fisher’s haunting photomicroscopy of tears cried under various emotions and these gorgeous vintage illustrations of scientific process and phenomena — including an early diagram of snowflake geometries — from a French physics textbook predating the widespread application of photography, then revisit the story of how, a generation before Bentley, the young photographer John Adams Whipple changed our relationship to impermanence with his pioneering astrophotography.


How to Raise a Reader: Mary Shelley’s Father on Parenting and How an Early Love of Books Paves the Path to Lifelong Happiness

“The impression we derive from a book, depends much less upon its real contents, than upon the temper of mind and preparation with which we read it.”

How to Raise a Reader: Mary Shelley’s Father on Parenting and How an Early Love of Books Paves the Path to Lifelong Happiness

In the final years of the eighteenth century, the radical political philosopher and novelist William Godwin (March 3, 1756–April 7, 1836) entered into a pioneering marriage of equals with another radical political philosopher and novelist: Mary Wollstonecraft, founding mother of what later ages termed feminism. While Wollstonecraft was pregnant with their daughter — future Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, a Romantic radical in her own unexampled right — Godwin began channeling their nightly conversations about how to raise happy, intelligent, and morally elevated children in a series of essays later published as The Enquirer: Reflections on Education, Manners, and Literature (public library) — a title that gives it a deceptive air of politeness and dated propriety; it is in fact a radical work, scandalous to Georgian and Victorian sensibilities, centuries ahead of its time, anticipating the conclusions of modern social science and psychology, neither of which existed as a formal field of study in Godwin’s time, about some of the fundamentals of optimal parenting.

William Godwin. Portrait by James Northcote. (National Portrait Gallery, London.)

Godwin writes:

The true object of education, like that of every other moral process, is the generation of happiness. Happiness to the individual in the first place. If individuals were universally happy, the species would be happy.

At the heart of this happiness-generating education, Godwin places the importance of instilling in children an early love of literature, which would “inspire habits of industry and observation” that by young adulthood would ferment into “a mind well regulated, active, and prepared to learn.” Although his language is bound in the era’s biases — an era far predating Ursula K. Le Guin’s brilliant unsexing of man as the universal pronoun — Godwin’s ideas soar with timelessness, on the wings of poetically articulated truth:

There is perhaps nothing that has a greater tendency to decide favourably or unfavourably respecting a man’s future intellect, than the question whether or not he be impressed with an early taste for reading… He that loves reading, has every thing within his reach. He has but to desire; and he may possess himself of every species of wisdom to judge, and power to perform.

Art by Ping Zhu from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.

He considers how books not only enrich us with the wisdom of the ideas contained in them, but also sprinkle upon us some the splendor of mind that originated them, producing in us a quickening of both sense and sensibility:

Books gratify and excite our curiosity in innumerable ways. They force us to reflect. They hurry us from point to point. They present direct ideas of various kinds, and they suggest indirect ones. In a well-written book we are presented with the maturest reflections, or the happiest flights, of a mind of uncommon excellence. It is impossible that we can be much accustomed to such companions, without attaining some resemblance of them. When I read Thomson, I become Thomson; when I read Milton, I become Milton. I find myself a sort of intellectual camelion, assuming the colour of the substances on which I rest. He that revels in a well-chosen library, has innumerable dishes, and all of admirable flavour. His taste is rendered so acute, as easily to distinguish the nicest shades of difference. His mind becomes ductile, susceptible to every impression, and gaining new refinement from them all. His varieties of thinking baffle calculation, and his powers, whether of reason or fancy, become eminently vigorous.

Art by Ofra Amit from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.

Having thus outlined the invaluable lifelong benefits of reading, Godwin endeavors to lay out the elementals of raising a reader. Building on the most central, most radical ethos of his Enquirer essays — the countercultural idea that children ought to be treated not as subjects to authoritarian rule but as equal citizens of life, endowed with intellect and sensitivity, and must be granted the dignity of truth rather than being bamboozled with hypocrisies and shielded from the world’s disquieting realities — he writes:

The child should early begin in some degree to live in the world, that is, with his species; so should he do as to the books he is to read. It is not good, that he should be shut up for ever in imaginary scenes, and that, familiar with the apothegms of philosophers, and the maxims of scientifical and elevated morality, he should be wholly ignorant of the perverseness of the human heart, and the springs that regulate the conduct of mankind. Trust him in a certain degree with himself. Suffer him in some instances to select his own course of reading… Suffer him to wander in the wilds of literature.

Two centuries later, the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska would echo the sentiment in her wonderful meditation on fairy tales and the importance of being scared.

Art by Violeta Lópiz from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.

In consonance with what every wholehearted reader knows — that we bring ourselves to the books we read and what we take out of them depends on what we bring — Godwin adds:

The impression we derive from a book, depends much less upon its real contents, than upon the temper of mind and preparation with which we read it.

Complement with A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader — an illustrated collection of testaments to Godwin’s impassioned insistence on the life-shaping value of reading by 121 of the most visionary humans of our own time — then revisit Rebecca Solnit, modern-day cultural descendant of Mary Wollstonecraft, on how books solace, empower, and transform us.


Here and Now: An Illustrated Guided Meditation Inviting the Practice of Noticing as a Portal to Presence

A sensorial serenade to the art of awareness.

Here and Now: An Illustrated Guided Meditation Inviting the Practice of Noticing as a Portal to Presence

Looking back on the most important things I have learned about life, I keep returning to a central paradox of our culture: We know that the flower doesn’t go from bud to blossom in one spritely burst, yet we crave stories of overnight success and spontaneous self-actualization, disinterested in the tedium of the blossoming, in the incremental ripening by which we become who we are, the innumerable tiny choices, the imperceptibly small steps by which we pave the path to our own destiny in the very act of walking it. We are each a continuous becoming, our future a rosary of presents strung along the strand of presence — presence with the smallest corpuscles of existence: the smell of a neighbor’s curry slipping through the window cracked in midwinter, the atlas of wrinkles on the hands of the cashier scanning the box of strawberries at the grocery store. Sensing, noticing — the raw materials of presence, and thus the elemental stardust of our becoming. Emerson knew this when he reflected on how to live with presence and authenticity in a culture of busyness and surfaces a century and a half before the Age of Haste:

Life goes headlong… Now pause, now possession is required, and the power to swell the moment from the resources of our own heart until it supersedes sun & moon & solar system in its expanding immensity.

That is what author Julia Denos and illustrator E.B. Goodale invite in Here and Now (public library) — a kind of illustrated guided meditation, tender and soulful, and a splendid belated addition to the loveliest children’s books of 2019.

The book begins where all presence must always begin — exactly where we are: The reader is invited to attend to the actuality of reading — the sensorial meta-reality of being with the book. Presence then radiates outward in widening circles of awareness — the floor under the feet, the grass and soil under the floor, the earthworms and fossils in the the hidden universe of the underland.

We are reminded that the Earth is spinning in the vast expanse of spacetime, and so are we, along with it; that during each now we experience here, countless things are happening in countless elsewheres — “rain is forming in the belly of a cloud,” “an ant has finished its home on the other side of the planet,” “an idea is blooming,” “grass is pushing up through cement,” “unseen work is being done.”

What emerges is a delicate reminder that we snatch our freeze-frame of life from the simultaneity of existence. “Right here, right now, YOU are becoming,” Denos writes.

In a postscript, Denos explains that the book grew out of a poem she had written as part of her meditation practice — a kind of lyric breathwork. Two millennia after Seneca offered his Stoic’s key to living with presence and a generation after Wendell Berry began his formula for how to be a poet and a complete human being with “Make a place to sit down. Sit down. Be quiet,” she writes:

Meditation is just another way of noticing and a little bit like magic. It brings us, just as we are, into the present moment, just as it is. This freedom is a place I call “Here and Now.” It is a land well known by young children and plants and animals; it is a place and possibility root, a place where we feel connected to the greater unfolding story. Sometimes, when our minds and bodies are busy, we forget how to get back. But all we need to do to return again is to notice the world around us. We don’t need to sit down, or stop what we are doing. We don’t even need to close our eyes. Let’s open our senses instead.

Complement Here and Now with Be Still, Life — a kindred-spirited songlike illustrated invitation to living with presence — and Sidewalk Flowers — a picture-book serenade to the art of noticing — then revisit Annie Dillard’s timeless clarion call for choosing presence over productivity, Hermann Hesse on breaking the trance of busyness by learning to savor the little joys, and poet Ross Gay’s yearlong experiment in training the delight muscle.


Poet Ross Gay on the Body as an Instrument of Thought and the Delights of Writing by Hand

In praise of the manual-mental “loop-de-looping we call language.”

Poet Ross Gay on the Body as an Instrument of Thought and the Delights of Writing by Hand

The late, great neurologist and poetic science writer Oliver Sacks spent his entire life writing only by hand — an act he considered “an indispensable form of talking to [oneself].” In his wonderful reflection on the psychology of writing and what his poet-friend Thom Gunn taught him about creativity, Sacks observed how “ideas emerge, are shaped, in the act of writing.”

This singular interplay between the manual and the mental, between the mechanics and the magic of writing, is what Ross Gay — another poet with a playful spirit and an expansive mind, whom Sacks would have gleefully befriended — considers in a passage from his immeasurably delightful Book of Delights (public library) — one of the most satisfying books of 2019.

Ross Gay

Having written his “essayettes” on delight by hand, Gay reflects on the “surprising and utter delight” of this mode of composition — a courageously countercultural delight, I must add as my own fingertips press into the cold plastic with the blind faith that an invisible wizardry of ones, zeroes, and silicon will translate motion into meaning. Gay writes:

The process of thinking that writing is, made disappearable by the delete button, makes a whole part of the experience of writing, which is the production of a good deal of florid detritus, flotsam and jetsam, all those words that mean what you have written and cannot disappear (the scratch-out its own archive), which is the weird path toward what you have come to know, which is called thinking, which is what writing is.

In a passage evocative of Lewis Thomas’s splendid meta-illustrations of the subtleties of language, he adds:

For instance, the previous run-on sentence is a sentence fragment, and it happened in part because of the really nice time my body was having making this lavender Le Pen make the loop-de-looping we call language. I mean writing.


Consequently, some important aspect of my thinking, particularly the breathlessness, the accruing syntax, the not quite articulate pleasure that evades or could give a fuck about the computer’s green corrective lines (how they injure us!) would be chiseled, likely with a semicolon and a proper predicate, into something correct, and, maybe, dull. To be sure, it would have less of the actual magic writing is, which comes from our bodies, which we actually think with, quiet as it’s kept.

The evolution of Emily Dickinson’s handwriting across her thirties, forties, and fifties (Morgan Library & Museum; photograph: Maria Popova)

Couple with John Steinbeck on how the joy of handwriting helps us draft the meaning of life, then revisit Ursula K. Le Guin on the magic of analog human conversation and astronomer Maria Mitchell on the sewing needle as an instrument of the mind.


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