The Snowflake Man

Although I am currently working on Killing Hapless Annie, I do have something else simmering away. I am not yet sure if this is something which will – or, in fact, should – come to fruition, but I am enjoying thinking about it. To start me off, I wrote a draft – very DRAFT – synopsis of what it was I thought I wanted to write; then, to begin exploring its subject, I wrote a handful of poems. I’m sure this is an unorthodox method, but think of it as scribbling. Much of it will get crossed out. The thing that is so very different from Killing Hapless Annie is that, there, I wrote about what I knew; here, I am writing about what I want to know. Does that make sense?

Anyway, may I introduce one of my heroes? He appears in Killing Hapless Annie (he’s one of Annie’s, the protagonist’s, imaginary friends), but because he’s shy and apologetic that he’s not a man of letters or for company, he gets a room of his own.

The Snowflake Man

In 1898, a young boy called Wilson Alric Bentley began watching the snow fall around the family farm in Jericho, Vermont; he watched it with an unusually rapt attention. He thought about its composition, about where it came from – about its auspices in both meteorological terms (although he was likely unaware of that word just yet) and those more divine: how could it be that something so pretty should fall so casually? Was it part of a conversation with God and creator – a dialogue which we could not translate and construe? The young Bentley also watched rainwater, seeing it composed in rivulets and torrents, looked at dew as it settled in exquisite beads and watched as frost formation drew delicate shapes across windows of ferns and feathers on the windows of his farm. But it was with the snow that Bentley was most in love: he wanted to understand how and what it was and to look at it more closely. That journey of discovery, separate and loving, is the story of The Snowflake Man. Times came and went; others laughed, but Bentley kept on watching the snow – and he remained the devout watcher of the skies until just before his death.

Bentley’s mother understood her boy’s fascination; his father thought him foolish and possibly unmanly for finding some diversions when, on the farm, there was much practical work to be done. That boy wrote, fifty five years later, that everything he was and had ever done, he owed to her – because she saved and showed considerable devious acumen in presenting her son, aged seventeen, with a microscope and then a camera. Over the next few years, Bentley, working alone in the woodshed, developed the science of photomicrography as he learned to connect the camera to the microscope and photograph the tiny snow crystals on his slides. The results were exquisite and remain, to this day, the fullest and most extraordinary collection of stunning snow crystals – of a myriad filigree stars, strange tiny pillars with hexagons at either end; things possessed of an inchoate beauty and, as Bentley wrote, ‘no two snowflakes are alike.’

When Bentley wasn’t photographing and cataloguing the snow crystals, he made fine studies of the frost formations and patterns of dew – looking at its beads strung along spiders’ webs; tying down a grasshopper atop a blossom overnight so that he could photograph the creature bejewelled with the dew. All this he did while remaining a farmer, playing his trumpet, providing holidays to city folk of slender means: he quietly became a world authority on snow crystal formation and, through his articles and published copies of his photomicrographs, became known as ‘Snowflake Bentley’ – or sometimes just ‘The Snowflake Man’. He saw and entertained worlds others merely glanced at: he was a humble, absorbed genius.

In The Snowflake Man, the reader is made an offer: we have the extraordinary images of the snow crystals he recorded; we have some letters and the transcripts of some interviews and the texts of articles he wrote for meteorological journals as his work became known. But here is the story that remains to be told, because we do not, yet, really know him. The Snowflake Man offers you a story of his life as he sat for fifty winters, alone, in silent thought and study. It explores intriguing questions: who were the three impressive women in his life – one ‘Mina,’ for whom he once scratched ‘Window frost monogram, Mina’, a beautiful but timid declaration of love to the girl the neighbours called ‘sassy’? The story ponders how does an individual can sustain, over a lifetime, a brilliant interest in something others – even his own father – called foolish? Bentley saw in the snow crystals a numinous, spiritual quality: he saw them as a metaphor for heavenly life. The book unfurls a tale of a boy mocked, an interest passionately abided by, of loneliness and love lost and found and celebrates in its story that it is Bentley who is also a metaphor – for those who were laughed at, chided or mocked for what they believed: the Snowflake Man never gave up and the book that is named after him seeks to introduce a greater number of readers to him for the first time. For his is an extraordinary story.

Four poems for Wilson A Bentley (1865-1931)


How beautiful it is to see

The eye trained on a telling shape –

Which seems to say, “I am the first

You are the last, to see me in my perfect form,

The only man to sit and wait

For what this moment must become.”

The snowflake falls; he catches it

On worsted cloth of deepest black:

It takes a place – but not alone,

For, ferried from beloved sky,

The crystal specimens collude

To give a pattern to a world

Through Vermont’s still and patient man.

For fifty years he sits and holds

The architecture through his glass:

Dendritic crystal, needle fine,

A bullet, hexagon or flower.

He does not mind if they should laugh

At Sisyphus in snow and ice.

So all is well, but glances ask:

The man with camera, microscope –

With evanescence in his heart,

Is he lonely, sat out there,

With slide and board for hours and hours?

A splint of broom to hold each one –

The snowflake man who gathers up

Each tiny plan to hold it dear:

It will not come again to us.

The horae, hours of prayer or joy,

But not with words, this silent man:

His goddesses the six point stars:

He sits and worships, reverent still,

A lucent world and what it tells.

He checks the hoar frost and the glass

To see the curlicues of line –

The ivy leaf or comfrey stem,

The miracles of build that come.

He  does not care to go, for now,

Beyond the cloth, the hands that serve

To show us all a myriad frames

Which coalesce within his grasp.

How beautiful it is to see

The eye trained on a telling shape

Which seems to say “I am the first,

You are the best to see me in my perfect form.”

“Window frost monogram Mina”

Mina, as you were: bay window, a side light and a black background.

Then as you were again: middle room – direct front light. I was specific.

Mina – I was precise; exacting with the fall of dark and bright: I wrote it down.

Mina, as I hoped you were. But you smiled and went away, sassy girl.

I sat for hours as the shadows fell, knowing what night must still portend: my craft.

I drew a nail across a pane and scratched your name, invisible to others as

The evening settled in. I knew that morning brought a monogram in window frost

For you to see and I to know: I showed you how its feathered lines and confidence

Spoke truth to us – that you could stay.  The frost had crept along the span

To show you how this foolish man had said the most that he could say. And then

I spoke – and ruined all. A foolish joke:  my love; my one;

My word –oh mono gramma, mina gramma. Hush – a clumsy, unschooled man.

When I essayed another length to keep you here – pellucid worlds for us to share,

Yet how I knew what I had done. You cared not yet for crystal casts,

The shapes recorded day by day. The metaphor for heavenly plan

Was lost for you in my thwart hands – and so I scratched and tried to show

A simple script, its blazon – you. I fell and fell and no-one knew.

Oh sassy girl, why should you stay or want an artless snowflake man?


In Jericho

If I should fall, then say to me the reason clouds form as they are,

Why ice should seed along a scratch, why I should love my six point star.

I do not know or care to see the smiles that fall in brazen line,

But innocence and clearest eye embolden me to make her mine.

I speak of love and quiet worlds, of Jericho on winter nights:

The sweets of patient maple taps, a sugar house and amber lights

Of unctuous syrup mixed with snow, auroras made of rosy glow,

My borealis blood red sheen – if I should fall, then make me know.

When I am not and you are here, beholden to this dusty room,

Be gentle with the tenuous forms; please do not break the splint of broom,

But hold the snowflakes page by page, arranged as I have left them now;

Consider this – why should they be, ephemeral and urgent? How?

In nature’s fragile crystal frame I see a world beyond the hill,

Beyond the log pile, brook and shed; behind our eyes when we lie still.

And when I fall, then say to me you read its language, pure and keen –

And set my records on my desk and light my lamp: make them be seen.

Mother: snow queen

My mother in her housecoat grey;

Her deep set eyes and sunburned face

Were set against the world that day:

A year of  stringent, creeping grace –

She would provide by hook or crook

A camera for her foolish boy

By winter next. If all forsook,

That should not vex her, seeing his joy.

My father laughed and thought me weak

To study crystals, quite unmanned;

My brother saw me fey and meek:

We must provide and work the land.

But Simple, gifted with such hope,

Sought fine connection, lens to slide –

With camera and microscope

The flake and image to elide.

The photomicrograph crept through:

I tweaked its edges; sharpened; limned.

Arranged it with five thousand new

And held my breath as beauty dimmed.

Still father mocked, but mother saw

The useless craft would last a life;

She saw her boy as metaphor

For human spirit; outpaced strife.

And she could see the shapes I held –

My inscapes in that freezing cage;

And she could know the transient meld

I had transported to the page.

So inchoately grasp the words

Formed by the boy who took her name,

Let us release them – free as birds:

No two snowflakes are the same.