Imagine being single-mindedly passionate about something that everyone else thinks is as common as air. Imagine being ridiculed for it. Imagine trying to share your work with others, but ultimately always paying more to do so than you earn. And imagine dying—literally, dying—because of it all.
This was Wilson Bentley’s life. Bentley was a farmer in Vermont, but more than that, he was a photographer. And he photographed snowflakes.
This sounds easier than it really was. Bentley was born in 1865, and had the technology of a Vermont farm boy in that era. His parents gave him a microscope, and Bentley tried to draw the snowflakes before they melted, hoping to share the beauty of an “ice flower” with the rest of the world. I can picture him, a child hunched over a tiny flake in a cold room, holding his breath as his pencil raced against warmth.
For three winters, the flakes melted before he could finish outlining their details. Finally, his parents spent their savings to buy a bellows camera for him. He spent a whole year experimenting with ways to get it to capture a snowflake. And then, one day, it worked. He found a way to share the beauty he saw in a snowflake.
But most Vermonters laughed. It was snow, the commonest thing in the winter. And standing outside as Bentley did, patiently holding out black trays to catch snow, must have seemed absurd. (As an Oregonian, I can imagine the ridicule someone would attract if they collected and documented raindrops with such obsession.)
What everyone else thought was background noise, wallpaper, even a seasonal nuisance, Bentley thought was rare, miraculous, and worth capturing. So he went on to do his work in the cold, year after year, while others laughed and went into their cozy homes.
At age 66, soon after the publication of his book on snowflakes, Bentley walked six miles home in a blizzard (a slurry of six-pointed snow crystals surrounding him). A few weeks after that walk, he died of pneumonia.
Is it a sad biography? Yes. But it also is the story of one who saw beauty where everyone else ignored it. It reminds me of what Gene Amole said: “The sunrise, of course, doesn’t care if we watch it or not. It will keep on being beautiful even if no one bothers to look at it.”
Wilson Bentley looked, and hoped to share the reward with us. The photos he took are in the public domain. Here are a few:
The biography of Wilson Bentley is documented in the Caldecott award-winning book, Snowflake Bentley. The illustrations are woodcuts, tinted with watercolors, the perfect style for such a story.