The Birdcage Archives

Sunday 31 December 2023


The best advice regarding parties: always make an appearance, or else you risk being talked about.

Tuesday 19 December 2023

Snowflake Symmetries, Winters Romantics

Hello Gentle Reader,

Winters arrival harks a paradox of responses, both chilled delight and frost bitten embittered refute. There’s something soothing about snow in that smothering Stockholm fashion. Its ability to conceal, completely whiteout landscapes, reducing them to a sheet of whiteness. Hoarfrost in particular is a beautiful feature of winter. The trees reduced, gnarled and bared, coronated in the delicate etchings of frost and snow, an otherwise crystal crown. Frost of any sort is fickle as it is transient. Though the sun maybe slow to awaken and gradual in its rise during its respite rest, it inevitably pulls itself from the horizon and despite its distance shines, leaving the trees with their threadbare pauper appearance. The emperors’ new clothes are a marvel, though lacking in durability. This year, winter seemed delayed. An early snap of cold and snow, but it gave way to unseasonable warmth. Not that many were complaining. Golfing in November is a rare treat. Still September swirled in temperatures that simmered, while October thankfully evened everything out with bearable temperatures. Yet, November that threshold month of winter and the slatestone month of cemetery greyness, defied precedence and preconceived expectations of what is expected of it, and remained warm even tepid, while the earth took on the visage of early spring: brown and molting. All the while lacking the spirit of life and rejoiceful soulishness of that spritely season. No, in its place remained an otherwise portrait of the landscape rusted into ruin, in every way scorched earth and parched at that. As December descended there was trepidation that the trend would continue. It would have appeared that Christmas would be one of little snow, to an otherwise scant amount, or worst: a bone-dry brown Christmas. Yet, finally snow came; not in the typical hollowing and waling of a blistering snowstorm, but a nightly surprise of sustained and continued shower of snowflakes. During the duration, the portrait of russet and brown desperation, was baptized in an indifferent and silent white. The air plated in a metallic aftertaste. Of course, the science is in too, winter sunsets are superior with their clear air, cold temperatures, and the positioning of the sun. Regardless, the defining feature of winter beyond its lengthened shadows; its otherwise plain austerity; its moonstone skies and mackerel scale clouds; is its snow. The great whiteout terraforming the land, concealing and burying a world and creating and reveling in a new one. In all, an empire of sparkle and silence.

As a child and student in primary school, I (in addition to my classmates) was informed that each snowflake on the ground, in a snowbank, or flittering from the sky was singular and unique, a geometrical marvel of ice crystals which formed in the atmosphere and continued their metamorphosis until they reached their earthly destination. As students and children, each of us accepted this fact in the same fashion as we accepted that the sky was blue, or that the seasons changed. Of course, we subscribed to the belief that an ancient and immortal jolly saint flew around the world once a year in a sleigh driven by flying reindeer, delivering merriment and gifts. Snowflakes being unique and independent in symmetry, shape, and form was not a stretch of belief. If memory serves correctly, the lesson concluded with a carefree exercise of making paper snowflakes which would then be used to decorate the seasons Christmas pageant (or perhaps the classroom—the utilitarian details have since faded). Interestingly enough, this informal lesson of snowflakes never mentioned the snowflake savant, Wilson ‘Snowflake’ Bentley, who pioneered the study of atmospheric ice crystal formation and meteorological photography, specifically that of snowflakes.

Wilson ‘Snowflake’ Bentley does not strike one as the most romantic figure. And as a lifelong bachelor, perhaps he wasn’t. Yet an interesting man with a fascinating curiosity into the transient and brilliant world of snowflakes. Before Bentley many naturalists and mathematicians had observed and written about the geometric complexities and marvels of snowflakes, with some attempting to sketch these otherwise transient crystals. Bentley, however, became the first to photograph and capture their inherent and unadulterated beauty, amassing a collection of 5, 381 photographs showcasing the diversity of snowflake structures. Not one to be sidelined as the artistic type, Bently maintained records and recordings of the conditions and storms which formed the snowflakes, which included the length and duration of the storm, the amount of snowfall, temperature, wind directions, even the conditions of the sky itself including time, the suns positioning, intensity, and brightness. Despite this, Bently had no scientific credentials or contacts and any articles he wrote were denied publication in any scientific or academic journals and his photographs remained a secret treasure. One can only imagine the frustration and alienation Bently was subjected to in his very private pursuit. The neighbours of his farm outside of Jericho, Vermont found him eccentric at best and weird at worst. Knowing people of a certain generation and attitude, his devotion to personal freedom as a bachelor and lack of romance and martial tether would also have caused a few whispers and discussions. Still, Wilson Bently carried on photographing and documenting the conditions of his snowflake study, eventually showing his work to George Perkins, former state entomologist and geologist of Vermont, turned dean of the natural science department of the University of Vermont. Perkins assisted Bentley getting some articles and photographs of the snowflakes published in Appletons' Popular Science Monthly. The Harvard Mineralogical Museum bought 400 of Wilson Bentley’s photographs and commended Bentley’s accompanying metrological observations and recordkeeping. A private obsession gradually became acknowledged as meritable research, and not just frivolity by an eccentric and artistically struck individual. A flurry of interest followed with Bentley publishing more articles, facilitating lectures on the nature of snow crystals, and his photographs were reproduced into prints and analogue lantern slides to be used for teaching purposes. In collaboration with George Perkins, Bentley was the first individual to theorize and argue that each snowflake was geometrically independent and unique, with no two being the exact same. Despite the influx of activity, interest, publication and dissemination of his work, Wilson ‘Snowflake’ Bentley did not achieve financial success and would continue to live and work on the family diary farm with his brother, while maintaining an intense and enduring fascination with the beauty of snowflakes, and other meteorological curiosities and phenomena. Wilson ‘Snowflake’ Bentley died December 23, 1931 due to complications caused by pneumonia. Just before his death, Bentley received a copy of the illustrated monograph of his work specialising in the study and capture of snowflakes called “Snow Crystals,” (1931) which contained 2, 500 of Bentley’s photographs.

The story and studious personal obsession of Wilson ‘Snowflake’ Bentley is one of winter poetry. By being a metrological pioneer in not only studying snowflakes, but capturing photographic evidence of their singular symmetries and preserving their otherwise transient existence. Bentley’s own writings on snowflakes moved between empirical observation and rationale, to ethos with equal delight. Having described ice crystals as “ice flowers,” and snowflakes as “tiny miracles of beauty,” Bentley also wrote:

            “Was ever life history written in more dainty or fairy-like hieroglyphics,”

“The snow crystals . . . come to us not only reveal the wondrous beauty of the minute in Nature, but to teach us that all earthly beauty is transient and must soon fade away. But though the beauty of the snow is evanescent, like the beauties of the autumn, as of the evening sky, it fades but to come again.”

Beyond the capture and study of ice crystals, Wilson Bentley also was the first American to record raindrop sizes, and is often described as one of the first cloud physicists. All of which was accomplished from a small dairy farm just outside of Jericho, Vermont.

The state of Vermont brings to mind the imaginings of an unspoiled New England Eden, the one mythologized and so endeared by the eternal and quintessential American Poet Laureate, Robert Frost, who through colloquial and plain language pondered existential questions of the individual lost and adrift within an indifferent universe to both the hardships and joys of mortal existence. One of Frost’s most famous poems: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” is a complex poem depicting a lonely traveler during a winter evening at the threshold of some private woods, which lead to allusions of the peace of death and perhaps the temptation of suicide, as the speaker contemplates the soft and inviting darkening woods in a snowy evening; but pushes on as there are obligations and commitments to hold. As Robert Frost put it best: “the best way out is always through.” Of course, Robert Frost is only one of the many poets and writers who have found sanctuary within the charismatic landscape of Vermont. The Soviet dissident and gulag monk Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn lived in exile in the tiny village of Cavendish, before returning to a post-Soviet Russia in 1994. Vermont also held an endearing place for the late October Poet, Louise Gl├╝ck, whose famous poetry collection: “The Wild Iris,” celebrates the garden of Vermont life, its rustic charms and remoteness, while capturing the diversity of character and personality of its flora. While Plainfield, Vermont proved to be the inspiration for the collection “A Village Life,” even though the setting has shifted from the rustic North Eastern New England landscape to one of brilliant sun and Mediterranean seas and mountains, but the human folly, regret, and condition is empathetically the same. 

While the snow has arrived and finds itself endangered by rising temperatures, losing its virgin whiteness, its youthful cloud-land downy substance to melt and refreeze in crusted peaks of dirty meringue, I find myself thinking of Wilson ‘Snowflake’ Bentley and his enduring appreciation for snowflakes. His love of the winter season. Though Canada enjoys to calling itself a northern nation, it has done nothing too little to develop its northern territories or protect and safeguard artic sovereignty. Canadian’s love of winter is thin to the point of borderline bitter; where the Nordic nations have an appreciation and love of winter, embracing its challenges and revelry, where in spite of its darkness they light up even further. Bentley’s studies of snowflakes and photographs have injected a sense of life back into the season, especially since the snow was overdue in its arrival, and now finds itself existentially threatened. Despite winter being a harsh season with its bitter cold and darkened skies, it is not without beauty or wonder as Wilson ‘Snowflake’ Bentley proved with his photographs and his poetic waxing and waning lectures regard the beauty of snow, encompassing both the symmetries of snowflakes and the romantics for a season often denied such pleasures.

Thank you for Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read
M. Mary