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Snowflake Bentley

I’m really pleased that my poem Snowflake Bentley appears in the window of the Totnes community bookshop, The Belle, Book and Candle for this Advent week. Thanks are due to my poet friend, Harula Ladd, for this simple, but effective way of getting a series of poems by different poets out of the study and onto the street! It has to be said, Harula is a tireless supporter of wordsmiths in and around the town and beyond. She has organised the first poetry festival for the town, plus a great series of readings in the shop, and her blogs have championed the work of many of us, during this ultra-challenging year.

Snowflake Bentley is inspired by the story of Wilson Alwyn Bentley (1865 – 1931), a Vermont farmer’s son who was enchanted by the wonders of snowfall from early childhood. His mother, a schoolteacher, gave him an old microscope when he was a small boy… and he became fascinated by the snow crystals he was able to study… and so began his lifelong fascination with snowflakes.

This was in the days before electricity and cameras had only been around for 20 years or so. Eventually, Wilson managed to acquire a bellows camera and rig up his microscope as an attachment, which he could focus, at the same time as he focussed his cumbersome contraption of a camera – sheer ingenuity! He then proceeded to chase snowflakes around fields for the rest of his life, in order to capture their images on camera. He was obsessed by the pursuit of snow’s variety of crystal form and bewitched by the transitory nature of its intricacy. He used a feather from the farm’s chicken coop to move the flakes around and just the natural light of the bitterly cold Vermont winter to illuminate his subjects. The results of his single-minded dedication are more than 5,000 fine portraits of snow crystals. The brilliance of this work was discovered in 1923 by a publisher with the sound sense to release a book featuring Wilson’s snowflake prints and their story. Then, he was celebrated in The National Geographic Magazine and the spectacular work of Snowflake Bentley, as he became known, suddenly was a worldwide sensation. It is an amazing legacy… even today, most of the snowflakes images we see are drawn from his innovative and painstaking work.

Snowflake Bentley lived a simple life on his farm in Jericho, rural Vermont, but there is no doubt he was a visionary, both as a photographer and a meterologist. As an aside, it seems appropriate my little poem in his voice appeared first in the lovely setting of the community bookshop window in my local town of Totnes, which has been twinned, at times, with the snowy land of Narnia!

“Oh for a thousand hands and a thousand cameras to preserve more of this exquisite beauty so lavishly scattered over the earth.” -- Wilson Snowflake Bentley

Here is my poem: Snowflake Bentley

By means of a bellows camera,

I blew life into the snowflakes –

stretched their tiny arms out

for the whole New World to see.

Better than the meadow flowers

you press into an album;

each crystal only had a life

when falling – till I caught it.

I made records by means of light

and lenses and by much determination

of my wondering hands.

I got snow to explain itself.

I laid its mystical structure bare.

Harvard Professors dug through drifts

to my door, to check my glass plates and see

I hadn’t tampered with the negatives.

My pictures of fair lady’s lace,

tiny spaceships, graceful tiles

of arabesque and cobwebbed stars

reveal the secret code of snow.

Each particle, an individual

true to the universal plan –

never mimicked or repeated

like a human soul.

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