Imagine wanting to photograph a snowflake. Of all the impractical things. Now imagine wanting it so much that you were the one person in history to make it even impossible. Imagine you died broke.
This little-known biography is the subject of Jacqueline Briggs Martin’s Snowflake Bentley. And yes, it won a big shiny medal on its cover back in 1998, though you would be unlikely to come across it in any larger venue - and that feels kind of appropriate. A pity, our loss, still every way befitting that eccentric Vermonter who struggled and experimented for years with stubborn technology and an impetuous model to produce these records of nature’s unlimited imagination:
“I found that snowflakes were masterpieces of design,” he said, “No one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted… just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.”
My children have often asked me over the years if I thought there were anywhere on the globe - islands, forests, or the deepest bottoms of oceans – that we, as a civilization of mappers and cataloguers and extrapolators, have yet to discover. Okay, they don’t actually ask it like that, but I think it’s a fair question generally if we have not given up a little on broadening our frontiers, or anyway haven’t always invested our generation’s considerable resources – in wealth and education - in the most thrilling of further explorations.
We do not have to travel to Saturn to meet that responsibility, but I think we owe our children at least the means to imagine themselves other than following in our footprints, whether this is from books, or random, reportable acts of audacity. Their authors are living all around us, it says here, and they don’t always have to be crazy either, or noble, or die broke, though it probably doesn’t hurt to have supportive parents:
“Fussing with snow is just foolishness,” said Bentley’s father, a farmer, who nevertheless spent all of his savings to buy Bentley a camera.
It’s a pretty great story, full of setbacks and redemptions and all of the interesting little details in between. A couple of months ago I was lucky enough to cross paths with a guy who was billed as one of seven “Lego Master Builders” in the world. Owing to nothing other than coincidence, my younger son is on some kind of a circuit that gets invited to little press events around people like this; he sits and plays, and is encouraged not to notice the cameras hovering around him. The Lego guy was incredibly cheerful, gracious, and not at all compulsive like you would think. This fully grown, fully skilled adult uses Lego to build miniature Yankee Stadiums, Empire State Buildings (45,000 pieces), full scale Mazdas, and even portraits. He loved Lego when he was a little kid. He loved it, and brought it along with him, to college. To an office job. And here he is finally some kind of Lego ambassador to the world: he travels – everywhere! To places I didn’t even know existed. When the lady who had choreographed this affair (like a lot of her type, she was “larger than life” and a little bit scary) asked if he needed some transportation for the giant bin he had brought with him, he politely declined (an ambassador!), saying he had already rigged up some kind of contraption on the back of his bicycle for exactly this sort of occasion.
Maybe you’ve met these type of people from time to time who validate unconventional thinking, or maybe you have somewhere caught yourself picking them out without knowing, or shouting them down in snarled traffic. And while you are ever less likely to run into someone who wants to talk very much about their free-spirited failures, or otherwise wears their experience ambivalently, still what is all that but adventure?