Greatness in Quiet Corners

We didn’t always think each snowflake was special.

In fact, we didn’t think much of snowflakes at all. Except what a hassle they were en masse. Until Wilson Bentley came along. Which was 1865 in Jericho, a quiet corner of Vermont with one daily train and over 120 inches of snow in the winter.

Mr. Bentley was raised on a 10-cow dairy farm and educated by his mother, her encyclopedias, and an old microscope she had from her teaching days.

He loved to stick flowers and bird feathers and water drops under the microscope. But it was the snowflakes that fascinated him most.

“Snowflakes were miracles of beauty,” he would say. “It seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others. Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted…that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.”

He knew there were cameras that photographed through microscopes. And when he was 17, he and his mother convinced his father to buy this camera-microscope set-up. It was the set-up he used for the next 50 years.

With it, Mr. Bentley made records of snowflakes for others to see. Storm after storm, year after year, he stood outside in his felt hat with his compound microscope and bellows camera taking pictures. The neighbors, he knew, thought he was a little cracked. “I’ve just had to accept that opinion and try not to care,” he said.

He wrote articles, a book, even the entry “snow” for the 14th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. But there was no great fame or great money made in it. He owned one dress-up suit and still lived on the Jericho dairy farm, though he had grown it from 10 to 20 cows.

“I am a poor man, except in satisfaction I get out of my work,” he once reflected. “In that respect, I am one of the richest men in the world. I wouldn’t change places with Henry Ford or John D. Rockefeller for all their millions. I have my snowflakes!”

Five thousand, in fact. Which was the number of pictures he took in his 50 years of quiet, passionate work.

And after those years, when Mr. Bentley died at the age of 66, the local newspaper wrote of him:

“Greatness blooms in quiet corners and flourishes under strange circumstances.”

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