Best of Job: Snow on Snow
Originally published January 2008.
Perhaps you’ve heard of Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley, a Vermont farmer, turned amateur photographer, turned amateur scientist, turned mild sensation. In the early 1900s, Bentley used his 5,000+ collection of snowflake photographs to prove in a series of articles in National Geographic that no two snowflakes are exactly the same.
This sparked a romantic intrigue in readers and scientists alike, and his assertion was later proven true — that no matter how hard storms may precipitate, blanketing the vast acres of land in Siberia, Alaska, Tibet or Vermont, no snowflake will ever have an exact duplicate.
This is a compelling idea to consider as we step on, shovel through and wipe from our windshield the relentless number of snowflakes that visit us each year. I was recently indulging in this mind-expanding exercise while I watched it snow steadily, in weather warm enough that it was also melting and dripping off the roof in a reflection-inducing rhythm. Once perfectly unique crystals, now joined with others in a similar globular fate, speeding their melted way to form a drop falling off an eave. Never documented, never looked at, and never to be seen again.
The intricacy of a snowflake’s formation is too intense to ever truly comprehend, but its fragility pounded home to a level this human could master. I thought of a fetus — how at its very conception, it is immediately distinct, unique, exclusive and unrepeatable. But unlike a snowflake, it is not made by the chance encounter of high and low pressure systems, but rather the massive chemistry of human biology, emotion and decision.
And unlike a snowflake a fetus is not meant to quickly melt but rather grow, breathe, emote, possess fingerprints, and wrinkle. Despite its small size, a fetus — like a seed — carries the complexity to burst out, to mature into something astonishingly more. In fact, this is its very design, inexorable and compulsory.
But perhaps a fetus is most unlike a snowflake because one snowflake doesn’t require others to see it through to maturation.
And perhaps they are most similar in that all snowflakes — and all fetuses — have the same end together, in the ground.