Wilson Bentley was born near end of winter in 1865. He was schooled at home by his mother, on a farm in small-town Vermont. His mother encouraged his interests, and against her husband’s wishes, she bought their son the tools he needed—a microscope and a camera—to make one of the most profound and mesmerizing scientific discoveries of the century.
Bentley was curious what snowflakes looked like, but unlike most people, he was determined to find out. He was the first human being in history to see what individual snow crystals look like, and he shared his discovery with the world.
When it snows, there are literally billions of beautiful, symmetrical, unique works of art floating down from the sky onto our eyelashes and shoes, and the earth. At the age of twenty, after years of trying, Bentley perfected a process through which he would capture a single snow crystal as it fell through the air, let it fall onto his black velvet tray, rush it inside put it under the microscope, and immediately take a photograph with the camera he had attached to the microscope. A single snow crystal, never to be repeated by nature, could be seen under the microscope but it would melt in seconds, but with the camera attached, it could be immortalized.
In 1935, Bentley said, “Each snowflake was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated…when a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost.” Like moments, or people.
Now everyone knows that no two snowflakes are alike. Holiday cards show large close-ups of snowflakes. It feels like my entire life I knew what snowflakes looked like, although I’ve never seen one under the microscope, it’s just common knowledge. But most people didn’t know in our grandparents’ era. If they read scientific journals, they might have known around the turn of the century, or more likely, they would have heard by 1931, when Bentley’s book Snow Crystals was published. I wonder what my grandmother must have thought, finding out when she was fifteen or so, maybe being told by a science teacher, about the discovery that there’s more to winter than meets the eye.
You can buy a reprint of Bentley’s book at http://vermontsnowflakes.com/books.htm and elsewhere on that site you see his original photos of snowflakes, here: http://vermontsnowflakes.com/ls.htm#56. You can buy a print of “Three Snowflakes from the Great Blizzard of 1888.” Pretty amazing to see a snowflake up close from 1888. He took pictures of thousands of them and the entire collection is online, courtesy of the Buffalo Museum of Science http://www.bentley.sciencebuff.org/index.htm, which also owns the photo of Bentley himself that I included at the top of the story.
So, how did Wilson Bentley inspire Catwoman? A few months ago, DC Comics asked me to write a Catwoman short story for their winter Batman 80-Page Giant #1, a comic book format anthology of eight short stories about what happens in Gotham during the worst snowstorm in forty years. (If you want one, and you are not my parents, you’ll have to buy one—it’s $5.99 and comes out December 16, UPC Code 76194128987800111, and you can preorder it through your local or online comics shop. Don’t confuse it with other comics with the same Batman 80-Page Giant #1 title—make sure it’s the new one with my story in it!)
In current continuity, Batman is dead. But it’s kind of like Bobby-Ewing-on-Dallas kind of dead. We all know he’ll be back. But at the moment, he’s dead. Catwoman is, and has been, in love with Batman for about seventy years now, so she is secretly in mourning, in her own tough-guy way.
So I needed to construct a story about Catwoman that takes place in a blizzard, in Gotham, while Batman is dead. I started thinking about snow—what is it? It’s all these magical, majestic little falling cathedrals of natural beauty, irreplaceable and fleeting. Like the people we love. So the story is about the man who discovered snowflakes, about an evil Snow Queen who sort of sprang out of my head fully formed and inserted herself into the story, about Catwoman longing for Batman, about the line between science and magic being traversed, about the way people try to protect themselves, and it’s probably about a thousand other things I’ll figure out upon rereading it.
My husband says I don’t care much about nature except for the moon, bats, and snowflakes, about which I feel pretty strongly for no apparent reason. I’m in good company, though.