Snowflakes: A Chapter From the Book of Nature (1863)
Snowflakes were not always emblematic of the unique. Israel Perkins Warren, a prominent American minister and author of Snowflakes: A Chapter from the Book of Nature (1863), offers a brief history of efforts to typologize frozen water crystals. In 1755, John Nettis published an account of his experiments, begun fifteen years prior, to observe “the wonderful Configurations of the smallest shining Particles of Snow”. He saw ninety-one varieties, many of which this “Oculist to the Republic of Middleburg” illustrated with needles and columns that resemble delicate leaves. In his 1820 Account of the Arctic Regions, Captain William Scoresby arrived on ninety-six varieties, which are diagrammed with lacey opacity on plates bookended by nautical charts and narwhals. Warren copies his own designs from these predecessors as well as the images of Cecilia Glaisher, one of the first women photographers, whose formal interest in ferns harmonized, perhaps, with her illustrations for explorations of snowflakes written by her husband. Unlike these other texts, Warren’s Snowflakes does not typologize, but instead serves chiefly to introduce “this interesting department of the Creator’s works” and elicit “those sentiments of admiration and reverence which his wonder-working power should inspire in every beholder”. The “treasures of the snow”, writes Warren, “are open to all who choose to explore them”.
Snowflakes begins with a short chapter on “snow structure”, the scientific pretense of which melts before the reader’s eyes. “Much attention has been given to the meteorological conditions of the atmosphere during the fall of snow”, Warren reports; “Nothing very definite, however, is discoverable in this respect.” The same applies to causal arguments about the marvelous geometry of flakes. “Of the hidden causes which originate these beautiful productions, nothing whatever is known. . . . even if [magnetic or electrical] theories were demonstrated, they would explain nothing.” There is no need for further understanding because the First Cause is clear:
Snow is formed in the higher regions of our atmosphere. It is the wild, raging water of the ocean, the gentle rill of the mountains, the beautiful lake, and the vilest pond on earth, all taxed and made to contribute at the bidding of their Lord to this department of his treasure-house. They send up their tribute in the finest particles of moisture ; the steady contribution coming up from all parts of the globe indiscriminately.
And yet, from the extracts of poetry and devotional prose that follow — including works by Eliza Cook, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Julia H. Scott, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Hannah Flagg Gould, and dozens of other writers — rapturous theories of snowfall emerge. Organized thematically (“Purity”, “Grace”, “Beauty”, “Weakness”, etc.), Snowflakes posits, to take just one example, that water freezes along “the angle of sixty degrees*,* or some multiple of it” because flakes are like flocks: “the fleecy crystals, through spreading abroad each in its utmost individual liberty, being still retained within one ownership and belonging to one fold”.
In the early twentieth-century, Wilson Bentley’s microscopic photographs of snowflakes would popularize the idea that no two ice crystals are alike. Warren’s beautifully-illuminated volume, in its resistance to dissection, inadvertently swung closer to the present-day consensus. In 2013, researchers in Japan divided snowflakes into thirty-nine categories, further divisible by 121 subtypes. Flakes are indeed, it seems, of a flock.
December 4, 2012
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