What an old snowflake taught me about being an adult
There I was on a snowy street in Japan, thinking about perfection
It snowed in Takayama this week. It had snowed the night before and there were snowdrifts along the road and on the west-facing slopes of the roofs and underneath the red metal bridges and of course the peaks of the Japanese alps across the river plain were a bright and unblemished white but the sky was blue and clear and cold when I arrived and I was afraid that I’d missed the falling snow. But that afternoon, as I walked up Memory Street past the sake joint and the beef restaurant and the little stall selling hot balls of diced octopus in batter, it started to snow again, puffy flakes that drifted down and danced sideways, that made the sky soft and silent.
I stood in the street like a stupid tourist and tried to catch snowflakes on my eyelashes and the backs of my hands and thought about the thing that used to trouble me when I was a child: how do they know that no two snowflakes are ever the same?
Think how much snow must have fallen since the beginning of time, all the snow in Antarctica and Alaska and Poland. Think of all the snow that fell on Napoleon and he never even went to Siberia, where it snows a whole lot more. Never mind Siberia, just think of all the snow that falls on-screen in Dr Zhivago, and that wasn’t even filmed in Russia. Just imagine all the snow that falls unseen every day and every year, and that fell unseen in the ice ages that passed long before we came along and declared that no two snowflakes are the same.
This must be nonsense, I decided when I was young. Across the whole world, across all earthly time, there must have been at least two the same, and if there could be two there could be more. How are we testing this assertion, I wondered? I imagined a vast ongoing scientific programme involving armies of technicians and fieldworkers spending their lives doing nothing other than collecting snowflakes and adding them to databases and cross-referencing with other similar organisations. I wondered how old I would be when there were klaxons and sirens and headlines around the world announcing: “Identical snowflakes discovered!” It seemed to me that there was no question more urgent or important than this.
I was a child, so I was a little like the original snowflake man, Wilson Bentley, the daydreaming son of potato farmers in rural Vermont, who was given a microscope for his 15th birthday, a snowy day in February 1880, and took a closer look at a snowflake. What he saw seemed so perfect, delicate and wonderful – “nature’s unimprovable masterpiece”, he called it – that it seemed to him the principal tragedy of life that these creations are constantly melting away unseen and unappreciated, as though Raphael or Hokusai or Velasquez were standing at their canvases producing unceasing works of genius and tossing them straight in the fire. This ongoing holocaust of unrepeatable beauty so troubled him that he dedicated the rest of his life to preserving what he could and letting humanity see it.
He would stand out in the snow with a piece of chilled black velvet and catch falling snowflakes. He used a turkey feather to brush away the broken and the damaged and then – holding his breath in his unheated barn so that he wouldn’t melt the masterpiece – he tried to draw the delicate patterns of the crystals.
Wilson Bentley soon discovered that he couldn’t draw, so he bought a camera and in his chilly workshop took the world’s very first photographs of snowflakes, discovering a technique of scratching out and blackening the background on the photographic plates to present the flake itself more clearly. When you imagine a snowflake now, when you see one in a graphic design or a Christmas decoration or wrapping paper, you’re seeing one of Wilson Bentley’s snowflakes: perfect, whole, a glimmering crystal symmetry. They were reproduced in National Geographic and Scientific American and just before his death he published a book called Snow Crystals, containing 2,500 of his favourite snowflakes. Wilson Bentley’s photographs of snowflakes were so good, so widespread and iconic that for nearly a century it didn’t seem necessary for anyone else to photograph them.
But when people did start to examine snow more closely for themselves, they discovered something troubling: Wilson Bentley’s snowflakes did not seem to exist in nature. Snowflakes, it turns out, are not one thing that form in the sky and fall to earth in all their splendid intricate uniqueness. Snowflakes are like the world and like us: they constantly grow and shrink and change. They malform and mutate, they land shattered and messy. A snowflake you encounter now looks entirely different to five minutes ago – the snowflake hitting the wing of your aeroplane is not the same flake that would land on the pine branch if the aeroplane hadn’t been there – and who is to say which is its true shape?
In order to present his perfect crystals, Wilson had to discard almost all the flakes he caught on his swatch of black velvet and, more troublingly, it appears that he used his scraping techniques to “fix” many of his specimens, to restore them to what he considered their true forms. God made them perfect before they fell, thought Wilson Bentley – why would we not choose to enjoy their full perfection?
And I have sympathy for that way of thinking, but I also know now that it’s how a child sees the world, or a lunatic, or an ideologue. Because as an adult you learn, or you should learn, that nothing is perfect, that none of us is perfect, that we and the world are imperfect things in constant transition to nowhere in particular, that beauty and worth aren’t dependent on or even related to perfection. Perfection is not only not possible, I’m not even convinced that it’s desirable.
It wasn’t a perfect moment, standing in the snow on Memory Street in Takayama this week: I wasn’t wearing the right shoes and the snow made my feet wet; I was tired and a part of me was worrying about my future; the sake joint was closed when I tried to go in; the beef restaurant was too expensive; the octopus balls tasted of octopus; the scene was not more lovely for my presence in it. But it was the world, and it was life, and it was beautiful.