In one of our interviews, he told me about “hilltopping,” the phenomenon that hilltops, mountains, etc., are great places to find butterflies and all sorts of other insects. He described it as a kind of dating bar.
There was one other person with us: Bill Johnson, also a photographer and, briefly, a student of Parks’s. As I said, Johnson’s also a photographer, but his subjects are often inanimate, i.e., dead. He’s the manager of the Chula Vista PD Crime Lab and a forensic photographer. As his art, and for his soul, he takes splendid nature pictures and was just learning macrophotography. I have a shot of us taken at Palomar. I must say, we are quite a trio. Parks, laconic, in blue; me with binoculars around my neck and a tape recorder in my shirt pocket; and Johnson, a meticulous man, in a photographer’s safari suit, film canisters lined up in his vest. It turns out, they knew what they were doing. It turns out, most of what I thought I taped didn’t get taped because I plugged the microphone into the earphone jack.
As soon as we got to Palomar, we walked to a small pond with a large reed bed at one end. Parks knew we’d find butterflies there and we sure did. What would be a slight blur to me, less than one of those motes we occasionally see in our peripheral vision, he would spot and identify — giving both the popular and the scientific name and other details about it. He’d sometimes say, after he’d given a name, that he wasn’t sure if he’d pronounced it absolutely right. If I referred to him as an entomologist or a lepidopterist, as I did above, he would always correct me, remind me that he didn’t have the academic credentials to claim those professions. Ziiiiiip — an iridescent dragonfly, and crossing its flight path, the green glint of a damselfly. I ask Parks the difference. Bingo: dragonflies, also known as darning needles, have the reputation of being dangerous. They are: to smaller insects. Dragonflies rest with wings outstretched. The more delicate damselfly rests with wings held to its sides. They both lay their eggs in water, which is why there were so many of them near this pond.
We took one of the trails into the forest. I noticed a sign: Plague Warning. Since I’m a bit of a lay expert (if I am to be reincarnated, let it be as a professor of medieval history!) on the Black Plague, I took this to be a good omen. Still, I made a mental note to be sure not to feed any squirrels or other rodents, a thing I sometimes find myself doing unconsciously.
There was also a sign about rattlesnakes. This did concern me. It’s not exactly an uncommon feeling: lots of people are not nuts about snakes. I read about them. I watch that crazy Australian guy on the Nature Channel picking up the world’s deadliest and most aggressive snakes and talking sweet to them. I read somewhere that we should confront our fears. Or did I hear it in a psychiatrist’s office? Or did some pop psychologist say it? That’s how to get over this fear: I’ll just touch a snake. Fat fucking chance! Parks told me a story of lying down for a long time once in the desert, taking photographs of a lizard, and finally, he looks to his left, and just a few feet away, “within easy striking distance,” is a rattler, which was probably there all along. If that happened to me I wouldn’t need to spend years at the Maharishi University learning how to levitate: that would lift me right off the ground. I did just about step on a copperhead when I was a kid while climbing a half-assed mountain. My homeboys still claim it as the highest vertical leap they’ve ever seen. So snakes I was hoping we wouldn’t see.
We followed the trail, Parks leading the way, identifying flora as well as butterflies and other insects. We came to a flat, grassy, weedy place at the bottom of a hill. It teemed with butterflies. It’s practically impossible to photograph butterflies on the wing. When they’re feeding at a flower, imbibing fluids, one can usually approach. Ditto mating pairs. Courting pairs, however, are too frenetic. Basking or perching butterflies are approachable, but ovipositing females (a female about the business of laying eggs) are too skittish. Parks waded into the brambles carefully, slowly, one step at a time, eyeing different butterflies, planning a route, actually, to be in position to get a good shot. It’s all about timing, and angles. There’s a lot of frustration, perfect opportunities are few and may last only seconds. Parks said what one needs most is patience and knowledge, which he has gained from reading “all there is to read,” because we need to know “what the hell we’re looking at.”
Parks has a butterfly Zen thing going, though. The butterflies were more…comfortable around him. I’d heard this about him, that he was a Dr. Doolittle of insects. As usual, modestly and a little impatiently, he explained it as just experience, a sense of what will spook them and what won’t. At times, butterflies would surround him, or even light on his hand or wrist. Most never came that close to, and certainly never landed on, Bill Johnson or me. Sometimes I could follow close enough behind Parks to lean over or around his shoulder while he set up or took shots. Johnson took a beautiful picture of Parks, the lens of Parks’s camera only a few inches from a bright yellow butterfly called a California dogface perched on a neon pink thistle. I’m behind him, looking very intently too, but, if I remember right, I was staring at a stick thinking: that looks like a snake!
Later, we took a walk in a large mountain meadow. It was too dry and hot out here for butterflies. Parks told me about a fly he likes: the robber fly. A fierce predator, it catches its prey — other flies, butterflies, etc.; it’s not picky — in the air, injects it with a paralyzing fluid. It then falls to the ground, and quickly the robber fly sucks it dry. If nature had made them the size of cocker spaniels, Parks said, there would be no humans on earth, just our husks. I like to think about stuff like that.