More recently, he’s been working as a custodian at the San Diego Natural History Museum, not the kind of work he usually likes, but it keeps him close to creatures he loves and he’s devoted to the museum, has both taught and taken occasional classes there. He owns little and spends most of his disposable income on film and better photographic equipment, most recently a new lens, which has features that will greatly improve the things he can do. Bob Parks is 57 years old and about six feet tall, lean, and brown of arm and face, from the sun — he spends as much time as possible in the field, photographing. His pictures have appeared in several publications and at the San Diego Natural History Museum as well as the San Diego Art Institute. One of his photographs was recently a finalist in a national competition and was exhibited at the Smithsonian. I never saw him wearing anything — in the field, at home, out for dinner — but a denim work shirt, jeans, boots. Outside, in the sun, he wore a hat. On a scorching summer day, we went to the field. I like saying that: We went to the field. Specifically, we went to Palomar Mountain State Park, where Parks knew we’d find butterflies, even though it wasn’t a prime time for them.
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.”