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A year ago today, over breakfast at a diner in his home town of Dripping Springs, Texas, Greg Lasley and I reminisced about his expeditions across the planet and the diversity of life he had captured as one of the world’s most talented and prolific nature photographers.
Greg and I talked about the moths, at least 18 species, we had seen and photographed that very morning before breakfast and the night before at the home he shared with his wife Cheryl. We talked a lot about birds and dragonflies and butterflies. And we talked about death.
Although he was at terms with his terminal disease, Greg was also game for a lung transplant that might give him a few more years. After all, at the very least, he wanted to get to the Northeast with Cheryl, particularly here to Vermont, one of only four states unrepresented in his vast body of photography.
Before I left him that morning, Greg gave me one of his 1.4x teleconverters and a 300mm Canon lens, through which he had, in untold thousands of photographs, documented the diversity and drama of life on earth. “I won’t be needing this stuff anymore,” he said. To which I replied, “Okay, I’ll take it, reluctantly, but I’ll use it when we meet up in Vermont.”
After our breakfast, we bumped elbows, said our goodbyes, and smiled at one another (we weren’t yet wearing masks in those early days of the pandemic). I hopped into my truck (in which I had been living while chasing nature in Texas) and drove toward home here in Vermont.
He gave so that we could see the world.
Gregory William Lasley, who died on January 30 at age 71, will certainly leave behind a legacy of nature photography — a vast library of life — from around the world. But a more sacred legacy, among his many wonderful attributes, will be Greg’s benevolence. It’s not a word I use or write that often. But in Greg’s innumerable and selfless acts of giving, in his desire to do good in the world, and to share its wild beauty and diversity with the rest of us, benevolence is indeed warranted — and yet at the same time feeble by way of comparison to Greg Lasley.
It’s not often you meet a Texas cop who chases bad guys and good warblers. The old-timer birders among us might remember Greg from back in the 1980s, when he would pal around the world with the likes of Victor Emanuel and Roger Tory Peterson. With Texas a frontier of new, rare and exciting bird sightings, Greg had a passion for photographic documentation of those rarities — and the cameras and skills to provide it. Maybe those standards had something to do with his serving in law enforcement with the Austin Police Department, retiring as a lieutenant in 1997. From there, he could chase and photograph nature to the far corners of the planet. As a guide for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours (VENT) from 1985-2005, Greg was a teacher and mentor to countless others. And until he died, Greg continued to give — photos, advice, data, praise, wisdom — to almost anyone who loved nature as he did.
When he began turning his lenses toward insects, Greg was, well, revolutionary. Like Roger Tory Peterson himself or Jimi Hendrix or Wayne Gretzky, in his insect photography, particularly dragonflies, Greg was creating and accomplishing something few of us had ever seen. Many of us now follow the trails he blazed.
We follow figuratively and literally. As if his photographic and civic accomplishments weren’t enough, Greg was a force of nature on iNaturalist, the crowd-sourced repository for nature observations around the planet. He himself contributed 38,983 observations to iNaturalist, each with a photo. In the early spring of 2019, as friends and I were chasing birds and bugs and botany around the southeastern US, Greg was in the field as well, not far away, posting to iNaturalist what he was finding each day. We were a few days behind him, visiting some of his hotspots and locating what he had found days before us. Even from a distance, Greg was our guide.
But Greg’s own iNaturalist submissions represent but a fraction of his benevolence on that platform. iNaturalist relies on a corps of volunteers to view photos and attest to the veracity of each submitted record. Greg vetted no fewer than — are you sitting down? — 451,428 iNaturalist submissions. Nearly half a million data points of knowledge and conservation. Nearly half a million points of Greg’s light.
When Greg died at home, iNaturalist and Facebook lit up with tributes. The accounts, virtually endless and poignant and heartwarming, constitute a monument to all that he gave us without hint of self-aggrandizement or self-interest. He gave so that we could see the world.
Once the pandemic had spread, and with his lungs failing from idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (besetting him for no good reason in late 2019), Greg and Cheryl could no longer host visitors at their home. Although I will be forever grateful for my visit — including a supper replete with political insights from Cheryl, a savvy retired Texas judge (quite a pair, those two) — I wish I wasn’t the last person to stay with them. Greg had so many friends who knew him far better than I did; so many more of them deserved visits and even a chance to say goodbye.
Yet merely by my being in his neighborhood at the time, I now carry with me not only the inspiration of Greg’s benevolence, but also something tangible: a camera lens that has seen the world. It is like a cellist receiving one of Yo-Yo Ma’s well-played cellos. A sacred responsibility. And I can only hope to do that lens — and the world — justice.
Six months after my visit, on September 3 at 8:57AM, Greg snapped his last photograph for iNaturalist, a Harp-winged Tripuda Moth (Tripudia quadrifera). And later that day he telephoned me to say that he and Cheryl had gotten the call and were on their way to San Antonio for his lung transplant. A week after that, with those new lungs, Greg would tell me in a text from the hospital that the recovery was the toughest fight of his life. I like to think that he didn’t lose that fight; instead, those lungs lost their chance to spend more time with Greg.
Greg Lasley may not be remembered among the pantheon of American conservationists — from John Muir to Rachel Carson, from Edward Abbey to Robin Wall Kimmerer. And yet those who see wildlife and wild places, and bring them into focus for the rest of us, are indeed, in no small part, among our greatest heroes, our finest conservationists.
And so, Greg, as a police officer you saved the lives of people. As a husband and friend and citizen, you personified love and dignity and benevolence. As a photographer, you helped to save a planet. We should all aspire to such a life.