Why I Am an Entomologist

The end of 2011 is coming up fast!  This time of year is often a time of reflection where we ponder the past and make plans for the future.  In that spirit, today I’d like to tell you all a bit about my childhood and my family, what I believe led to my becoming an entomologist.  I’ll get back to the sciencey posts on Science Sunday and into the new year.

family

My Grandpa with me (right) and my sister

My grandfather died just before I turned 6, so I barely remember him, but I do remember a few things.  He had a fantastic collection of turtle figurines that I absolutely loved.  He would pick up bumblebees without fear, even though he was deathly allergic.  (I later learned that he only picked up the non-stinging males, but it was so magical as a kid!)  And my grandfather was a birder.  A serious birder.  Any time my cousins (who are all much older than I am) tell stories about our grandfather, they talk about being outside with him, carrying binoculars and squinting at birds up in the trees, learning about the plants and animals around them.  I remember my grandfather telling me about the birds in my Arizona backyard.  My grandfather built up an impressive bird life list and passed his love of birds and nature on to his kids and grandkids.

Now I didn’t know my grandfather very well, but my cousins are outdoorsy in various ways.  They claim to owe a lot of their nature loving personalities to my grandfather.  They hike and learn about the natural history of their areas.  They bird and camp and raft and teach their kids how to do everything they learned from my grandfather.  I think it’s great to be a part of a family that is so inclined to appreciate the changes of the seasons, who save up money to buy really expensive binoculars, and carry bird books in their back pockets.  Even though my cousins were much older than me when I was growing up, I always felt like I got to experience a little of what they experienced with my grandfather through them.

parents

My parents on one of their many outdoor excursions before I was born.

My grandfather’s influence is very apparent in my mother too.  She is a birder.  She also learned to fish and swim and shoot rifles from my grandfather.  Thanks to my mom, I can make a mean campfire and cook an excellent fireside meal, swim quite well, and I’m a good shot.  And my mom never cared if my sister and I brought animals into the house when we were kids.  We were both little tomboys, so we spent most of every day outside catching lizards and snakes, watching birds, pressing flowers and leaves, and building enormous snow forts in Colorado.   My mom may never have picked up a bee, but she was really into nature and allowed her kids to be too.  And she barely even cared when the snake got out of its cage and said, “Eh, it will turn up eventually.”  I thought that was awesome.

my dad

My dad with his beloved Porsche. He was about to start mineral collecting in this photo!

Then there’s my dad.  He spent his childhood in the woods in North Carolina.  I don’t really know where his interest in nature came from, but I’m pretty sure he developed it on his own.  He told my sister and me stories about accidentally releasing snakes in his school and how he was stung many, many times by a swarm of angry wasps when he stepped on their nest.  My dad loves birds and enjoys fishing.  My dad’s first love, though, is geology.  He is obsessed with minerals!  When I was very young, he spent nearly every weekend going out to various locations in Arizona to collect, sometime rappelling down into old mines or blasting rocks apart with dynamite.  (I’m sure there are laws against the latter now!)  When we moved to Colorado, he left the dynamite behind, but the whole family went mineral collecting nearly every weekend.  When it was too snowy to get to his favorite collecting spot, or just to change things up occasionally, we’d head to the river instead where my sister and I would swim (the very thought makes me cold as an adult!) or ice skate and spend whole days fishing and playing in the river.  We were fascinated when we found a big aquatic insect under a rock one day and screamed bloody murder every time a harmless little garter snake swam past us down the river.

columbine

A columbine I photographed in high school. Pardon the dust!

When I headed into my teenage years, I was starting to get a little sick of spending every weekend in the mountains covered in dirt or river water with my dad.  But then I started collecting insects.  And then I learned that being an entomologist was a real profession.  And ten I started photographing things.  Suddenly the mountains were a grand place to collect insects or practice with my camera and I actually wanted to go again.  I built up a large collection of Rocky Mountain insects and a massive photo collection over 3 or 4 years.  It was great!  My dad started to get interested in insects too, and sometimes we went to the mountains specifically so I could collect.  And my mom still didn’t mind if I brought home jars full of bugs, dead and alive, and spread them all over the dining table.  My mom rocks.

Pikes Peak

Beyond this mountain lay countless outdoor adventures! Shot this photo shortly after I started using my first SLR camera in high school.

I think I am an entomologist today largely due to my family.  Nature was important to everyone (even my dad’s parents once they moved to Arizona) and I spent a lot of time outdoors as a kid.  I learned to appreciate the things around me.  More importantly, I was allowed to interact with the natural world.  Once I discovered insects, it was all over – there wasn’t a chance that I was ever going to become anything other than an entomologist.  I don’t have kids, but I find myself teaching my students the same way I was taught, letting them experiencing things on their own.  And I can tell my family had a profound influence on the direction I’m headed in life because my sister has ended up in a similar place, teaching kids and teens about ecology and natural sciences as an Environmental Education Park Ranger.  We still run around in the desert together catching lizards and marveling over how amazing the world really is once you get off the beaten path, just like we did as kids. I absolutely love it!

So, a great outdoorsy childhood, nature loving family, and the discovery of insects doomed me to a life as an entomologist.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © TheDragonflyWoman.com

Palo Verde Beetles – An Appreciation

One of my earliest memories involves a giant insect.  If you’re one of the few people who’ve read my blog from the very beginning (and you, my friends, are amazing!), you already know about my unfortunate run-in with this beetle:

Palo verde beetle

Palo verde beetle (Derobrachus hovorei)

For those of you who haven’t read the story, it goes like this: Imagine a 4-year-old girl in a cute little sundress sitting on her backyard swing, the one her father created from a smooth board and some rope slung over a strong tree branch.  It’s dusk.  She’s happily swinging, maybe humming a little, when suddenly a monster falls out of the tree and lands on her shoulder.  It’s a 3 inch long, black beetle, one with massive jaws, spikes adorning its strong thorax, and sharp claws at the tips of its long legs.  It lands inches from her exposed neck.  The girl jumps off her swing and starts running around the yard, screaming her head off like any self-respecting 4-year-old girl does when a 3 inch long insect appears on her shoulder.  Eventually, one of her parents rushes into the yard to see what is going on, brushes the beetle from her skin, and takes her into the house to safety.

I have a very, very vivid memory of this incident, even though it happened so long ago.  The beetle did frighten me horribly when it fell onto my shoulder that night, but it was mostly from the shock, the beetle having magically appeared on my shoulder as if out of thin air.  For some reason, apart from this one moment of weakness (and let’s face it – ANYONE who has a large, 3 inch long peevish beetle fall onto their shoulder unexpectedly is going to be shocked for at least a moment), these beetles have fascinated for me as long as I can remember.

Palo verde beetle (Derobrachus hovorei)

Palo verde beetle (Derobrachus hovorei)

Palo verde beetles are gigantic and very scary to a lot of people who encounter them.  It’s wholly understandable that people might be a little squeamish of a 3 inch long, well armored beetle.  It probably doesn’t help that they’re also nocturnal and emerge from the shadows when you least expect them.  They’re so big that you can hear them walking before you see them, an audible harbinger of doom warning you before the beast appears.

But I love them still.  I can’t explain why exactly, but I do know that if you have a chance to watch these beetles they become vastly less intimidating.  Palo verde beetles are so large that they are very poor fliers.  They bumble around in the air, swooping and swerving this way and that.  They always look a little drunk when they fly.  As a child, I used to love watching them try to fly through our chain link fence, only to knock their heads or wings into one of the metal parts and fall to the ground, dazed and momentarily disoriented.  Often, they would fall on their backs and their legs would flail around in the air ridiculously as they tried to right themselves.  To this day, I enjoy watching these beetles moving around.  They smack into walls and cars and the sidewalk.  They trip over their own feet at times when they walk.  Even though they’re big and scary to look at, I love them in part because they’re hilarious to watch.  There’s something so comic about these hulks tripping all over their gangly bodies like teenagers who haven’t quite adjusted to their most recent growth spurt.

Palo verde beetle (Derobrachus hovorei)

Palo verde beetle (Derobrachus hovorei)

Palo verde beetles are inexorably tied to “home” in my mind as well.  I have hundreds of memories of these beetles from my early childhood and they eventually became a sort of symbol of my desert home for me.  I was very sad when I learned that Colorado didn’t have these beetles when we moved there.  Imagine a 9-year-old girl longing for a giant beetle!  But Arizona was always home to me, no matter how long we lived in another state.  When we came back to Arizona to visit my grandparents for the first time, about 7 or 8 years after we moved, I was absolutely thrilled that the very first insect I saw was a palo verde beetle, wandering along under the door to my grandparents’ guesthouse.  I don’t recall ever having picked one up as a child, so I didn’t realize they could bite until I watched the angry beetle clamp his jaws onto my grandfather’s hand as he scooped the bug up for me.  My poor, ailing grandfather cried out in pain because the beetle bit him.  I gained a new respect for these beetles that day.  But, I was still very happy when I moved back to Arizona and saw my first palo verde beetle.  I mistook her for a pack rat at first because she was so enormous.  I could barely believe it was possible for a beetle to be that big, but there she was, running along the wall of the apartment complex as I watched, the biggest insect I’ve ever seen.

Palo verde beetle (Derobrachus hovorei)

Palo verde beetle (Derobrachus hovorei)

The palo verde beetles are also a symbol of summer to me.  The summers in southern Arizona are rather miserable.  Temperatures of 110 degrees F are not uncommon and there is a long dry period of unrelenting sun and heat for a few months before the monsoons set in during the late summer.  The beetles start to come out during that hot time, when people just want to melt into their couches and never move again.  For me, they brighten an otherwise unpleasant time immeasurably.  I squeal with childish delight every year when I see my first.  Against my better judgement, I rush over to grab the beetle – carefully, by the abdomen directly behind the thorax.  As the beetle illustrates his displeasure at my interruption of his evening by thrashing around in a mad attempt to bite me or skewer my fingers with the spikes on his thorax, I carry him into the house as proudly as a hunter bringing home a 12 point buck.  I wave the giant beetle in front of  whoever happens to be in the house at the time and ramble on and on about how fabulous they are.  Then I snap a few photos and release him back into the yard, so he can continue flying drunkenly about the city in search of mates so that I can do it all over again the following year.

Palo verde beetle (Derobrachus hovorei)

Palo verde beetle (Derobrachus hovorei)

I really don’t know what it is about these beetles that I love so much.  They’re big.  They’re rather  ill-tempered and can have a nasty mean streak if you interfere with their business.  One of them frightened me as young child.  By all rights, I should hate these beetles.  But I don’t.  I find their presence near my home a cause for great joy.  I celebrate their return every year.  It makes me so happy to know that they’re out there, that I might find one crawling sluggishly around my front door one night as I run out to chuck a bag of trash into the can.  A whole day might turn around simply because I see one of these beetles.  A few months from now, I’ll be carrying surly beetles into my house to photograph them, to document their continued existence, and then let them go on their way again.  And it will make me happy, just like it always does.

I had intended for this post to focus on the natural history and lives of the palo verde beetles, but it has clearly turned into something else.  Someday I’ll share more information about their biology.  Today I wanted to share my appreciation for these magnificent animals.  Hope some of you will appreciate them with me!

Palo verde beetle (Derobrachus hovorei)

Palo verde beetle (Derobrachus hovorei)

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011 DragonflyWoman.wordpress.com

The Nightmare After Christmas

Lethocerus as Santa

Santa Water Bug

Black Friday marks the start of the Christmas season, so I want to get a jump start on the holidays by sharing an entomological Christmas story with you!  This is no happy Miracle on 34th Street type story though.  Oh no!  This is more like Nightmare Before Christmas.  Except it happened after Christmas.  Hence the title.

Let’s start at the beginning.  About 5 years ago, I got a call from my dad saying that he was going to come visit me for Christmas.  I was ecstatic!  It was going to be the first Christmas I hosted at my house.  I was only going to have one guest and make a fairly small dinner, but I finally felt like an adult.  Imagine my subsequent disappointment when my dad told me a few weeks later that something had come up and he was no longer able to come visit me for Christmas.

So, rather than my first Christmas at my place, I ended up visiting my dad for a few days before Christmas, then went back home December 23.  Going home two day before Christmas to spend Christmas alone is a rather depressing activity.  I also knew my Christmas would consist of a trip to drop some friends off at the airport at 6AM and then a day at home alone.  I felt sorry for myself when I got back to my empty apartment.  I don’t like feeling sorry for myself, so I decided to do something fun to cheer myself up.  On Christmas Eve, I decided that the thing that bummed me out more than anything was not having the Christmas tree I was so excited about.  Then I went out and bought one.

The tree I chose was Canadian and maybe 3 feet tall.  It was kinda spindly.  It was shockingly expensive for a tiny, spindly Christmas tree that I bought after noon on Christmas Eve.  (Who else is still looking for a tree 12 hours before Christmas?!)  It had this little white piece of fluff near the top that I couldn’t get off.  I ended up calling nearly every shop in town trying to hunt down a Christmas tree stand and 2 hours later I finally tracked one down.  It was gigantic, the kind of stand we used for the 17-foot Christmas trees my family had when I was growing up.  The screws were barely long enough to hold the tree up and it looked ridiculous.  I didn’t care.  I lovingly decorated my tree with the little box of ornaments I’d collected since I first went away to college, wrapped tons of lights around the branches, and then stepped back to admire my handiwork.  I was really happy with the result (though apparently not happy enough to take a photo that was in focus – my apologies!):

Christmas tree

My first Christmas tree! I cleverly hid the flat, spindly side in the back. :)

Having my little tree made me feel so much better about being stood up on Christmas.  It made me really happy and I spent a lot of time staring at it. And, because I had bought it so close to Christmas and it was completely fresh, I knew it would last well beyond Christmas.  I was determined to keep it up as long as it lasted.  “Happy Valentine’s Day everyone!  Let’s gather around the tree!”  MY tree wasn’t coming down until it started drying out.

And then one day in late January, I woke up, walked into my living room, and realized in an instant what that little white fluff on the tree was.  I was greeted that morning by hundreds or thousands of tiny baby spiders crawling on a MASSIVE web they had built in my living room.  It was a spider egg sac!  The warm temperatures in my house must have let them hatch and then they started building.  The web stretched from the wall behind the tree clear across the room to my couch.  There were spiders all over my CD player, my insect books (oh, the irony!), the floor, the bookshelves, the art on the wall.  They were EVERYWHERE!

Now I’ll admit that I’m not a huge fan of spiders.  I’m good with a lot of them and don’t care if they crawl on me if they’re the right kind of spider, but they still elicit this serious shivers-down-the-spine creepy feeling on occasion.  And let me tell you, starting a lazy weekend morning off with thousands of baby spiders in the house sort of short circuited my brain.  I couldn’t get the tree out of the house fast enough!  Off came the ornaments, off came the lights, off came the tree stand, and the tree was flung hastily and utterly unceremoniously out the back door.  Then came the arduous task of vacuuming up the spiders and the web.  Two hours later, I flopped down on my couch exhausted, but secure in the knowledge that my Canadian spider scourge had been vanquished and my living room was once again free of the tiny arachnids.  Of course, I imagined them crawling on me for the next week, but what can you do.

And that’s my holiday spider story!  I hope everyone has a marvelous Thanksgiving and has fabulous plans for the upcoming holiday season!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2010 DragonflyWoman.wordpress.com

How to tell if your child is likely to become an entomologist

I’ve been hard at work writing papers based on my research recently, so I’ve been writing science galore!  Unfortunately, this means that I’m in scientific writing mode and I’m finding it hard to write a decent post for the blog.  I’ve started about 6 different posts, but none of them are turning out the way I want them to.  I’ll finish all of those other posts sometime, but I’m giving up for now and doing something non-scientific.  Today’s topic: how to tell if your child is likely to become an entomologist.  And I have embarrassing illustrations!  Behold this photo!:

kids with bugs

The Dragonfly Woman (right) and Little Sister Dragonfly as nymphs. Photo by Mother Dragonfly.

Shortly after I began grad school, this photo arrived in a package from my mom.  This pretty much sums up my childhood in Arizona, before my family moved to Colorado.  That’s me on the right in the smashing Little Red Riding Hood costume skirt/blue and white striped swimsuit/purple scarf ensemble and my sister is on the left rocking the tutu/single jellie look.  (For those of you that know me in person, yes my hair really was both straight and blonde as a kid!)  My sister and I wore these outfits often and generally looked pretty homeless.  Sadly, I still often look pretty homeless when I’m out doing field work.  While many field scientists I know buy $80 tech pants at REI, I am not about to spend that kind of money on something that will likely a) be ripped, b) become hopelessly stained, c) get acid burns, or d) all of the above within my first 3 excursions.  I buy my field clothes at Target and Goodwill thank you very much.  When I rip the whole butt out of my pants in some magnificently clumsy maneuver, I’m out maybe 10 bucks and don’t want to cry.  However, this also means I wear these horribly stained ratty clothes out in the field.  In other words, I haven’t changed my style much since I was kid.  My sister has thankfully upgraded her wardrobe and DOES buy those $80 tech pants (usually on sale), but she is a park ranger and not an entomologist.  I’m a bit harder on clothes than she is.  Park rangers also actually talk to people on a regular basis while we entomologists are prone to being somewhat reclusive.  I mean, who DOESN’T want to talk to someone who looks like a homeless person running through the park with a bug net over her head yelling, “AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!” as she goes?  :)  You can tell from my wardrobe as a kid that I was meant to be a bug person.

I now draw your attention to that spot on the carpet I’m staring at in the photo.  And if you look really closely, maybe move your head around to change the angle, you can see that my sister is holding a string in her hands.  While the clothes are suggestive of future bug geekdom, the items at the end of the strings are an even better indication that I was doomed to study bugs for a living.  That spot on the carpet and the thing at the end of the string my sister is holding is this:

Cotinus mutabilis

Cotinus mutabilis, also known as the fig beetle.

This is an appallingly bad photo of an otherwise gorgeous beetle (I recommend you check out Alex Wild’s far superior photo of this beetle) called Cotinus mutabilis, or the fig beetle.  If you grew up in Arizona like I did, you might also call this a June bug even though it isn’t a bug.  (If you’re interested in what makes a bug a bug, please check out my post on the subject for details.)  Fig beetles are about an inch long and sport a velvety matte green on top and metallic green on the bottom – they’re amazingly beautiful beetles.  They’re also very gentle beetles that fly around southern Arizona during the summer.

So what, you might be asking yourself, are my sister and I doing with them in the photo?  We’re flying them of course!  My dad would catch the beetles for us, tie threads onto one of their hind legs, and give us the other end of the threads to hold onto.  When the beetles tried to fly away, they would get to the end of the tethers and start flying in circles around our heads.  We’d fly our beetles for about a half hour, then we’d untie the threads and let them go.  It’s one of my favorite childhood memories and we did this a lot.  In the photo, both of our beetles were wandering around on the carpet rather than flying.  You can tell that I am the one who ended up becoming an entomologist rather than a park ranger because I’m the one on the floor with my beetle.  Park ranger little sis is keeping a respectable distance between her beetle and herself.

I really love this photo.  My sister and I both look absolutely terrible (and my mom wrote this lovely sarcastic note on the back after it was developed: “Playing with June bugs on strings – in particularly attractive outfits – the way they usually look!”), but it’s a reminder of an activity I dearly loved as a kid.  And once you decide to take the plunge and turn that bug obsession into a career, your family starts to send you all of these photos full of clues that you were destined to become a bug geek from the start.  I have a feeling most entomologists have photos like this.  Display them proudly, fellow entomologists!  I know I do.

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2010 DragonflyWoman.wordpress.com

Why Dragonfly Woman?

I use the name Dragonfly Woman for a lot of things.  Whenever I make something for someone (especially cards), I put my Dragonfly Woman stamp on it to indicate that I made it myself.  I have used it as a screen name for several things.  It’s just a good name for me.  So how did I get this name?  Good question!  To understand the origin of the name, I’ll first have to tell you about how I discovered and came to love entomology.

I was terrified of most insects as a young kid.  You would be too if you’d had some of the experiences I had.  My earliest memory of an insect was a palo verde beetle landing on my shoulder one night when I was in my back yard, innocently swinging on my  swing.  I think I was about 4 years old.  For those of you who are not from southern Arizona, palo verde beetles are huge, 2-3 inches long, have long legs with sharp claws and really massive mandibles that can pinch quite hard, and they have spines all over their thorax.  They are formidable insects:

palo verde beetle

This palo verde beetle was in my carport last summer.

So there I was, a helpless little kid, having fun in the yard, when this giant beast fell from the sky and landed on my shoulder.  I did what any self-respecting 4 year old girl does – I screamed bloody murder and raced around the yard flailing my arms trying to shake it off.  I was traumatized enough by that encounter that it impacted a camping trip to the Chirichaua Mountains my family made a year or two later.  My parents took us hiking and we came across a field filled to the brim with ladybugs.  There were ladybugs on pretty much any available surface, millions of them.  I refused to go anywhere near them because insects were scary and not to be trusted, even if they were cute little harmless ladybugs.  The fact that we got stung by wasps every single time we went to visit my aunt in Kansas only reinforced the idea that insects were something to be feared.

Somewhere along the line, I lost my fear of insects, at least the ones that really couldn’t hurt me.  One summer when I was 10 or 11, my neighbor across the street (a girl my age) and I decided we needed to make an insect collection.  We began haunting her mom’s garden, a haven of dill, squashes, and other veggies that attracted grasshoppers like mad.  We collected as many as we could, dispatched them in rubbing alcohol, and put them in a shoebox.  We caught hundreds.  And then we went around the neighborhood tricking the other girls into opening the lid to our box of horrors.  I am ashamed to admit that we were using our first insects for such dark purposes.  :)

The next summer, we decided to do things properly.  We got pins, several field guides from the library, and set out on a quest to make a fabulous insect collection.  We worked at it really hard and just about every day for a couple of summers.  It eventually spanned 5 boxes and included several non-insects such as spiders and centipedes.  We had a few mishaps – like spiders that weren’t completely dead when we pinned them and were casually walking around the collection box the next day – but we were proud of our work.  I was particularly thrilled by the activity and became more and more interested in insects.

Then one day I learned that the study of insects was called entomology and people actually got paid to do it!  My life changed that day.  I soon discovered a 4-H project in entomology and signed up for it.  I read the entire project manual the day it arrived and by the time I finished reading it, I knew I wanted to be an entomologist.  It was my first day of 9th grade and I already knew what I wanted to do with my life.  I have never regretted my decision.

Anax junius adult

Green Darner (Anax junius) male – notice the large wings and huge eyes!

So back to the original question: why Dragonfly Woman?  When I did my 4-H projects, I relished collecting the bugs that were showy, big, or hard to catch – things that made my collection stand out and look different from all of the others.  My favorite things to catch were the dragonflies because they were the biggest challenge to collect.  Dragonflies fly very quickly, have fantastic eyesight, and can maneuver like mad, so they can not only see you coming at them with a net, but easily dodge it most of the time.  I learned a lot about dragonflies simply by observing them while catching them and they have been among my favorite insects ever since.

I started grad school intending to study dragonflies.  I quickly discovered that I was the only person in my entomology department who knew much about them.  I was familiar with the literature and read a lot about dragonflies, so I became the expert of the department.  The secretary started directing calls and e mails concerning dragonflies toward me so that I could answer questions and provide information to the public.  As a result, people started calling me the Dragonfly Woman.  Every now and again someone would end up at my office door asking. “Are you Chris?  They tell me you’re the Dragonfly Woman.”  I was thrilled to have the nickname!   Nevermind that I ended up studying a different aquatic insect or that I don’t get to work with dragonflies nearly as much as I’d like to anymore.  I am the Dragonfly Woman and always will be.  I’ll work with dragonflies again too.

Soon after I started grad school, I read one of my many books on dragonflies and came across a reference for a paper about sand flies in Australia.  Several new species were named in the paper and one of them was named after Coon Undura, an Aboriginal mythical being that translates into English as the dragonfly woman.  The paper didn’t go into specifics about how she figured into the Aboriginal belief system or what Coon Undura represented and/or did, but I was thrilled.  I share a nickname with a mythological character!  I then started to wonder what Coon Undura might have looked like, and I eventually created a block print of my interpretation of her.  The Dragonfly Woman logo you see around my site is a scan of that block print.

The Dragonfly Woman is a fitting name for me.  Between the photographs/scans, my book collection, my home decor, the stickers and license plate on my car, my accessories and clothing, and many crafty and/or artistic projects that highlight  my love for dragonflies, I am the dragonfly woman.  And I am thrilled to be starting this blog!  I hope you enjoy it!

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Text and images copyright © 2009 DragonflyWoman.wordpress.com