Why I’ve Been Gone

Hi everyone.  Some of you may have noticed that I haven’t posted anything for over a week, but I had a reason for that.  I got a call late last week that my dad was very sick and in the hospital, so I rushed out to California along with most of the rest of my dad’s tiny family to see him.  I’m glad I did because I had a chance to spend a few days with him before he passed away on Tuesday night.  As you might imagine, it wasn’t a very fun experience and blogging most definitely took a backseat to making sure my dad’s last few days were comfortable and then dealing with the immediate aftermath of his death.  It might take me a little while to get back to a more regular blogging schedule as there are still a lot of things to deal with that will take a lot of time, but I’ll post when I can.  But first, let me tell you about my dad and his role in making me the person I am today.

Dad and me at Broadmoor

My dad and me at the Broadmoor, the fancy 5 star hotel in Colorado Springs

My dad was one of the biggest supporters of my interest in insects from the very beginning.  I decided I wanted to be an entomologist before I was old enough to drive, so my dad took me out collecting all the time.  Most summer weekends that my family didn’t spend in the mountains of Colorado collecting minerals or fishing, my dad’s two favorite hobbies, I spent with my dad collecting insects.  He’d drive up to two hours to take me somewhere really cool to collect.  I am 100% sure that my dad was scared of most insects, but still he took me collecting. He was awesome like that.  Plus, if I saw something really cool and told him about it, he would get all excited about it.  He had very little interest in insects in general, but he would get excited about them just for me.

Dad at Yellowstone

My dad, looking on as my sister did her Park Ranger walk in Yellowstone

My passion for dragonflies is a direct result of my dad’s willingness to nurture the entomological tendencies of his elder daughter.  He would drive me three towns over to a big lake with a lot of dragonflies so I could collect.  It was the best place to collect dragonflies because you could hide in the cattails, using them as a little odonatological duck blind.  If you watched the dragonflies for a while, you could learn their flight patterns and choose the exact perfect moment to strike out with the net from your hiding place in the cattails.  I had a very high success rate there, and I loved that I had FAR more dragonflies in my collection than anyone else who did collections for the 4-H entomology project.  Collecting dragonflies with my dad was what made me love them.  If he hadn’t done that, I’m sure I would not be the Dragonfly Woman.  Heck, I might not even be an entomologist.

Dad at Pali

My dad at the Pali Overlook on Oahu. My dad always had a thing for nice views, and that was a particularly nice one!

I decided that I wanted to do a Ph.D. shortly after deciding I wanted to be an entomologist.  My dad was the reason why I thought that Ph.D. was so important.  He got his master’s degree and began his Ph.D. at the University of Arizona.  He didn’t finish it, however, and told me many times that that was one of the greatest regrets of his life.  I wanted to get a Ph.D. in part because I knew it would be important for what I wanted to do, but also because I wanted to finish my doctorate for my dad.  I am currently close to finishing, and I would have liked to have been able to tell my dad that I was done.  However, I am now more determined than ever to finish.  My dad was so proud of everything I did and even if he’s not here to cheer me on, I am confident that he would have been ecstatic to see me finish my degree.

Dad's favorite photo

The spider photo my dad loved – you’ll read about this shortly

And finally, I owe my interest in cameras to my dad.  He bought an awesome camera in the late 70’s so he could learn how to take photos of minerals.  He never got all that great at it because he never really understood how it worked, but we had a great camera with a macro lens my entire life.  I might never have even known it was possible to take close up photos of things without that camera and my very first macro photos were taken with it.  I splurged and bought my first macro capable camera, a Nikon Coolpix 995, soon after I started grad school.  That camera opened up a whole new world to me, a world that I shared with my dad by sending him shots via e mail.  His enthusiasm for my photos encouraged me to improve.  My dad went over a decade without using a camera much at all, but then I showed him how to use my little Nikon by taking a photo of a jumping spider on our house in Colorado when I was home for a visit.  It was just a poorly focused snapshot (that’s it up at the start of the paragraph), but he reminded me of it all the time.  He would say, “Remember that time you took that photo of that spider on the house?  You could see EVERY HAIR on its legs.  Wow!”  I gave him that camera when I bought a second one and it renewed his interest in photography.  I gave him the second one when I upgraded to my Canon G11.  And when my second Coolpix finally died on him, my dad got a Canon G12 because he knew I loved my G11.  He adored that camera.  It was something that my dad and I talked about a lot, something that we enjoyed together even though he had moved to California and I didn’t get to see him as often anymore.  That camera is sitting on my desk next to me at home as I write this.  I intend to put it to work come spring, and I’ll think about my dad every time I do.

Dad at Shoshone Lake

My dad taking a photo of me photographing Shoshone Lake in Yellowstone

I miss my dad terribly.  He was a really important part of my life and a person I truly enjoyed spending time with.  He shaped so much of who I am.  Still, I am grateful to have had such a wonderful father and even though I will miss him always, I carry a lifetime of memories.  I will cherish them always.

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Buying Books About Insects

One of my commenters mentioned a book about insects that I have loved for as long as I’ve been seriously interested in insects, The Practical Entomologist by Rick Imes.  It came out about a year before I decided I wanted to be an entomologist and I was thrilled to find it at my favorite used bookstore in Colorado Springs, CO.  The bookstore has changed ownership and names several times and is a pale shadow of what it used to be, but I still have, and love, the book.  In fact, I just yesterday unpacked it and lovingly placed it on my bookcase in my home office after flipping through it for the thousandth time.  It took a place of honor among the several hundred insect books that fill up the entire bookcase and it is one I am sure I will always enjoy.

Thinking about that book again and seeing my well-loved copy of it made me think of how I got it.  My dad discovered the bookstore where I bought it.  He went nearly every weekend, looking for books about the Western US and geology and the bookstore was big enough and eclectic enough to have a lot of books that he wanted, unusual things you couldn’t find anywhere else.  I can’t even remember when I started going with him to the bookstore, but it was unusual for me to go a month without visiting it with my dad.  At first I was into buying collections of comics, The Far Side mostly.  But, as I started liking insects and then decided I wanted to become an entomologist, I gradually made my way over to the animal section of the store and found their phenomenal insect book collection.

Some of my all-time favorite insect books came from that shop.  The Practical Entomologist was an important book for my development as an entomologist because it told me, for the first time, how to make a proper insect collection and how to do things like photograph insects or create little habitats for them.  I absolutely loved that book when I got it.  I bought my first old entomology textbook there too, Entomology for Beginners: For the Use of Young Folks, Fruit-Growers, Farmers, and Gardeners by A. S. Packard.  I credit this book for inspiring my love of both printmaking and old science books.  That book set me back a measly $2.75 and I still consider it one of my best insect book finds ever.  It costs a lot more than that anywhere else now, which is part of why I loved that bookstore so much.

I bought my first field guides at that shop too.  My favorite at the time was a book called American Nature Guides: Insects by George C. McGavin.  This is far from my favorite field guide now, but the illustrations are marvelous and I found it incredibly helpful as I first learned my insect families.  I bought a lot of general insect books too, like the Time Life insect book and one about insect flight.  I had that butterfly alphabet poster that features photos by Kjell Sandved on my bedroom wall (and then my dorm wall and my first apartment’s wall) and was thrilled to find an entire book of his butterfly photography in the insect section at the bookshop.  Getting to see butterfly scales that close was a magical thing to me at the time.  That bookshop was marvelous, absolutely marvelous, and had a spectacular insect book collection.  No other bookstore has ever come close to matching that shop in my eyes.

I got $10 a week in allowance as a teenager and that had to pay for everything – movies with friends, meals out with friends, and everything other than clothes that I wanted to buy.  Choosing which books to  buy each week was an agonizing decision and I would frequently ask my dad for an advance of 2-3 weeks on my allowance so I could buy every title I wanted.  Every now and again my dad would “forget” that I owed him a week’s worth of allowance and would give it to me anyway.  Honestly, I think he enjoyed that fact that I shared his passion for eclectic books and was willing to forgo the normal teenager stuff to spend all my money on bug books.

And I still spend a good part of my spending money on insect books!  The books I buy now tend to be new rather than used and I usually buy them online, but my insect book collection keeps growing.  It currently takes up nearly an entire bookcase, and not a small bookcase either.  No, this bookcase is a foot taller I am and 5 feet across, a big, heavy oak bookcase that can stand up to the incredibly heavy science books I am most likely to buy these days.  I’ve got two whole shelves of nothing but dragonfly books, but I still have a dozen more on my wishlist too.  I love insect books, and I don’t think that is ever going to change.  I can think of much worse things to spend my money on.

Looking at my books brings back so many good memories – good times spent with my dad, fun classes that I enjoyed, places I’ve gone, and people I’ve met.  They’re a visual representation of my passion for entomology, of a life lived doing something I truly love.  Those books make me happy and remind me that I’m still on the right path.  I love my insect books.  Oh, that reminds me!  I still wanted that book on…  :)

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Ode to My Bug Nets

me at Los Fresnos

Me at Los Fresnos in Sonora, Mexico, with my aquatic net.

Every entomologist, amateur or professional, should have a bug net.  Collecting insects is an important and informative part of the experience of being an entomologist and you need a net to do most of it.  Plus, if you’re going to be an entomologist, it seems only proper that you have that big symbolic icon of our science.  I mean, who’s heard of an entomologist without a bug net?  It’s just unnatural!

I bought my first bug net in 2005.  It’s one of those fancy compact jobbies that fold up for easy storage and travel.  I got the swanky red plastic handle to go onto the end of the pole for easy gripping.  I got an extension pole so my net is about 4 feet long, long enough to snag a dragonfly from the shore of a pond.  I love my net!  It makes me feel good to own it, happy to use it.  It’s a great day whenever I get to haul my net out of my closet and chase some unlucky insect down.  I’m always a little sad when I fold it back up and hide it back in that corner of the closet.  I swing my net HARD, like a softball bat, so I have to be careful to pay attention to where people are around me when I collect.  But that’s okay.  Unless I’m out collecting with other entomologists, people give me a WIDE berth when I use my net.  It’s obvious from the way they carefully avoid me that most people think no sane adult runs around public parks with a bug net.

Even though I didn’t BUY a net until 2005 I’ve had a net far longer than that.  My first net was a homemade one that I built myself in the 9th grade.  Remember how I mentioned that I did all the girlie 4-H projects in my post about insect cakes?  Well, sewing was one of them.  I made rather non-traditional clothes, but I also put my mad seamstress skills to use in other areas: bug net making!  If there’s anything that makes sewing decidedly ungirlie, I think it’s making nets for catching insects.

My first bug net was a simple contraption I designed that cost less than $2 to make.*  The materials were simple: a wooden dowel, a wire coat hanger, duct tape, a needle and thread, a rubber band, and 1 yard of cheap white nylon netting (tulle – the stuff they use in wedding dresses and other formal women’s attire) from the fabric shop.  Making the net was incredibly easy!  All I did was fold the netting in half the long way and stitched up the side.  I wrapped the rubber band tightly around one end to form a nylon net sack.  I straightened the hook part of the coat hanger and formed the rest into a circle, then duct taped the straightened hook to the dowel tightly so that the circle stuck off the end.  Then it was a simple matter of folding the open edge of the nylon netting sack I’d made over the wire coat hanger and stitching it into place.  Very easy!  My nets took less than 15 minutes to make.

I used these nets for a good 12 years before I finally broke down and bought a professional net.  Why spend $30 on a net when I could spend $2?   I did the entomology project in 4-H for 4 years in high school and used these nets to capture nearly every insect in my collection.  I started teaching other people how to make them.  When my mom moved away and started to look out for insects for me, she made herself a net using my design.  It’s simple, cheap, and it works.  In fact, it was so simple, that I was able to make nets for outreach events on several occasions.  I worked as an intern at my county’s extension office throughout college and we did a lot of day camps and outreach events in the summer.  Because I helped plan, they often had insect themes or activities.  I took huge groups of kids out into Colorado’s high prairie to collect insects using those cheap little nets.  Someone loses one?  Who cares?  One get broken or ripped? Nothing a little duct tape and some thread can’t cure!  I could make enough nets for a whole group of kids for less than $50, which worked perfectly with the small budgets we had for these events, and the kids had a great time collecting.  It made me so happy to put my skills to good use.

Want to know why I eventually bought a professional net rather than continue using my homemade ones?  When I first moved to Arizona for grad school, my car was stolen.  I got it back 5 weeks later, but the thieves had taken everything in my car – my bike, my radio’s faceplate (but not the radio – who DOES that?), and all my bug collecting gear, including my nets.  I didn’t really care that they had taken my bike.  Annoying, but I bought a better one the day my car went missing.  I had to buy a new radio faceplate.  Whatever!  But my bug nets?  That was a major loss!  I was more angry that they’d stolen my bug nets, those stupid little cheap things I made that were completely worthless to anyone but me, than my car.  Those nets and I had some good times and I was sorry to see them go.  I didn’t really have the heart to make more, so I borrowed nets for a while, then finally broke down and bought my own.

That first net purchase led to other net purchases.  I use a soup strainer for most of my aquatic insect collecting, but I bought a good aquatic net eventually.  That’s it up there in the photo.  I bought a few other pro nets that don’t collapse because they’re a little more sturdy.  I’ve made some really fancy nets for aquatic research.  But it doesn’t matter which net I use.  Taking any of them out means I’m going to have a great day, one spent outdoors doing something I love. My nets make me all nostalgic, reminding me of long summers spent working on my insect collection nearly every moment of every day and chasing a western tiger swallowtail for THREE HOURS because I was too stubborn to let it go.  Ah, those were the days!

So here’s to my bug nets!  $2 or $100, my nets have been among my most treasured possessions for years.  I can’t imagine that changing any time soon – and I honestly don’t want it to.  After all, what kind of entomologist would I be without my net?

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* If anyone happens to be interested in my net design, I could be persuaded to post a tutorial.  It should be pretty easy to figure out from the description above, but it’s nice to have pictures sometimes.

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

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

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