Harvestman At Large
Welcome to my blog, Harvestman at Large. On this page I will record some of my thoughts about life and living in Torfaen, and especially about those topics that interest me. In particular, that means observations on the natural world (we have loads of great wildlfie in Torfaen), and probably some musings about chess.
All feedback is welcome (so long as it is reasonable or constructive, obviously).
Anyway, on with the blog...
So, how to start? Well, if you are reading this, you may well be wondering about the title. Why Harvestman? Well, a harvestman is an arachnid, a relative of the spiders, and is often confused with spiders. They are often called 'Daddy Longlegs', but this is confusing too, because 'Daddy Longlegs' also means a sort of long-legged fly, called a cranefly. There is even a 'Daddy Longlegs' spider. A harvestman is different.
I got the name nearly twenty years ago, on a university field trip to the Lake District. Knowing my interest in spiders, fellow students kept rushing up to me as we were climbing the slopes of Blencathra, shouting
"Mike! I've got a spider for you!"
As it turned out, in every single case, it wasn't a spider at all, but a common sort of harvestman, by the name of Mitopus morio. After a few dozen of these moments, I was shouting back
"It's not a spider, it's a harvestman!",
usually without even looking, and of course, the name stuck. Instead of Spiderman, I became Harvestman.
On Tuesday I went to the first of a series of talks on the wildlife and countryside of Torfaen, by local naturalists Steve Williams and Colin Titcombe. The talks were hosted by Torfaen council, and the first was very interesting. I will definitely attend the others.
It got me thinking about the wildlife that we have in this area. When I moved back to Pontypool, after nine years away being a student, I was truck by how wonderfully green and open everything is. With the hills, there are great views everywhere, and you can be out in the countryside after a 10 minute drive form anywhere in Torfaen. Even on foot it doesn't take much longer.
Of course, with it being January, and the weather being uniformly horrible, you might think that there isn't much wildlfie about at the moment, but that isn't true at all. I had a post-lunch walk with my dog, Solo (after Napoleon, not Han), on Christmas day, and was delighted to see a kingfisher on the canal. It brightened up a grey day. More recently, I've been slightly further afield, to Wentwood, spotting fungi (they are around all year if you know where to look, but try Pontypool Park from late summer as a starter), and found a lovely bit of Artists Fungus (it's flat, and you can draw on it!). Last week I was in the Black Mountains, north of Abergavenny, watching ravens and buzzards, and admiring all the little waterfalls created by the run-off from all the rain that we've had lately.
There are even spiders about! I know there is the window-frame spider, Zygiella x-notata, living on the security light outside my front door. It is pretty much the only web-making spider to continue to make a web through the winter. It probably can be found on the outside of most of the houses in Torfaen. It likes car wing-mirrors, too.
The other spider, is the Daddy Longlegs spider that I mentioned earlier, Pholcus phalangiodes (pictured to the right). This only occurs indoors, not liking British winters (sensible beast!), and I spotted it at the Kwik-Fit in Abergavenny, where I was getting a puncture sorted out.
So, the message is: the wildlife is out there. At this time of year, you just have to look a little bit harder for it.
A new week, and an opportunity to look back on last week. Two things come to mind.
The first is the death, on Thursday, of Bobby Fischer. Fischer was the world chess champion in 1972, beating Boris Spassky in a famous match that captured the attention of the world, being symbolic of the cold war, with its Russia versus America finalists. The match made chess popular for a while, and brought a lot of people to the game. Fischer was never one of my chess heroes - in fact he was possibly my least favourite chess player. This was partly because of his arrogant attitude to other players, which later degenerated into paranoia as he got older, and partly because my heroes were Fischer's great rivals, Bent Larsen and Anatoly Karpov. Fischer comprehensively beat Larsen on his way to winning the title, but then refused to defend his title a few years later against Karpov. Nonetheless, no-one, myself included, would ever argue that Fischer was not a fantastic player. I rate him as one of the two greatest players to have ever lived, along with Garry Kasparov, and the older I get, the more highly I rate Fischer.
I include a fairly simple Fischer puzzle here. Most of his play was far more sophisticated than this. White to play, and win.
(From Fischer vs Euwe, 1960)
Scroll to the bottom of this section of the blog for the solution to the puzzle.
The other thing is more personal. Since the new year, I've been on a health and fitness drive, in an attempt to lose weight. Two years ago a doctor told me that I had to lose my excess weight by the time I reached the age of 40, or I stood an excellent chance of developing diabetes. At the start of this year, I weighed exactly what I did then. I'm now almost 39. So, the diet started on January 1st. Well, not so much a diet, more a lifestyle change. No more sugary snacks, or eating between meals. Lots more exercise. I'm pleased to say it is working really well, hasn't been hard to stick with, I'm losing weight, and most importantly of all, I feel great! Mentally and physically. My weigh-in this morning showed a loss of 2 pounds, and my mood was the best that I can remember in a long time. I hope it continues.
To come full circle, the improved mood seems to have had a positive effect on my chess, too. I play for Pontypool in the Newport and District Chess league, and am currently on a 6 game unbeaten streak (3 wins, 3 draws, in that order). Normally I would lose a game or two in there. Mind you, I've had some luck...
Here's hoping for more.
Puzzle solution: White plays 1.Be5. If black plays 1...Bxe5 then 2.a7 and the pawn cannot be prevented from becoming a queen. If instead black makes any other move, then white will play 2.Bxd4, and again the pawn is unstoppable.
Hmm, ten days since I was last here. A lot must have happened. Wish I could remember any of it...
I think the weather was the most memorable part of the last week or so. Heavy rain, and strong winds. I am the voluntary warden of Henllys Bog nature reserve, for the Gwent Wildlife Trust, and am involved, ironically, with monitoring water levels at the site. This means traipsing into an already wet and boggy site, through churned mud, to try to measure the degree of wetness at several locations. Answer in all cases: very wet! And that applies to me as well.
Still, as I have said previously, there is wildlife around, and I was able to record 13 species of fungi at the same time. It was surpising how easy it was to find fungi that were obviously different from each other, once I 'got my eye in'. I'm no expert on fungi, but I had a good reference book with me, and just comparing what I was seeing to the pictures in the book was simple enough.
In chess, my run of good fortune (as opposed to good play) continued when I survived a totally lost position against Newport. In the end I should have won, but I wouldn't have deserved it, and my unbeaten streak was preserved with a draw.
I also took part as an arbiter (chess referee) in a juniors event last weekend. Teams from Berkshire, Wiltshire, Devon, and Somerset met a South Wales team at under 14, under 11 and under 9 level at Peter Lea Primary School, Cardiff. These are large events, with more than 220 children in attendance, plus parents, team managers, event organisers, arbiters, and school staff providing refreshments and facilities. A huge undertaking, and all done voluntarily. This particular event is an annual occurrence, and this year it was South Wales' turn to play host. The South Wales under 14 team retained the trophy that they won last year, Somerset won the under 11s (on a tiebreak), and Devon took the under 9s. All events were close fought.
What I enjoy so much about these is to see the effort and enjoyment of the youngsters. To sit down and play a competitive game of chess (with a time limit adding to the pressure) is no easy task for a child of less than age 9, especially when it can involve concentrating hard for more than an hour. The room may be full of children, but the only sounds are those of clocks ticking and of pieces being moved. Behaviour is uniformly excellent, disputes are always settled by agreement, and most of all, at the end of the event, everyone leaves smiling (and exhausted, in the case of the organisers and arbiters). I would urge any parent with a child who enjoys chess not to shield them from the competitive world of junior chess, but to give it a try. All of the children that I see who are involved have a great time, and jump at the chance to do it again.
That's why I do it. Next one in a fortnight...