Where I Find My Heaven

When I was a teenager, Nature ruined my life. In middle age, it helps make it worth living. 

A green park in summer

TODAY IS a bloody excuse for a summer’s day: grey skies, pissing rain, flood warnings and uppity winds. More like early March than mid-June. 

About a month’s rain fell in a single day on Monday, but there seems to be no water shortage up in the Heavens as a result.

The 2019 Cricket World Cup is already the most rain-affected ever and, right now, Jupiter Pluvius is still messing with almost 80 per cent of the domestic games that are supposed to be taking place. 

It doesn’t look like we are in for a re-run of last year’s fabled summer. But it’s all right. Ain’t nothin’ gonna break my stride. Or, indeed, slow me down. Because I have started the day happy, and I trust myself to manage my mood from now on. 

Over the years, I have got quite adept at noticing the things that leave me feeling chipper, and finding sly little ways of ensuring that I do them. 

Often, they are small things. Like the short, enlivening ride to the Bike Shop this morning, where I dropped off the axe for a service. 

Walking back home, I detoured a few hundred metres so that I could take in a bit of a grand local park and be with nature – and instantly the scene was quieter, yet more alive, more interesting. 

I saw that the grasses there – whether intentionally or through austerity – had been left to grow high and were hula-ing winsomely in the breeze, their not quite flowery tops vivid lilac against the wet-green background. 

I felt the rain fall on my unguarded bonce and let it, resisting the impulse to pull up my hood. Heavier drops slid from the big shadowing leaves of trees in summer and I heard them land, dull and atmospheric. 

The park was a country estate long ago and, in the garden of the old lodge at its entrance, I saw red poppies and tall yellow flowers I couldn’t name blazing with an intense, watery sheen. 

And behind the lodge, where the gardeners have their tool compound, a great tractor tyre stood tall and singular in the mud, like a giant fruit polo; casual art.

Excited, I got out my phone and began to snap pictures. It had only taken a few minutes, but the detour had more than paid me back in joy. 

Had my 16-year-old self been able to see me, he would probably have puked on his Golas.

Because when I was a kid, plants were bo-RING, and it would be incomprehensible to my spotty former self to see me taking such solace in nature now, 

Although running around outside was always one of the things I loved, thinking about the wider environment was just not part of my youthful universe. 

Except, that is, on Friday nights, when Mum used to watch Gardener’s World on BBC Two, slap bang in the middle of prime time, for what seemed like the entirety of the 1970s and 80s.

Even though it was only on for half an hour, my brother and I would fizz with outrage that garbage like this could even be allowed near our telly, when we could be watching something choice like – I dunno, The Incredible Hulk or The Rockford Files?

But back then, we were a one-screen family and, back then, sharing was a thing. We had to wait our turn, so we settled back on the sofa determined to hate something – and almost instantly found it in a Yorkshireman called Geoffrey Smith.

Boss seedsman though he was, Smith brought a Boycott-esque bluntness to the already unbearable tedium of the gardening medium.

He was the sort of guy to venture lengthy and trenchant opinions on the uses of poinsettias that were seemingly tailor-made to cajole insufficiently under-the-breath curses from the mouths of soft southern teenagers.

He was the spark behind our almost-weekly mutinies over TV: an orgy of seditious eye-rolling, snickering and groaning that was met, inevitably, with ferocious reprisals from a mum who just wanted to LOOK AT SOMETHING RELAXING, YOU FUCKERS! after a shit week at work.

Not only were we banished to our rooms until the show finished, but we also would not be seeing Ross Jenkins’ stilt-like legs in action on Match of The Day that weekend, still less Daisy’s equally remarkable limbs in The Dukes of Hazzard.

Were she still around, Mum would no doubt appreciate the irony that I have an allotment now, and that I can instantly tell bindweed from a pea shoot. She would probably be happy that I can deadhead a Peony and, effortlessly, earth up potatoes.

I didn’t think it was ever going to happen, but I’ve changed.

Once, when I was still a teaching assistant, our class talked about our special places, and I straight away thought of outside. Another outside. 

I thought of a spot in another park where I stretch after a run. There’s a fallen-down – or chopped-down – tree, gradually becoming overgrown by blackberry bushes in a quiet area near the perimeter

It’s just the right height to stretch a hamstring on and I am always full of endorphins when I stand there, thinking about a job well done. It’s a place where I always feel hopeful about the future, near and far.

It’s also a place where I frequently get bitten round the ankles by midges, but they can never stop me from going back.

Once, in the middle of a cruelly short winter’s morning, I looked up from stretching and saw the sun and the moon separated by a vapour trail, like God was working out percentage sums and using the radiant blue sky as His tablet.

Like me, like Mum, like Geoffrey Smith, the Special Place won’t last for ever. The tree is already hollowed out by mould, and new bits break off every time I put down a leg now.

The blackberries and ivy are smothering what’s left, and there’s now only about nine inches or so of clear wood where I can stretch without thorns biting into my leg.

​Perhaps I’ll take a pair of secateurs with me next time and sort them out.

After all, I was taught to garden by the great Geoffrey Smith. 

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