About a decade ago a small dentist told me to go to “my happy place” while struggling to remove one of the rotten tombstones clinging to my gums.
My initial reaction was to think “I’ll send you to your happy place in a minute”, and the only thing that stopped me was offering to help with the task at hand. “You might want to get down the gym occasionally before you tackle one of these monoliths,” I sprayed out of the corner of my mouth as the seven-stone weakling grappled with his dental demons.
Later, bleeding peacefully at home, I thought about my happy place and if I had one. As I drooled casually down my shirt from the fading anaesthetic, and shouted things like “I can’t have a cup of tea till thith wearth off, tho thtop athking!” I ran through all the places in the world that are, or have been, special to me.
I don’t know why but I imagine that many people’s happy place might be a palm-tree-lined expanse of white sand, lapped by the clearest ocean ever seen, with a cocktail in their hand and just a slight breeze as a respite from the stifling heat. Or perhaps a restaurant scene, surrounded by those they love the most. Or Elland Road, amid the throng of fellow sufferers. But mine is none of these.
As mentioned previously, we didn’t have a car so day-trips weren’t really a thing for us. We weren’t encouraged to stay in though. My parents viewed anyone under the age of 13 being indoors as a criminal act unless written evidence of a blizzard, tornado or stampeding wildebeest could be provided, preferably in advance and with some sort of impact study detailing how specifically we might be killed. Unless we could pass this test we were expected to be outside unless it was mealtimes or bedtime. Looking back, it’s easy to think that they didn’t actually like us that much.
This enforced outdoors lifestyle meant that there were lots of places that were special to choose from. “The field” was where we would play football or various other sports. It also backed onto a friend’s house and his parents had less strict rules about being indoors. But the field wasn’t my favourite place.
The best thing about growing up in Middleton wasn’t, as you may have been led to believe, leaving it. It was the Woods.
There, in the middle of South Leeds, edging onto the top of Beeston and one side of Belle Isle, and bearing the name of Middleton, were the Woods. An ancient woodland within ten minutes walk of about four different council estates. I’ve often wondered that the council didn’t somehow move it to Alwoodley. “Ancient woodlands, you say? In Middleton? Wasted on them!”
And while one of the exciting things about the Woods were that every visit was fraught with the potential danger of meeting a gang from a different part of South Leeds to yourself, somehow this added to the thrill. But it was only as I got slightly older I started to truly appreciate the place.
It still boggles my mind to say out loud that there are trees, living things, that began their lives around the time of Queen Elizabeth standing there, breathing, growing and shedding leaves with seasons that pass like seconds. To stand amid them, a giant cathedral of nature, stretching up to the canopy of branches and see the dappled light coming through the leaves above, just as it has done for centuries, seems to put all things in perspective.
I know that no wisdom resides within their bark or thoughts circulate around their rings, no great philosophy falls from their branches in autumn with the russet leaves, nor any new imaginings take flight with the coming of the buds each spring and yet I always feel as though I am surrounded by mighty beings who are so much greater than myself, more infinite in endurance, more startling in beauty, more Buddha-like in their calm. This is a place of wonder, a temple of the spirit, a giant interconnected nest of muscled and fibrous arms reaching up to the heavens, unconcerned with my thoughts or wishes. They were here before me and they will be here after me. Others have stood, and will stand, and may have felt the same sense of permanence and perhaps feel a little sad at their own fleeting time on this earth. Not me. I am reassured by their longevity.
And there, if you know where to look, is the King Of The Woods – the largest tree. Over the years this tree has begun to occupy a larger place in my imagination. I think about the names in hearts carved into its flesh, I think about the winters it has known, I think about its magnificence. For all the things that Middleton has spawned, both beautiful and wretched, who would have thought that it could be home to something so majestic? And what does that tell us? Well, it tells me that sometimes wondrous existences might take place where the prevailing circumstances suggest nothing good could prosper.
My happy place is a tree. If I ever find the time I’ll go find that dentist and try and explain.