Doctor, I get this strange urge to dig

COUNTRY MATTERS
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There is nothing like a bit of turf-laying for bringing a man down to earth. There you are, grovelling on hands and knees in the mud, in closest possible contact with the element that supports us all. Primeval smells rise gently, and you feel in touch with creation.

As anyone who has tried it knows, the secret of successful turfing lies in thorough preparation: if bumps are left unshaved and hollows unfilled before the sods go down, the lawn is bound to end up all undulations.

In this respect we had not done too badly: we had smoothed off our target area, chopped out roots and raked away obtrusive stones. Nevertheless, the operation began jerkily, when the firm delivering our 40 rolls sent them out on a lorry 60ft long. The driver dismounted amid a flurry of expletives damning the narrowness of our lane, and it was physically impossible for him to proceed into our outer farmyard, where we wanted him to unload. Instead, we had to unship his cargo in the inner yard, and barrow it up two flights of steps.

The rolls were surprisingly solid: hefting one, I guessed that it weighed 40lb - and by the time all were on site, my wife and I felt we had already done a day's work. The actual laying was a delight: in smoothly unfurling the rolls, fitting the strips snugly against each other, and cutting pieces to fill odd corners, I got the illusion that I was creating a magic carpet, so swiftly did the green covering spread.

Yet the turfing was only one manifestation of a wider passion which comes over me at this time of year. I refer to my mania - harmless, I hope - for shifting earth. With the weather improving and the ground drying out, challenges beckon from all sides.

Digging manure into the last strips of the vegetable garden is the most urgent. The muck has to be mined from the best-rotted of three heaps, barrowed along the garden path, dumped in the trench, trampled down flat, and thoroughly buried.

The work offers a certain satisfaction, but it is also monotonous, and I seek diversion by trying to calculate the weight of what I am shifting. Everyone knows that

A pint of clear water

Weighs a pound and a quarter

A gallon therefore weighs 10b, a two-gallon stable bucket about 20lb. But what about these leaden spadefuls of earth and manure? Normally I just guess - but this year, galvanised by the arrival of the turf, I had recourse to a spring balance and conducted some experiments.

A sample roll of turf turned the scale at 41lb. A 12-inch cube of the finest rotted muck, precision-cut from the cliff-face on the heap, nearly black and glistening with fruitiness, weighed out at 36lb. A similar cube of soil was the heaviest, at 50lb.

Armed with these figures, I could make all sorts of projections. If each barrowload of muck contained eight cubes, every load must weigh over 300lb. If one strip across the garden accommodated 15 barrowfuls, two tons of manure must have gone into it - and to bury it I must have lifted twice that weight of earth.

Such extrapolations can run away with you. If you let them go to your head, you start weighing everything in sight. Better dig for a while with your mind in neutral.

But then, every time I stand up for a break, what do I see? Molehills! Dozens of them lie scattered across our top field. Some are a brown, loamy colour, others almost black, indicating rich soil deposits. Almost certainly, in the next few days, I will spread them about with tractor and chain harrow, thereby giving those parts of the field a useful top dressing.

And yet - this being the earth-moving season - should I not nip up with wheelbarrow and shovel, and bring down some of that beautiful black soil for the flowerbeds or the vegetable garden? Earth worked by moles is marvellously friable and, being fluffed up, is relatively light. And while I think of it, the track leading up the gully into the wood is ankle-deep in perfect, decomposing leaf-mould.

No! To hell with it! We have hundreds of tons of fertile earth already in position. To import more would be the act of a fanatic. Stop fantasising. Finish the digging and do something useful, like planting the broad beans. Leave further earth-moving to the mole, whose legitimate business it is - for he, too, is clearly feeling the joys of spring.

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