Alex James: The Great Escape

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The Independent Online

There was about an acre of concrete outside the back of the farmhouse when we moved in. A vast tessellation of slabs that suggested a mouldering infinity: weeds springing through the cracks of a new flat earth. It was there for making silage; winter feed for the dairy cattle, and it must have cost a fortune. It had a battleship kind of beauty, a scale that made me feel dizzy – and it was its own authority.

I love cheese and didn't want to look at that dairy destroyer every time I went outside. Another sort of ship on caterpillar tracks came and chewed it all up. That omnivorous slug performed quite a tidy mathematical operation, transforming the endless plane into a perfect cone, a huge mountain of concrete pebbles that we used for making paths.

The concrete had been laid on a bed of clay. This seemed an unnecessary expense until I realised that the clay was just planet earth. It was an epiphany of sorts. When I bought the farm, I didn't just buy some fields, there was all this other stuff underneath them that was thrown in as part of the deal. I didn't just buy the perfect dream. I bought a great big slice of reality too, a piece of a planet. Why buy art when you can buy nature?

We couldn't find where the topsoil from the silage clamp had gone. It was probably sold to help finance the concrete business. I did find a few thousand tons of quite well-rotted cow manure and I used a mixture of that and earth that I dredged from the ditches and the old lake down by the railway. I still had to buy some topsoil though, and it's expensive. The worth of agricultural land is really the trading value of the topsoil, the scant couple of feet of the surface layer. This land of mine has been under cultivation for a couple of millennia and nothing made me realise the value of looking after the soil than looking at it and seeing how little of it there actually is. All the food we grow springs from those miraculous inches. I guess I knew that already but it felt different as an eyewitness. I became even more fascinated by the cosmic fudge of the subsoil and I did inevitably wonder what was underneath that. I was looking through some old documents and I discovered I was not the first owner to think about it. In the Thirties the squire had really gone to town and had a geological core sample taken to analyse the substrata. There were silt layers from Jurassic seas, and chalk veins down there. Of course it all sits on top of a huge magnet, a molten core of quick-iron spinning through space making pretty patterns in other dimensions, strange fields that we know nothing about.

I replaced the concrete with grass until I knew what I wanted to do with it. The last gardener built a kind of Stonehenge thing there on the grass and then left to go and work for Damien Hirst. I'm going back in. We've had the digger out and scraped all the soil back off so that we can lay out a vegetable garden. It's a blank canvas, stripped bare, even by bulldozers. I'm going to paint all over it.

a.james@independent.co.uk

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