for National Geographic News
Mel Gibson's new film, Signs, is reviving public interest in the phenomenon of crop circles. It would be unfair to reveal what it is that's scaring Mel so badly in the world of movies.
In the real world, the battle to explain the formations is a torrid wrestling match between artists and people who believe in other-worldly influences.
Are the circles an emerging art form: agrarian graffiti, large-scale land art that will be written about in future art history texts as the most remarkable artistic innovation to emerge from the 20th century? Or are they the result of UFO landings or mysterious messages from extraterrestrials?
The most curious aspect of the sometimes vitriolic debate is the fact that each group needs the other.
Depending on what you believe, crop circle artists make most, if not all, the formations. But without the mystery and the other-worldly possibilities, would anyone be paying attention?
Roots in England
Crop circles first appeared in the fields of southern England in the mid-1970s. Early circles were quite simple, and simply appeared, overnight, in fields of wheat, rape, oat, and barley. The crops are flattened, the stalks bent but not broken.
Wiltshire County is the acknowledged center of the phenomenon. The county is home to some of the most sacred Neolithic sites in Europe, built as far back as 4,600 years ago, including Stonehenge, Avebury, Silbury Hill, and burial grounds such as West Kennet Long Barrow.
As the crop circle phenomenon gained momentum, formations have also been reported in Australia, South Africa, China, Russia, and many other countries, frequently in close proximity to ancient sacred sites.
Still, each year more than 100 formations appear in the fields of southern England.
In 1991, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley came forward and claimed responsibility for the crop circles over the past 20 years or so, and the battle between artists and other-world believers was engaged.
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