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Crop Circles: Artworks or Alien Signs?

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
August 2, 2002
 
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.

"I think Doug Bower is the greatest artist of the 20th century," said John Lundberg, a graphic design artist, Web site creator, and acknowledged circle maker. Bower's work has the earmarks of all new art forms, "pushing boundaries, opening new doors, working outside of the established mediums," Lundberg continued.

His group, known as the Circlemakers, considers their practice an art. Lundberg estimates that there are three or four dedicated crop circle art groups operating in the United Kingdom today, and numerous other small groups that make one or two circles a year more or less as a lark.

Circlemakers now does quite a bit of commercial work; in early July, the group created a giant crop formation 140 feet (46 meters) in diameter for the History Channel. But they also still do covert work in the dead of night.

Evolving Art

Formulating a design and a plan, from original concept to finished product, can take up to a week. "It has to be more than a pretty picture. You have to have construction diagrams providing the measurements, marking the center, and so on," said Lundberg. Creating the art is the work of a night.

Lundberg said that for an an artist, being a crop formation artist is an interesting place to be.

"You think about art in terms of authorship and signature," he said. But circle makers never claim credit for specific formations they created. "To do so would drain the mystery of crop circles," he explained. "The art form isn't just about the pattern making. The myths and folklore and energy [that] people give them are part of the art."

Over the last 25 years, the formations have evolved from simple, relatively small circles to huge designs with multiple circles, elaborate pictograms, and shapes that invoke complex non-linear mathematical principles. A formation that appeared in August 2001 at Milk Hill in Wiltshire contained 409 circles, covered about five hectares, and was more than 800 feet (243 meters) across.

Two phenomena appear to be pushing the evolving art.

To combat a widely promulgated theory that the circles were the result of wind vortices—essentially mini-whirlwinds—crop artists felt compelled to produce ever more elaborate designs, some with straight lines to show that the circles were not a natural phenomenon, said Lundberg. The other impetus is true of all art forms: Artists influence one another, and designs evolve in response to what has been done before.

Opposing View

Adamantly opposing the crop-circle-as-art-form position are the "croppies"—researchers of the paranormal and scientists seeking to explain the formations as work that could not possibly be the result of human efforts.

The phenomenon has spawned its own science: cereology. Some believers are merely curious, open to the existence of paranormal activity and willing to consider the possibility that at least some of the circles were created by extraterrestrial forces. At the extreme end are what Lundberg calls the "Hezbollah" of believers.

Exchanges between acknowledged circle makers and cereologists can be vitriolic in the extreme. But in a curious way, the two groups need one another.

The believers propel and sustain interest in the work, beating the drums of extraterrestrial activity on Earth and keeping crop formations in the news. They can also be quite vocal in their denunciations of the admitted artists, charging that they are con men, liars, and agents in government disinformation campaigns.

Lundberg's group has been vilified as Team Satan; its members have received stacks of hate mail, and over the years there have been attacks on their cars and property.

Skeptics in the media (including this author) are also considered dupes, either too ignorant or narrow-minded to understand an other-worldly phenomenon or active participants in a government conspiracy to keep the masses uninformed.

Still, the vast majority of croppies are just people with alternative belief systems.

"I think it's a little more played out over here [in the United Kingdom]," said Lundberg. "People are more familiar with the whole phenomenon."

Wiltshire's New Economy: Tourism

While the relationship between crop artists and cereologists is uneasy, the relationship between artists and farmers is mutually beneficial. Farmers provide the canvas, the artists bring in the tourists.

The crop circle season extends from roughly April to harvesting in September, although the best time to make a circle is in mid to late June. When still immature, wheat rises back toward the sun, making a circle look brushed rather than flattened, said Lundberg.

How do the local farmers feel waking up to find an entire field of wheat flattened? Crop circles pump millions of pounds into the Wiltshire economy, said Lundberg. The circles are a major tourist attraction, spawning bus tours, daily helicopter tours, T-shirts, books, and other trinkets.

The circles draw people who believe the formations have a unique energy. They visit the formations as a sort of spiritual Mecca, to meditate, pray, dance, and commune with worldly spirits. Farmers frequently charge a small fee or have a donation box for people who want to enter the circles.

"In 1996 a circle appeared near Stonehenge and the farmer set up a booth and charged a fee," said Lundberg. "He collected 30,000 pounds (U.S. $47,000) in four weeks. The value of the crop had it been harvested was probably about 150 pounds ($235). So, yeah, they're happy."

On the question of whether all such circles are human made, Lundberg is perched firmly on the fence.

"I don't care," he said. "I have an open mind. It would be great if people could view circles as an art form. But really, to me, as long as they're well made and well crafted, anyone can believe whatever they want to believe."

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