What Do Crop Circles Tell Us About Ourselves?

For the last 20 years, we have been in a bumper period for crop circles — the beautiful, mysterious patterns of flattened crops that have appeared in fields around the world.

The formations attracted a worldwide following as they began proliferating in the fields of England in the 1980s. Growing numbers of people roamed the English countryside, hoping to find out why the circles appeared overnight without anyone witnessing how they were made. Some went just to enjoy the extraordinary beauty of the formations, which are created when stalks are flattened to the ground in a symmetrical pattern within a field of crops.

Speculation abounded: Maybe they were made by extraterrestrials; maybe some kind of weather or military phenomenon was involved; maybe they had something to do with Stonehenge and Avebury, the ancient circular stone complexes near where many of the crop circles appeared. One researcher theorized that the circles are connected to energy lines in the Earth that intersect the ancient sites.

Colin Andrews, an electrical engineer who became an acknowledged world expert on the phenomenon, believed there must be some intent behind the crop circles. "I am totally convinced that we are looking at some form of intelligence," he told me when I first met him in 1990. Andrews, who has studied and written about crop circles for more than 20 years, said he came to that conclusion after his investigations showed there were some circles in which the plants were not damaged at all, but compressed to the ground and continuing to grow.

Hoaxers Come Forward

As they drew more attention, the patterns got more complex. They included clusters of circles arranged in geometric patterns, sometimes connected by straight lines. Around 1990, Andrews and others began to suspect that some of the new circles were hoaxes. The straight lines, he told me recently, "looked to be very unnatural."

In fact, two hoaxers came forward in 1991. Doug Bower and Dave Chorley claimed that after a night of drinking in a pub, they began making circles in 1978 using the simplest of implements — a six-foot board on a rope — to trample down crops so that the stems fell into ever-widening circles and ever more complex formations. "We used to journey over 200 miles some evenings," Bower told me. "It's a marvelous feeling? Everybody's in bed. You're the only two people in that vast expanse of land."

Bower and Chorley could not account for all of the formations, of course. The circles began appearing by the hundreds in the 1990s. Bower said other hoaxers began to imitate him in 1986.

True Believers Not Deterred

But to those who had already dedicated a decade or more to studying the circles, and others who began traveling to England to view the formations during the summers when they appeared, hoaxes could not explain away the entire phenomenon. Chorley and Bower were dismissed as con artists whose circles were a publicity stunt at best, and deliberate "disinformation" at worst.

"If there is this team of people, they are massively funded," a London businessman named Michael Glickman told me in 1995. "They are erudite in geometry and drawing and proportion. They are capable of invisibility because they've never been seen or caught. They are capable of floating above the ground, because they've never left a track. What is their motive please?"

So the mystery did not die. In fact, Andrews received a subsidy from conservationist-philanthropist Laurance Rockefeller to conduct a thorough study of the formations. Andrews concluded that while as many as 80 percent of the formations were made by human beings, 20 percent remained unexplained because of a lack of broken plants or footprints, among other reasons. He still believes there is an intelligence behind the unexplained formations. Nevertheless, he received hate mail for suggesting that so many others were hoaxes. "It was because that part of the truth doesn't sell," he said. "It's not popular."

Why? People had clearly begun to form their own strong beliefs, and they resented theories or information that challenged them. The crop circles had made their way into popular culture by the mid 1990s. They had inspired brands of beer, television ads, and dozens of books, magazines, and calendars. Appearances had been noted in other countries, including the United States. The huge size of crop fields in the United States, some investigators said, may have prevented other formations from being noticed.

'Croppies' Split Into Factions

There was a name for people who dedicated themselves to studying the formations: croppies. Organized tours, charging as much as $2,000 a person, arrived in England from the United States. Farmers began charging visitors to come into fields where formations had occurred. The flattened sections of crops are useless to the farmers, by the way, even when the crops are pressed down without being damaged, since harvesting machines cannot gather flattened stalks. Further damage caused by uninvited tourists simply added to the frustration.

Most dramatically, noted Peter Sorensen, an American whose passion is videotaping and cataloging the circles, the phenomenon had created distinct factions. Sorensen says he used to believe the formations were created by angels or extraterrestrials, but is now certain that most are made by people. He says that when he made his opinions known, he was bitterly attacked by many believers. "Any divergence from what they say, they will smear your name on the Internet, in publications," he said. "I've been called a CIA agent. It's absolutely nuts."

Movies Propose New Theories

And now Hollywood has caught up when the phenomenon. A new movie called Signs, released by the Walt Disney Co., the parent company of ABC, takes the view that the formations are a kind of map for the invasion of an alien civilization. Its director is M. Night Shyamalan, known for two other films on the paranormal, The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. Noting that crop formations have been reported in several areas of the world, Shyamalan said that, if they're hoaxes, "it's an interesting thing that everybody in all these countries seems to express themselves in the same way."

Another crop circle movie — this one an unreleased English production called A Place to Stay — proposes that the formations are a signal from the Earth that human beings are destroying the planet.

A Mirror to Ourselves?

As long as the majority of these formations appear without anyone claiming to have seen them made, people continue to seek a logic behind them. Between the hoaxers, those who believe in extraterrestrials, those who worry about the planet, and those who simply like to look at them, what we've learned in following this story for more than 12 years, is that it is an extraordinary revelation — of the phenomenon of human nature. We've seen it progress from awestruck curiosity to pop culture to choosing sides — even to the point of making the differences into a kind of holy war.

"We're fascinated with wondering what our place is in this world and in this universe — whether we're the only ones, or whether we're part of a larger system," said Shyamalan. "Because the unknown is a very scary place, and it causes us to question ourselves."

"We have got signs that are real," Colin Andrews insists. "We do not need anything made up in Hollywood in this phenomenon. This is a mystery."