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Crop Circles

At first glance there is no phenomenon creepier than crop circles. Huge geometric designs that appear in fields overnight without explanation, cause, or reason. According to UFO enthusiasts, hundreds of thousands of these things have appeared all over the world, and some go so far as to claim that similar designs can be found in the sand at the bottom of the ocean. Generally speaking, these circles appear when the stalks of the crop are bent down to the ground but not broken. The plants are not harmed, just sort of flattened out, which has led UFO enthusiasts, or 'Croppies' in this case, to claim that they’re made with some sort of alien force beam. Indeed, the most common explanation that Croppies can come up with is that these designs are symbolic representations of alien DNA, writing in the language of Atlantis or some other ridiculous method of communication.

This phenomenon is at the center of the movie Signs, simultaneously the best and worst movie I’ve ever seen. Best because it scared the hell out of me at first, worst because it committed the unforgivable crime of actually showing what the monster you’re supposed to be afraid of looks like. Personal gripes against Mr. Shyamalan aside, there are two simple explanations for the crop circle phenomenon.

Before you start stockpiling shotgun shells and tin-foil helmets, you should know that the vast majority of crop circles appear in English wheat fields. This is significant because, apparently, British people have a lot of free time. Doug Bower and David Chorley admitted in 1991 that they had made over 250 crop circles by hand over the course of a number of years. How did they do it? By typing ropes to a board, placing the board against the crops, and then stepping on it. That flattens out the plant, and then it’s only necessary to move on to more plants. And how did they keep their orientation to create such incredible, perfect geometric patterns? More ropes! Apparently, England has a surplus of rope and young men with too great a knowledge of geometry, too little with which to keep themselves occupied, and a powerful lust for laying intricate plans.

At first, I didn’t believe that mere agricultural hooligans could be to blame for crop circles. However, a bit of research revealed that they’ve made not only creepy alien doodles, but also designs that can be explained only as earthly in origin. For Hello Kitty’s 30th anniversary, Sanrio (the company that owns the ‘cute’ little kittens’ likeness) commissioned an enormous crop circle shaped like the cat’s head. They’ve also done the outline of a Mitsubishi mini-van and geometric designs commissioned by various businesses. They’ve even branched out and started making crop circles in sand. That is to say, a rake was used to disturb the sand, making it darker than the untouched stuff, and with the help of some blueprints the outline of three famous British comedians was created.

Those of you with a keen eye for detail will note that I said there are two explanations for crop circles. The first is that young men from England have too much free time on their hands; the second is that UFO enthusiasts exaggerate. Looking in books and on the internet, one can find claims that hundreds of thousands, if not millions of these circles have been created over the years. For instance, in 1964 at Manor Farm in Wiltshire a worker entered the boundary between a potato field and barley crop and discovered what Croppies would be quick to claim was a crop circle. It was, in fact, some sort of crater: about 9 inches deep and 9 or 10 feet in diameter. After thinking about it, the farm workers recalled they’d heard an explosion at about 6 in the morning, but thought nothing of it.

You’ll notice that although this story has none of the attributes of a traditional crop circle (bent crops, huge geometric designs, occurring overnight) yet the occult enthusiasts rush to claim it as a crop circle. The most likely explanation, for those of you that are curious about such things, is that a dud German bomb from World War II finally deteriorated from aging to the point that it went off. In the 1960s England was still more or less awash in dud German bombs. In a similar example, in the early 1990s Russian construction workers uncovered the skeletons of a German and a Soviet, bayonets firmly fixed in each others’ ribs, as they were clearing land to build an apartment complex.

Anyway, the UFO enthusiast community inflates the number of crop circles beyond all reasonable proportion. It’s safe to say that if you’ve got a field and something happens in it someone is going to claim paranormal involvement, whether or not you can prove otherwise. Found a hole in your field? It’s a crop circle. Disease kill off some of your crops but not others?It’s a crop circle. High winds touch up your field a bit? You get the idea.

It’s interesting to note that exaggeration is not confined simply to misrepresenting the numbers of crop circles and the frequency with which they occur. Sometimes everyday people find themselves exaggerated out of proportion. In this same case a man named Robert Randall appeared, claiming to be a rocket scientist. He later set up a “cancer research laboratory” that bilked suckers out of money as well as a company called Ce-Fu-X which claimed to know the radio frequency UFOs used to communicate with their home base on Uranus. There is absolutely nothing to suggest he was anything other than a flim-flam man, a con artist, a jive turkey looking to make some cash, but many believe he was actually a Man In Black. They discard the theory that he was just a guy looking to get some fame and make a fortune for the theory that he was an alien robot, sent here to derail investigations, or perhaps a government commando attempting to silence the truth. I feel like I’m taking a standardized test, but trust me when I say that Randall is to man as the crater is to hyped-up baloney. There was no Man In Black. There was no crop circle. End of story.

So there you have it. Crop circles are not, as so many claim, attempts at communication by aliens. They are certainly not the work of god himself warning us of our sinful ways. Atlantis has nothing to do with this. Bigfoot isn’t even in the picture. What they are is a statistical aberration: most young men fill their free hours with beer and women; a small portion of the population prefers to go out and scare the crap out of farmers. Crop circles are the grotesque children of boredom and exaggeration, nothing else.

First published in The Triangle 7 January2005.