The Origin of Crop Circles

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One of the most puzzling episodes of the old “X-Files” TV show was the 1994 episode “GenderBender,” in which our intrepid agents Mulder and Scully went to Massachusetts in pursuit of a serial killer, and ended up in the midst of a reclusive Amish-like community called the Kindred. The ersatz Amish, as it turned out, were actually spontaneously transsexual, murderous space aliens. That’s enough of a brain freeze in itself, but to make things worse, Mulder and Scully returned to the community in the end to discover that the aliens had fled, apparently by teleportation, leaving behind only a giant crop circle in a nearby field. So that explains it. Those strange complex geometric markings that have been observed in rural fields (mostly in England) are caused by extraterrestrials, perhaps ones who listen incessantly to Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” on their iPods.

Of course, that explanation might seem entirely plausible to hard-core crop-circle enthusiasts—a “croppies,” in paranormal parlance, though they probably prefer the more serious-sounding term cerealogists, a derivative of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture. As Robert T. Carroll explains in The Skeptic’s Dictionary, some croppies suspect that the markings are some sort of effort by alien visitors to communicate with us, perhaps by using ancient Sumerian writing or representations of extraterrestrial DNA sequences. A few believe they are connected with sacred rituals of our own ancient ancestors (who may, for all we know, have acquired a few genes from extraterrestrial visitors, right?) Others have come up with even more ingenious explanations:

Even scientifically minded people have been brought into this fray. They have wisely avoided the thesis that aliens have been carving out messages in crop fields. But they have stretched their imaginations to come up with theories of vortexes, ball lightning, plasma, and other less occult explanations involving natural forces such as wind, heat, or animals. Some think the designs are clearly the work of the U.S. Air Force and the RAF using a “military microwave cannon, piloted by computer,” and a design book.

Personally, if I had to go with one of these explanations, I’d gravitate toward the military microwave cannon explanation, since according to declassified documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the Pentagon actually has considered developing microwave weapons capable of projecting voices inside the heads of enemy soldiers. Paranormal skeptics, however, dismiss crop circles as hoaxes, perpetrated upon believers by pranksters—or by skeptics themselves. The Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal’s Crop Circles Report, for example, details a 2002 project in which committee members tried to create their own 25-foot-in diameter phony crop circle:

Over the past three weeks Joe Nickell, Benjamin Radford and I have produced two experimental crop circles in Upstate New York. The first experiment was conducted on Wednesday, July 31, 2002, in Amherst, New York, in a large field of dry wild grass. The tools employed were a long piece of rope and one “stalk stomper.” The stomper is a board approximately 4 feet (1.3 m) long with two holes drilled at each end. A thick piece of rope was run through the holes and knotted to make a handle. Staffer Vance Vigrass modeled the stomper on similar devices used by British circle hoaxers Doug Bower and Dave Chorley.

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But not everyone who makes a crop circle is a hoaxer. Some people just  want to have one. Recently, the Guardian reported that near an English fishing village, a local landowner named Caroline Petherick had unveiled a crop circle of her own construction.

After being inspired by a similar design she’d seen at Tintagel on the north coast of Cornwall, Petherick decided to plant her spade on a patch of her land adjacent to the coastal footpath last summer and, with the help of some friends, dig out a 60ft-wide spiral pattern said to originate from Palaeolithic times. It took two days to move the 14 tonnes of soil and grass and has cost Petherick about £500 to build.

She doesn’t ask for payment from the walkers visiting it, but has left a tip-box beside some laminated posters explaining the pattern’s symbolism, history and ability to connect with the body’s “seven major chakras.”

Petherick says that she found the location for her crop circle by dowsing, a fascinating paranormal art that we’ll get into in a future blog. She says the spot is an intersection of two “energy lines.” (I’m assuming she that she means Ley Lines, which New Agers believe are mystical energy routes laid out by the geometric intersection of ancient sacred sites, such as Stonehenge.) She also told the newspaper that her dog caught and dropped a vole into a hole that she dug on the site, which she interpreted as possibly filling the ancient requirement of a “blood sacrifice” for crop circles.  She also explained that her biggest problem may be keeping her newly-created crop circle from becoming overgrown without the use of weed killer. And that’s important, because I’m guessing that pesticides aren’t particularly alien-friendly.

The Truth Behind Crop Circles airs Sunday Mar. 14 at 12P et.