Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Crop Circle: Message, Music, or Marsupial?

Another night I feel all right, my love, for you can’t wait
--Don’t Go, Yaz
It’s fall in Nebraska.  That means football, apple cider, and following a John Deere combine for twenty miles down a busy stretch of highway.
This week for Sunday Mythbusters I present an homage to that spectacular art form of agriculture, the crop circle.  Since the 1970s, sightings of crop circles--and the mythology behind their appearance--has grown exponentially.  
Milk Hill crop circle 

My cousins and I tried to make one in grandpa’s field using a two by four and an unwilling German Shepherd one summer.  Unfortunately, I had just read Stephen King’s Children of the Corn.  He Who Walks Behind the Rows ultimately beat out my prankster nature.
The earliest depiction of a crop circle comes from a woodcut done in 1678 called “The Mowing Devil.”

Text attached to the piece says that a farmer refused to pay a mower to harvest his crops, saying he’d pay the devil to do it before he’d pay the price the man charged.  Rumor has it, the following morning his field was cut into a satanic design so intricate that it was impossible to blame a human for its creation.
Or was it?
The first modern sighting of a crop circle is the case of the Australia Saucer Nest incident in 1966.  A farmer apparently saw what he described as a saucer-shaped flying object rise out of a lagoon near Tully.  It left behind an ellipse of flattened reeds nearly 30 feet in diameter.  Despite media sensationalism, the phenomenon was ultimately attributed to a whirlwind over water called a “willy willy” by the Aussies.
Since that sighting, 26 countries have reported over 10,000 crop formations.  Ninety percent of those are in southern England. They are often associated with ancient monuments (i.e. Stonehenge) and with specific ley lines.  Ley lines were historically suggested to be ancient pathways of travel and ceremonial worship by an archaeologist in the 1920s.  Since then, they have morphed into a less tangible and more supernatural path imbued with psychic energy.
North American ley lines.
The phenomenon gathered worldwide attention in 1991 when two English sexagenarians by the name of Doug Bower and Dave Chorley came forward with the story of a prank spanning two decades.  The pair got the idea to make crop circles from the Tully incident while fueled by the local pub’s finest lager.  Using a plank, a rope, and a compass made from a baseball hat with a wire attached they created more than 250 crop circles.  They were able to make one in a little less than an hour with their crude tools.
A Doug and Dave circle from
Still, even with this admission, conspiracy theorists refused to believe, claiming Doug and Dave were a government attempt to discredit the phenomenon and the presence of paranormal activity.  Some asserted that the men were linked to the British Ministry of Defense and the CIA.
Crop circles became the agricultural Beatles of Europe, even spawning an artist cooperative called Circlemakers who still create the formations for art and profit.  Their most famous American client may be the band Korn, who performed in a crop circle Circlemakers designed outside of Bakersfield, California in 2010.

All of you Scullys out there are nodding your heads, totally convinced that man-made hoaxes explain it all.  If you are a little more scientifically minded, perhaps you believe crop circles are a bizarre meteorologic creation, the result of tornadoes or ball lightning.  Stephen Hawking supported this theory in 1992 by saying crop circles were likely formed by a vortex movement of air--if they weren’t a hoax.  
Possibly the most comical theory came out when wallabies in Australia were blamed for crop circles found in opium poppy fields.  Turns out Australia has acres of medicinal opium fields, and a variety of creatures come by to get their Limbaugh on.  These marauding groups of wallabies apparently jump in circles while high on opium.  Which begs for the question, how many stoned wallabies does it take to form a crop circle in Australia?
"I see aliens."  
For those of you who channel your inner Mulder, I can’t leave out the UFO angle.  Some are not fans of M. Night Shyamalan’s movies, but I love Signs.  In the movie, the crop circles are marking beacons for a group of hostile aliens looking to harvest the earth.  Indeed, many believe crop circles are some form of communication from an extraterrestrial source, although hopefully it’s not to give us the big intergalactic finger.  In 1974, to celebrate the remodeling of the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, scientists (including Carl Sagan) sent the Arecibo message into orbit.  It contained binary code for numbers 1-10, the atomic numbers of the elements essential to life, a depiction of a DNA sequence, our solar system, a human figure and a picture of the radio transmitter itself.  Three decades later in a field in the UK an “answer” appeared--with significant changes including the depiction of an alien humanoid.  Debate over the validity of this crop formation continues today.
The aerial view of the field with the Arecibo reply.

The two codes, side by side.  In cross stitch.  Croppies, those folks who believe in the UFO theory of crop formations, are very creative.
The best known video suggesting that UFOs make crop circles was filmed at Oliver’s Castle in 1994.  It shows 4 lights spinning above a field shortly before an elaborate crop formation appears.  Unfortunately, the video was later declared a hoax.  Undaunted, UFO supporters continually point out that hoaxers ruin and crush the plants involved--whereas “real crop circles” bend the plant in a way that suggests use of high heat or microwave energy that had to come from an extraterrestrial source.  However, using a hand held magnetron and a 12 volt battery, one scientist was able to recreate the same bending effect, right down to the microscopic changes in the plant stem.
Carl Sagan in his The Demon Haunted World:  Science as a Candle in the Dark concluded there was no evidence to link UFOs with crop circles.  And I guess that’s good enough for me.
Some of the most intriguing theories behind formation of crop circles may lie within the earth itself.
The Gaia hypothesis popularized in the 1970s states that the earth is one single complex system made up of all organisms and their surroundings.  The earth is a giant work of symbiosis; crop circles (as well as other geologic phenomena like earthquakes and flooding) are messages in response to problems with the entire creature.
Scientists have built on this theory indicating that electromagnetic fields and energies from within the earth could be the basis of creating crop formations.  An electrical engineer in the UK named Colin Andrews described magnetic impulses detected within crop formations.  These impulses rotated up to 3 degrees about the center of the circle, and if strong enough could theoretically cause plants to lie down and twist into intricate designs. 
The crop circle theory which resonated the most with me (forgive the pun) is the theory of harmonic geometry, in which sound waves create visual patterns. 
A Swiss scientist named Hans Jenny caught on film the geometric patterns created as sound vibrations traveled through a variety of substances.  With changes in frequency and medium came increasing complexity of shapes.  In essence, Jenny “froze music,” creating art.  Others refer to these as Chladni patterns, after the German father of acoustics, Ernst Chladni.
A Chladni pattern created by sound.
Indeed, people describe hearing odd trilling sounds in the areas in and around crop circles, although it’s unclear where the sound originates from--perhaps geological shifting.  Using theorems of Euclidean geometry and diatonic relationships, Emeritus Professor of Astronomy Gerald Hawkins laid the groundwork to developing computer software that would actually measure the crop creations and turn geometry back to sound. 

I would have thought it would sound more like rock and roll.

Then again, maybe they were just listening to the wrong crop circle.

The King.  Elvis isn't dead, he's just in space.


  1. Fascinating post. I love the UFO theory, a part of me really wants to believe that we are not alone, but the logical part of me likes the natural theories.

  2. I'm with Claire, I want to release my inner Mulder, but my darn Scully keeps getting in the way :-)

  3. I don't doubt there are UFOs, I just wonder how if they're really that intelligent, why they can't figure out a simpler way to communicate with us. I think the sound theory was pretty cool. Haven't heard that before.

  4. Great post. I don't know about anyone else, but to me, those two codes done in cross stitch look like a weird version of Space Invaders. ;o)

  5. 'All of you Scullys out there are nodding your heads'


    Jules, this post is so intense and full of substance. By the time I get to the end of these 'debunking' journeys, I don't know what to respond to, first, so I do it all scattergun.

    I was amazed that around 90% of sightings are restricted to Southern England. The image of ley lines made my scalp tingle, literally. The Chladni pattern produced by sound almost made me feel creepy the way I feel when I look at images of fractals but I am absolutely intrigued by it and am trying to get the guts up to look at it, again. I have a supreme sensitivity to certain images and even sounds.

    Okay, I just looked at it, again, for about three seconds and had to stop.

    Jules, this series is completely singular and very gripping. Keep 'em comin'.

  6. What an AWESOME POST. I want to rip it from my screen and glue to the inside of a book so I can carry it around with me in my pocket and read on the subway!

    For real, this was amazing, filled with so much information. I LOVE crop circles and you presented the topic in an enjoyable, easy to read way. Thanks!

  7. This is the most interesting thing I've read in weeks! I'm always fascinated by UFO theory, alien visits during primitive times and other "they walk among us" chitchat. As a scientist, I certainly lean heavily toward the factual info, but that current of Mulder that I ride once in a while enjoys a good, spooky ride :)

    And the wallabies cracked me up!!

  8. I think it would take about twelve stoned wallabies to make a crop circle...

  9. Claire--it's so hard to think we are alone in this vast universe, but the skeptic in me gives me fits.

    Sarah--I want to believe, too. Sometimes I can muzzle the Scully to take the leap.

    KTurley--yeah, I guess I wonder why if they can fly through space and utilize amazing technology, why design a glyph in a corn field for us to read? Wouldn't a text make more sense?

    B.E.--I knew it looked familiar.

    Suze--one site I looked at said if you did not get a visceral reaction from viewing a circle, then it was a fake. There were a lot of things I couldn't even get to in this post about the collective unconsciousness involved in these pattern recognition as well, which was fascinating. When I look at that pattern, I find myself dizzy and hard to focus on it for more than a few seconds, too.

    regected--thanks! I love doing these, I get to learn a bunch about things I've only gotten the superficial scoop on in the past. And don't rip your computer screen, scotch tape will NOT fix that.

    Kelwarrior--I like to be shown, too. But sometimes I have more fun just accepting the leap of faith.

    Alex--That sounds about right. Maybe one more to put it on YouTube.

  10. ROFL! This was funny. AND interesting!

  11. Sagan's A Demon Haunted World is my personal Bible and I'm with him on this one.

    Extraordinary claims requires extraordinary proof. Loved the post.

  12. When alien invasion meets art! I love it!

  13. No, say it isn't so. I've been waiting for one of thos crop circles to be for real so I can meet my long lost family. I thought that middle one looked suspiciously like a pot leaf. And I feel bad for the unwilling German Shepherd. I do love your myth busters. :)

  14. Love this, Julie. It's fascinating. I especially love what the Brits and Aussies offer, but which, more? I think I have to go with the English, even though I laughed out loud at the thought of stoned wallabies jumping in circles. The Brits are just so straight-laced on the surface, and soooo murky and surprising underneath!

  15. Um, this is such an amazing post. You've got to keep doing these! I loved that movie Signs. Especially when Joaquin Phoenix kept talking about that childhood game, "Furry Furry Rabbit" which no one had any idea what he was talking about...
    I digress.

    Crop circles are cool. There, I said it.

  16. Found this from a tweet. Love the exchanges going on. You guys are so nice.

    Am a "croppie" from way back. Great that you put so much good data into this, Julie.

    Actually each year about half in England and half spread through some 50 other countries. Anc closer to 5,000 than 10,000.

    One thing I didn't recognize and wonder where you got: "...using a hand held magnetron and a 12 volt battery, one scientist was able to recreate the same bending effect, right down to the microscopic changes in the plant stem." News to me. But then again, the circle you picture is the size of two football fields and English nights have only 4 or 5 hours of darkness, so even if true logistics would be daunting. One more comment is that no crafts ever have been spotted in relation to circles --UFOs and crop circles aren't tied together.

    I made the best movie. Have a look:

    Suzanne Taylor
    Producer/Director "What On Earth? Inside the Crop Circle Mystery"

  17. Ali--I like my education to come with a little humor, so much more fun that way.

    Rusty--I found it rather interesting that Sagan was part of the Arecibo message, although later several involved said they were just "testing" the radio transmitter and had no intention of attempting to contact the stars

    Trisha--the crop circles themselves are amazing art on their own, and then to see what a sound wave could produce and how similar the two were--well, it was just fascinating

    Layla--perhaps Doug and Dave were doing a little more than drinking at the pub those nights they supposedly were hoaxing

    Linda--I agree--if it truly is just all man-made, those Brits are a crazy, determined bunch with a lot of time and manpower on their hands.

    Lydia--Ah, Joaquin before his "fake meltdown". I loved him in that movie, aluminum foil hat and all.

    Suzanne--I am so honored that you stopped by! The movie looks amazing, wish I would have had it prior to posting this. There is such a glut of info out there, hard to discern the fact from the fiction--and many times, websites contradicted each other. To have a true expert on the subject pop in is wonderful! This post was so fascinating for me because the science that many of the theories are based on is just as mysterious as the circles themselves. Makes one appreciate just how little we really know about our earth and beyond. The magnetron/battery assertion came from a Univ of Oregon physicist Rich Taylor, although he did not say who the members of the research team he alluded to were. Again, thank you so much for visiting and sharing your knowledge!

  18. Interesting!
    I had never heard of ley lines before. How could I have not heard of them???

  19. I'm loving this post. Fascinating and funny. Crop circle music...who would have thunk it? ;)

  20. One of my favorite MG writers, Michael Scott, "uses" ley lines in his book series, "Nicholas Flamel". It is fascinating how facts like this one can be incorporated into fiction.

    The Chladni pattern made my head spin! I need to research it - looks amazing.

    Great post, Julie. Fun and informative :-)

  21. I've never done any research or studying of crop circles or ley lines but both fasinate me...which makes me wonder why I haven't read up on either subject, LOL

    Wonderful, informative post!

  22. Hi - just saw your comment about Type O Negative & Peter Steel on my blog - responded over there. Will repeat here though that I'm very glad to meet another writer/ToN fan! :)

  23. fascinate...geez! I really shouldn't try to type late at night, LOL

  24. This is the most interesting post I've read for ages. I love all the mystery surrounding crop circles, and other such mysteries. The Skully in me tends to look for reason, but the Mulder in me quietens it and lets my imagination explore such possibilities.

    Love the wallabies! Lots of fun. :)

  25. Crop circles are fascinating. I haven't made up my mind what I think. I'm easily swayed about things like this.

  26. LOL! Stoned wallabies run a muck :) I can buy into Bigfoot and the Lochness Monster, but I don't believe in aliens--maybe that is why I've never been able to write sci-fi.

  27. julie,

    thanks for this in depth look at a phenomenon i happen to be fascinated by - true or not. and yes, the recent theory about them being formed by sound i have heard - gaia's electromagnetic field is full of surprises!

  28. I'm going to go with the wallaby explanation. I mean, how can you not??

  29. Interesting! I have to say, I'm more of the opinion that they're hoaxes; and have nothing to do with aliens.

    (I actually wrote a post once about crop circles . . . as a joke, I set it under the title "Crop Circles for the Designing Alien". :P)

  30. Kelly--I heard about them in Kim Harrison's books a few years ago and always thought the idea was cool

    Elizabeth--There was actually an entire CD of it on one website I went to. Don't think it will be hitting the top-40 anytime soon, though

    Angela--There was one point where I thought the center was spinning. Or it may have been the wine.

    Allie--it's kind of great to find out the science, but I have to admit, I have more fun thinking about the mystical side of it all

    Carol--I'd love to see one on my own--I don't think you get an idea of the intricacy and size on the net.

    Angie--aliens are hard to imagine, but if I think about it in terms that there may be a society out there that is technologically advanced compared to ours, it doesn't seem as big of a reach

    Raelyn--I think you could create a heck of a story using these elements.

    Trisha--Yes! A fellow ToN fan! One of my novels was inspired by their music.

    Amanda--I find it fascinating how little we know about this place that sustains us!

    Liz--I just would really like someone to catch a group of stoned wallabies on film. That would be worth an Academy Award, I think.

    Golden Eagle--I have to read that one! It's hard to believe that aliens would prefer fields to the more accessible forms of artistic media.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.