Look What Cropped Up
A different view of Crop Circles
By Richard Taylor
Farmers are known for their problem solving and creativity.. Using wildly creative skills, a secretive art movement is transforming crop fields into mysterious farm-scapes.
Two years ago, a 600-foot jellyfish surfaced in a barley field in Oxfordshire, UK. No one knows how it got there, but GPS systems, microwaves and lasers have been implicated. What is known is that the barley stalks were sculpted and woven together in ingenious ways under the cover of darkness.
The crop-circle phenomenon has been bewildering the British since the 1600s. Today, they regularly appear in wheat, barley and oat fields in Europe, Russia, India, Japan, Australia and North America. Their designs are becoming increasingly intricate, some measuring up to three-quarters of a mile across and featuring up to 1000 component shapes. During the short hours of midsummer nights, these mysterious carvings crop up at a rate of one per evening.
Scientists who study these striking designs call themselves cerealogists. Despite drawing on diverse backgrounds, from biophysicists to those studying sacred art, cerealogists still don’t know how such epic geometries are being created.
They have investigated rolling hedgehogs, urinating cattle, romantic couples and mysterious spiraling winds as potential crop-circle makers. Finding the who, how and why of crop formations has implications beyond art appreciation: they are usually harvested soon after formation. Damaged crops can end up on kitchen tables, which raises concerns over food safety.
Today’s crop circle madness began one summer evening in the mid-1970s. English artist Douglas Bower recounted a story to his friend David Chorley about an Australian farmer who had reported a UFO rising into the sky, leaving behind a circular pattern, described as a “saucer nest” in a nearby marshland. As Chorley and Bower took their evening stroll through the countryside on their way home from the pub, they mimicked their first saucer nest in the nearest wheat field.
They secretly made crop circles over the next 20 years, which fuelled more UFO theories. In an attempt to discredit them, Bower and Chorley eventually deviated away from the circular saucer nest design by incorporating straight lines in their crop circles. Consisting of two circles and five rectangles, this “pictograph” represented a huge artistic leap from the crude circles of their artistic predecessors from the previous 400-years. When that didn’t work, they held a press conference in 1991 and declared themselves as the responsible party.
Bower and Chorley clearly weren’t responsible for all of the circles previously observed in England and around the world. Nevertheless, the phenomenon they started was expected to fizzle out as nothing more than an elaborate hoax. Instead, their pictograph inspired a second wave of crop artists to emerge. Decades of evolving designs have cultivated the hundreds of sophisticated pictographs now appearing annually around the globe. Artists who readily admit to making crop circles in the past say they don’t know who is responsible for all of today’s masterworks.
As with all art movements, crop circle artists follow the conventions established by their founders. Respecting the Bower-Chorley tradition, many create their pictographs anonymously within the secrecy offered by night time darkness. They leave the scene free of human traces. Their challenge lies in creating their escalating designs within these artistic constraints. Bower stresses that current mapping techniques are well beyond traditional methods. He used only a crude sight, consisting of a circular wire dangling from his cap, to guide his revolutionary straight lines from the early 1990s. Today’s artists have the advantage of computers, GPS equipment and lasers to help map out their patterns.
But how do today’s artists imprint patterns in crops that would be a challenge to even draw on paper? Traditional circle makers employed “stompers” (wooden planks attached to two ropes), string and garden rollers. However, this time consuming process of physically imprinting shapes is slowed by the insistence that stalks be flattened rather than broken. Furthermore, the stalks are not oriented randomly, but are sculpted to create textures within the geometries. Weaving is also used to lay down multiple-layers of bent stalks, creating shadowy textures that evolve over days in the sunlight due to the stalks’ phototropic responses.
Artists therefore have to work in co-ordinated teams, such as the famous Circlemakers in England, to imprint their vast pictographs before sunrise. Circlemaker Wil Russell summarizes their motivation: “To push the boundaries of what people think is humanly possible.” When the BBC documented the Circlemakers’ construction of a formation consisting of 100 circles, they physically implanted circles at the remarkable rate of one every minute. However, there are signs that the physical imprinting techniques are reaching their limits. One of 2009’s pictographs required three nights to be completed, potentially compromising the underlying goals of the art movement – secrecy and anonymity. It is clear that artists will need to exploit more efficient construction methods for the art movement to evolve further.
Intriguingly, biophysicists have suggested that radiation exposure might have accompanied the formation of patterns. One of the first to be investigated for radiation was a circle that appeared outside of Salem, Oregon, in 1995. Since then over 250 crop formations have been investigated in seven countries around the world. Investigations of pulvini (the knuckle-like joints that occur along the stalk), conducted by Eltjo Haselhoff, showed the bent stalks within the circle he studied had elongated pulvini compared to surrounding crops in the same field. Known causes of pulvini swelling, such as gravitropism and wind damage, couldn’t account for the magnitude of the increase, nor the fact that the swelling decreased from the circle centre to its edge.
Biophysicist William Levengood, at Pinelandia Biophysics Laboratory (a crop seed consultancy organization) in Michigan, found similar results on 95 percent of over 200 investigated formations. Along with research colleagues, he formed a U.S. non-profit organization, BLT Research Team Inc, to investigate the science behind crop circles. He proposed that the elongated pulvini were a result of superheating from electromagnetic radiation, causing the stalks to fall over and cool in the horizontal position. Further evidence for superheating was found in changes in the crop’s cellular structure and in the numerous dead flies stuck to seed heads in the formations.
Might some artists therefore be supplementing their physical implantation techniques using microwaves? The observed changes to the pulvini have been replicated using exposure to microwaves generated by readily-available microwave ovens. Today’s magnetrons (the oven component that generates the microwaves) are small, light and some require only 12 volt battery power supplies! Once superheated with this source, the stalk orientation could be readily sculpted, providing a faster method than physical imprinting. Clearly, cerealogists will need to expand on the above preliminary experiments if such speculations are to be put to the test. However, if artists aren’t already using these potentially advantageous techniques then perhaps they should also be looking into this technique!
Determining the technology behind crop circle formation has implications for the food industry. Levengood and Haselhoff each conducted germination studies, in which crop seeds were removed from the field and placed in growth chambers controlled for light, humidity and temperature. Whereas seeds taken from the surrounding crop revealed typical growth rates, seeds from the formations showed a significant decrease in growth rate for 90 percent of the measured formations. This stunted growth is also consistent with the fact that traces of some patterns (‘ghost formations’) can still be seen in the subsequent year’s crop, suggesting long-term damage to the crop field. Crop formations are harvested every year and so these damaged crops are entering our food stores, completely unregulated by governmental safety criteria.
On a positive note, Levengood’s results showing stunted growth came from crop circles appearing early in the season in immature crops. However, he also reported that if the seeds were instead removed from crop circles defined in mature crops, then the growth rate was increased fivefold! This observation led to Levengood developing the patented Molecular Impulse Response technology, which accelerates crop growth through application of electrical pulses.
This coming season, unknown artists will venture into the countryside close to your homes and carry out their craft safe in the knowledge that they are continuing the legacy of the most secretive art movement in history.
Richard Taylor is Professor of Physics, Psychology, and Art at the University of Oregon. His work has appeared in Scientific American, Nature and Physics World. Taylor is also known for his work in authenticating Jackson Pollock paintings based on their fractal signature.