Why People Make — And Are Fascinated By — Crop Circles

Mysterious circles have "appeared" on farms since the mid-1970s. But the most interesting thing about crop circles is our reaction to them.

Crop Circles Butterfly Man

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In 1678, a strange woodcut pamphlet appeared in England. Titled: “The Mowing Devil, or Strange News Out of Hartford-shire,” the short document recounted a story about a farmer who argued with his hired help, telling one worker that he’d rather that the Devil mow his corn than pay him to do it. That night, the text continues:

“[T]he Crop of Oats ſhew’d as if it had been all of a Flame, but next Morning appear’d ſo neatly Mow’d by the Devil, or ſome Infernal Spirit, that no Mortal Man was able to do the like. Alſo, How the ſaid Oats ly now in the Field, and the Owner has not Power to fetch them away.”

The farmer’s crops had been flattened in a spiraling circular pattern overnight, with the stalks somewhat mounded toward the center and the surrounding vegetation seemingly undisturbed. This was the first recorded crop circle, and it left the people of 17th-century Hartfordshire as baffled then as they would be 300 years later, when it happened again.

Crop Circles: The First Visitations

Crop Circles Large Tao

Bring the 4th

In the summer of 1978, a Hampshire farmhand named Ian Stevens arrived to work in a field owned by his employer, Tim Brown. When he got there, he found that the field had been marked with five large circles, each 60 feet across.

The circles were arrayed in a pattern with a single circle in the middle and the other four ringed around it. The crops inside were apparently undamaged, with only the occasional broken stalk, but they had all been flattened in a clockwise direction as if pressed from above.

No witnesses could be found who had seen anything unusual, and even a careful inspection of the surrounding area failed to turn up any footprints or other obviously human artifacts. Technically, this was evidence of a crime – trespassing and destruction of property – but local police could hardly start an investigation of such an odd offense without leads, and the site offered nothing substantial.

It was as if the circles had just spontaneously appeared.

Humans being what they are, the mysterious nature of all this led some to immediately reach for the most farfetched explanations imaginable.

While some fantasists took the relatively sober line that these circles may have been caused by sudden, highly localized weather events (small tornadoes, which inexplicably touched down in five places to make a geometric pattern and which happened to spin the wrong way for the Northern Hemisphere), others felt themselves under no obligation to reality and spun fantastic tales of faeries, angels, UFOs, magnetic vortices that for some reason only affected wheat, and suchlike.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.
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