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Crop circles:

Crop circle makers in their own words: MATT RIDLEY.

"I Was a Crop-Circle-Making Alien", by Matt Ridley, in Slate, June 14, 2000.

...there was an intriguing interview on British TV last night with a crop-circle maker. Do you recall crop circles? They are regular patterns that have appeared in crops of wheat every summer in southern England since the late 1980's--usually circles but more recently including elaborate fractal patterns and all sorts of amazing designs that look extraordinary from the air.

I found the interview especially apposite because I used to make crop circles. I did so to satisfy myself, and prove to others, that they were man-made. I found the experience very frustrating because absolutely everybody, even hardheaded journalists, continued to believe that they could not all be man-made, however many we made. Ah, they would say, but there are too many, or there are no footprints (easy--walk on bar stools) or there are strange lights in the sky when they appear or there are weird noises (these turned out to be the song of the grasshopper warbler).

Even when the television filmed people making one, then filmed the "experts" pronouncing it "genuine" the next day, they still concluded the program by saying some are inexplicable. (The guy who made the program is now a minister of education in the government ...) When the two men who started the whole craze owned up, a similar disbelief greeted them, and I was ridiculed and called a member of MI5, the spy agency, for my debunking attempts.

It taught me a lesson, the one I started this exchange with--that people prefer mystery to explanation. Which brings me back to the guy on TV last night (I didn't catch his name). He had this very clever line. He said that he made lots of crop circles every year, including some very elaborate ones, but this did not mean that all crop circles were man-made. Some were definitely "genuine"--i.e., made by alien spacecraft or whatever. Moreover, some of the ones he made were also "genuine" in that they had attracted strange phenomena such as lights in the sky and unexplained additional patterns. What a brilliant way of weaving mystery into your art and having things both ways.


"Crop Circle Confession - How to get the wheat down in the dead of night", by Matt Ridley, in Scientific American Digital, August 2002 issue.

On August 2, Touchstone Pictures released Signs, starring Mel Gibson as a farmer who discovers mysterious crop circles. Directed by Sixth Sense auteur M. Night Shyamalan, the movie injects otherworldly creepiness into crushed crops. The truth behind the circles is, alas, almost certainly more mundane: skulking humans. Herewith is the account of one such trickster.

I made my first crop circle in 1991. My motive was to prove how easy they were to create, because I was convinced that all crop circles were man-made. It was the only explanation nobody seemed interested in testing. Late one August night, with one accomplice - my brother-in-law from Texas - I stepped into a field of nearly ripe wheat in northern England, anchored a rope into the ground with a spike and began walking in a circle with the rope held near the ground. It did not work very well: the rope rode up over the plants. But with a bit of help from our feet to hold down the rope, we soon had a respectable circle of flattened wheat.

Two days later there was an excited call to the authorities from the local farmer: I had fooled my first victim. I subsequently made two more crop circles using far superior techniques. A light garden roller, designed to be filled with water, proved helpful. Next, I hit on the "plank walking" technique that was used by the original circle makers, Doug Bower and the late Dave Chorley, who started it all in 1978. It's done by pushing down the crop with a plank suspended from two ropes. To render the depression circular is a simple matter of keeping an anchored rope taut. I soon found that I could make a sophisticated pattern with very neat edges in less than an hour.

Getting into the field without leaving traces is a lot easier than is usually claimed. In dry weather, and if you step carefully, you can leave no footprints or tracks at all. There are other, even stealthier ways of getting into the crop. One group of circle makers uses two tall bar stools, jumping from one to another.

But to my astonishment, throughout the early 1990s the media continued to report that it was impossible that all crop circles could be man-made. They cited "cerealogists" - those who study crop circles - and never checked for themselves. There were said to be too many circles to be the work of a few "hoaxers" (but this assumed that each circle took many hours to make), or that circles appeared in well-watched crops (simply not true), or that circle creation was accompanied by unearthly noises (when these sounds were played back, even I recognized the nocturnal song of the grasshopper warbler).

The most ludicrous assertion was that "experts" could distinguish "genuine" circles from "hoaxed" ones. Even after one such expert, G. Terence Meaden, asserted on camera that a circle was genuine when in fact its construction had been filmed by Britain's Channel Four, the program let him off the hook by saying he might just have made a mistake this time. I soon met other crop-circle makers, such as Robin W. Allen of the University of Southampton and Jim Schnabel, author of Round in Circles, who also found it all too easy to fool the self-appointed experts but all too hard to dent the gullibility of reporters. When Bower and Chorley confessed, they were denounced on television as frauds. My own newspaper articles were dismissed as "government disinformation," and it was hinted that I was in the U.K. intelligence agency, MI5, which was flattering (and false).

The whole episode taught me two important lessons. First, treat all experts with skepticism and look out for their vested interests - many cerealogists made a pot of money from writing books and leading weeklong tours of crop circles, some costing more than $2,000 a person. Second, never underestimate the gullibility of the media. Even the Wall Street Journal published articles that failed to take the man-made explanation seriously.

As for the identity of those who created the complicated mathematical and fractal patterns that appeared in the mid-1990s, I have no idea. But Occam's razor suggests they were more likely to be undergraduates than aliens.

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