Little Grain Men

Coming soon to a field near you: a bumper crop of crop circles. Oo-ee-oo.
By Ward Harkavy

Expect an increase in the number of pranksters, scientists and new-age tourists fooling around in Colorado wheat fields this summer. Crop circles, those nifty geometric patterns of flattened plant stalks that infest the English countryside, are moving this way. Actually, it's the belief in the mystery and power of crop circles that will first be making a visit--at a February 22 symposium aimed at drumming up interest in the patterns. If history is any indication, the circles themselves will start appearing in the state soon after.

It's been more than five years since aging British artists Doug Bower and Dave Chorley admitted to creating crop circles in southern England over a period of thirteen years. After their hoax was publicized, the furor over these "mysterious" circles was expected to die down. Instead, the complexity of patterns has increased. And so has their frequency. Thousands have been reported all over the globe.

True believers think the glyphs are the work of a "higher intelligence" trying to tell us something. Amateur scientists like John Burke, a Long Island businessman who's speaking at the local symposium, pursue the theory that the patterns are caused by the microwave energy of plasma (electrified air) hurtled to earth by Mother Nature. Burke and his biophysicist colleague William Levengood contend that the flattened stalks in crop circles show signs of electrical charges. Burke theorizes that in the wee hours, plasma vortices "penetrate earthwards" from the ionosphere and "self-organize" into patterns.

Skeptics, however, liken the spread of crop circles to the spread of graffiti. How many of the circles are manmade? "Approximately 100 percent," Joe Nickell notes dryly. One of the chief debunkers of crop circles, Nickell is a senior research fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, based in Buffalo, New York.

Of Burke's work, Nickell says, "He's wasting his time. Plasma-vortex theory has no more to do with it than the planet Venus."

Despite the debunkers, a cottage industry of "cereology" (named for Ceres, the goddess of agriculture) has sprouted up in England and spread overseas to believers such as Colorado artist Ron Russell, the Midwest U.S.A. coordinator for the British-based Centre for Crop Circle Studies (CCCS). Russell is another of the speakers at "Crop Circles: The Mystery Deepens," which will be conducted in a University of Denver auditorium rented by the Sophia Institute, a group of paranormal enthusiasts based in Lakewood.

"Somebody, I don't know who, is creating glyphs pregnant with meaning," says Russell, a 59-year-old artist who specializes in the sort of space-fantasy paintings for which illustrator Robert McCall is famous. The phenomenon of crop circles is more than just Mother Nature, says Russell, and there have been too many of them and they're too artistic to have been created only by humans.

The key word, he contends, is "faith." "Faith enables you to access some intelligence," Russell says. "It's just like angels. A huge majority of people believe in a spiritual reality." He subscribes to the spiritual mystery of crop circles, seeing them as messages in the way that musical messages were used in the plot of the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Are there crop circles in Colorado? "I have personally never seen one," says Russell, "but I've heard of dozens. So I think we have them in Colorado. I'd have to say a conditional yes."

Russell is taking action to make that idea a reality. He's produced a flier announcing the "CCCS Midwest Research Group," soliciting members "willing to actively research formations." He has no qualms about fomenting an interest in crop circles. Far from it. "I think we may be participating in the creation of them," he says, "by having enough faith."

Some of the more down-to-earth theories about crop circles--microwave energy or satellites from on high cutting swaths in farmland--hold no water for Russell. "People will say it's satellites," he says. "Since when does the military have one iota of creativity?" He does believe that energy has hit the plants in crop circles, as Burke and Levengood say they have discovered. But whose energy?

"Are guys going into fields with microwave ovens in the middle of the night and not being caught?" says Russell. "Are people climbing down from helicopters in the middle of the night?"

Except for a few dozen, he says, crop circles can't be manmade. "It's more than just two guys named Doug and Dave."

Joe Nickell, who's written plenty about crop circles in the pages of the Skeptical Inquirer, would agree with that statement. He figures it's a bunch of artistic people and other copycats who are responsible, noting that the flood of reports of crop circles began only in the 1970s and that among the many sightings have been signs of obvious satire.

"We know people--in addition to Doug and Dave--have made these," says Nickell. "Can I prove that they aren't made by extraterrestrials? We live in a world where I don't have to prove a negative. You don't have to prove there are no leprechauns. The fact is that no one has proved that a single crop circle was made by a flying saucer. Not a single one has been proved to be made by a vortex."

Nickell insists he's not a knee-jerk debunker. He points out that as a former resident magician at the Houdini Hall of Fame, he's familiar with illusion. And he prides himself on being a trained investigator.

"I would decry debunking in advance," he says. "Mysteries ought not to be suppressed--nor should they be hyped. The modern tendency, sort of a new-age idea, is that any sort of idea is okay. It's tolerant to the point of mental decay and democratic to a fault. We have to balk at some ideas, or we run the risk of being called cranks. A mature person doesn't hold all beliefs as equal."

Nickell has harsh words for the new-age movement--"We pronounce it to rhyme with 'sewage,'" he says--but he's kinder toward true believers. It used to be that skeptics considered such folks as UFOnauts and crop-circle enthusiasts to be either crazy or charlatans. Maybe, suggests Nickell, there's a third category: the fantasy-prone.

Russell gladly accepts that designation. "I make my living off fantasy," he says. "I have for thirty years. An artist creates illusion to point to the truth. We tell a lie to tell a greater truth."

Somebody is out there, Russell insists, and it's not he. "I'm sane," he says, "but I happen to love the paranormal. That's what religion is. I mean, God is paranormal."