CROP CIRCLES: ANOTHER SIGN OF WESTERN ALIENATION ?|
Carl Sagan didn't care for crop circles. The late, great American astronomer had only scorn for people who said the circles were marks left by space ships setting down in grain fields or attempts by extra-terrestrials to communicate with Earthlings. In his book, "The Demon Haunted World" Sagan has no less than twelve entries dismissing crop circles as hoaxes.
Was he right? And, right or wrong, why should Canadians care?
Crop circles are found in thirty countries. Britain is the hot-bed of activity. One of the earliest verified sightings was in Britain in 1880. But stories about circles have been common among Canadian farmers since the 1940s and '50s.
Sixty years ago most farmers ignored them. "They didn't know what to make of them.", says Paul Anderson, founder of the Canadian Crop Circles Research Network , "nor who to report them to if they were concerned."
Crop circles are much more prevalent now ,world wide. In Canada they will reappear on the same farm, often on the same site. They are always far more frequent in Western Canada, especially Saskatchewan.
Since the 1970s the simple flattened grain formations have become more and more complex.
In 2001, a good year for Canadian circles, twenty were reported and most of them thoroughly investigated by the CCCRN. There were three in B.C., four in Alberta, eleven in Saskatchewan, one in Manitoba and one in Ontario. All were in wheat fields.
As well as simple circles, the shapes included large Xs, rings 50' - 90', and, near Red Deer, Alberta, a hexagram of seven circles and pathways. At 422' it's the largest formation reported in Canada.
Some were obvious hoaxes; for example the Canadian flag near the Port Mann bridge in Surrey, B.C. But, what of the others?
No entry tracks were seen in the fields. Wouldn't anyone striding through four foot high wheat to stomp out a design leave some sign of passage?
Clever hoaxers have been known. During the height of the 1980s circle phenomenon in Britain everyone from Parliament to the Royal Family got involved. Competing groups offered explanations: meteorological, spiritual, mathematical. The furor wasn't quelled when, in 1991, two fellows from Southampton admitted they'd been making crop circles for fifteen years.
Dave Chorley and Doug Bower confessed for several reasons. Then in their sixties, they found the effort of planning and carrying out circle-stomping a bit tiring. Dave's wife Ilene was suspicious about his night time absences. (She was convinced of his innocence when Dave and Doug demonstrated how they made a circle.) Lastly, they feared if they delayed telling their story too long, no one would believe them. As it was, almost no one did.
Ilene may have accepted Dave's explanation for fifteen years of nocturnal escapades but the press and public were harder to convince. Even when Dave and Doug showed reporters exactly what they'd done, most people preferred to believe that super-human forces constructed the agrarian images.
Other self-confessed British hoaxers came forward. Were they authentic or were they merely copy-cat claimants who wouldn't know barley from oats? It's hard to believe that spontaneous hoaxers from Saskatchewan to Siberia are trampling down grain in the dead of night without attracting the attention of neighbours or leaving some trail. What else is going on?
At least one U.S. landscape artist, Whitney Kreuger, works in wheat. In June 2001. with the help of Illinois farmer Bob LeFevre, she constructed a turtle, the largest labyrinth in the world, in his field. Kreuger says the turtle symbolizes farmers protecting and stewarding the land. But Whitney Kreuger can't be everywhere. There must be other explanations.
J.R. Capron, the physicist who first described a British crop circle in the July 1880 issue of Nature, concluded that the patches in his neighbours' Surrey field, "... stalks with their heads arranged pretty evenly in a direction forming a circle.." , were caused by a whirl wind.
Science has come a long way in 122 years. I decided to ask some modern experts their opinions. Responses, once they got past the amused chuckles, varied.
Karen, an experienced field naturalist with a degree in agriculture, noted that, when some plant communities die, they do so from the centre outward, resulting in an obvious ring. She points out, in all fairness, that none of these plants are domestic cereal crops.
Nick, former meteorologist and hurricane chaser, was emphatic. "Hoaxes!" he insisted. "All of them?" "Yes!" "But, just on the chance that they aren't, what might they be?" After some consideration he suggested facetiously,(at least, I hope it was facetiously), that the circles are the result of small tornadoes playing checkers.
"Could it be lightning?" I persisted. "No. Lightning striking the earth would leave measurable scorching even into the ground and along rock below." So much for lightning.
Jud, a range specialist with the B.C. Government, said he has no idea what the circles might be, but he has seen formations resembling them. At Riske Creek, west of Williams Lake, in B.C., fairy ring fungus in blue grass and needle grass release large amounts of nitrogen as they deteriorate. The resulting rings can be from 30 to 40 feet across and are very distinct from the air.
(Similar fairy rings, says Connie, a geologist, are obvious on the mountain sides in the Ashnola drainage near Keremeos and Cathedral Lakes Park.)
I asked Jud if a whirlwind might explain some circles. He disagreed with Prof. Capron. "Whirlwinds don't usually touch down, then lift, they cut a swath before them. Such a swath would be quite visible in a field of tall grain."
Jud feels we might not, at this time, even know the right scientific questions to ask about the circles.
I wondered what a farmer might think, so I turned to Judy. She was born in the family farmhouse in Saskatchewan. For over twenty years she and her husband Ricky have run a mixed farm south of Brandon, Manitoba.
Judy's never seen a crop circle, but she has definite opinions. "Nobody knows what they are." she stated. "What makes them?" Judy thought for a minute. "U.F.O.s" she replied firmly and turned back to painting the kitchen.
To a Canadian farmer crop circles are no more threatening than hail, drought and grasshoppers; no more mysterious than the policies of the Federal Department of Agriculture. A U.F.O. setting down in the south pasture would cause less alarm than consolidation of elevators or abandonment of rail lines. What's a bit of squashed grain compared to the trouble of hauling the rest of the crop forty extra miles?
Suppose there really are aliens out there in the buckwheat? After all, Carl Sagan believed in inter-planetary life and spent years and money beaming signals into space trying to contact them. Aliens are always assumed to be intelligent. So, if crop circles are alien constructs, what does that tell us?
Well, if these extra-terrestrials are trying to communicate with us, did they go to politicians? Nope. To religious leaders? No, again. Not even, and this may be the reason why some scientists haughtily dismiss them, to professional scientists. No, indeed.
They placed their signals in rural farming areas, presuming that practical people who cultivate the land will recognize and understand them. Doesn't that argue for alien intelligence?
Why are there so many in the West? Perhaps, sensing the alienation we feel from the rest of Canada, they're drawn to outsiders like themselves whose thoughts and values are scoffed at by mainstream society. Maybe they're co-operative entities; that's why the majority of circles are found in Saskatchewan.
Paul Anderson has been studying crop circles since 1990. Because of his background: he's a graphic artist whose family is from the prairies: he views the circles as both artistic and agricultural happenings. In 1995 he formed CCCRN to organize and co-ordinate reporting and investigation of crop circles in Canada. Paul has investigated many himself. He notes frequent anomalies in the functioning of cameras and other equipment when near the sites.
To the big question, "What are they?", Paul replies, "They are natural phenomena. Aside from obvious hoaxes, crop circles are a mystery which we don't yet understand."
Are the circles evidence of interstellar visitors or human tricksters?
Are they natural events, Agri-art, or a mixture of all four possibilities?
As you travel the rural West this summer, watch for them. Help solve the mystery.
For information call: 250-994-3332
(Trudy is a freelance writer living in Kamloops, B.C.)
Other articles by Trudy Frisk