Views from the Crop Circle Frontline
By Andy Thomas
From Chapter 12: Media Scrum
It is a frightening thought that the majority of the world’s population hear about the crop circle phenomenon only through the very narrow filters of the media. For every good piece or programme which decides to tackle cerealogy, there are several bad ones, developed with dubious agendas for entertainment purposes alone, devised to stir journalistically interesting, but ultimately banal conflicts. The truth is usually the first casualty of this short-sighted approach, and scepticism generally reigns. This piece records the torturous media machinations of the summer of 1998, which saw a slew of attention towards the crop circles.
"We want to focus on the balls" states the English production manager for the Japanese crew from Nippon TV, sticking his head inside the door of a caravanette perilously perched on the summit of wind-swept Adams Grave, overlooking Alton Barnes. With a wave of a hand this statement scrubs the now indignant researcher Karen Douglas, having travelled sixty miles to be here on request, from the day’s filming schedule. He means balls of light, of course, but inadvertently this statement neatly sums up the attitude of much of this year’s media scrum surrounding the crop circles.
The Nippon venture is one of several outings this year from a journalistic world endlessly torn between desiring to give in to the tantalising doorways into ‘the paranormal’ provided by the circles, and wanting to rubbish the whole thing for cheap controversy. This particular project is harmless enough; a week of monitoring the fields of Alton Barnes, a rich portal of light phenomena and materialising mandalas, in the hope of gaining the ever-elusive footage of such novelties combined. But last year the same crew were chasing hapless video editors across car parks in the hope of pinning down the alleged forger of the Oliver’s Castle video (in which a formation is seen to appear), redefining in the process the word ‘confession’, which now appears to mean ‘man running across tarmac at high velocity in an opposite direction’.
A year on and the word ‘alleged’ still hasn’t been erased from the equation. But now Nippon are trying to capture authentic footage of their own for comparison, the fields spread below them. A rota of refugees, largely foreign visitors, one or two of whom even speak English, plucked at random from The Barge pub, man the stations. Sipping tea, the ad-hoc staff glance at the monitors from time to time, fed by conventional and infra-red cameras shaking outside in the permanent gale of the Pewsey Downs. When, on one night, a helicopter is spotted chasing a glowing object across the East Field, the cameras are facing the wrong way and turn too late to capture anything.
In fairness, the shortcomings of such a hastily-arranged watch (devised only a couple of weeks before) are recognised by the largely benevolent Nippon crew, and a far more organised assault is planned for 1999. All of this enterprise shows far more imagination than some of the other media circle exercises carried out this summer. TV crews have been lurking out there in the fields since the very beginning of this season. In a portent which, looking back, was a symbol of things to come, the April ‘Beltane Wheel’ formation at West Kennett Long Barrow managed to get visited by Channel 4 on virtually the first day of its existence. Naturally, keen to get a great shot from the centre of the ring, they strolled straight into the standing crop, leaving a scar to mar every photo ever taken of it - and this just to film a link for a science fiction season in which a space-suited figure wanders the formation (turned blue by video effects). As a metaphor for walking all over the crop circle phenomenon this is pretty good.
Fast-forward to the Alton Barnes circle celebration weekend of July (which also attracts local TV coverage) and we find a national TV crew out to do just that. Uninvited, they turn up and pin people against walls, firing questions about why they believe the circles are a genuine phenomenon and how they feel about hoaxing. Finally, helpers from the Wiltshire group in turn manage to pin them down and organise the situation slightly. Official permission to film is given. It’s the BBC, making a report on crop circles for Countryfile. Faint alarm bells ring. Weren’t these the people who had Doug Bower try (unsuccessfully) to fool Lucy Pringle with a hoaxed pattern the year before? Surely they wouldn’t cover the same ground again? The crew proceed to film freely and decide to record my own presentation.
As I speak, the camera pops up in unexpected places around the stage, at one point appearing behind me, peering at the amused audience from between my legs... more focusing on the balls? All seems well until one of the crew lets slip that our old friend Bower, together with those other ubiquitous ‘landscape artists’, operating under the laughably puerile moniker ‘Team Satan’, will be creating formations for their cameras in the area the following weekend. It transpires later that the whole designated slot of the programme, to be shown in January 1999, is to be devoted largely to the hoax phenomenon and the lives of these marvellous people who supposedly brighten up the countryside with their creations each summer. [Indeed, the final ghastly product was a ridiculous hymn to the talents of Doug Bower and those inspired by him, blah blah, with barely a trace of balancing viewpoints from the other side.]
A week later, and these artists aren’t too hard to find. Tipped off, a group waiting up on Knap Hill soon spot the glow from... the floodlights. As ever, these "Made at night, folks" designs need the aid of lots of electricity. Interlopers find their way to the field in question and begin to harangue the crop-squashers inside with taunts, to the degree that at one point Bower is forced to retreat to the safety of his car. Those trying to enter the fields are firmly repelled by the TV crew, armed with arc lights, cranes and cameras. In a surreal twist, threats are made that the police will be called to remove the observers, so that the ‘artists’ may continue their work...
A few weeks later still, and the police reputedly have to mount an overnight watch on a formation made by the same team for Mitsubishi, a picture of a car, carved with two days of great effort into the East Field (a month before, BT have the numbers ‘03’ created at Oliver’s Castle for a code number ad). The guard is there with good reason. Vigilante croppies have been threatening to trounce the creation as some kind of poetic justice, and the advertisers, paying good money for the services of Team Satan, not to mention the permission of the farmer, are taking no chances. They still want it there the next day so it can be photographed and videoed for their advertising campaign. Amusingly, belching ‘smoke’ does somehow get added to the exhaust pipe a few days later - not a good advert for catalytic converters.
But the world of television isn’t done with the circles yet. I’m invited onto ITV’s breakfast show GMTV. Do I know of any formations they can go and film? I help them with names and numbers. Then I learn they have no intention of viewing any new patterns at all - apart from one. ‘Former circlemaker’ (as the show describes him) Rob Irving has been commissioned, in an astonishingly imaginative move, to make a crop formation for the cameras instead. As I’m chauffeur-driven up to the London studios, drizzle spattering the windscreen, I reflect comfortingly on the fact that I will be cozy ‘on the sofa’ with the presenters while Rob sweats it out in a damp, blustery field.
The slot begins. We watch his creation being made on the monitors. We are shown highlights of the three hours it takes to make a pretty small (and pretty rough inside) nest of crescents. At a safe distance of about two hundred miles, Irving and I exchange our views, live, to a few million viewers. The mood is surprisingly convivial (Irving: "Hi, Andy"). And then we go home again.
One rather more innocuous television adventure is mounted: The cable channel L!ve TV spend a day taking footage of circles and researchers for their programme The Why Files. For once, the presenter (and writer) is genuinely positive about crop circles - as he was when they covered the phenomenon in 1996. The final result promises to be a good experience. In an ultimate irony, faulty sound equipment later leads to much of the footage having to be junked (including all of my own), the sequences finally shown being much curtailed from that planned...
So much for television ventures. What about the newspapers this summer? Each season, two or three papers usually wind up featuring the circles in a quiet week. This year, The Independent runs a colour spread of photos and a fairly innocent piece (for the press anyway), the News of the World includes the phenomenon as part of their travel section, recommending them as reasons to travel to Wiltshire, and the Alton Barnes weekend conference sparks a few mentions. Fortean Times and Tomorrow’s World magazine sneer with sceptic propaganda as we expect.
And then there is the article in The Guardian. A high-profile journalist for the paper telephones a number of croppies early in the season, including myself, promising an incisive and open piece about crop circles, which will be pleasant and non-judgemental. He begs me for a proof copy of my forthcoming book Vital Signs (not then published) for research purposes. To each person he speaks to, promises are made of what the pieces will be, of how positive a light croppies will be painted in, of what he will and won’t be doing. In short, he tells each what they want to hear in order to obtain the information he needs.
He attends the Alton Barnes weekend and immediately there are warning signs. In fact, I have already had a portent of what is to come by the fact he has recently asked me about the telephone numbers of well-known ‘hoaxers’, who at that point he has not spoken to. In the final piece he claims he made no attempt to contact hoaxers - they approached him. Not true. Or at least, if they got to him first, he certainly had every intention of reaching them anyway. At the Alton Barnes do, the journalist’s behaviour towards me is odd to say the least. Having never met the man in person, I don’t recognise him when he speaks to me and attempts to ask me questions. He knows who I am, but never introduces himself by name, his body language cold and hostile. As a result of this and the inconvenient moments he chooses to approach me, we never do speak for any length of time.
Only later do I discover his identity. Yet this is a man I have had lengthy conversations with on the telephone in the weeks prior. Why not introduce himself? It’s as if he wants information from me, but wants to keep his distance, not wanting to give too much away. Later, at the closing ceremony of the weekend, conducted by Native American Rod Bearcloud in the East Field mandala, the journalist huddles outside the circle of hand-linked figures with the ‘hoaxers’ who have strolled openly around the event all weekend. He disappears with them to The Barge.
Unsurprisingly, when the long piece in The Guardian materialises a week or two later in its colour supplement, it is the usual hymn to the sincerity and talent of the human circlemakers we have come to expect from the media, at the expense of exploring the true history and details of a phenomenon which simply cannot be explained in these terms alone. Worse, the journalist has openly colluded with the hoaxers and claims to have attended the creation of a mandala which arrived near Silbury Hill in July (created, if the claim is true, as a criminal act, as no permission was sought from the farmer).
There’s some attempt to balance the arguments over the circles’ origins, but by and large croppies are portrayed as loveable but rather stupid eccentrics, blind to truth, heads firmly up their own behinds. The usual ludicrous hoaxing claims are repeated and left unchallenged. Few of the opposing facts and figures given by those researchers who helped the journalist are included. The reams of scientific evidence specifically sent from W C Levengood’s laboratories in the US aren’t even mentioned. I am not credited, nor Vital Signs referenced, despite clearly being a major aid to background information. An air of betrayal pervades a largely philosophical piece on the nature of belief and human ingenuity, in which the facts are deemed irrelevant.
The basic thread of the article can be gauged by perusing the following excerpt from a letter sent by researcher Michael Glickman (heart-warmingly referred to in the piece as a "cadaverous old man") to the journalist in its wake:
It has taken me almost a week to reach a state of calm sufficient to write to you. Your article was a travesty and a betrayal of our implicit understanding. Above all, it was a shoddy piece of journalism which repeats the same old tired and dishonest story and does a gross disservice both to your readers and your own reputation. Let me start with shoddy journalism and a list of errors which might easily have been checked.
Bearcloud is a member of the Osage tribe not the "Odege". Rod Bearcloud himself is from Arizona, but the Osage is an Oklahoma tribe.
The widespread use of the word ‘believer’, both in and out of quotes, reveals just how close you were to the hoax claimants. This is - as you clearly know - a demeaning word used by them to refer to crop circle researchers. It is rarely used in the community. Francine Blake’s magazine is ‘The Spiral’, not ‘The Sphere’. The Doug and Dave scam started in 1991 not 1992. They were not artists, though one of them was a picture framer. Incidentally, though they made many claims and performed often for the cameras, there is no solid evidence that they carried out a single hoax as such.
Why are there quotation marks around "sacred" in sacred geometry? What kind of "journalism" is this? Julian Richardson, not Richards. Rob lrving not Ian Irving. Fibonacci not Fibbanucci.
When you first called me, I expressed my reservations. I have long and bitter experience of media trivialisation of what might be the most important events on earth, and I made it clear that I would not participate in another hoax-boosting exercise. You assured me that you wanted to do a serious article. You were certain that something strange was happening and you felt it important - at last - to deal with this at a more thorough level.
I knew and admired your work and so I trusted you. My colleagues warned me that I was to be duped, but I went out of my way to speak of your integrity and good intentions. Because of my faith in you, many of them went along with this enterprise. You spent four hours here talking to me, you called me at least six further times for information and contacts, and my assistant Debbi Sprinkle took you into a formation. It soon became clear which way things were to go. You spent more and more time with the claimants and, as the article showed, you were conned, as were we, as were your readers. They call themselves "pranksters", but they are conmen. And when did you hear of a conman who was not plausible?
I am affronted by the way words were put into my mouth. I am shocked by the tongue-in-cheek treatment of Stanley Messenger and Rod Bearcloud, both - whatever else their views - of radiant integrity. Easy shots at soft targets. Above all, I find it a disgrace that The Guardian’s position has sunk so low that it has become an unquestioning mouthpiece for known liars.
What is it about the media that those who work within it cannot find it in themselves to see beyond the myths spread by those who seem to delight in keeping the true scale and background of the crop circles quiet, and instead pushing alleged landscape artists to the fore as those responsible for the whole thing?
The truth is that everyone wants quick-fix answers to a phenomenon which just cannot be explained in simple terms. The answer, if any is ever forthcoming, may be far more sophisticated than the question, residing on a level far deeper than the questioners will ever understand. But try telling that to a reporter. The many facets to the mystery, the associated strange phenomena, the scientific and statistical evidence, the fine detail of the ways the circles appear to be created - it’s all too much to be absorbed in the two or three weeks a representative from the media may spend (if that) researching any piece.
How can they possibly absorb or understand in such a tiny period what some in the circle community have spent years accumulating and trying to come to terms with, piece by piece? And yet, arrogantly, into the circle world they walk for the briefest of moments, and out again, believing they have sussed everything there is to know with some kind of incredible outside wisdom, which mysteriously eludes those with long-time personal experience. The media doesn’t like mysteries. It prefers to deal in absolutes. If it doesn’t find them it will invent them, and human artistry is easy to latch on to as the quick-fix solution. Occam’s Razor is relentlessly slashed at anything which even hints at mystery, and grey areas aren’t allowed. The media doesn’t like beauty, it likes controversy. Where there is no controversy, it will stir it up and salaciously report the resultant action, hence the endless provocative setting up of hoaxers against ‘believers’. It doesn’t want to hear about the effect the splendour of the circles is having, it wants arguments, discussion, fire and ridicule, something to entertain the readers or viewers.
We should no longer expect anything else. The American linguistics professor Noam Chomsky has devoted an entire life to exposing the manipulative narrow-mindedness of the media. Not surprisingly, though grudgingly respected, outside of intellectual circles he remains a fringe figure as far as the general public are concerned. Where Chomsky’s words fall on deaf ears, why should we hope for more?
So much for the journalism. What of the stooges themselves who are endlessly encouraged by the media, the guerrilla artists we are supposed to believe in? What have we learnt about them this summer? The US TV venture in New Zealand earlier in the year had already shown us that Team Satan could make reasonable facsimiles of what appears in the fields every night of every summer, but that the time they took to make their demonstration and the shortcomings contained within severely challenged the notion of the mass-hoaxing scenario explaining more than a proportion of the crop formations. Yet for some casual and uninformed observers, the mystery was solved as far as they were concerned.
Given this, what was left to prove by making yet another demonstration? Yet in comes the BBC, itself for the second year running, and commissions another. Like the New Zealand formation before it, its intent was ingenious - a pattern impressive to the eye, lots of circles in a striking motif, but geometrically naive and straightforward to make. Why waste time even trying to attempt some of the sublime geometrical qualities seen in many crop glyphs when you know large sections of the public will be fooled by pretty, but basic stuff?
With straightforward and typically uncomplicated lays, the Team Satan designs were at least far better than the messy floor left by Doug Bower’s traditionally shoddy efforts further up the same field (a copy of the quartered Winterbourne Stoke circle of 1989, with large grapeshot), even if the shapes of the circles themselves were good. Again, the man-hours needed to create these relatively modest-sized patterns, as with the roughly-laid Mitsubishi car, which took over a day to create, show the long time that would be required to make some of the larger more complex designs seen over the years. The small nest of crescents for GMTV took two people (Irving and a presenter) three hours to lay and was unimpressive on the ground, as the cameras all-too-plainly revealed.
And still, no-one has ever attempted to recreate the subtle spiral sweeps and huge ambition of formations like the Windmill Hill fractal of 1996, 194 circles in triple arms spanning something like 600 feet. Maybe eventually, one of these alleged artists will work out a method and make an attempt, but who will believe them after several years in which to learn and prepare? Why couldn’t they recreate such skills when first asked?
Those who claim to be out there creating the phenomenon we know and love have uncomfortably exposed themselves this year in a number of ways. Their former stated position, that to reveal their methods would compromise their status as true artists, has been well and truly thrown out the window. Money and fame has beckoned and any such principles are long gone.
It also begs the question of why people such as Team Satan should bother heading out from London (their home) each night of every summer to sweat out fruitless hours of effort in making crop circles for no reward and no recognition when they can be openly paid and commissioned to do so instead, endlessly fuelled by small-minded TV companies and pony-tailed ad execs thinking they’ve come up with an original concept. As far as anyone knows, these publicity stunts may well be their entire sum total efforts for the year. It’s something that may be put to the test: man-made methods and styles have been revealed for all to see now and will be looked for with greater scrutiny in future patterns by those obsessed with sorting (literally) wheat from chaff.
And where are all the other hoaxing teams sceptics would have us believe exist? Seeing the lucrative gravy train the ‘outed’ artists seem to be riding, is it unreasonable to suppose they might also have come forward to grab a piece of the action by now? Yet, after all this time, only a handful of ‘circlemaking’ individuals are known of, ones who couldn’t account for more than a proportion of each summer’s formations. There’s little to show the claimants are really interested in art for art’s sake when it comes to the circles. It’s the attraction of artifice which seems to drive them on, of creating that which fools the eye, which purports to be something it isn’t. They’ve learnt their craft well. They and the few other operators have discovered how to squash crop as well as people will ever squash crop.
Those who choose to deny their handiwork - some still refuse to accept that some of the demonstration formations of this year were man-made despite ground evidence in one case and eye-witnesses and film of the circles being made in the other! - aren’t being quite fair and shouldn’t be afraid to attribute a human source to a few designs. But the human circlemakers’ work remains a pale shadow of the masterpieces we have seen, and the source of their inspiration remains something which long predates their plagiarism and strongly suggests far less mundane origins. Yet still the old tired mass-hoaxing myths are trotted out, even by those who really should know better by now.
A ludicrous Centre For Crop Circle Studies ‘study paper’ about hoaxing, recently circulated amongst Council members, demonstrated how short a distance some have come over the years: seven pages of long out-of-date hypothesis (masquerading as fact) about alleged circlemaking groups like the ‘Wessex Sceptics’, who haven’t shown the remotest interest in the circles for years, yet are here promoted as the masterminds behind a huge global conspiracy to discredit the phenomenon, backed by the shadowy Masonic ‘Illuminati’.
There is a little evidence to show there may have been a coordinated campaign of disinformation against the crop circles, for sure, but the unproven assumptions and misperceptions about the levels of hoaxing and how to detect it (based mostly on flawed photo observation), as contained in this document, are breathtakingly naive. Such discussion papers do nothing but play into the egos of the few human circlemakers there are, whose intentions and aims, for the most part, appear to be far less highbrow and organised. This type of scaremongering document (which, incidentally, suggests farmers are ‘in’ and involved with the whole hoax thing..!) simply focuses unnecessary attention onto the hoaxers and will do nothing but spread yet more unfounded uncertainty.
None of what human circle-making activity there is, often stirred up by a narrow-minded media, has proved anything beyond what we already knew about these people’s abilities or lack of them. And, frankly, no demonstration or supposed big ‘expose’ (paranoiacally feared in the CCCS study paper) ever will. The public can be fooled by almost anything, because they’re kept in ignorance of balancing factors most of the time (The Guardian’s deliberate omissions demonstrate this all too well), but for those already convinced of the phenomenon’s veracity, too many chances have been passed up by the claimants to show they can match the best formations, and most of the big questions remain unanswered. The stalemate will continue, and whatever section of the public may fall away through shallow trust in the words of the media, the mystery will survive for those with eyes to see. One almost feels sorry for the journalists trapped in their own narrow worlds and the hired hands who make their circles for them.
At the closing ceremony of the Alton Barnes weekend, a ring of over a hundred people stand, hands linked, watching Rod Bearcloud perform his rather beautiful ritual and haunting chant. A bit New Age for some, perhaps. An easy target for cynicism. Yet beautiful for all that. But who are these strange people who hover just outside the ring of flesh and blood? A selection of the alleged human circlemakers huddle uneasily at the edges of the seven-fold mandala, while The Guardian journalist prowls, camera in hand (the ring of people will be the visual centrepiece of the article). It’s as if they desperately want to be part of it all, but are held back, frustratingly contained by their self-proclaimed status, unable to join in, but unable to keep away.
"They need us and we need them" says Rob Irving on GMTV, or words to that effect. There are few croppies who could honestly say they needed the likes of the circle claimants in return, but in one respect his words touch on a key point. He and his kin do need us, because without ‘the believers’ there’s no fuel for their ambition, whatever the motives may be - but if they all stopped their alleged antics tomorrow, the strong chances are we would still have a phenomenon, a view the evidence supports, both scientific, geometric, statistical and ‘paranormal’.
A delusional and ludicrously blind view, the sceptics will shout. I am specifically described in the recent CCCS document (nonsensically citing Vital Signs, a book that could not possibly have been read when this paper was written) as one who will suffer ‘serious psychological problems’ when the true scale of hoaxing is revealed. I won’t be reaching for the Prozac just yet. But then, as they keep telling me, in the words of the old song, I’m a believer.