Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Planetary Puzzle: Will the Circles Be Unbroken?

The Barbury Castle Crop Circle in Wiltshire July 1991
While I’m vacationing in the United Kingdom this week, I hope to spot a gigantic crop circle or two – and visit Stonehenge, if the Druids will let me. But there might be a curse, something that dates back to a particular September day in 1970 when my husband and I woke up to rain outside our cozy Salisbury bed-and-breakfast. Just a typical English drizzle, though wet enough to make the morning’s planned trip to the fabled stone circle much less enticing. Married for three weeks, Bob and I had envisioned this trek as a centerpiece of our honeymoon in Europe.

We spent thirty minutes trying to hitch a ride, but finally gave in to the lure of bus that would take us to Amesbury, a town two miles away from Stonehenge. En route, I caught glimpses of the glorious Wiltshire countryside through befogged windows. About halfway there, we noticed smoke emanating from the vehicle’s muffler. Bob promptly alerted the driver. After pulling into a breakdown lane, he left the bus with the two of us on his heels. What we discovered was not only smoke, but flames shooting from the exhaust system. He went back to summon his other passengers with polite understatement: "I’m afraid we have a serious problem. Please file out in an orderly fashion."

As we all waited by the roadside, the local fire department raced to the scene and doused the bus with water. A middle-aged woman in an apron, watching the drama from the front yard of her modest Tudor cottage, began to chat with us. When I told her of our difficulties in the attempt to reach Stonehenge, she exclaimed: “Oooo, the Druids don’t like you, luv.”

Eventually, a replacement bus arrived that reached Amesbury without incident. But the drizzle had become a steady downpour, so we didn’t want to walk the remaining two miles to the megalith. A few taxicabs that passed us were already full. Drenched and dejected after ten minutes, we pledged to either find a ride to Stonehenge or take the next bus back, whichever came first. At that moment, a bus bound for Salisbury rumbled into the town square. We obeyed destiny’s command.

The Druids, it seems, had no intention of letting us anywhere near the legendary site attributed to them, even though they probably were not the people responsible for building the impressive earthwork. The prehistoric construction crew may have been comprised of Beaker Folk, so named for their habit of burying tribal chiefs along with their favorite pottery drinking vessels. They were Bronze Age farmers and archers who brewed mead (a wine made with honey), said to be the first alcoholic beverage ever imbibed in that country. The intoxicated, albeit industrious, Beakers lived in the region in about 2500 BC. The Celts and their Druidical priesthood reportedly inhabited the area much later, around the time of Julius Caesar, until eradicated altogether in the dawn of Christianity. Our failed Stonehenge sojourn is long over, yet I continue to wonder if some ancient entities are still toying with me.

Glenn and Cameron Broughton
I should ask Cameron and Glenn Broughton about that. A bit like the intrepid investigators on The X-Files, this Vermont version of Scully and Muldaur spend every summer chasing the paranormal in England’s lush landscape of farms. They’re particularly interested in crop circles, geometric shapes that annually appear in agricultural fields, perhaps dating back to the 1600s. Although these enormous and often intricate designs can be found in many parts of the world, for some reason the terrain around Stonehenge invariably claims the greatest number. Crop-circle proliferation during a typical growing season means a hectic schedule. “We’re ready to roll if one shows up overnight,” explains Glenn. “We know by at least 9 the next morning because there’s a good networking system that sometimes includes the local police.”

The Broughtons operate Journeys with Soul (formerly called Sacred Britain), a research group that sponsors tours of relevant sites throughout the country. They mingle with fellow cereologists – named for Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture – to discuss the history, analyze the facts and examine the spiritual potential of the formations. Such people are more informally known as “croppies.” One expert in this field of dreams is Andy Thomas, a noted Lewes author who has studied several hundred circles during the last 20 years with a team called Southern Circular Research.

Croppies wonder if these amazing feats – caused by a tamping down of wheat, barley, oat or other grains that doesn’t break the stalks – can be attributed to a bizarre vortex of wind or even the collective human consciousness. “There are lots of theories about how they occur, but what’s incontrovertible is where,” suggests Glenn. “About 90 percent of them are over aquifers. And this underground water is under 40 percent of England…The land holds powerful energies.”

Etchilhampton, Wiltshire June 1997
Thomas points to evidence of biological anomalies in the re-arranged crops and “strange lights coming down into the fields where circles are subsequently found.”

In the 17th century, superstitious Litchfield residents supposedly worried that a circle in their midst had been crafted by “the mowing devil.” Some contemporary debunkers challenge such stories and insist massive crop designs are a much more recent phenomenon. “It’s only been the last 20 years or so,” contends Benjamin Radford, managing editor of the Buffalo-based Skeptical Inquirer magazine. “And we know for a fact that hoaxers make some of the crop circles. Even the most ardent believers concede that.”

Glenn Broughton does. “Crop circle people often debate the authenticity of formations,” he says, enumerating the possible explanations beyond human pranks: “ETs or spiritual entities trying to communicate with us; a wake-up call from the planet; Gaia, the consciousness of the Earth.”

Croppies may be messing with the primal forces of nature, but they’re also just plain folks. “I have a very respectable background. I grew up in Nottingham – Robin Hood country – and taught economics and sociology at high school level,” recalls Glenn, who saw the photo of a crop circle one day in 1991. “It was so remarkable and had such an impact on me that I decided I must find out more about these things.”

He quit his job, began working at a holistic health center and devoted himself to pursuits such as cereology. In 1996, Glenn was serving as the guide on a tour of sacred sites in Wiltshire and Somerset when he met Cameron, a massage therapist from Massachusetts who had come with a group interested in exploring the unknown. A year later, she witnessed her first crop circle, a snowflake pattern that was about 300 feet in diameter, in a Silbury wheat field. “I was enthralled,” she says. “I love mysteries.”

Woolaston Grange, Gloucestershire -- July 2010
In 2000 the Broghtons settled in Vermont, where Cameron has family ties. “I saw the big rolls of hay in the fields here and it felt like England,” recalls Glenn, who restores and sells antique furniture. But every year, they heed the call of the wild croppies by leading a few tours in his homeland. “When we get word of a new circle, first we go physically into them,” he says. “They were once just simple rings but have become more and more complicated over the last two decades. Now we’ve got these incredible mandalas.”

Benjamin Radford, whose magazine is published by the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, suspects the increasing complexity of crop circles is merely due to “hoaxers one-upping each other.” A few years ago, he and his colleagues spent two hours making a 110-by- 80-foot circle in Upstate New York to prove how easily it can be accomplished. “I think croppies are sincere,” Radford suggests. “They just don’t approach this scientifically. I’m not out to debunk myths, but to legitimately find out what’s going on. If they should ever prove to be real, I want to be the first one there.”

When that day comes, Radford had better be an early riser to beat the rapid-response Broughtons.

As for Stonehenge, I can only pray that in the past four decades the Druids have decided to like me, luv.

* * *** * *
600-foot “Jellyfish” crop circle in Kingstone Coombs, Oxfordshire -- June 2009
Link to a 2009 British newspaper report on crop circles.

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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