As strange as it may seem after all this time, anyone who lays claim to the ‘truth’ about the providence of the crop circle ‘phenomenon’ is bound to be castigated by some section of the croppie (and wider) research community. This is in large part due to the fact that, despite circlemakers/hoaxers claiming to have made most or all of the major crop circles, they have always stopped short of giving specifics on which particular circle, or how it was done. This has always allowed the ‘true believers’ in the phenomenon to write off their claims – a situation, presumably, which the circlemakers are more than happy to continue with, as it allows some mystique to remain attached to their work….if they are the ones responsible!. Nevertheless, demonstrations by the circlemakers (for commercial purposes) and basic common sense must lead one to heavily favour the human explanation for the formation of the glyphs.
However, for the better part of the last fifteen years, all manner of tripe has been written about the crop circle ‘phenomenon’, most of it uncritical, or even worse, untruthful. Apart from the ‘Doug and Dave’ publicity in the early 1990s, those who are said to have made the circles (and I’m not talking about alien gods or telluric currents) have remained below the radar, allowing the ‘true believers’ to hold court. Apart from the paid work exhibited by the Circlemakers, and the confession (and prosecution) of Matthew Williams, information about human construction of crop circles has not had a high profile in alternative and New Age circles (pun not intended).
However, that has now changed with perhaps the definitive book on the art, history and philosophy of human crop circle construction: The Field Guide by Rob Irving and John Lundberg (edited by Mark Pilkington). Irving and Lundberg were pioneers of the ‘second wave’ of circlemaking, following on from the earlier, simpler work of Doug and Dave with the more complex and stunning large scale glyphs prevalent throughout the 1990s. They are intimately familiar with all the aspects of the crop circle scene, and as such are well-credentialed to author such a book.
The book begins by laying out the history of crop circles, albeit largely from a circlemakers point of view. The authors cover the ‘prehistory’ of the circles (815 to 1976 AD) including the infamous “mowing devil” reports and other instances of circle strangeness throughout that period; the inside story of how Doug and Dave began their mischief-making; and the subsequent evolution of the hoaxing into a pseudo-scientific genre through the following decades – from the early meteorological theories of Terence Meaden to the modern analyses of the BLT team – and self-supporting belief system within the New Age movement. Various well-known cases are touched on by the authors; however, while hints and suggestions are tabled often, there is little in the way of direct confession. Of course, this allows just enough space for the mythos of the circles to continue – and therefore the raison de etre behind circlemaking, that of social art on the level of mythmaking, to remain intact.
The history of crop circles is an important one to study, because it gives pertinent insights into other areas of interest. It’s very easy to look back now with some disdain for the ideas and hype surrounding crop circles in the early 1990s, but it must be said that at the time, the gestalt of the crop circle mystery was capable of carrying many people away into uncritical acceptance of the phenomenon (at least, those not familiar with the circlemakers’ abilities). The mysterious appearance of the circles – and perhaps more importantly, the historic ambience of the landscape and sacred geometry of the glyphs – led many to ignore the most simple answer: that people were stomping around the fields making them.
And while the circlemakers were certainly happy to perpetuate the mystery, there were obvious signposts that this was in fact the case – not least, the massive media blitz surrounding the ‘Doug and Dave’ confession, and also the advice of certain circlemakers such as the author of this book, Rob Irving. The Field Guide analyses this movement away from the obvious conclusion, in to ever more bizarre theories, in terms of Leon Festinger’s theory of ‘cognitive dissonance’. Festinger suggested that we strive to preserve our belief systems by adapting threatening new information to reinforce our beliefs rather than challenge them. From The Field Guide:
As with the aftermath of the Today story and subsequent “hoaxing” revelations, those with the most to lose appropriated and interpreted information to meet their own and group’s ends. Followers were of course free to either confront any disparities in the information, or accept it as true. For many, and many since, faced with this choice, rather than challenging their existing belief, the disconfirmation only served to confirm and even strengthen it.
We should all take note of this history, and the lessons that can be learnt from it, when approaching other fringe topics (from UFOs to alternative history). Indeed, the analysis of the philosophy of making the circles, and their capability of supporting complete belief systems, is one of the main attractions of this book. Irving and Lundberg’s thoughts on the subject are intelligent and relevant.
It must be said though that the book is infused with a certain smug superiority – a likely natural result of pulling the wool over the eyes of true believers for so long, but certainly not an aspect of the book that I found enjoyable. More troubling is the almost malicious glee had in ‘outing’ the mistakes, gullibility and (in some cases) dishonesty of high-ranking croppies. While it must be said that many researchers certainly ended up lying in the bed they made themselves, the circle mythos has been one capable of inducing researchers to devote large parts of their life and resources to it. As this very book points out, many of these individuals were caught up in their own belief systems (however incorrect) – happily perpetuated by the circlemakers themselves – and I found the mocking tone in some places to be distasteful considering the authors’ obvious comprehension (and use) of human fallibility when it comes to belief.
The other problem facing the authors of this book is the paradox of writing an authoritative book on fooling others. By its very philosophy, that must make all readers skeptical of all the claims within the covers of The Field Guide, and any researcher would therefore have great difficulty in treating any ‘revelations’ as truthful – from the tales of earthlights seen during construction, through to the actual claims of designing the circles. At one point in the book the authors quote historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto regarding the ‘higher truths’ seen by circle believers, but many could easily apply it to the ‘truth’ in The Field Guide:
Such truth usually comes with strings attached to human manipulators, disseminated by dubious experts and interpreted by self-conferred figures of authority.
This raises the important question of whether circlemaking should be considered a large-scale art experiment of sorts, or just plain mischievous hoaxing at others’ expense. Personally, I can see both sides of the argument. As someone who seeks to get to the bottom of mysteries, in one way it disturbs me that there are individuals purposefully contaminating the field (again, pun not intended). On the other hand, I do see the inherent artistic beauty of creating a mystery, and watching the ripples spreading from that proverbial pebble in the pond.
The Field Guide isn’t just a treatise on the history and philosophy of the circles though. It is also a practical manual. The authors firstly lay a little groundwork (truly, the puns are not intended) by illuminating the artistic context of circlemaking, before moving on to showing the reader how to ‘roll their own’ (with disclaimers as to getting farmers’ permissions etc). This brief guide describes the various crops that can be used, the equipment that is needed, and how to go about laying your pattern down in a field. There is some humourous comment on how to make the circle seem genuine (ironically, by doing very human things), and finally, the important step of getting the media interested in your circle so that it gets some coverage.
The book is rounded out with two interviews – John Lundberg interviews Doug Bower about his life of circlemaking, and Mark Pilkington (who is also the editor of The Field Guide) talks to a group of circlemakers – including Lundberg and Irving – about their ‘hobby’. These interviews are fine inclusions in the book, as they give an inside and personal look at the motivations and opinions of those who (allegedly!) make the circles.
The Field Guide should be the epitaph to the crop circle movement, but it won’t be. Once again, the circlemakers avoid specifics and direct evidence of the circles they have constructed. This will allow the true believers room enough to dismiss their claims, and the ‘phenomenon’ will continue. However, this is an important book in the history of the circles, and necessary reading for anyone interested in the topic. Even for those who see the circles as genuine, and who don’t believe Irving and Lundberg, it would be intellectually dishonest not to read The Field Guide if you want to lay any claim to understanding the topic. Certainly, read it with skepticism – the trickster must accept that by his very actions, he diminishes trust. But perhaps that is exactly as Irving and Lundberg would rather have it…