Going through the lockdown box-set options, I considered, for a brief second, starting again with the “X Files”. Better sense prevailed (namely “Spooks”), but the thought stuck in my mind. Consequently, I thought that a touch of extra-terrestrial spookiness, if you’ll pardon the pun, might be in order for this post. The truth is out there…
Circles in the corn
When I was writing my post about white figures in the chalk, I was intrigued to find that the county of Wiltshire not only hosts a whole stable of chalky horses, but also the majority of crop circles in the UK. Most seem to be centered within 10 miles or so of the Avebury stone circle. We have of course visited Avebury before, in this past post here.
The crop circles are either singular, or else strange series of patterns – usually but not always circular – that appear in fields of grain. They are formed by the flattening of the crop. The burning question is, how exactly is the crop flattened, in order to produce the pattern?
When three tribes go to war…
Now, there are competing theories as to who or what is responsible for these phenomena. Fierce battle rages between, for want of better descriptions, the “New Agers”, the “Naturalists” and the “Conspiracy Theorists”.
The New Agers argue that the intricate patterns are the handiwork of alien forces, who make the patterns in order to communicate with our rather backward planet. The messages in the circles are not easy to interpret, but that does not stop adherents to the theory making great efforts to do so.
The Naturalists believe that the circles are the result of natural phenomena, the products of electrical forces or cyclonic weather patterns, which have no underlying intelligent motivation. They point to how investigators’ mobile phones and e-devices can stop working when they approach a circle. Sometimes find the hairs on their arms standing up, as if exposed to an electrical force.
The Conspiracy Theorists however, think that the crop circles are nothing more than a series of wild pranks, probably executed by a group of bored under-grads with nothing better to do on a Saturday night, with some planks of wood and a few ropes. They point out that pranksters have owned up to producing certain circles, and have even demonstrated how to make them.
Indeed, there are even crop circle competitions regularly held in the west country. The Conspiracy Theorists also point out that if the circles were truly the product of extraterrestrial activity, then they would best viewed from the air, whereas most in the west country are usually easily – and conveniently – viewed from ground.
Chariots of the Gods
As an aside to this point, older readers might recall the pictures posted by New Ager Erich Von Daniken (in his book “ Chariots of the Gods: Was God an Astronaut?”. Yes, really). He argued that some ancient designs could only make sense if viewed from the air. Consequently they were most probably made by extra-terrestrials.
For example, he suggests that the ancient patterns to be seen on the plains at Nazca in Peru are actually the marks of an alien landing strip. Incidentally, Mr. Albion met Von Daniken in person, during his career in publishing in the 1970s. He told me that Von Daniken smoked a smelly pipe constructed with a very space-age design, and that he was a very strange cove indeed.
So: New Ager, Naturalist or Conspiracy Theorist? I am firmly in the Conspiracy camp. In the absence of evidence, go for Occam’s razor…….
Occam’s Razor ?
I hear you asking “who is this Occam, and why are we interested in his shaving habits?” Meet William of Occam, or rather Ockham, in Surrey. He was an Englishman living in the 14th century who was a gifted philosopher and logician. His argument was that, given differing explanations for an occurrence, shave away the unnecessary and superfluous bits (hence the razor). The most simple explanation is most likely to be the right one.
For example, “I was mugged on the way to school, and the assailant searched my school bag, found my maths homework and tore it into pieces, then made their getaway”; or, “I forgot to do it”. Occam’s razor leads us to the most probable solution. I find William’s very English pragmatism and no-nonsense way of dealing with a problem very amusing, even across 700 years.
So, with no firm evidence to support either theory conclusively, I’d argue that the most simple and plausible explanation is that with our crop circles, we are dealing with a group of all too human pranksters, who are out to entertain and perhaps educate.
The Bones of God
Then, with serendipity, I read the recent obituary of Michael Glickman in the Guardian. He was a trained architect, with a keen interest in these strange circles, and he brought his professional skills to examine forensically not only how the circles might be produced, but what the designs might mean. Glickman published a book to this effect in 2009, “Crop Circles: The Bones of God”. He berated the sceptics:
“Only the close-minded have certainty. I cannot approach the crop circles with a closed mind. The delight in the crop circles is in the not knowing.”
Life of Pi
I was impressed with his analysis of the crop circle at Barbury, near Swindon. The significance of this circle not immediately apparent from looking at its photo (unless you’re a mathematician):
But the circle shows something very interesting – the sections of each separate arc in the circle in sequence represent the value of pi – the ratio between the circumference of a circle and its diameter. Who remembers the first few figures of pi, from their school days? 3.14159, etched in the memory.
Well, imagine the Barbury crop circle divided into 6 segments, and starting from the middle, pointing north, and working clockwise, count the number of segments each circle arc passes through. Have a look at my rough diagram here, copied from Glickman’s own.
There’s Pi to nine decimal places. A message from another civilisation, to tell us they’re there? Or maths students from Bath Uni, too clever by half? Make up your own minds.
Sadly, Michael Glickman developed MS in the later years of his life, and he could no longer walk to examine new circles. Intriguingly, following this, another strange thing happened. Crop circles started appearing on hillsides which could easily be viewed from a car parked on a road. This meant that he could continue with his observations and research. It was almost as if whoever or whatever was responsible for the circles wanted him to continue with his quest. Rather spooky – or endearing, eh?
And so we move on, tongue firmly in cheek, with ropes and planks in the back of the car…but hang on, before we go – could history convince us that we Conspiricists are actually wrong?
The Mowing Devil
And now, at last ! Here’s the history part to this post . There is a woodcut, produced in a 17th century news-sheet, of a field of corn in Hertfordshire. It appears to have been mown into a series of concentric circles. The report tells us that in 1678, a farmer was looking for hired labour to help bring in his harvest. When being told the amount of wages the labourers requested, he riposted that he would sooner have the devil bring in his crop, than pay their extortionate wages. Lo and behold, the next morning, his crop had been mown into very neat circles. The word spread very quickly that the Mowing Devil had come in the night, to fulfil his words.
Is this evidence of an early unexplained crop circle? The woodcut certainly bears a resemblance to pictures of the crop circles we see posted on the internet today. The woodcut is freely used by New Agers to refute the arguments of Conspiricists. But – look at the woodcut – the corn has been mown, not flattened. It is hard to believe that aliens would change their methods so fundamentally. Perhaps it was not so much a mowing devil, as a bunch of merry village lads, with devilment in mind. Again, make up your own minds.
UFOs over Suffolk
And finally, from Wiltshire, via Hertfordshire, to Suffolk. Rendlesham Forest is a lovely stretch of greenery in the Brecklands, near the Suffolk coast. It’s managed by the Forestry Commission, and is the former home of RAF Woodbridge, which was leased to the US Air Force after the Second World War.
Late on a winter’s evening in 1980, a USAF patrol was startled to see what they thought were lights from a crashed aircraft in the forest. After going to investigate, they saw a strange glowing triangular object, which, as they approached, disappeared upwards in the trees. Next day, they found strange depressions in the ground at the place of the sighting. Later that night, air force personnel again witnessed strange lights in the sky over the forest.
There has been extensive discussions on what caused what has been called “Britain’s Roswell”, after the so-called alien sightings in Roswell, New Mexico. Theories about the cause range from alien interventions, to a crashed soviet satellite, to the natural phenomenon of a fireball, or to the pulsing light from the nearby lighthouse at Orford Ness. And of course, to mischievous pranksters.
I have walked a few times in the forest, and the only unearthly thing I ever saw was a ghostly barn owl, flying silently across a clearing in broad daylight.
A heavenly battle
You may well be thinking, “erm, all very interesting, but I thought that this was supposed to be a living history post?” Well, let’s once again look back at history….. In 1561, as dawn broke on an April day, the citizens of Nuremberg in Germany witnessed what they described as a heavenly aerial battle happening in the skies above them. They saw hundreds of spheres, cylinders and other objects moving overhead. These were followed by the appearance of a large dark triangular shaped object. The sounds of crashing could also be heard. A news-sheet of the time described these happenings in great detail.
A similar event occurred in Basel, a few hundred miles south of Nurenberg, 5 years later. Again, numerous objects were seen hurtling across the skies. In both cases, contemporary commentators generally cited the event as a religious sign of some sort. A warning from God for man’s bad behaviour. Modern theories suggest sun flares and other natural causes, or even a mass hysteria, caused by the tensions of the ongoing conflict of the Thirty Years War.
Hiding in plain sight
Researching this post, I was amazed to see how many dozens of historic reports of UFO sightings are described, from the early medieval period onwards. There’s a lot of weird stuff out there. Except that, delving deeper into individual instances, there is no primary evidence for them at all! I lost count of the number of ancient carvings and paintings cited, with alleged alien spaceships there in plain sight.
However, what struck me as the major similarity between then and now is in the explanations given. Take well documented cases, like our Mowing Devil and the Nuremberg lights. Contemporary opinion was pretty much unified: they were the work of supernatural forces – whether God or the devil.
Now look at our contemporary examples, corn circles and the strange events at Rendlesham. Despite plenty of scientific evidence to the contrary, so many people are adamant that these – along with our historic examples – are proof of alien interventions on our planet. Like Michael Glickman, they argue that an open mind is as important as real evidence. Old William of Ockham would be hanging his head in despair. Although it is very striking that the large objects seen at both Nuremberg and Rendelsham were triangular……