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Cryptic crops

Little green men from outer space, human hoaxers or electromagnetic energy... Duff Hart-Davis meets a dedicated eccentric who is unravelling the mysteries of crop formations
Whatever agency you think makes them - human hoaxers, whirlwinds, aliens, discharges of electromechanical energy - this season has produced a magnificent variety of "crop formations". In the old days they used to be called crop circles, but recently they have become so elaborate that a wider-ranging name is appropriate. Many are now so extensive that their shape can be appreciated only from the air: those shown here were photographed by the indefatigable researcher Lucy Pringle, who devotes her entire summer to recording the mysterious shapes imprinted on grass, oilseed rape and corn.

The first this year (top, first right) appeared on the night of 20 April in a field of rape below the Iron Age fort known as Barbury Castle, in Wiltshire. With its central ring and six crescents spinning off at 60 degrees, the pattern represents, to Lucy, the "flower of life".

The next, 120ft wide and 195ft long, was created two weeks later in rape, only a couple of fields away. This one, she says, "takes you right into arcane symbolism" and represents the Tree of Life, an emblem of the cabbala or lore of the Sephardic Jews, which supposedly contains hidden doctrines about the mysteries of deity and cosmology.

Lucy is the first to admit that many crop circles are man-made; but after years of study she reckons she can tell a naturally-occurring formation from a fake. If some natural force creates a disturbance in still-green wheat, for instance, the corn is bent over, rather than crushed or broken, and remains fluffed up in a carpet 6in-8in above the earth. The grey film that coats growing stalks and leaves is still in place - whereas mechanical pressure applied with ropes or rollers destroys it.

If Lucy's interpretations tend to be high-flown, her method of research is down to earth. As soon as she hears of a new formation she rushes to it and, if she considers it natural, buries small medicine bottles full of water: some at various points inside the circles; some outside, as controls. Two weeks later she returns, digs them up and sends them off for laboratory analysis.

She is not helped by the fact that some fellow enthusiasts have grown wise to her habits, and dig up the bottles she has planted, believing that the water they contain has healing properties.

One of her latest batches is now in St Petersburg, carried off by the physicist Dr Konstantin Korotkov, who became fascinated by her work. Earlier analysis in America has apparently shown that bottles from inside formations contain substantially increased levels of bacteria. Dr Cyril Smith of Lancaster University, a specialist in vibrational medicine, has tested other samples for resonances and found that the contents of bottles inside and outside are strikingly different.

There is obviously something mysterious going on. Or is there? I myself have never experienced any physical sensation, good or bad, on entering a circle. Even so, I find it hard to see how humans could have created the Torus Knot, a huge and intricate pattern in a barley field outside the village of Alton Barnes. The formation is spread round the gently sloping shoulder of a hill, so that only a small part is visible from any one point inside it, and it seems inconceivable that people standing on the ground could have laid out the interlocking elliptical rings with the geometrical precision which only an air view reveals.

Formations occur in many of England's southern counties - and, indeed, in countries all over the world. But there is always a heavy concentration of them in the downland of Wiltshire, where ancient burial mounds dot the heights, white horses cut into the chalk prance on the hillsides, and the great monuments of Stonehenge and Avebury bear witness to the strength with which this magical landscape spoke to prehistoric man. Aficionados believe that crop circles are somehow connected with these sacred sites, "where the earth energies plug in".

In earlier years there have been accounts of dogs going berserk as they enter formations, and this summer brought another illustration of the way animals sense forces beyond most humans' reach. Early on a Sunday morning in July an American girl went into a formation without permission. The farmer's wife, out riding with her daughter, spotted the intruder and came towards her along one of the tractor wheel-marks through the corn, shouting at her to get lost.

When the horse reached the edge of the formation, it stopped, and, in spite of vigorous encouragement, refused to go any farther. This naturally increased the rider's irritation, and she then yelled, "I don't believe in these bloody crop circles, anyway!"

To which the American replied, "No, but your horse does" - and that was the end of the argument.

Crop circles are far from new. The earliest on record dates from 1687, when someone in Hertfordshire illustrated the phenomenon in a woodcut called the Mowing Devil. The story goes that a farmer had a field of oats, and approached a man to mow it, but the fellow demanded such an exorbitant price that the farmer said he would rather the devil took the lot. Next morning - you guessed it - he found part of his crop "laid down in round circles", whereupon he took to his heels and fled.

Now, 300 years on, crop formations have their own Web site on the Internet. No sooner does one appear than it is photographed from the air, and almost at once its picture is up there with all the millions of other information bytes whizzing around the world.

We may still be unsure how they are formed: men from Mars in spaceships, men from Earth with string and broom handles, weird bursts of pseudoscientific "energy" - it hardly matters. The art form of the crop circle has added its own twist to the beauty of the agricultural landscape.

Crop circle Web site: