Country Matters: A mission to square the circles

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WE MUST have looked as though we were hunting the snark: a party of four, armed with forks and hope, certainly, but also with cameras and scientific instruments, prowling the cornfields on the Wiltshire downs.

Apart from myself, in jeans and tidy shirt, there was Alf Riggs, a consultant engineeer and eminent dowser, clad in check from head to foot (hat, shirt, jacket, trousers, all different patterns), wielding a bifurcated nylon rod. There was Roger Taylor, an immunologist, slim, silver-bearded, freshly back from a meeting of the US Psychotronic Association, and bearing a heavily insulated measuring device of his own manufacture. Above all there was Lucy Pringle, from the Centre for Crop Circle Studies, effervescing elegantly in cream-coloured shorts.

Our quarry was not so much corn-circles, which are easy enough to find at this time of year, as that infinitely more elusive phantom, the force which is creating them. Plenty of people will tell you that the force is two-legged, and comes at night with garden rollers, planks, poles and ropes, to flatten the corn mechanically. Hoaxers certainly exist, and they are very skilful - as was proved by the competition staged for them last autumn. Serious researchers agree that some of the circles are man- made, yet they remain convinced that many result from natural causes.

So far this season about 80 formations have been reported. The earliest was in Oxfordshire, but most (as usual) have been in Wiltshire. On Wednesday our first objective was a small circle that appeared in a field of barley on 7 July. As an experiment, Lucy had buried small bottles of water here on 14 July - one at the edge of the field as a control, and several within the circle. Now her aim was to recover them, so that they could be submitted to laser-beam and electronic-signature analysis, to see if the molecular structure of the water had changed.

The formation was a plain circle 10 yards in diameter, without any appendages. The barley had been swept down in a clockwise swirl, with the vortex about a yard away from the true centre of the ring. This alone suggested to me that it could not have been made mechanically. The ears of corn laid flat had withered.

Dowsing with a crystal pendulum, Lucy soon found her bottles and dug them up, but Alf had no luck with his rod. His speciality is dowsing for earth radiation, especially the kind that has adverse effects on human health. He has repeatedly shown that cancer has resulted from people sleeping above points at which bands of noxious radiation intersect, and he is now conducting research into the disease ME at the Middlesex Hospital.

Here in the cornfield he was looking for radiation, geological faults, underground streams and so on. He explained that the ability to dowse is one of a human being's normal senses, and that after enough practice it becomes second nature. He likened his own search for particular phenomena to listening for one instrument in an orchestra: 'If you want to hear the French horn, you can easily pick that out from the violins, and don't have to concentrate very hard.' Here, though, he found nothing. Nor did Roger, who was principally interested in 'what are coming to be called scalar fields - fields like electromagnetism, but not measurable by conventional instruments.' His home-made device was a cylinder of barium titanate housed in a Faraday cage (to screen out high-frequency electromagnetism) and boxed in expanded polystyrene, to keep its temperature constant. His hope was that the barium would react in some way, but it showed no signs of life.

That circle, then, produced no firm evidence (unless the water bottles show something). Yet in the next - a multiple formation, with several circles of different sizes set out in line - Alf's dowsing rod got a most positive reaction. From the way it kept jumping or diving, even I could tell something was up - and sure enough, he reported a strong concentration of radiation bands running across the main circle, all parallel. So powerful were they, he said, that if they crossed, they would be extremely dangerous to humans.

What did that say about the circle? Nothing directly. Even Lucy, an undisguised enthusiast, admitted that for her this formation had no feeling, and gave the impression of being man-made. Alf agreed that any respectable dowser could have found what he had, and directed a hoaxer to make his circle on this spot.

So it went on: our quarry remained fascinatingly elusive. As the day progressed, we picked up more fanciers who had been operating independently, among them Paul Vigay, a young computer specialist who, with his friend Andy, had spent all night in a vigil on top of Milk Hill, above East Field, the scene of many formations in earlier years.

To their great excitement, they had seen a blue light travel across the sky and go straight up in the air, followed by a green light - phenomena also witnessed by a group of Germans, who had come armed with high-powered night-vision equipment, bought at knock-down prices from Russian army officers desperate to earn a few Deutschmarks.

By the time we had lunch in a pub, our group had grown to a dozen. Much derision was cast on Doug and Dave, the self- confessed (or rather, self-advertising) duo of hoaxers from Southampton, who claim to have made a great many of the formations, but who lost credit by declining to take part in the hoax competition last year. Another bete noire for the researchers is Jim Schnabel, the American whose book Round in Circles (Hamish Hamilton, pounds 16.99) sought to ridicule the very idea that the circles have any natural origin.

Among other feats, Schnabel claims to have created the 'Celtic necklace', which appeared beside Silbury Hill last year. Earlier this month, he was invited to create a replica, and, according to my companions, made a thorough mess of it. One phenomenon which they say no human can reproduce is the way that in a genuine formation the corn goes down lightly in as many as five interwoven layers - not flattened progressively by mechanical pressure, but apparently hit all at once by a burst of energy. Roger Taylor drew an analogy with the lid of a cardboard box: 'You can't close the four flaps one after the other - it won't work. You have to do them all together.'

I came away marvelling at the intensity of feeling that this subject generates. Fans speak of euphoria, warmth, somnolence, dizziness, fear and physical repulsion, all brought on by visiting the circles. Perhaps it is only a question of time before some human goes the way of the porcupine that was found flattened in the middle of a corn circle in Saskatchewan last summer. A line of quills embedded in the crop showed that the poor creature had been hurled violently to the centre of the circle: its body had been so compressed that it was only two inches from back to belly, and the quills remaining on it were swept round in a swirling pattern, matching that of the wheat.