'Signs' Brings Bonanza
- Source: The Boston Globe
'Signs' Brings Bonanza Of Books, Documentaries And TV Shows In Its Wake
Good link on the page!
Crop formations may be shrouded in mystery, but the media are
betting they'll make sense at the cash register
By Vanessa E. Jones, Globe Staff, 8/1/2002
They call themselves cereologists, a term that makes them sound
as if they're researching Cap'n Crunch or Froot Loops. But the
people in this group study crop circles, those dazzling
geometric designs that have been carved into barley, wheat, and
oat fields throughout England, Germany, Japan, and the United
The summertime phenomenon has been around since the 1970s. And
ever since then, people have wondered whether the circles were
the work of aliens, natural phenomena, or pranksters armed with
planks and an astute design sense. The circles will reach their
largest audience ever on Friday with the release of M. Night
Shyamalan's film "Signs." The movie stars Mel Gibson as a former
minister who discovers a formation in his Pennsylvania
"Signs" is merely the first drop in a cereological storm. The
people behind a bonanza of books, films, and television shows on
the subject hope to ride the popularity of the movie to profits.
Two documentaries have already been made: William Gazecki's
"Crop Circles: Quest for Truth," scheduled for an Aug. 23
release, and Marcus Thompson's "A Place to Stay," which is
seeking a distributor. Recently published books include Werner
Anderhub and Hans Peter Roth's "Crop Circles: Exploring the
Designs & Mysteries" and Eltjo H. Haselhoff's "The Deepening
Complexity of Crop Circles: Scientific Research and Urban
Barbara Walters has considered the subject worthy of "20/20"
treatment. Cable channels from Discovery to History to Learning
plan to air specials.
The vortex of publicity is dragging into the mainstream the
eccentric "croppies" and the circle makers (yes, they're human)
who toy with them. It's all a little funny, considering that the
crop circles in "Signs" are the jumping-off point for a film
that's really a rumination on faith and aliens.
"Shhhh. Don't mention that," jokes Rob Pulleyn, publisher of
Lark Books in Asheville, N.C., which ordered a 30,000-copy first
printing of Anderhub and Roth's paperback coffee-table book
"Crop Circles," a dramatic increase from the usual first
printing of 5,000.
Anyway, does it matter when "Signs" brings attention to a cast
of cereologists and hoaxers who are colorful enough to inspire a
movie? There are believers such as Nancy Talbott, president of
BLT Research Team Inc., an organization run out of her Cambridge
home that consists of "seven or eight consulting scientists and
several hundred field workers around the world," she says. "Our
main purpose is to carry out real scientific research, not this
pseudo stuff," she adds disdainfully. It sounds convincing until
she reveals that before studying crops she promoted country-
Like Talbott, Colin Andrews, an electrical engineer from England
who now lives in Branford, Conn., once thought the circles were
a natural phenomenon. But today, the man Disney tapped to
provide information for its "Signs" Web site doesn't mention the
A-word. After all, who wants to get pegged as a UFO nut?
Instead, he vaguely says, "I don't think we're looking at
anything quite in the area of Mother Nature. ... The evidence
I'm having to go with is that ... whatever is making the crop
circles knows precisely what it's doing."
Hogwash, says Joe Nickell, 57, a senior research fellow at the
Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the
Paranormal in Amherst, N.Y., who has been investigating
unexplained phenomena for 30 years. He easily earns his debunker
tag, calling the croppies "cultlike," "pseudoscientists," and
"mystery mongers." In case you don't get his point, he adds,
"Some of these people are not credible."
But hoaxers such as John Lundberg can't exist without them.
Lundberg's brash, London-based three-man collective,
Circlemakers, calls what it does conceptual art. He and his crew
see their work as a collaborative piece involving the
cereologists, the media, the public, and themselves.
"The most interesting part of our work isn't particularly the
pattern making," the 33- year-old says earnestly from his London
home. "It's all the myths and folklores and stories that build
up around the work."
That mythology compelled Pulleyn to choose "Crop Circles" as the
single "wacko" book he publishes annually, he says. "There seem
to be real questions: How do these things happen overnight? Who
did them? I almost don't want an answer," he says, chuckling. "I
also don't want it to be extraterrestrials."
Talbott discovered the subject while browsing in the
international section at Harvard Square's Out of Town News about
10 years ago. She emerged from the store with a magazine filled
with photos of circles. A cereologist was born.
"I went to England right away," she explains in a deep voice.
The country is crop- circle ground zero. Andrews estimates that
95 percent of the world's circles appear within a 40-mile radius
of Stonehenge. Could this be explained, as Nickell dryly
suggests, by "a correlation between England and a lack of video
arcades, bowling alleys, and other methods of amusement?"
Talbott doesn't think so. She happily launches into long,
scientific-sounding explanations of the circles. She talks about
plasma vortexes, energy systems that she believes swoop down and
stamp fields with distinctive patterns. She mentions "massive
deposits of ... pure iron" that coat plants.
Proudly and often, Talbott states that three of her studies have
been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals: two in
Physiologia Plantarum, a Danish journal of experimental plant
biology, and one in the Journal of Scientific Exploration, a
publication founded by a Stanford University professor that
focuses on scientific research outside the mainstream. Like
Andrews, she boasts that she's received funding from Laurence
Rockefeller. She doesn't mention that Wired magazine recently
described Rockefeller as a "UFOlogist."
Nickell can just as convincingly give reasons that cereologists
are deluding themselves. He tells his side slowly and carefully,
as if he's explaining common sense to a 2-year-old. Isn't it
convenient, he asks, that the number of crop-circle sightings
increases in correlation to media coverage? As for the stamps of
approval from scientific journals, the research would be more
credible if it were tested against a circle that doesn't have
the mark of human intervention, Nickell says. "Just going out
and finding something when you don't have anything to compare it
to is not proof of anything."
Why not ask the Nancy Talbotts of the world, he suggests, how
they explain the increasing size and complexity of recent
circles? The question flusters Talbott. When prodded, she huffs
that she can't explain research that has taken 10 years to
compile. This is a 21/2-hour lecture, she complains. To
understand it, she says, it's necessary to read BLT's
information packet, which contains photographs and scientific
papers. The package costs $35.
When the same question is posed to Lundberg, he doesn't need
money or 21/2 hours to answer it. He talks about the spiritual
fathers of present-day circle makers, Brits Doug Bower and Dave
Chorley, who in 1991 admitted to making the early circles. The
men were disturbed when Terrence Meaden, an English
meteorologist studying crop circles, started explaining them
away with the plasma-vortex theory.
"They didn't want people to think it was natural," Lundberg says
of Bower and Chorley.
So the teasing began. Crop circles grew from simple circular
formations to rectangles, triangles - there's even one with an
intricate basket-weave design. Their sizes expanded from several
feet to 15 acres. These days, Lundberg says, the goal is to "do
stuff so huge, so complex, that people would question that it's
And how is it done? His www.circlemakers.org Web site, which has
been logging a quarter of a million hits daily, offers a how-to
guide suggesting designs and equipment (surveyor's tape, planks,
garden rollers, hangers). According to his recommended method,
the center is formed via an awkward one-man dance that has the
circle maker pivoting on one foot while the other foot flattens
the surrounding stalks. Surveyor's tape is then attached to a
stick stuck into the center of the newly formed central circle.
The circle makers decide on a radius length and then, keeping
the tape taut, walk around the stick, leaving a slight trail
with their feet. Voila! A perfectly made circle. All that's left
is to stomp the formation into shape.
The hoaxers' activities caused Meaden to be "utterly disgraced
and humiliated," Nickell says. As for Andrews, who worked with
Meaden and coauthored the first book on the phenomenon in 1989,
Nickell says, "He now has, to coin a phrase, egg on his face,
shirt, jacket, trousers, spattered on his shoes."
Today, Andrews concedes that 80 percent of the English circles
are man-made. Why does he remain a believer? "We have patterns
as large as three-quarters of a mile across," he says
plaintively. "The more impressive the geometries, the more
impossible they look to be performed in a short period of time
Spoken like a person who's never made a crop circle, says
Lundberg. All it takes to make the huge ones, he maintains, is a
team about 10 people strong. And, apparently, steel nerves.
"It's actually really stressful to do it," Lundberg says. "The
more people you have in the field, the more of a nightmare it is
With "Signs" on the horizon, observers expect circle sightings
to spike. A 25-foot design popped up in an Oregon field last
month. "Every man and his dog will be going out to make one,"
But don't even think of grabbing a few drinks before hitting a
field. "You have to be stone-cold sober if you're going to make
them; otherwise you get wonky crop circles," says Lundberg.
Like the one depicted in the book "Crop Circles" that extends in
a long, jagged line? He laughs, saying, "Maybe those are the
ones that are made by aliens."
This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 8/1/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.
© Copyright 2002 New York Times Company
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