It all started with a picture. In April 2007 Monique Klinkenbergh stumbled across the image that would upend her life. Its composition—triangles and diamonds in concentric circles etched into a cornfield—evoked a profound visceral response.
The former magazine editor was struck by the design, the integrity of the mathematics between the shapes. “I have a background in fine art and also have this rational mind thinking, ‘How is this possible?’ It was 13-fold geometry, very difficult to construct on paper,” she says. “Try to divide a cake into 13 perfect pieces. You can’t.”
She knew then she’d have to explore this phenomenon. And she headed off to England’s Wiltshire county, the epicenter of crop circles. It’s probably no coincidence that Wiltshire also houses Stonehenge and several other prehistoric circular monuments believed to be associated with solstice rituals. In this framework, it makes sense that the rural English county would become the locus for crop circle enthusiasts, or “croppies.”
The circles’ overnight appearance and design precision have launched a legion of theories about their creation. Some camps believe they are made by UFOs or formed when spaceships land. Others insist the circles are the handiwork of humans. Those in the otherworldly camp often dismiss the latter as “hoaxers.”
No matter the origins, the technique involves flattening crops, which are mostly cereals and grains. Reports of the circles date back hundreds of years in Europe, but the wave of tourism to Wiltshire started in the 1970s and has taken hold.
It was during the rise in tourism that documentary filmmaker Chris Carter saw photographs of crop circles. Over 40 years, he observed them from afar, through photos and media. Then in May 2018 he finally went to England to visit one in person.
With three other people, “we lowered ourselves down while touching our hands together,” he says. “We could see our hands turn white with red blotches, and the ends of our fingers tingled. When we came up together, our hands returned to normal.”
Having experienced these sensations doesn’t bring Carter any closer to an explanation. “This could be the expression of consciousness itself or perhaps a communication from intelligent life letting us know we are not alone,” he says.
For people like Dene Hine, there is a clear answer: The circles are created by artists like himself, with rope, boards, a surveyor’s measuring tape, and sometimes a laser. “Construction lines are made and then the crop is flattened with boards,” he says.
The controversy attracted photographer Robert Ormerod to Wiltshire. As a child, he was obsessed with all things sci-fi, and now he explores subcultures in his work. Documenting “croppies” seemed like a natural progression.
Whatever your beliefs about crop circles, being in one can prove a powerful experience. “There is a definite sense of peace,” Ormerod says. And there may be something intrinsically pleasing about circles themselves. A study published in Neuropsychologia in 2007 found that people prefer curves to angles.
Klinkenbergh sold her publishing business and committed herself to her new passion, conducting reconnaissance flights, finding resources for tourists, and running an information center in Wiltshire. She’s “never regretted switching designer clothes for a backpack and wellies. It was, and still is, a fascinating journey.” ■