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Image: Crop Circles
Crop circles spread over a wheat field in rural Perquimans County, N.C., on June 12, 1997. Circle-makers have taken much of the mystery out of such formations, but true believers try to keep the legends alive.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com

You’d think a professional crop-circle chronicler like Colin Andrews would be absolutely ecstatic: Three films about crop circles are coming out this year, including “Signs,” the subject of Hollywood hype and magazine cover stories. But Andrews is actually worried ... worried that all this hype will bring less respectful amateurs into the, um, field. On the other hand, crop-circle makers like John Lundberg are thrilled.

The three films — the big-budget, big-name “Signs,” the low-budget independent film “A Place to Stay” (for which Andrews was chief consultant) and the documentary “Crop Circles: Quest for Truth” — have boosted the hype quotient for what has already been a bumper year for crop formations in England, the epicenter of the phenomenon.

Movies are just the right place for crop circles, said Joe Nickell, senior research fellow at the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.

“Crop circles are the stuff of Hollywood fiction, not science,” observed Nickell, who began investigating the phenomenon a dozen years ago.

But the believers who document the formations every year between April and September insist there are mysteries yet to be unraveled. Andy Thomas, author of the crop-circle compendium “Vital Signs” is worried that the films will leave audiences with “many false impressions.”

“Nobody knows the answer — not the skeptics nor the mystics,” Thomas told NBC News. “And I think we’re going to be puzzled for a long time to come.”

Film review: ‘Signs’ of faith

The circle-maker
For the UFO crowd, the circles are signatures left behind by visiting spaceships. For mother-earth mystics, they’re the manifestations of deep waves of natural energy. For psychics, they’re the conscious results of remote-viewing experiments. For fringe physicists, they’re the tracks of ionized plasma whirlwinds. But for Lundberg and his circle-making colleagues, they are the starting points for performance art.

“Essentially, we’re artists, and for us the most important thing that we do is the stuff after the circles are made, which is all the myth,” he told MSNBC.com. “It’s kind of like a mass-participation artwork. It’s like a mind virus, really. ... You could say what we’re doing is propagating belief systems.”

The hype over M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs” therefore represents a triumph for circle-makers, Lundberg said.

“We need each other, really,” he said. ”[Shyamalan] wouldn’t be making a film if we hadn’t been here working for 10 years. And obviously, the fact that he’s making films gives us an audience for our work.”

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Lundberg just has a couple of quibbles about the film. First, he says, pictograms are hardly ever found in fields of corn — although they look good on film. He also takes issue with the impression left in the film that circle-makers are “nerds with no girlfriends.”

“I swear I have a girlfriend ... honest!” he said. “I do things besides circle-making.”

The classic circle-making operation involves mapping a meticulous geometric plan, then going out to a wheatfield in the middle of the night with simple tools — including ropes and poles to measure out lengths and arcs, and “stomping boards” or garden rollers to flatten the grain stalks. The first circles were simple affairs, but this season’s crop includes complex fractal designs and even a pictogram topped off with Mickey Mouse ears, a likely tribute to Disney’s “Signs.”

Lundberg declines to discuss who might be behind particular circles — in part to preserve the mystery, and most probably also to head off prosecution or retribution from angry farmers whose fields have been trampled. But he says he and other circle-makers try to take a professional attitude toward the craft.

“We’re not pranksters,” he insisted. “I don’t laugh at the people (who see a higher meaning in crop circles). I think it’s fantastic that people can go in and say, ‘When I went in my leg was hurt, and I come out and it’s healed.’”

The investigator
Colin Andrews, on the other hand, worries that this summer’s Hollywood hype will bring more people like Lundberg out into the fields. Andrews, who has spent 20 years tromping around the world to investigate crop circles, is afraid that this year’s crop-circle movies might bring more circle-makers into the mix.

“I suspect what we may well see is a more negative spin in the movies,” he told MSNBC.com. “The farmers fear — and I do, too — that one of the negative consequences is that it legitimizes getting out and having fun in someone else’s cereal crop. We could well see a substantial nuisance to farmers worldwide as a result of this.”

Andrews has been funding his research with his own “small nest egg” as well as book royalties and donations from philanthropists. He started out as a 100 percent believer in crop-circle mystery — but two years ago, he declared there was adequate evidence that at least 80 percent of the formations were human-made.

“That’s gone down like a lead balloon” with people who take the crop-circle mystery seriously, he said.

At the same time, he’s not willing to give up on the other 20 percent, which continues to set him outside the scientific mainstream. Andrews said he was intrigued by magnetometer readings made at some of the simpler crop circles.

“Just a handful of those simple designs show that the earth’s magnetic field is increased about 150 percent above the norm, and was retaining a pattern that was too similar to the actual crop design to ignore it,” he said.

As further evidence, he cites reports ranging from a 1678 account of a “mowing devil” to the interviews he conducted last month during a research trip to England.

“My intentions to stay with this and try to see it through certainly received a boost” from these interviews, he said. One formation in particular fueled his curiosity — a 700-foot-wide pattern near Stonehenge that ranks as the second-largest crop circle found in England.

“As soon as we got to the edge of the circle, you could feel a tingling in your fingers and sort of like your elbow joints,” farmer Rachel Hosier told NBC News. “They started to sort of ache, and a feeling of, like, wow ... There was energy here, and you could feel it.”

Andrews observed that Hosier and her husband recalled hearing about similar, simpler circles on the family farm back in the 1960s, before the first circle-makers burst on the scene.

“Here you have landowners and farmers who are talking about a period well before the first claims (of intentional circle-making) were made,” he said.

But circle-makers might try to have the last word anyway, even about the formation in Hosier’s wheatfield.

“It’s turning out to be a good season,” Lundberg observed. “We had the second-largest formation ever, which is at Stonehenge. We try to crank it up each year. Our agenda is to try and make formations that are so big and so complex that people would ask whether it could possibly be man-made.”

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