It’s 1973 and scientists in the prefecture of Miyazak on Kyushu, one of Japan’s four principal islands, are starting an experiment. What they’re doing is planting lots of trees – obisugi cedars to be precise. It will be almost 50 years before their experiment comes to fruition, however. And when it does, it will attract unexpected attention from around the world.
What caught the attention of both the internet and the world’s media in December 2018 was the pattern that these experimental trees have when viewed from above. In fact, they looked very much like the crop circles that in previous years have created so much fascination and controversy in the U.K. and elsewhere.
Crop circles forced their way into the public consciousness in the 1970s, with the majority of these patterns occurring in Southern England. More and more crop circles appeared in the English countryside and in some other parts of the world through the 1980s until their appearance started to tail off in the 2000s.
In fact, there are examples of crop circles going back as far as the 17th century, although some dispute whether these instances can really be placed in the same category as the more recent instances. One report from 1678 described the work of a character known as the Mowing-Devil.
The report was published in a pamphlet and relates a tale from the English county of Hertfordshire. A farmer, the story goes, asked a “Poor Mower” how much he’d charge to harvest a field of oats. The mower’s price was too high for the farmer, who retorted that he’d prefer that the devil cut the field.
The next morning, it reportedly seemed that an “infernal spirit” had cut the field in a way that no mere mortal could have. But some modern-day commentators refute that this is an early example of the crop-circle phenomenon. That’s because these oats were cut, but a proper crop circle apparently involves the crops being flattened. A pedantic distinction, perhaps, but obviously an important one for some.
Fast-forwarding to 1937, we come across a report by an archaeologist called E.C. Curwen. He wrote of four circles among crops at Stoughton Down near the English city of Chichester. His account in Sussex Notes and Queries stated that he’d seen “a circle in which the barley was ‘lodged’ or beaten down, while the interior area was very slightly mounded up.” No explanation of the phenomenon is offered, but it does sound very much like a crop circle.
In the 1960s the late BBC television astronomer Sir Patrick Moore, much-loved in the U.K., described crops being flattened in a circular pattern near a crater in the English county of Wiltshire. Moore speculated that disturbed air from a meteorite strike might have been the cause. However, a fellow astronomer, Hugh Butler, believed that lightning was a more likely explanation.
But it was in 1966 when the idea emerged that aliens might be responsible for crop circles rather than the devil, meteorites or lightning strikes. In that year, a farmer in Tully, Australia, claimed that he had seen a saucer-like ship rise into the air above an area of swampy ground. Closer examination apparently revealed a circle in the reeds where the craft had supposedly been.
To be precise, when the farmer went for a closer look, he purportedly discovered a 32-foot long oval-shaped patch of flattened grass. The Tully police, helped in their investigations by the University of Queensland and Australia’s Royal Air Force, believed that the depression was likely to have been a natural phenomenon, possibly caused by a “willy-willy.” That’s an Australian term for a dust storm.
It nonetheless seems that this incident in Australia didn’t go unnoticed in England. Indeed, two of the most notorious characters in the U.K. crop-circle craze that started in the 1970s have subsequently claimed that they were inspired by the happenings in Tully, regardless of whether or not a willy-willy had played a part.
It’s time now to meet Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, two men that some say started off the whole modern phenomenon of crop circles. It was in 1976 that Bower and Chorley decided to create their first crop circle in Wiltshire, the English county whose wheat fields saw perhaps more of these circular patterns than any other.
Speaking in 1991 to South Today, a regional BBC news program, Bower said, “I lived in Australia from 1958 to ’66, and during the time in Australia there was a report in their newspaper of a circular depression in a grass field in Queensland. And they immediately called it the ‘UFO nest.’ In other words, it was where a UFO had landed.”
“When I came home in ’66,” Bower continued, “I met Dave [Chorley], who was a fellow artist… One evening we saw a cornfield… and I said, ‘Why don’t we put a circular depression in this cornfield?’” The two hoaxers had high hopes for their handiwork, in fact. For example, they thought it likely that the local UFO society would believe an alien spaceship had landed in the field.
From there Bower, Chorley and others proceeded to create these crop circles in the grain fields of Southern England. And there were indeed plenty of people who believed that only aliens could possibly have created these patterns, the intricacy of which increased over the years.
But madcap theories about how crop circles were created continued even after Bower and Chorley exposed themselves as long-time hoaxers. This was despite the fact that they even revealed in that South Today report just how they created the crop circles with nothing more than a plank and a length of rope. Which only goes to show that you can’t keep a good conspiracy theory down.
What’s more, visitations by mysterious aliens who enjoyed creating patterns by flattening wheat wasn’t the only potential explanation put forward. Another theory stated that hedgehogs, lost in the passion of frenetic mating, might have unwittingly created the crop circles.
An alternative explanation presented the idea that gusts of wind might have been behind the crop circles. Or perhaps energy fields beneath the Earth’s surface, unknown to human science, might have been the cause. Indeed, theses crop circles gave birth to a veritable deluge of theories, ranging from the implausible to the seriously unhinged.
One man who has worked hard to come up with explanations for the crop circles deserves a special mention. American Dr. Horace R. Drew, who now resides in Australia, is actually a real scientist. He has published serious papers with titles such as “A study of electrophoretic mobility of DNA in agarose and polyacrylamide gels.”
Drew, a molecular biologist, has a chemistry PhD but became interested in crop circles in 2002. Remember, that’s 11 years after Bower and Chorley exposed their hoaxing in 1991. But Drew nonetheless believes that crop circles have their source either in aliens from other worlds or from human beings taking advantage of their ability to travel through time.
Drew’s firm belief is that the complex patterns displayed in many crop circles are actually an attempt to communicate. According to a 2017 article in LiveScience, Drew claims to have deciphered some of these codes that are supposedly hidden in crop circles.
Messages apparently include, “There is good out there,” “We oppose deception,” and “Beware the bearers of false gifts and their broken promises.” As LiveScience pointed out, it seems especially handy that all of these messages are in the English language. And why aliens or time-travelers would go to so much trouble to share these somewhat glib aphorisms with us remains a mystery.
Moreover, the conspiracy theorists who remain convinced that aliens make crop circles – despite the evidence to the contrary – don’t agree on everything themselves. Some believe that the beings from outer space actually land on our planet in the wheat fields to create the circles, for instance. Others, meanwhile, prefer the idea that it’s done remotely using energy rays that aren’t visible to the human eye.
Indeed, the creativity behind the theories about how these circles are formed seems to be boundless. In 2002 Colin Andrews, the man credited with popularizing the phrase “crop circles,” announced a theory that he’d come up with after close to two decades of study. The BBC reported that Andrews thought that unexplained movements in the Earth’s magnetic field created the 20 percent of circles that he deemed not to be hoaxes.
In 2009 another highly original theory emerged. We’ve already seen sex-crazed hedgehogs blamed for the crop circles. This time it was stoned wallabies. Lara Giddings, at the time Tasmania’s attorney general, gave her explanation for crop circles in a report to a parliamentary meeting.
Giddings was talking about security requirements for the opium fields of Tasmania, where the crop is cultivated lawfully for the pharmaceutical industry. The BBC reported her as saying, “We have a problem with wallabies entering poppy fields, getting as high as a kite and going around in circles. Then they crash. We see crop circles in the poppy industry from wallabies that are high.”
So, not everyone accepts the testimony of the two self-confessed hoaxers, Bower and Chorley. After they went public, in fact, there was a global boom in crop-circle production. As many as 10,000 of the circles might have been created in total. And it’s not just in the Southern English counties that the circles have appeared. They’ve also been spotted in locations as diverse as Russia, Japan, Canada and the U.S.
But it seems that as the 21st-century went on, crop circles actually became a commercial proposition. In 2009 The Guardian reported that you were much less likely to see the circles appearing randomly, since the people who made them were now working on commercial projects. Everybody from Greenpeace to Nike and Pepsi have apparently paid big bucks for bespoke circles.
But the true believers in supernaturally created crop circles weren’t impressed by the hoaxers, regardless of whether the latter were commercial or artistic. One artist creating circles in the 1990s, John Lundberg, told The Guardian, “We are the heretics, calling their belief system into question by the mere fact that we exist and talk about our circle-making activities.”
“Sometimes this spills over into threatening behavior on the part of the believer,” Lundberg continued. “We’ve had potatoes stuck up our exhausts, wing mirrors ripped off of our cars and threats of physical violence in person, over the phone, via email and through our letterboxes.” So, think twice before getting between a conspiracist and their pet theory seems to be the moral of that tale.
But what about those tree circles in Japan that we started off with? Are they the result of alien activity, time travelers sending messages or even animals overtaken by a breeding frenzy? The answer to that question is a resounding no: humans are entirely responsible.
The trees have grown in that formation because that’s exactly the way researchers planted them back in 1973. Scientists from the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries designed an experiment to observe the growth profiles of obisugi cedars, trees that originate in the Miyazaki region.
These are commercially important trees, which provided the motive for this long-term project. Obisugi cedar timber has a high oil content, making it less prone to attack by insects and so a good choice for construction. It’s often utilized to fit out offices and schools, for example.
These experimental stands of trees are planted in heavily forested land around ten miles north of the city of Nichinan. As well as being home to a thriving timber industry, the city is surrounded by agricultural land that produces everything from kumquats to mandarins.
For this forestry experiment, the scientists planted more than 700 of the obisugi cedars in two sections comprised of circular patterns. In each circle, the cedar trees were planted further apart. Thus the trees nearest the center of the circles were more densely packed than those towards the periphery.
And the point of this forestry experiment was to study how the spacing of saplings impacted on the trees as they grew to maturity. The researchers specifically hoped to identify the best growing layouts to produce top-quality timber for building purposes such as the construction of new residences.
The scientists chose this method of planting the cedars in circles with increasing spaces between the trees as it was the easiest way to observe how they grew. In the earlier days of the project, the forestry researchers monitored the trees on foot.
In later years, however, they were able to take advantage of drone technology to view the cedars from above. And it was when they had this bird’s eye view of the trees that the scientists realized they’d unwittingly created patterns in the forest that are reminiscent of crop circles.
And the results of this nearly 50-year experiment that started back in 1973? The forestry researchers discovered that those trees in the circles furthest from the center of the planting pattern and with most space had the most vigorous growth. Trees in the centers of the circles reached a height of around 50 feet. But the trees in the outlying rings grew to 65 feet.
Originally, the idea was to harvest these trees in 2023. Now, however, forestry officials are having second thoughts about felling the cedars. It seems they’ve spotted the tourism potential that these tree circles could have. And we can only wonder how long it will take conspiracists to come up with entertaining theories about how aliens or time travelers planted the trees.