I’m not sure when I saw my first crop circle. I’m guessing it was in the summer of 1991 on one of my annual pilgrimages to Avebury. The circle lay on the slopes of Overton Hill, a short walk from the Avenue and in full view of Silbury Hill. The time and the place seemed auspicious.
I went with an old school friend, Oli, and my then partner, Groovy Su. When we got there a man was dowsing with metal rods, trying to detect the subtle presence of earth energies. I hope we weren't in the way.
Back in 1991 crop formations were still circular enough (just) that they could plausibly have been caused by natural phenomena – wind vortices or ball-lightning or electro-magnetic curlicues –, which is why another amateur investigator was there with a home-built electronic device, brimming with aerials and dials and cables and some kind of audio output. He swept it over the bent corn, adjusting knobs, taking readings and muttering to himself. He reminded me of the scientist from the cult 1970s children’s drama, The Children of the Stones.
Channel 4 arrived (we'd clearly hit rush hour) and conducted an interview with a leading cerealogist, as crop circle investigators rather pompously called themselves. The crew filmed us walking away and we appeared in the subsequent documentary for a full ten seconds, hippies in a cornfield, signifiers of the weird.
A fan not an enthusiast, it’s hard, looking back, to piece together what I actually thought was causing the formations. I’m not sure I ever pinned it down. I know I wasn’t persuaded by alien communications, nor indeed by the idea of natural phenomena (nature doesn’t do straight lines). I think I probably wanted the circles to be upwellings of earth energy, a chthonic communication, a warning, a wake-up call. As the Space Goats sang: ‘look at circles in the corn, what is Mother saying?’ Psychedelics, festivals, rave, stone circles, crop circles, paganism, magick, eco-protests: they all seemed to be related strands of a new paradigm, a richly woven magic carpet that would re-enchant the world with its new ancient wisdom and avert ecogeddon along the way.
My lack of attachment to any one explanation meant that it didn’t come as much of a blow when I learnt that the circles were all human creations. It’s obvious really when you think about it, parsimony and all that. I’ve met circle-makers, heard how they did it, how they vied with each other in an unspoken game of one-upmanship. Some of them wrote a book and very good it is too.
Enthusiasts maintain that, OK, if some circles are manmade then not all of them are; or, invoking Jung, they claim that the circles represent an expression of the collective unconscious, forcing its way up through the makers’ treadle boards and past their conscious intentions. You’ve got to admire the will to believe.
But for me, the circle makers have done us a profound service. Through their cheeky rural graffiti, executed anonymously and at night, these proto-Banksy's created puckish works of exquisite beauty, transient patterns, glyphs and sigils that have activated our imaginations and given us cause to wonder. They created a bit of magic. In an age of Damien Hurst’s shark and Tracey Emin’s bed we’ve forgotten that that is what Art is supposed to do.