Inside the mystical world of crop circle tourism

Photograph by Robert Ormerod, National Geographic
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The sun sets over a crop circle near Sixpenny Handley in Dorset, England.
Photograph by Robert Ormerod, National Geographic

It started with a picture.

In April 2007, Monique Klinkenbergh stumbled across the image that would upend her life. Its composition—perfectly executed rings of triangles and diamonds in concentric circles riven 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 a crop circle in the middle of the night in a field, which is not a straight canvas,” she says. “It was 13-fold geometry, very difficult to construct on paper. Try to divide a cake into 13 perfect pieces. You can’t.”

She knew then she’d have to explore the phenomena that produced designs with such congruity. “I thought, OK. This was it. It was my destiny,” Klinkenbergh recalls. With that, she went to Wiltshire, England, the epicenter of crop circles. There, Klinkenbergh says, she instantly felt “at home.”

Croppies and Hoaxers

It’s probably no coincidence that Wiltshire also houses Stonehenge and the more extensive Avebury Stone Circle, completing that World Heritage site. In fact the area houses several other “henges,” or prehistoric circular monuments of stone or wood, which are believed to be associated with solstice rituals. In this framework, it makes sense that this rural English county would become the locus for crop circle enthusiasts, or “croppies.”

The sudden overnight appearance and precision of their designs launch a legion of theories about the circles' creation. Some camps believe they are made by UFOs or formed when spaceships land, or assume they are the handiwork of inexplicable forces. Others passionately insist the designs are all man-made. True believers in the otherworldly camp dismiss the latter as “hoaxers.”

Of course, many adhere to the middle ground, believing that a lot remains unknown, and whatever forces create the phenomena are mystical. But tensions amongst the spectrum of people are intense, and at times, fierce.

No matter the origins, the designs are made by flattening crops, which are mostly cereals and grains. Reports of the circular designs date back hundreds of years in Europe, but the recent wave of tourism to Wiltshire started in the 1970s and has taken hold.

The area is still full of working farms, and the tourism can disrupt the farmers’ privacy and cause a loss of income. Thousands of croppies visit each summer, not realizing that not all farmers allow them access. “In the past, it was a Wild West situation in Wiltshire. Thousands of people entering without permission, trampling the crops, and upsetting farmers,” Klinkenbergh explains.

It was during this spike in tourism that documentary filmmaker Chris Carter, like Klinkenbergh, saw a photograph of a circle. “I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Carter says. “The detail and patterns were phenomenal.”

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Gary King, a crop circle researcher and guide, leads a tour near Cerne Abbas, West Dorset, England.

Over 40 years, Carter has been observing the circles from afar, through photographs and media. This past May, he finally went to England to visit a circle in person for the first time. Like other visitors, he reports feeling and seeing energy from the circle.

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. We went down again and the same thing reoccurred.”

Having experienced the sensations doesn’t bring Carter any closer to explaining the inexplicable. “It’s hard for me to believe that we are alone in this vast collection of stars in our universe. This could be the expression of consciousness itself or perhaps a communication from intelligent life letting us know we are not alone,” he says.

“Crop circles have held my interest all this time because to me it indicates that there’s more to this life than we can see, feel, hear, smell, or touch. I see and recognize a creative intelligence operating all around me,” Carter says. “It’s obvious in nature and in all life that something greater than what we understand is operating. And I believe that that energy is benevolent, loving, and supportive of all life.”

Lifting the Veil

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A team of self-confessed crop circle artists pose for a portrait in a field outside Dorchester, England. The designs are made by flattening crops, which are mostly cereals and grains.

For people like Dene Hine, there is a clear answer. All circles are made by artists like himself, with rope and boards and a surveyor’s measuring tape. “More complex designs require a laser to create points to work from. Construction lines are made and then the crop is flattened with boards. An infinite amount of designs can be made in this way,” he says of his process, which starts with identifying a canvas.

He understands the controversy and confronts it head on. “Me showing my artwork plans and designs is hated by some because they want to believe that something out of this world created them. Some accuse me of destroying the myth,” he wrote in an email.

The mere admittance or claim to have constructed a circle isn’t enough though. If there’s no prior drawings or filming of the making, it’s hard to prove authorship. Since the circles often show up on private property, the “artists” are reticent to film themselves as vandals.

This very tension attracted photographer Robert Ormerod to Wiltshire. He was fascinated with space and all things sci-fi as a child, before it became “uncool,” he says. Recently he has taken to exploring subcultures in his work, including amateur astronomers who make their own telescopes, Aurora hunters, amateur rocket builders, and people who live for months in Mars simulators. Documenting the experience of “croppies” seemed a natural progression.

“I started looking at anything to do with space, how we as a society are reacting to things to do with space. The more you find out, the more you become obsessed. So I’ve immersed myself in the story,” Ormerod says.

Whatever their origin, the experience of being in a crop circle can overwhelm even a non-enthusiast. “You walk into them, and there is a definite sense of peace,” Ormerod says. “The wind blows through the top of the wheat or the barley in a very kind of beautiful way, almost ripples across like fingertips."

There may be something intrinsically pleasing about circles themselves. One study published in Neuropsychologia in 2007 compared the human reaction to angular versus round shapes. “Our findings indicate that humans like sharp-angled objects significantly less than they like objects with a curved contour, and that this bias can stem from an increased sense of threat and danger conveyed by these sharp visual elements,” according to the study.

Chasing the Myth

Others are committed to looking at crop circles through a neutral lens. “It’s a shame that there is so much antagonistic behavior between the crop circle researchers and the hoaxers. Much could be learned if they would listen to each other and work together,” Klinkenbergh says.

Klinkenbergh, who lives in Amsterdam, sold her art publishing business and committed her life to her new passion. She “went from living and working and living in a posh area into endless night watches in the fields and daily reconnaissance flights over the Wiltshire area to spot new crop circles,” she wrote in an email. “Never regretted switching designers clothes for a backpack and wellies. It was, and still is, a fascinating journey.”

Klinkenbergh now devotes her time to studying the circles. She has curated an exhibition of the publicly available knowledge to date. She also collated resources for tourists and runs an information center in Honeystreet, Wiltshire.

She knows her whole-hearted pursuit of what may be unknowable elicits questions from some. “I’m not an airy-fairy person. I’m very grounded,” she says. “There’s a lot to wonder about and I think wonder is the basis of science.”

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A crop circle near Hackpen Hill, Wiltshire, slices through a farm with surgical precision.

A previous version of this story misidentified a photo of Chris Carter and was updated on October 25, 2018.