Though very late to begin, and down in numbers, the 2006 crop circles arrived nonetheless, and still brought surprises and intrigues of their own. ANDY THOMAS looks back at a curious summer…
Each year there is a flurry of speculation as to what the next crop circle season will bring, with excitement, anticipation and cynicism in equal amounts as eyes turn to the fields and the stems begin to grow high enough to receive their annual dose of cryptically compressed patterns.
But for long-time aficionados of the English crop circle phenomenon, 2006 began on a worrying note. (For the purposes of this article, to begin with I’ll shamelessly recap with bits from my previous Swirled News piece and then expand outwards.)
In any given year, the UK can usually expect to have at least a handful of crop formations from April, but this year it took until 21st May for the first official sighting, only just sneaking inside the post-1980s record of 23rd May 1990 as the latest start. And this first event of 2006 was little to write home about – a rather rough-looking ring in oilseed rape (canola) at Alfriston, East Sussex. Actually, this was in truth the second English event of the year, not the first – that honour rather dubiously went to a man-made logo created for a Wiltshire newspaper, not the greatest opening to a season.
It took weeks for things to pick up, in what was quite the slowest start for many years. Though the rapeseed fields were later to bloom this spring, there were certainly enough prime canvases for early May formations to have appeared, yet none did. Other countries as far afield as Italy and even Australia (which had the first global formations of the year on March 29th, at Conondale, Queensland) seemed to have early activity, but the UK was strangely quiet until mid-June.
Concerned e-mails and web postings stirred the circle community, as enthusiasts wondered where their favourite phenomenon had gone and what exactly it was up to. Various explanations were offered concerning the weather, changes in the magnetic fields of the Earth, reluctant ETs... or lazy plankers. Interestingly, many people missed one of the more likely explanations – the water table. It is well-recognised that the majority of crop formations cluster around the main aquifers (water-holding geological strata) of the UK, and many believe that natural energy generated by the water contributes to their creation. In 2006, the UK suffered the driest conditions since 1976 – could this have been an important factor?
Inevitably, some of the human circlemakers - who would have the world believe they are the sole creators of the whole mystery - were obliged to proffer their own explanation for the low circle numbers, and news in the spring of the unfortunate suicide of a Wiltshire man who had allegedly helped create a number of patterns over the years (though few had heard of him before his death), helped provide the rationale they needed. His loss and the apparent low morale which followed were claimed in some quarters as the reason for the lack of circular activity (an interesting change from an earlier credited reason from one planker – “hay fever”). This was not taken particularly seriously in the cerealogical community, but the newspapers leapt on the suicide story late in the day a few months on, with a burst of reliably unbalanced press stories appearing in July, screaming that the phenomenon was on its way out and that the regrettable demise of a hoaxer was one of the main reasons. Certain other human circlemakers, however, confusingly dissented from this position, their need to keep the phenomenon’s profile high doubtless stimulated by the forthcoming publication of their circle-debunking book concerning the ‘philosophy of human crop circle making’. The irony of the claims that the circles were fading rapidly was that by the time these headlines appeared, the numbers of formations, while certainly lower than many other years, were substantially catching up and the fields were being visited by an array of eclectic and inspiring designs which seemed lost on an ignorant media.
Though the generally less circle-visited counties of Norfolk and Kent had unexpectedly produced a burst of unusual activity in early June, it took until the end of that month for the first real masterpiece of the season to emerge. A twin ‘time-tunnel’ of radiating off-centre rings at Avebury Trusloe, Wiltshire on 30th June gave a striking optical illusion effect, and set the theme for a number of formations which would soon follow with similar motifs, most notably at Savernake Forest on 8th July, Aldbourne on 11th July, and Straight Soley on 20th July, all again in Wiltshire.
Among several other July entries, three powerful designs all impressively conspired to appear on the one night of 8th July: a ‘Koch fractal’-type design at Boxley, Kent – probably the finest crop glyph to appear in that county to date; a feathery-looking ‘dreamcatcher’ emblem not far from the famous white horse chalk carving at Uffington in Oxfordshire; and within a mile of that, at Waylands Smithy (site of the best of the 2005 events), the formation which perhaps most caught the public imagination this year – an astonishing array of radiating rectangular boxes (seen in perspective) around a jagged central star. Many speculated on the meaning of this very distinctive and unusual symbol, some fearing negative connotations (noting the resemblance to an explosion amongst tower blocks), while others found more inspirational readings. This formation was even reported in the ‘Daily Mail’ with awe and interest. How short the memories of newspapers are – just three weeks later, the same title would be sounding the death knell of the phenomenon with yet another piece on the apparently diminishing returns in the fields.
As the summer drew on, further surprises continued to prove the press wrong. A complex nine-fold mandala near the famous Rollright stone circle in Oxfordshire appeared on 2nd July, while the old 80s circle-haunt of Cheesefoot Head in Hampshire produced a not dissimilar nine-fold floral pattern on 23rd July. A unusual design style was then explored on 6th August with the arrival of a huge formation based on non-conventional curves (described by some, contentiously, as “parabolic”) at Blowingstone Hill near Kingston Lisle in Oxfordshire (a county which did unusually well for formations this year). This six-pointed affair, with its chequer-board centre, was strange to the eye, but impressively difficult to draw. A simpler sequel came down at Etchilhampton in Wiltshire on 15th August – the last UK formation at the time of writing.
The UK had just under 50 crop glyphs this year, about 20 down on the previous season – not as low in number as many have made out, yet still evidence of a general downward trend in recent years. Though some do evidently stand out as masterpieces, it must also be said it is generally agreed that 2006 was not a vintage year, with some formations being somewhat obviously geometrically-challenged, and others (a clear representation of a cartoon pig, for instance!) hardly helping the cause of credibility – though it may simply be that reducing numbers of what some might call the ‘real thing’ more clearly expose the remaining human element. Debunkers, of course, would argue that there isn’t a ‘real thing’, pointing to several ambitious man-made experiments or commericial projects carried out this summer, but nothing is really proven by these anymore, beyond what we know – that some formations are man-made.
However, there have been disappointing seasons before, only to be followed by renaissance times just a year later, so it is too early to start writing obituaries for the phenomenon just yet – another year will be needed to show the general trend more clearly, especially as in 2006, collectively, other countries actually suggested an upward curve in overseas numbers. Aside from Germany, which in recent years has been buoyant with crop formations but this year seemed to stall like the UK, Italy in particular continued its run of ambitious formations, and even France, Belgium, Slovenia and Switzerland, among several other countries, got in on the act.
Some have long speculated whether a year will one day come with few or no circles. If such a notable dearth were ever to happen, this would, of course, in itself be a noteworthy wonder - a lull before a storm, heralding the beginning of something new or marking the completion of a phase..? Some wondered at the start of 2006 if this was where things were heading, but later events blurred away the ambiguity. As yet, this mysterious, beautiful and frustrating phenomenon is far from dead. Still no definitive explanations are forthcoming, but its presence – and charm - remains.
[A version of this report also appears in the latest issue of ‘Nexus Magazine’. For the spec on the state of crop circle research itself, see my Swirled News companion piece this month – “Croppiedom Alive and Well”.]
Avebury Trusloe, Wilts, 30 June 2006 (Photo: CROP CIRCLE CONNECTOR)
Barbury Castle, Wilts, 14 July (Photo: CROP CIRCLE CONNECTOR)
Boxley, Kent, 8th July (Photo: ANDY FOWLDS)