For several months each summer, Monique Klinkenbergh gets up at dawn and heads to the tiny Wiltshire airport to climb into her ultralight aircraft. It’s important for her to get in the sky as quickly as possible, as the sun rises over Southern England’s rolling hills and lush green farmland, because hunting for crop circles is always a race against time. As soon as the first human feet touch the crops, carefully laid down in intricate geometric patterns and designs, all hope of a scientific investigation is lost. So Klinkenbergh and her colleague Andreas Muller start early.
It’s easy to dismiss crop circle truthers as conspiracy theorists, new-age spiritualists, or crazy people, but the fact is that there are crop circles. The intricate patterns in fields have been observed for centuries and, throughout that time, frequently proven to be man-made projects. Klinkenbergh and Muller aren’t fooling themselves. They know assume crop circles are man-made. But, every so often, they find a circle that shows no detectable signs of human involvement. Muller and Klinkenbergh have seen enough of these pristine circles, unclaimed by any artist, to be convinced that something is happening — all hoaxes aside.
“For me it has never been a question that crop circles can be man made,” Muller tells Inverse. “I’m aware that many crop circles are man made, but I choose to focus on the general phenomenon that they are not man made.”
What doesn’t interest him, Muller says, are theories of what causes crop circles. Both he and Klinkenbergh have no time for speculation; their work is as scientific as possible. Spiritualism, “esoteric ideas,” or wild theories about aliens and fairies are someone else’s problem. And there are plenty of someone elses in the pubs around town.
“I try to approach it from the scientific point of view,” Müller says. “I can only stress that this is my approach. I have no idea what crop circles are, I do not follow a specific theory as to what they are, the only answer I follow, over 20 years of research, is that there is a general phenomenon.”
The problem is no one keeps track of crop circles. Over the years, they’ve become a sort of giant, multifaceted beast that everyone has an opinion on. True believers tramp into annoyed farmer’s fields to leave offerings and hold rituals, vandals wreak havoc in farmer’s fields (a true crop circle does not damage the crops, which can continue to ripen when laid down in the circle), and artists construct elaborate shapes without asking permission, trying to dupe people into thinking they’re a sign of extraterrestrial life. They often appear during the spring and summer, from April to September. For decades, there have always been a number of appearances or discoveries on June 21, and Tuesday was no different. Klinkenbergh said a new formation was spotted Tuesday morning near Chillcomb Down, a parish in Hampshire, England.
The circles have appeared all over the world, but Klinkenbergh says the south of England has been the epicenter for much of the crop circle community for the last 25 years, to the extent that Wiltshire’s farmers often become fed up with the incessant traffic through their fields. In 1991, two men came forward and announced they’d been behind many of the circles in the region for decades.
Still, there are far more circles in Wiltshire and the surrounding country for just Doug and Dave. Muller says he’s collected over 7,000 crop circles in his running archive, but very few of those have been investigated under the right circumstances. And for Muller and Klinkenbergh, circumstances are everything. To actually investigate a circle, they have to be the first ones ont the scene. Muller says he has special techniques and tests he uses to determine if human beings were responsible for the circle. Some of those are as simple as checking for footprints and waste — a cigarette butt, a strand of cloth from clothing — but others he couldn’t reveal to me he says are far more sophisticated. When he finishes investigating a circle, he classifies it as a clear man-made case, a possible hoax, or, in the best circumstances, a formation in which he cannot see any sign of human activity, suggesting the general phenomenon at work.
“It’s really like a detective or crime scene investigation,” Muller says. “So in some cases you call it a good case. In many others I put it into the grey box because I simply don’t have enough information, and sometimes I find clear evidence of human activity.”
For Muller and Klinkenbergh, the moment when skepticism fades is what makes it all worth it — the early morning flights, the travel costs to England, the derision of skeptics online.
“I remember entering an oilseed rape [a common crop used to make vegetable oil] formation. Oilseed rape, it breaks easily, and it was all beautifully laid down [unbroken, in the circle],” Klinkenbergh said. “It makes you think how the world could work, and it turns around your whole world. Those are the masterpieces that keep me going.”
Klinkenbergh, a former editor in chief of a Dutch art magazine and entrepreneur, sold the stationary company she founded several years ago to pursue crop circle research full time. She now runs Crop Circle Access, which chronicles circles in the Wiltshire area and helps arrange access with the farmers for visitors to see them. She’s also put together an extensive exhibit on the history and future of crop formations, which has run in Marlborough, UK and will soon premiere in The Hague, Netherlands. Muller is an editor for a “science-oriented news-blog on paranormal and anomalistic-research,” which incorporates his work as a crop circle researcher.
The mysticism, skepticism, and quasi-science of crop circles is more than just a cultural phenomenon. In some ways, Muller says, it’s a way to understand how human beings interact with their world.
“This is always more about us than it is about the crop circles,” Muller says. “It shows that humans seem to have a problem with accepting phenomena simply as they are. The skeptics do the same when they blindly call it that it’s nothing more than just a big joke. Whatever crop circles are I don’t know, but I do know it’s very fun and nice to be around them. It’s in touch with nature, it’s pleasant, so whatever they may be, at least there’s that.”