The fellowship of the rings

Daily Telegraph (UK)/July 25, 2004
By David Harrison

'It makes me chuckle sometimes," says John Lundberg, gazing across a wheat field in central England. "If somebody had said to me 10 years ago that today I'd be flying all over the world making crop circles for big companies and being paid for it, I'd have said they were mad."

This is a deeply disturbing statement. Crop circles, as we all know, are supposed to be made by little green men from outer space. They arrive in flying saucers, make intricate patterns in wheat fields and then go home to Planet Zog, leaving us simple earthlings to argue over what it all means.

Mr. Lundberg is certainly a man, but he is neither little nor green and his preferred means of transport is a bicycle, not a spaceship. Yet he admits, freely and without a trace of smugness, that he and his partners, Rod Dickinson and Wil Russell, not only create crop circles but are making lots of money from them. They are three men sorting out the wheat from the cash, with not a UFO in sight. The only green men to be found are those who envy the circle-makers' ability to exploit their artistic talents.

Mr. Lundberg has been making crop circles for 13 years. For most of that time he has done it without a thought for profit, but in the past few years the commercial work, mostly advertising, has taken off.

The list of clients and commissions is impressive. Last year the team went to America to do a series of projects for AMD, a multibillion-pound computer-chip company. They created the eye logo for Big Brother, the "reality television" programme; a car-shaped pattern for a Mitsubishi publicity campaign; logos for the album covers of dance bands; advertisements for Orange, the mobile phone company; and an image of Dawn French, Steve Coogan and David Jason for a digital television company.

They have branched out from wheat fields and now also work on sand and grass. They recently won a commission for Hello Kitty to produce the face of the Japanese company's cartoon cat in a wheat field in Wiltshire, and are considering a project in Costa Rica.

The rewards for the crop circle entrepreneurs are high and growing. The AMD job was the group's most lucrative so far. Mr. Lundberg is unwilling to give precise details, but says the contract was worth "tens of thousands of pounds". The budget for the Big Brother campaign was estimated to be £250,000, and for Orange's Wiltshire project about £100,000. "We are doing well," Mr. Lundberg said. "We are all earning a very healthy living from crop circles."

Landowners are benefiting too, receiving payments - from the companies or circle-makers - for allowing their fields to be used for the work. The income easily covers the damage to crops, leaving farmers with a profit.

Richard Cowan, who farms 1,500 arable acres in Oxfordshire, has twice - last year and in 2002 - allowed Mr. Lundberg's company to make crop circles on his land for Orange. He was unwilling to say how much he was paid, but another farmer, in Wiltshire, said that the going rate was "at least £500 for each circle and sometimes much more". Mr. Cowan said that the circles had caused him to him to lose about £200 worth of crop, giving him a "decent profit" from the deal.

He would be "unhappy" if people crept on to his land at night to make crop circles - unless he was properly compensated. "Nobody wants damage to their crops, but the key thing is whether you are paid for it," he said. "I'm happy for my fields to be used as long as I know about it and I get compensation. I used to believe crop circles were made by aliens, but there's no money in aliens. It's much better this way."

Mr. Lundberg, his partners and a dozen or so "satellite" circle-makers have not, however, abandoned their not-for-profit illicit nocturnal forays into farmers' fields. His motive, he says, is not to prove that people who think crop circles are made by little green men, God or other "higher forces" are deluded souls. His aim is to "use art to perpetuate the mystery and the mythology about crop circles". He explains further: "We are creating beautiful shapes but also mystery, allowing people to experience the unexplained. That is why we never claim authorship of the circles, because that would break the mystery."

This is slightly confusing. He wants people to continue speculating about aliens, while he knows that it's all tosh? Not quite. "People have said they had mystical experiences at the circle sites, so it is possible that we are acting as a catalyst for those experiences, even though the circles are man-made," he says. "Who knows, maybe we are being guided by external forces?"

The crop circle patterns are designed on computers and the night-time raids are planned meticulously. The circle-makers go out in small teams, armed with diagrams, planks of wood with ropes looped through holes at either end - known as "stalk stompers" - and 100ft tape measures.

The team chooses its targets carefully, preferring fields with easy access and surrounded by higher ground so that its creations will be easily visible in daylight. The crops can be oilseed rape, barley or wheat, depending on the month. No torches are used; the diagrams are read by moonlight.

When their work is done they leave silently, taking care not to leave any signs of a human presence, knowing that their work will cause a stir and attract hundreds of visitors and the media the next day.

Unlike the lucrative commercial ventures carried out in daylight, the night raids irritate many farmers. The most recent crop circle appeared on Friday morning near Marlborough in Wiltshire, the county that spawns 80 per cent of Britain's crop circles. Yesterday the landowner was unavailable, but neighbours said that he was furious.

"He had to get the combine harvester out and harvest a large area because he didn't want hundreds of people pouring on to his land to look at the crop circle," one neighbour said. "He was incandescent with rage, calling the people who did it everything under the sun."

Relations between landowners and "croppies" can be strained, and in an attempt to defuse the tension the National Farmers Union has drawn up a code of conduct with the Centre for Crop Circle Studies. This includes advice such as: do not go on to private land without permission from the farmer or landowner; leave a calling card with your name and address; cause as little damage to crops as possible; and do not smoke.

Not all landowners are unhappy, however. Some enterprising farmers who wake up to find they have been "circled" make the most of it by charging visitors £1 or £2 to have a look. One Wiltshire farmer reportedly made £15,000 from a particularly elaborate crop circle in the 1990s.

The Country Landowners Association described the night raids by circle-makers as "rural graffiti", but supported the idea of circle-makers and farmers working together to generate income. "It's innovative, entrepreneurial and good for rural businesses," a spokesman said.

Crop circles have boosted tourism, particularly in Wiltshire, where they attract thousands of visitors from all over the world. The "believers" are also doing well, with many of them busy writing books and speaking at conferences on the mysteries and mythology of the circles. This weekend there is a crop circles conference in Wiltshire.

The circles are included in tours of sacred sites and attract visitors from America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Ireland and continental Europe. The Barge Inn, a pub in the Vale of Pewsey, its walls covered with crop circle photographs and diagrams, has become a mecca for aficionados from all over the world.

Mr. Lundberg denies that his move to commercial circle-making means that he and his fellow creators have "sold out". He says that illicit circle-making is his main passion, his true art. "If somebody comes along and offers me a lot of money to fly to America and make crop circles then that's fine," he says. "I'm not ashamed of that. It may not be art, but it helps to pay for the stuff that is."

That stuff includes making documentaries about the paranormal, a subject Mr. Lundberg finds fascinating. He also draws a distinction between his crop circle art - "to perpetuate the mythology" - and that of others who make circles solely to expose them as man-made.

One man in the other camp is Matthew Williams, from Bishops Cannings, Wiltshire, who in November 2000 became the first person to be prosecuted for circle-making. He was fined £40 with £100 costs by Kennet magistrates after admitting causing damage to crops at West Overton. He says his objective is to "demonstrate that no circle or effect is beyond human capabilities".

The crop circle phenomenon began in Britain in the late 1970s and Mr. Lundberg and his team makes a sizeable contribution to the 70 or so a year that appear in counties including Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire and Lincolnshire during the crop circle "season" from April to September. About 250 are estimated to appear worldwide.

The "croppies", "cerealogists" or "researchers" - as circle enthusiasts are known - accept that some are man-made, but insist that many others are the work of "outside forces".

To them, the crop-makers are heretics, meddling with a mystical power. Many claim to have had spiritual experiences on the sites of the circles. Thousands visit them every year. Some claim to have witnessed crop circles being created in 10 seconds, with no human circle-maker in sight.

Colin Andrews, the author of the best-selling Circular Evidence, the first book on crop circles, published in 1989, said that he thought up to 90 per cent of all crop circles were probably man-made.

"The other 10 per cent are not, and that is very important," he says. "There is definitely something very odd going on. We don't know what it is, but I believe there is some higher force involved."

Mr. Lundberg describes himself as "a second generation circle-maker", following in the footsteps of his hero Doug Bowers, the watercolour artist who, with Dave Chorley, a fellow artist, started secretly making crop circles in Britain in the late 1970s. Mr. Bowers was inspired by "a couple of crop circles blamed on UFOs" while he was living in Australia. The pair continued their hoaxes for 14 years before confessing their authorship to a shocked - and, in some quarters, disappointed - world in 1991.

Yesterday Mr. Bowers, now 80, expressed surprise at the commercial turn taken by circle-makers. "We just wanted people to think that a UFO had landed in a field, when it was really just two blokes with a plank of wood. And it worked a treat.

"We'd make the crop circles and crowds would come to see them. We used to mingle with them and listen to what they were saying, all these so-called UFO experts spouting off about aliens. We would look at each and burst out laughing.

"We did it for a laugh. Money - and even art - never came into it. Who would have thought it would come to this?"

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