By Susan GreenA bit like those intrepid investigators on "The X-Files," Cameron and Glenn Broughton spend every summer chasing the paranormal in England's lush landscape of farms.
The Burlington Free Press
The Burlington Free Press
The Starksboro residents are particularly interested in crop circles, geometric shapes that annually appear in agricultural fields, perhaps dating back to the 1600s. Although these enormous and often intricate designs can be found in many parts of the world, for some reason the United Kingdom invariably claims the greatest number -- this year, 71 of them have been reported there to date.
Crop-circle proliferation during the 2005 growing season meant a hectic schedule for Vermont's version of Scully and Mulder. "We're ready to roll if one shows up overnight," explains Glenn Broughton. "We know by at least 9 the next morning because there's a good networking system that sometimes includes the local police."
The Broughtons operate Sacred Britain, a research group that sponsors tours of relevant sites throughout the country. But this weekend, they're bringing it all back home for the fourth annual East Coast Crop Circle Conference on the campus of Goddard College in Plainfield.
The three-day event will feature nine people known as cereologists -- for Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture -- or the more informal "croppies." They'll discuss the history, analyze the facts and examine the spiritual potential of crop formations.
One of the experts at the gathering will be Andy Thomas, a noted Lewes author who has studied several hundred circles during the last 15 years with a team called Southern Circular Research. "We visit and survey all the crop circles, which arrive in our corner of England," he writes in an e-mail.
Conference participants also will have a chance to meet Lucy Pringle, a British photographer who shoots crop circles from an ultra-light plane. Her latest batch depicts an array of stunning images: One seems to be a known Mayan pictogram, according to Cameron Broughton. A rather three-dimensional motif looks something like a throw pillow. Yet another offers a space-age shape, reminiscent of the old Sputnik capsule.
Croppies wonder if these amazing formations -- caused by a tamping down of wheat, barley, oat or other grains that doesn't break the stalks -- are the work of somebody or something: Extraterrestrials? Collective human consciousness? A vortex of wind? Mischievous spirits?
"There are lots of theories about how they occur, but what's incontrovertible is where," says Glenn Broughton. "About 90 percent of them are over aquifers. And this underground water is under 40 percent of England ... The land holds powerful energies."
Legend has it that, in 17th-century England, superstitious Litchfield residents worried that a circle in their midst had been crafted by "the mowing devil." Some contemporary debunkers challenge such stories and insist crop formations are a much more recent phenomenon. "It's only been the last 20 years or so," contends Benjamin Radford, managing editor of the Buffalo-based Skeptical Inquirer magazine. "And we know for a fact that hoaxers make some of the crop circles. Even the most ardent believers concede that."
Glenn Broughton does. "Crop circle people often debate the authenticity of formations," he says, enumerating the possible explanations beyond human pranks: "ETs or spiritual entities trying to communicate with us; a wake-up call from the planet; Gaia, the consciousness of the Earth."
Thomas points to evidence of biological anomalies in the rearranged crops and "strange lights coming down into the fields where circles are subsequently found."
Croppies might be messing with the primal forces of nature, but Broughton says that they're just plain folks. "I have a very respectable background. I grew up in Nottingham -- Robin Hood country -- and taught economics and sociology at high school level."
Then, one day in 1991, he saw the photo of a crop circle. "It was so remarkable and had such an impact on me that I decided I must find out more about these things," recalls Broughton, who discovered that they frequently pop up near "sacred sites" such as Stonehenge. He quit his job, began working at a holistic health center, and devoted himself to pursuits such as cereology.
In 1996, Broughton was serving as the guide on a tour of sacred sites in Wiltshire and Somerset. That's how he met his future wife, Cameron, a massage therapist from Massachusetts who had joined a group of colleagues exploring the unknown. A year later, she witnessed her first crop circle, a snowflake pattern that was about 300 feet in diameter, in a Silbury wheat field.
"I was enthralled," Cameron Broughton says. "I love mysteries." In 2000 the couple settled in Vermont, where Cameron has family ties. She now works as a massage therapist at the Center for Chiropractics in South Burlington.
"I saw the big rolls of hay in the fields here, and it felt like England," recalls Glenn Broughton, who restores and sells antique furniture.
For three months each year, the Broughtons heed the call of the wild croppies by leading tours in his homeland. "When we get word of a new circle, first we go physically into them," he says. "On our tours, sometimes we book helicopters."
Cereologists at the conference will discuss the symbolism of crop circles. "They were once just simple rings but have become more and more complicated over the last two decades," Glenn Broughton says. "Now we've got these incredible mandalas."
Benjamin Radford, whose magazine is published by the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, suspects the increasing complexity of crop circles is merely due to "hoaxers one-upping each other."
Although still uncertain about who's fashioning them, Glenn Broughton thinks an experience during a 1997 tour might offer some clues: "We conducted an experiment in a field where many crop formations usually appeared but none that year. We meditated, inviting the circle-makers to join with us to create one."
And voila! He says their wish had come true the next morning. "That led us to believe this is an interactive process," Broughton surmises.
Andy Thomas shares that notion. In 1995 his team "tried to influence the creation of a certain crop pattern using the power of our minds," he writes. "We gathered on a hillside (an old ancient site) in Sussex and focused our thoughts on a particular shape we had chosen."
That night, the same configuration emerged in a nearby field. "No one outside our group knew what we had chosen," Thomas points out. "So there was no question of trickery going on."
Trickery, however, is a perennial problem. A few years ago, Radford and his colleagues spent two hours making a 110-by- 80-foot crop circle in upstate New York to prove how easily it can be accomplished.
"I think croppies are sincere," he says. "They just don't approach this scientifically. I'm not out to debunk myths, but to legitimately find out what's going on. If they should ever prove to be real, I want to be the first one there."
When that day comes, Radford had better be an early riser to beat the rapid-response Broughtons.
* Special Thanks To Christian Macé
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