AWhen the sun rose over Wiltshire, Hampshire and Gloucestershire in the summer of 1989, farmers discovered their swaying fields of barley, wheat and oats had been used for a new phenomenon: crop circles. They reached their apotheosis during those sultry months, thanks to a sudden spread and general media attention, but the story was dominated by discussions about possible alien visitation or simply the deliberate vandalism of it all. At the time, few people thought to judge crop circles by their artistic merit, but three decades later it may be time for such a revaluation.
Britain in the 1980s was a country without mystery, magic and enchantment. Then, as now, it was a time of conflict, division and ideological struggle – free market versus union labour; police state against workers – all overseen by the cold pragmatism of the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, as she relentlessly waged war on distant ground and the “controlled decline” of industries such as mining and shipbuilding.
From Auf Wiedersehen, Pet to Boys from the Blackstuff and Brideshead Revisited, much of the enduring TV drama reflected a politicized country controlled by class, or increasingly obsessed with the financial accumulation of the individual. The groundbreaking Freeze exhibition of 1988 set Damien Hirst on the path to becoming the richest artist in the world, someone defined by price rather than content, and even held the most notable moment in pop music of the decade, Live Aid. deals with a by-product of capitalism: poverty in the developing world. The times when they had changed.
The potential of crop circles lay less in the who and how and more in the why† And the answer seemed to be: just because. These strange flattenings of crops were simply made for spectacle, the sole ambition of their anonymous creators to evoke a sense of awe that is lacking in British everyday life.
Their scale was certainly astonishing: At their largest, some of the designs were 900 feet wide, almost as tall as the Eiffel Tower is tall. If these were meant to be art, or if they were regarded as such, there could be no price tag attached to them. Instead, they were a gift to the nation, a series of mind-boggling distractions meant to raise questions rather than provide answers.
Apart from a few enterprising farmers and aerial photographers, there was no real profit to be made from crop circles. This made them anti-capitalist by nature, completely at odds with the messages of the twin powers of Westminster and the City: profit at all costs. Precisely because their creators were unknown and their work had no intrinsic economic value, their moment in the spotlight became an important chapter in the evolution of native British folk art.
It’s this idea of art for the people – rather than the more mundane practicalities of the endeavor (spoiler: crop circles were created by pranksters using ropes and planks) – that I explore in my new novel, The Perfect Golden Circle† a fictional attempt to celebrate the scale of these landscape artworks, and the kind of individuals who might visualize them in the first place. The esoteric designs represented freedom, transgression, and never asking permission, which is why their creators were heavily criticized – though their respectfully executed nighttime missions left a farmer’s produce undamaged as the stems slowly bounced back to their former heights.
The real winners were the news media, which had a story that could go on and on and fill large pages during the fallow summer months. A photo and a few sentences could make a spread. Nevertheless, the message from their creators remained a completely subversive message. These works asked the crucial question: who really owns the land?
My novel frames crop circles in a long tradition of pranksters, revolutionary peasants and landscape dissidents, such as the 17th-century activist Gerrard Winstanley, who published scorching treatises on the question of class and led the dissident Diggers in occupying communal land during the times of the enclosures.
Winstanley fought a reform system that led to today’s torn country in which, according to author Guy Shrubsole in his 2019 book Who Owns England?† half are owned by less than 1% of the population and 67% are owned by a mixture of aristocrats, corporations, the crown, the church and oligarchs – the latter particularly prescient given the role of Russia’s wealthy elite in the rise of Vladimir Putin (and Britain’s complicity in their foreign investment).
But we don’t even have to look far into the past to appreciate the importance of crop circles in the summer of 1989, which was the culmination of several summers of rural unrest. In 1985, Wiltshire Police had prevented hundreds of people from traveling in convoy to Stonehenge; there were beatings and 537 arrests (21 travelers were later reimbursed for false imprisonment and wrongful arrest). It was another example of the same heavy-handed police tactics that defined the miners’ strike and Wapping disputes of 1986, as well as the role police ineptitude played during the Hillsborough disaster of April 1989.
The Public Order Act of 1986 had given police more control over public gatherings, but also led New Age travelers to squat in several locations near the Wiltshire A303 over the following summers. Further police clashes culminated on June 22, 1989, with 260 arrests of those attempting to celebrate the solstice at Stonehenge (the following spring would also see the tax riots, which were undertaken in the same spirit of rebellion against power).
It was also the second summer of love, at a time when acid house raves were being held, much to the chagrin of the authorities and the outrage of the tabloid press. The feasts were no more than the modern repetition of various ritualized pagan customs that had been practiced for millennia: dancing, enjoying, being together.
Among the convoys, RVs and sound systems, the crop circles did their job surreptitiously, part of this New Age traveler culture, yet unseen and nameless, always observing a code of silence that was mafia-esque in its determination: an omertà of the met grassy hills and chalk plains. It was a symbolic act of rebellion against a backdrop of state repression.
But the circles themselves also reached a level of artistic purity impossible for artists entering the commercial market of exhibitions, dealers and collectors. Crop circles can never be used as a commodity but should be rightfully recognized as works of equal value and importance to those created by British landscape artists such as Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long, whose work uses natural resources on a miniature and epic scale.
American sculptor Robert Smithson’s 1,500-foot earthwork Spiral Jetty, or Agnes Denes’ Wheatfield: A Confrontation, in which two acres of vacant New York City were filled with wheat, can also be seen as precursors to crop circles. Even Banksy, for all his attempts at anonymity, has amassed great wealth from his public art, while crop circles operated at a deeper level of subterfuge. They circumvented all commercial concerns by making work impossible to move or monetize. Like a portrait rendered in disappearing ink, their works soon disappeared.
I chose to depict a series of fictional crop circles and the two characters who create them: a taciturn Falkland veteran recovering from injuries and trauma, and a semi-wild punk with an innate ability to create increasingly intricate patterns. to design. “Patterns” is a preferred term here, as “circles” do a disservice to the more ambitious creations that include design features such as locks, clock parts, ribbons, dolphins, vortices, mandalas, and much more.
The novel was written in the spirit of crop circle pioneers such as Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, who came forward in 1991 to dispel many conspiracy theories when they casually admitted that they had been responsible for creating more than 200 circles since 1978 (with a another 1,000 or so made by unknown others).
Bower and Chorley’s humble Englishness and the modesty of their disclosure made them even more heroic to many. They didn’t have to point out that the many idiot theorists, cereologists (experts on the psychic explanation for crop circles), frothing journalists and random tinfoil hat-wearing eccentrics drawn to the fields of Wiltshire were simply wrong. They were just artists operating on a different literal plane. Today we should greet them and their valuable work and name them alongside those of English greats like Blake and Bacon, Constable and Turner, Moore and Hepworth.