|Diagram of the "crop circle" which was published in the "Waikato Times"|
“Crop circles” are, of course, among the most famous categories of alleged Fortean phenomena. For years, the debate has raged about whether they are human-engineered hoaxes, the work of extraterrestrials, or the result of some bizarre natural forces we aren’t even close to understanding. One of the strangest “crop circle” accounts is also, oddly enough, among the most credible.
On September 4, 1969, one Bert O’Neill was walking around his farm near Ngatea, New Zealand. He noticed that some of his manuka trees were sporting an odd silvery color on the tips. As he walked further, his surprise only increased: he saw a whole group of the trees quite dead, and completely bleached to that same silver color. They formed a perfectly round patch, nearly five feet in circumference. In the center of the circle were three distinct, evenly spaced V-shaped depressions in the soil. The depressions had been made so forcefully, they cut down to the roots of the trees.
The baffled farmer didn’t know what to think. Several days later, he shared the peculiar occurrence while having dinner with a bunch of friends. Someone brought up the fact that later on the same day that O’Neill discovered his decimated trees, two Straits Air Freight Express pilots reported seeing a UFO over Wellington. Perhaps, he said only half-jokingly, the two events were related? Had a craft from another planet landed on O’Neill’s manuka trees?
The following day, someone from the dinner party told Harvey Cooke, president of the Tauranga Science Space Research Group, about what had happened on O’Neill’s farm. Cooke immediately went to investigate.
After examining the site, he became convinced that whoever or whatever had caused the damage, it had not been human beings. The three depressions which formed an equilateral triangle had been caused by about 20 tonnes of pressure. In 1997, Cooke told “New Zealand Geographic” that “the toes had been moved out from the pad after the object had landed. The ground had been pushed away and the flat end cut through the roots of the manuka.” He added that the trees had been cooked by “Some kind of short-wave high-frequency radiation…I know of no earthly source of energy which could have produced these effects.”
News of the strange goings-on at O’Neill’s farm soon spread throughout the country, and his property was soon swarming with reporters, Ufologists, and simple lookey-loos. Poor O’Neill, unable to do any farm work because of all the commotion, soon wished he had just kept his mouth shut. Cooke collected samples of soil and the manuka trees and shared them with the University of Auckland’s UFO research group, the New Zealand Scientific Space Research Group, as well as a prominent horticulturist, John Stuart-Menzies. Stuart-Menzies initially assumed the damage had been caused by weed killer or some other poison, but after examining the samples, he reluctantly had to rule that out. When he ran a Geiger counter over the dead trees, it showed an increase in shortwave radiation. He contacted the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research about his findings, but, for whatever reason, the DSIR declined to get involved.
On October 6, Stuart-Menzies released a report about his tests. He concluded, “Some kind of short-wave high-frequency radiation has cooked the material from the inside outwards. The effects appear to have been instantaneous. The energy received has reduced the pith to black carbon without the outsides showing any signs of burning.
“I know of no earthly source of energy which could have produced these effects. A meteorite or lightning couldn’t do this, and it has been too sudden for combustion. Some outside object appears to have landed on the spot, and in taking off emitted the energy which cooked the plants.”
Well. This not-so-subtle hint by a well-respected scientist that a UFO had used O’Neill’s farm as a rest stop created a nationwide sensation. The furor went all the way up to New Zealand’s parliament, urging the government to compel the DSIR to investigate the matter.
More reports came in suggesting there was a high level of extraterrestrial weirdness going on. Cattle on a farm in Puketutu suddenly fled a pond from which they had been drinking. It was found that reeds on a small island in the middle of the pond had somehow been flattened into a circular shape about 27 yards across. The reeds seemed to have been burned and pressed down in a spiral pattern. Tripod marks very like the ones found on O’Neill’s farm were in the middle of the circle. Soon after this, a family near Dargaville saw what they assumed was a low-flying airplane with flames shooting from the back. The next day, four circles measuring about 5 yards in diameter were found on a nearby hill.
New Zealand’s minister of agriculture and science, Brian Talboys, finally instructed the DSIR to send a delegation of scientists to O’Neill’s farm. Unfortunately, the site had been so ravaged by souvenir hunters that there was virtually nothing left for them to investigate. All they had to work with were the samples collected by Cooke.
A few days later, Talboys announced the DSIR’s solution to the mystery: the trees had been killed by a fungus. Period. He did not mention the triangular-shaped depressions or the radiation Stuart-Menzies had reported. He also refused to address the inconvenient fact that while fungus attacks dead trees, it does not kill living ones. As far as the New Zealand government was concerned, the subject was now closed.
Not very many people were convinced by this too-tidy official explanation, but bureaucracy, as usual, managed to have the last word.