Imprints in the Field, Part 2

Where a scientist gets deep into crop circles

Read Part 1 here

As a young girl in the 1950s, Nancy Talbott had what she describes as a “daytime encounter” with an unknown entity.

While playing ball in a field with a group of local children she was babysitting, she witnessed something descend from the sky that physically froze them in place. She remembers that the thing seemed “conscious,” and acted as if it had a purposeful “agenda.” Once they regained movement, Nancy led the kids back to the house where the neighborhood parents were assembled. She recounts that the adults had also seen the object as it departed and were referring to it as a UFO.

Nancy readily admits she doesn’t have a background in science, but she’s familiar with the scientific method due to a short stint in the late 1960s as a researcher in academia. Initially suspecting unseen natural forces were behind crop circle creation, Talbott later began to wonder whether they might be “consciously” formed instead. This interpretation put her at odds with the explanations proposed by Lefty. Years later, her opinion would evolve even further after meeting an 18 year-old self-proclaimed psychic and medium from Holland with a penchant for predicting crop formations — an affiliation that would ultimately prove troubling to her credibility.

None of these issues would concern Nancy Talbott in the summer of 1990 as she pursued the cryptic circles across the valleys of southern England — a season that was met with hundreds of new designs.

The following winter, William Levengood typed a 2-page letter from his Pinelandia Lab in Michigan. Dated January 1st, 1991, it felt like his New Year’s resolution.

The correspondence was addressed to Pat Delgado and Colin Andrews, authors of the book that originally piqued his curiosity about crop circles. He desperately wanted to get samples of impacted plants under his microscope for analysis and hoped the two non-scientists would prove to be accommodating partners. (It’s interesting to note that Lefty didn’t turn to Dr. Terence Meaden for a potential collaboration. Meaden’s theories regarding electronically charged weather vortices should have struck a chord with Levengood based on his background.)

Lefty wasted no time getting to the point in his first letter; before introducing himself or his credentials he’d asked if he could “obtain seed and plant tissue from the circles and surrounding regions.” He believed that his unique skill set would provide a level of scientific scrutiny that was sorely lacking among cerealogists.

Levengood also mentioned the Unsolved Mysteries episode he’d seen a few months back, explaining how after repeated viewings he was afraid some of their evidence of alleged ‘plant anomalies’ might be faulty. He warned them that “it would be a very shaky supposition to attribute (their findings) to something unusual occurring in the circle.” Rigorous scientific study was needed, and Levengood offered his services and lab early in the calendar year, giving the British researchers time to mull the proposition before the beginning of the 1991 summer circle-season.

Curiously, Lefty chose to sign this inaugural letter to the British cerealogists in a way that would have career-detracting consequences. After giving his sincerest regards, he presented himself as “Dr. W.C. Levengood” — tacking on a title felt he’d rightfully earned.

Lefty felt entitled to call himself a PhD, despite not obtaining one from an accredited university. When questioned about the status of his credentials, he would offer a story about an occasion when he was asked to present a paper to the National Academy of Science (NAS). He insisted that “because of the Ph.D level course-work (he) had completed and the number of his papers which had already been published in respected, peer-reviewed scientific journals, he was considered by them (NAS) to be Ph.D-equivalent.” His assertions were never fully corroborated and his habitual misrepresentation would haunt him years later. It stands as an unfortunate example of how one poor choice, driven by ego, can cast a shadow over an entire body of work and erode decades of valuable scientific contributions.

Soon after initiating contact with the UK cerealogists, Lefty’s wish was granted. Samples from an English crop formation arrived at his secluded lab in the woods. In February of ‘91, Levengood composed a second letter summarizing his analysis of the plants and soil he’d received. (This letter was addressed only to Pat Delgado, conspicuously omitting his co-author Colin Andrews.)

Lefty’s enthusiasm for the puzzle was obvious. Calling the work “a most enjoyable and exciting project,” he excitedly reported the anomalies he’d observed. The wheat stalks collected from within the circle displayed signs of polyembryony — an uncommon genetic condition that prevents a plant from forming seeds. The high frequency of this rare occurrence was surprising to Levengood, comparing the odds to “winning the lottery three times in a row.”

Levengood also recorded abnormalities in the soil samples, leading him to suspect that they’d been exposed to a form of ionizing radiation. He ventured a guess based on the available information, though he cautioned it was “pure speculation” on his part. He suggested the circles could be the work of an “ion plasma or cloud,” similar to the northern lights or a lightning discharge. Levengood felt confident enough to declare the crop circle phenomenon “completely out of the realm of pure chance.” His findings of biological changes also appeared to rule out the ‘human-made’ explanation for a large number of reported crop formations.

Lefty was hooked. He found himself involved in a mystery ostensibly tailor-made for a researcher of his background and pedigree. The 65-year-old scientist again deceptively signed his second letter to Delgado by referring to himself as “Dr.” Levengood, and closed by begging for more samples: “keep them coming.

And come they did. Levengood prepared his next report for Delgado in May 1991. Barely filling a full page, he briefly recounted the unremarkable findings from the latest UK samples. There were no variations detected between the circle-plants and control plants. Despite later criticisms that he rarely met a crop circle that he didn’t find anomalous, Levengood wasn’t impressed with this early example. He found “no apparent differences” between circle-plants when they were compared to unaffected plants from the same field. That particular crop arrangement was later revealed to be a man-made hoax — a revelation that bolstered Lefty’s belief in a genuine phenomenon. After expressing his enduring desire for more material to study, he closed the note with a flash of informality, signing simply as “Lefty.”

Lefty continued receiving specimens throughout the summer of 1991, with Delgado sourcing plants from various grain formations across England and mailing them to Levengood for analysis. No longer confined to simple circles, the designs had begun to manifest more complex shapes and alignments. It was getting harder and harder to explain the intricate patterns as random acts of electrified whirlwinds or plasma energies. The challenge did little to deter Levengood or his cohorts across the Atlantic.

While cerealogists in Delgado’s camp clung to an otherworldly hypothesis, they felt Levengood’s terrestrial suppositions helped account for a possible mechanism or energy source that the ‘intelligent-creators’ could be harnessing to make their circles. Plus, as a “Dr.” of biophysics, Levengood’s association would heap some needed credibility on the fringe topic.

That summer, Lefty also obtained samples from Michael Chorost, a Duke University graduate student and volunteer investigator doing research on the circles for the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON). Chorost was working overseas as a member of Project Argus, a concerted effort to provide American scientists access to the plants from English crop circles for study. Many of the samples he sent to Levengood showed signs of stretched or elongated growth nodes — the joint-like parts on a stem that form to support a plant as it matures. When comparing nodes on the circle-plants to those from the control group, he noticed that the nodes on plants inside the circle were significantly longer. He explained this irregularity as a side-effect from exposure to brief but intense heat, likely from the same energy source that had caused the stalks to bend without snapping or breaking.

Skeptics dismissed his explanation, claiming that expanded nodes were merely a symptom of the plant’s recovery process. Flattened grain, like all vegetation, will attempt to reorient itself to the sun through a technique known as phototropism. The contorted joints were simply a result of depressed plants beginning to grow vertical again.

When the affected plant tissue was examined under a microscope, Lefty noted how the cell walls were stretched to a larger diameter than the cell walls of the controls. Whatever was acting upon the plants was also able to quickly heat the interior without leaving signs of external damage. In some instances, they had expanded so far that they burst — a feature he referred to as an expulsion cavity. He reasoned that these holes, which had “never been observed in literally thousands of control plants,” were caused by moisture trapped within the plant’s cells. When the liquid was heated rapidly by this unknown energy source, steam built up inside the cell walls and exploded, causing a cavity.

Inspired by this, Levengood attempted to confirm his suspicions by tossing a group of control plants into a household microwave oven for 30 seconds. He found that he could “precisely simulate” the cell wall expansion features present in ‘genuine’ crop circles.

Further study was needed, but Lefty was beginning to identify consistent abnormal characteristics across multiple ‘authentic’ formations. His goal was to isolate a set of attributes that would help researchers in the field diagnose the authenticity of the crop circles they were investigating.

By the end of August 1991, Lefty had come across enough circle-plant anomalies to feel certain about the veracity of his ion plasma vortex theory. It explained both the presence of expulsion cavities and the elongated growth nodes. He neatly summarized these findings in his Interim Report #2, completed for submission on September 4, 1991.

Unbeknown to Levengood, in less than a week the crop circle world would experience its apocalypse.

Lefty’s early work was seized upon by starving croppies and cerealogists who were hungry for any type of science to support their theories. Even those who thought crop circles were created by UFOs landing in a cornfield could backup their speculation by citing “Dr.” Levengood’s research as evidence for the presence of high-heat and unexplainable energies. Amidst the unbridled enthusiasm and speculation running through the crop circle community in 1991, no one could have predicted that as summer gave way to autumn, the state of circle research would be irrevocably altered.

On September 9, 1991, two English men in their 60s stepped forward and claimed to be the perpetrators of the entire crop circle phenomenon after starting it as a ‘prank’ in 1978. Declaring responsibility for the initial formations that captured the public’s attention, Dave Chorley and Doug Bower (aka “D&D”) made headlines across the world with their announcement. The British newspaper that broke their story also made a point to publicly ridicule two of the world’s most famous cerealogists: Lefty’s pen-pals Pat Delgado and Colin Andrews.

As a punch line to their article, the paper recruited D&D to lay down an ‘entrapment’ circle meant to fool the researchers. Like an episode of paranormal-Punk’d, Delgado was invited to investigate the imprint without knowing it was man-made. After a brief period of scrutiny, he deemed the ‘fake’ circle was authentic. When the charade was finally revealed to him, Delgado’s reaction made it clear that the future of crop circle research would never be the same. After his partner, Andrews, finally appeared (after getting waylaid by a speeding ticket), Delgado’s first words to the late arriving co-author were: “Sit down. This is bad news. This is 100 percent bad news.

To members of the mainstream media, D&D’s confession was a watershed moment. They declared the crop circle mystery dead and attributed most of the formations to crafty crews of humans. In 1992, the cerealogical community largely disagreed with this assessment. Most circle researchers viewed the upper-middle-aged gentlemen’s story with a healthy dose of skepticism, referring to it as “the Doug & Dave scam.” They accepted that many depressions were man-made — but they also pointed to new scientific research reports being issued out of Lefty’s private Michigan laboratory. His findings contradicted the ‘human-only’ hypothesis — citing the cellular and biological changes recorded in circle-plants as evidence that a different mechanism was also at work.

Levengood, who was used to seeing his work published in prestigious journals such as Nature or Science, began to see his findings printed in the pages of magazines dedicated to the paranormal or crop circle research.

“Dr.” Levengood disseminated Research Report #3 in February 1992 to a growing list that included famous paranormal journalist, Linda Moulton Howe. Linda was a regular contributor to Art Bell’s widely circulated overnight radio shows — outlets that were quickly becoming the authority on supernatural topics and personalities. On several occasions she referenced “Dr.” Levengood and his research during appearances on the program.

However, Lefty made it clear where his allegiances lie in an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “I don’t belong to any damned group of UFO believers or circle followers.” He simply wanted to “find out if there was anything different between the plants inside the circles from the plants outside the circle.”

By this time, Levengood was receiving samples from the United States and other locations outside of the UK. His expanded sample size helped him discover a new abnormality in the seedlings of circle-affected plants. He found that seeds taken from circle-plants late in the season showed a distinct increase in growth rate and yield when compared to control seeds. He speculated that the plants’ exposure to electromagnetic energy during a crop circle creation was having a positive effect on the overall health of their seeds. This detail fit nicely with Lefty’s ion plasma vortex hypothesis.

Something else transpired in 1992 that would breathe new life into the teetering, post-D&D field of crop circle research. During her adventures in cereal fields across the pond, Nancy Talbott kept informed on the status and development of U.S. circle research. She was considering pursuing the phenomenon full-time and had an idea to enlist her own research team, much like the acronym-heavy circle investigation groups that had sprouted up across the UK (Center for Crop Circle Studies CCCS; Circles Effect Research Unit CERES, etc.). Talbott had heard of the work disseminating from Lefty’s lab in Michigan and references to his findings were cropping up regularly in various publications dedicated to the circle-world.

It dawned on her that “Dr.” Levengood would make an ideal candidate for her future endeavor. With this in mind, Nancy made plans to visit Michigan on a recruiting trip.

Part 3 of Imprints in the Field Coming Soon!

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