With its rolling hills, undulating seas of green and golden wheat, oat and barley fields, pockets of forest, and serpentine lakes of dazzling cerulean blue, the Kujawsko Pomorskie region of Poland is nothing short of a pastoral wonderland.
The mood is relaxed in the villages along the narrow two-lane road linking the ancient capital Gniezno and Torun, the 13th-century birthplace of Nicolaus Copernicus.
But even the father of modern astronomy, who first shocked contemporaries with the notion that Earth was not really the center of the universe, would himself likely be baffled by the bizarre goings-on in one of those villages, Wylatowo, population 581.
Ever since the crop circles and, as local legend has it, the aliens, cropped up three years ago, the beautiful but sleepy backwater has drawn throngs of visitors ranging from the harmlessly curious to the distinctly peculiar.
Villagers have also become consumed by a lofty new pastime: now, besides tending their fields, pigs, chickens and cows, they also regularly contemplate the nature of the universe.
"The Oooofffo did it!" exclaims Suzanna, a round-faced, blue-eyed seven-year-old with a disarming toothless grin. A sightseeing trip to the crop circles in Wylatowo from her home in nearby Mogilno has become a regular summer attraction, but she shrugs her shoulders, sighs and turns pensive when asked to explain the exact nature of a UFO.
"Oh, I don't know," she says, "but the signs are really, really pretty."
Suzanna isn't the only one who thinks so. "They look like God's seal," says high school principal and art therapist Anna Kalinowska, 42, as she soaks up the sun sitting in the middle of a 43m by 73m "lotus flower", the first of four intricate crop circles that appeared this year.
Reveling in their mystery, Kalinowska muses, "Life is more beautiful when there's a question mark before us; a question, a quest that stimulates the imagination, activates dreams and human yearnings for something extraordinary, something supernatural.
"I'll be really disappointed when it turns out some farmers are doing it for a prank," says the teacher, "but it really is a kind of art form, a `happening,' a performance on a large scale. We touch this art entirely. We can participate in it, and so many people come to see it."
"I have absolutely nothing to do with it!" protests farmer Tadeusz Zarywski, 46, the dark and hulking but bashful proprietor of the fields where this year's signs appeared. "I never wanted to be a public person, but now all of Poland knows me because of the circles," Zarywski grumbles, while inquiring, "You don't think the president might have heard about it, do you?"
Because there is no insurance covering crop damage by unexplained phenomena, the Zarywskis are charging a modest admission to view the crop circles, and, judging by the number of visitors -- especially on a Sunday after church -- making a bundle.
"We can really use it," says Tadeusz Zarywski's sister-in-law Irena, who reveals her teenage son needs expensive hearing aids after having lost most of his hearing to a brain tumour. Irena says she hasn't a clue as to what may be making the "pictograms" but insists attitudes among farmers gloomy over hard times have changed radically since the "signs" first appeared in 2000.
"At first, they were irate someone was mucking about on their property and ruining their crops," she says. "Now people think, what if they really are made by these higher, different beings from outerspace?"