“The Nature of Life and Death: Every Body Leaves A Trace”—now that’s a book for mystery writers. And the subtitle “Tales of A Forensic Ecologist” certainly got this ecologist’s attention.
Author Patricia Wiltshire is a botanist and palynologist who identifies pollen, spores, and the like to solve crimes. Wiltshire says she “can tell where you lingered with a loved one, which corner of a field you waited in, which wall you leaned on … And if you are one of those unlucky souls who comes to me as a cadaver, I can tell your loved ones how, when, and where you died.”
Using plants to solve crimes is nothing new. In the 1930’s the solution to the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and murder rested on the type of wood a ladder was made of. But Wiltshire, who established and ran a masters’ course in Forensic Archaeological Science at the University College London’s Institute of Archaeology, is at the top of the modern game and therefore in high demand.
So what does this forensic ecologist actually do? If you bring her a suspect’s car, clothing, shoes, etc., she’ll first examine and identify pollen, spores, soil particles dirt, mud, and debris. From this, she can describe in surprising detail where and for how long the body was dumped—e.g., an old-growth forest behind a roadside hedge or an overgrown field fallow for no more than three years. When her analysis is done, Wiltshire says she can see the place in her mind’s eye as if she’s looking at a photograph.
I’ve used a microscope to identify marine diatoms and other tiny bits of life but would be hard-pressed to say when I last looked at pollen spores. Scanning some photos I have to agree with Wiltshire that they are gorgeous—colored gold, red, and the like, many are spheres with dimples, spikes, bumps, plates, and hard-to-describe bits.
After decades working with and for the dead, Wiltshire’s take on the end of life is a good lesson for all of us. She says, “I know that my husband’s molecules and mine will mingle. Our ashes will be spread in the same place so that we might even end up in the same tree or bluebell. How marvelous!”
To me, that ecological take on the end of life is indeed “marvelous”.