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The Nature of Life and Death

The Nature of Life and Death: Every Body Leaves a Trace

Patricia Wiltshire
G.P. Putnam's Sons
2019
304 pp.
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Pollen on the clothing of a murder victim can tell investigators quite a bit about the location where he died. Spores in a suspect’s vehicle can provide information about where she walked before entering the vehicle during the commission of a crime. A body can provide evidence for law enforcement beyond DNA. To unlock the puzzle, forensic ecologists use a combination of science, statistics, field expertise, and deductive reasoning.

In The Nature of Life and Death, Patricia Wiltshire shares stories about how she extracts clues that nature leaves behind at crime scenes, recounting her experiences developing processes and procedures that are not only new to her but new to the field itself. Written from her perspective as a scientist, Wiltshire explains her approach to data collection and analysis and reveals how she uses intuition to sort essential clues from random background noise.

The lowly lichen, for example, offered Wiltshire clues about a grisly dismemberment, nicknamed “the jigsaw case” by investigators. The color of some lichen is dependent on the amount of sun it receives: It appears yellow in the sun but green in the shade. When a victim’s dismembered appendage was discovered, a lichen-encrusted stick that lay underneath it was still mostly yellow, indicating that the body part had not been laying there long. Wiltshire walks readers through a simple set of experiments she conducted in her backyard to prove that the dump was not more than 5 days old.

Ranging beyond trace evidence and forensics, Wiltshire tells the story of her life growing up in a small coal-mining village in the Welsh countryside. Just like nature leaves a trace, she argues, we all leave a trace of ourselves on the people with whom we interact and are, in turn, influenced by people who leave traces on our lives. She describes, for example, the impact that her grandmother, who introduced her to the wonders of the natural world, had on her own personal and professional tapestry, writing “She knew which plants were edible and which ones were poisonous; she knew about mushrooms and toadstools; she knew the taste of young hawthorn leaves, the hedgerow plants and berries that made the whole of the world a natural larder.” “I soon realized that the soil was infinitely variable over short distances, and that it was a place rather than just brown stuff.”

In today’s world of scientific specialization, Wiltshire laments the movement away from the traditional fields of science, biology, chemistry, physics, and math. Experiences as a generalist in biology served her well as she developed her expertise in the complex field of forensic ecology. But it is ultimately her scientific mind and inquisitiveness that have been most beneficial to her forensic career.

Enjoy this book. It will leave its trace on you.

About the author

The reviewer is at Nerac, Tolland, CT 06084, USA.