The Past in Peat
TRACES by Patricia Wiltshire is a mix of autobiography and compelling technical information about how nature can be used to exonerate – or, indeed, condemn – suspects involved with crime.
Forensic botany is a fascinating subject: it uses plants/plant-parts to solve criminal investigations. Wiltshire is the pioneer of the practice in the UK and as such well placed to tell the development and her own experience of it. The book has mixed reviews on Goodreads, highlighting what, at times, can be a somewhat patronising voice and a very unsettling way of approaching death, bodies, and the crimes themselves. The book certainly isn't for the weak of heart, and that compounded with Wiltshire's way of talking about sensitive crimes and, in one case, a person of colour, I cannot recommend the book without these content warnings.
Content of the book aside, the concept of forensic botany and its related fields was the compelling hook. As Wiltshire says, nature leaves its mark on all of us. On the sole of your shoe will be pollen and soil matching your path exactly. The floor carpets and pedals of your car will hold the same traces. Your clothes will show if you’ve lain in your garden or in the woods, and even the tiny coral like bones in your nose will show if you’ve inhaled air from one place or another.
Her life is so marked by outdoor spaces, so heavily linked with nature, that it is no wonder she speaks its language so well. And, despite how scientists usually struggle to speak the language of the common man because of it, she does not – and thus the way in which forensic palynology works is made accessible.
After listening to the novel – within two days, an unusual feat – which I had borrowed on my library app, my mind turns (as it often does) to peat.
Peat was mentioned in the book, but more in its unfortunate use in compost which can make up the profile of a garden or park in which it was used. This was not where my mind went, but instead I began to think of the other ways in which peat gives evidence of the past.
The famous example is of bog bodies. The name sounds like the title of a story told around a campfire, but they are exactly what you’d think. Bodies can be well preserved in peat, for the same reason the peat itself grows: the ground is so wet and heavy with sphagnum that very little oxygen is underneath the surface. Since oxygen is necessary for any natural material to break down, rot, or decompose, the body simply doesn’t – or does so only partially. This is aided by the acidity and low temperatures of the habitat, sometimes even preserving hair and nails.
There is evidence for at least four bodies found in the peatlands across Dumfries and Galloway. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately?) more often than not, these have not been preserved as well as is typical of bog bodies, and are simply skeletal remains.
Bog bodies are a phenomenon all across the world where there are peatlands, and I can’t help but wonder at the stories behind them. Such a mummification can leave huge scope for solving their mysteries, from the length of time they have been trapped in the bog, to, potentially, how they died.
A bit macabre, perhaps! But it is simply another way in which peatland links us to our past, and I hope it will still be healthy in the future so that it can continue to do just that.