In 1958, as a 27-year-old science teacher in Mesa, Ariz., Ken Lamberton was given the district’s teacher of the year award. He taught biology at a junior high school. A few months after he was honored, though, he ran off with a 14-year-old former student. The two were caught in a ski town in Colorado. Lamberton was convicted of child molestation and sentenced to 12 years.
Lamberton said he knew right from wrong but didn’t care at the time. “What I did was despicable, no doubt about it,” he said. “Arrogance, selfishness and stupidity led to my crime and my family’s terrible anguish and humiliation. I had no boundaries.”
In prison, Lamberton found boundaries, of course, but also an unexpected new sense of the world. The natural world served as his guide, he says.
Lamberton began noticing the limited amount of land around the prison, located in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert. He watched the hawkmoths circling the floodlights and found Sonoran Desert toads in the sandbox used by the children of prisoners. He listed to and began to identify the wild birds that perched over the exercise yard.
“Sometimes it would be only a sound or a patch of grass, but wildness helped me see broader connections,” he says. Soon, he no longer saw the prison but the wildlife. “I’d just see a the bird, though it was sitting on razor wire.”
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“Nature was the one thing that had power over the fences and concrete, over the security systems and lockdowns and prison guards. Weeds trespassed the carefully scraped perimeter sand traps. Swallows violated the air space and, against prison policy, stuck their adobe nests along the runs. Tarantulas and toads invaded our cells. Nature didn’t just penetrate the prison, it liberated the prison.”
Finally Lamberton wrote a book, Wilderness and Razor Wire: A Naturalist’s Observations from Prison, published by Mercury House. In 2003, it won the John Burroughs Medal for distinguished nature writing, placing him in the company of past winners who read like a Who’s Who in the field of the ecology movement: Rachel Carson, Peter Matthiessen and Barry Lopez.
The book, together with his other writing, helped keep his family together while he was incarcerated, he says. Lamberton’s imprisonment had forced his wife Karen and their children onto welfare. Since Lamberton’s release in Sept., 2000, he has been working hard with his wife and three children to re-build a family.
About her family’s ordeal, Karen Lamberton says, “The Chinese have it right. When someone in that country is sentenced to prison for certain crimes, his entire family is brought to stand with him in front of the judge. At least they’re honest about who has to suffer.”
When her husband went to prison, Karen Lamberton was a stay-at-home mother. After going on welfare, she found a well-paying job, then began to attend college classes in her spare time, eventually gaining a degree. She even studied to become a paralegal so she could fight for her husband’s release. “I wanted to kill him,” she says, “but I had no plans for divorce. I thought his sentence was excessive.”
At school, Karen Lamberton met Richard Shelton, a poet and professor of creative writing who had been working in Arizona prisons since 1972. Karen urged Shelton to get involved with her husband. She was worried about his mental health.
Shelton says he took Ken Lamberton under his wing, encouraging him to write about what he knew. “Ken came into my class writing sappy religious articles,” Shelton said. “I encouraged him to write from his background in biology.”
About Lamberton’s change of direction in prison, Shelton says this: “Selfishness is a lack of something. It’s a lack of consideration of others, a lack of awareness of the world around you. In Ken’s case, it isn’t that he got rid of something bad but that he gained something he lacked – he found a way to make connections.”
“It really gave me a sense of hope that I could do something with my life while I was locked up,” Lamberton told a reporter for the Arizona Republic. “I had taught before and could continue to teach through my writing. It gave me a sense of accomplishment, a sense of worth.”
During his incarceration Lamberton's articles and essays began appearing in
national magazines and literary journals like Arizona Highways, Bird Watcher’s Digest, Manoa, Northern Lights, Alligator Juniper, Puerto Del Sol, and the Gettysburg Review. Several of these essays, in turn, were selected for anthologies such as American Nature Writing, Getting Over the Color Green, and David Quammen's anthology The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2000. Editors have nominated two of Lamberton's essays for Pushcart Prizes, and Robert Atwan of The Best American Essays series listed his work in "Notable Essays of 1998" and again in "Notable Essays of 1999."
Prison, of course, is a violent place by nature. Lamberton sees a key link between quietly observing the natural world and attaining a peaceful mind. “The focus on nature stilled my mind greatly. I felt this in myself and saw it in other men who took the opportunity to sit outside and observe the natural world, to be caught up in a monsoon thunderstorm, to watch it sweep in and kick up dust, to smell the chaparral.”
In his book, Lamberton writes; “It’s encouraging for me to see the men stop and take notice of wildness. It demonstrates their humanity, their connection to nature as an integral part of life. This connection to nature may even be more essential than freedom. It’s the difference between existing and being alive.”