Nature Mystic

Ken Lamberton ends his 'prison trilogy' with 'Time of Grace,' a volume which shows his determination to evolve

In 1986, Ken Lamberton, a 27-year-old Phoenix-area science teacher, fell in love. Swimming in a sea of euphoria, Lamberton and his new love soon decided to leave Arizona and build a life together elsewhere. There were just a couple of problems.

Lamberton, a program director at a summer youth camp near Oracle, happened to be married with two children, with a third on the way. And his new girlfriend was 14.

Two weeks later, they were apprehended by police, strolling hand in hand in Aspen, Colo. Lamberton ended up with a seriously fractured marriage and a 12-year prison sentence.

Many people, if faced with this kind of personal apocalypse, might easily implode. However, while his time in prison was certainly difficult (at one point, he suffered broken ribs when attacked by other inmates), Lamberton managed to not only remain relatively balanced, but to actually grow, turning to writing as a way to sort through and draw insight from the mess he'd created.

In Time of Grace: Thoughts on Nature, Family, and the Politics of Crime and Punishment, the third of his "prison trilogy," Lamberton, whose Wilderness and Razor Wire was awarded the 2002 John Burroughs Medal for outstanding nature writing, reflects on his experiences during his final three years of confinement.

Lamberton spent the last phase of his term in a minimum-custody unit at the Wilmot prison complex, a significant change from the more restrictive, higher-security areas he'd been used to. He writes that his transfer to minimum security was almost like being set free, primarily because he was allowed to wander the landscaped grounds of the 20-acre compound, separated from the surrounding desert by only chain-link and razor wire.

Of course, prison, on even its least regimented level, is no walk in the park, and Lamberton gives readers a disturbing view of the nettles and thorns of prison life: substandard food and medical care; the scarcity of effective rehabilitation programs; unrelenting loneliness, boredom and fear; administrative duplicities and incompetence; and the glut of sadistic, demeaning guards.

Lamberton's comments about some corrections officers--"polyps of inhumanity"--are especially harsh, and he singles out one short, attention-seeking guard in particular.

"The Tactical Support Unit is perfect for him," he writes, "perfect for all the short-of-stature, testosterone-impaired simpletons the department attracts ... humorless Danny DeVitos with badges."

This book, however, is much more than a mere catalogue of invectives and complaints. Lamberton makes no excuses for his actions, labeling the affair a crime, his young lover a victim (though the relationship was consensual). He writes that his biggest mistake was following his heart without the modulating guidance of reason.

"Emotions are capricious, ephemeral," he says, "My heart misled me, deceived me ... made me a criminal. I've come to accept that wisdom must supersede emotion."

Despite the anger and depression, Lamberton's wife stood by him, raising their children, working, attending grad school and visiting him regularly. His writing is especially poignant when he speaks of the suffering--"her wounds still leak"--his misjudgments brought her.

For Lamberton--who, at one of his more dispirited moments, likens himself to the "subject of an Edvard Munch painting"--the prison yard becomes a kind of contemplative labyrinth. He makes endless, soul-searching circumambulations of the enclosed terrain, noting, with an amazing eye for detail, the unstinted ebb and flow of nature.

"While prison," he writes, "this cordoned backlot of desert and humanity, may or may not extinguish me, even here, wildness invades."

With lyrical grace, he chronicles his daily communion, blossoming into something of a nature mystic.

"Nature gives me faith in a larger picture," he tells us, "one where God resides in the details. ... Nature is neither fragmented nor uncertain. It suffers no real separation but fosters a relatedness across boundaries, those among species and environments and ecosystems, between life and death ... making even prison a permeable place, an ecotone where evolution leans from equilibrium toward punctuation."

Indeed, it is Lamberton's determination to evolve by maintaining some measure of dignity and self-expression that gives this book its vitalizing spirit.

"Simply surviving what life brings our way is not enough," he says. "I could have chosen to deal with prison by reaction, adjusting my thinking and behavior as necessary, remodeling my character to fit this place. ... Instead, I chose creation ... to carry on, to resist along the way, to give something back."

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