Outdoor Reminiscences

Ken Lamberton's latest book combines beautiful essays he wrote while behind bars

Ken Lamberton is a science teacher, husband, father and--due to a conviction for molestation based on an intimate relationship with a 14-year-old--a convicted felon. Stripped of his teaching profession and an accepted place in conventional society, Lamberton's identity became inmate #61728.

Twelve years behind bars allows for a lot of time to examine life's options, like the bad decision that put him in jail and a good decision made while he was incarcerated. Four years before his release, he discovered a prison writing program that offered him an opportunity to put his technical science and journalism background to productive and creative use. His literary efforts led to a book of personal essays, Wilderness and Razor Wire, published in 2000 that won the John Burroughs Award for Nature Writing. His second book, Chiricahua Mountains: Bridging the Borders of Wildness, focused more on place than self. His latest offering, Beyond Desert Walls: Essays From Prison, returns to the reflective personal writing that made his initial work so compelling.

The current book took shape inside prison, where Lamberton had to draw on remembered observations to re-create vivid imagery. "The first drafts (of most of) these essays were written from inside a concrete, 8-by-12, two-man cell," he writes. "I put these essays on paper trying to understand the insanity of my own choosing, to look inside myself. This insight evolved as I wrote to fill up the empty days and nights." He terms the result of these efforts "a wonderful, deeper, frightening understanding of both myself and human nature."

Lamberton has now published more than 100 science and nature articles in national magazines, part of his catharsis in leaving incarceration memories behind. His current editorial spotlight ranges from prehistoric ruins in Northern Arizona's Navajo country to cave crawling near Oracle and tidepool treks along the shores of the Sea of Cortez.

"When I first came to this desert in 1968 as a child, I killed things--spined, scaled, feathered or furred. I hunted lizards to near extirpation and stalked songbirds to skin and mount." What he eventually learned was there was no purpose in his form of desert education, the taking but giving nothing back. "It would be a long time before my bloodlust would begin to surrender to a more mature ecological awareness, a conservation ethic. But the desert is patient and led me, little by little, to a profound appreciation of living things."

This appreciation permeates his work. He transfers the emotions behind his thoughts to paper in a manner befitting of an award-winning writer with a science background and a love of nature. In one passage, he captures the way we anticipate, and even fear, monsoon storms: "I went looking for rain," he writes. "It would come soon. That's the way it works in the desert. First, the heat, and the desiccating winds that shriveled and mummified everything green, sending grasses and wildflowers to seed under a white blanket of incandescence. Then, a subtle change would occur: a rise in humidity as the Southwest sucked in moist air from the Gulf of Mexico. Monsoon winds. Soon, pregnant clouds would appear over the mountains as this wet Gulf air rose above them. The clouds, harbingers of menace and life with promised relief from the drought, were what I went looking for. The sky darkened like a hematoma, and the desert grew still as a black phalanx approached from the south dragging curtains of virga. Then, a low drum of thunder. And another, its rhythm gathering momentum. As the wind rose on the storm's pressure wave I could smell the rain. A desert scent of wet dust stained with creosote. The first fat, cold drops turned me back down the trail. Thunder sent me running. Flashes of lightning and great detonations drove me on, my heart pounding, my feet slipping. I felt like a target, exposed on the hillside where the air smelled like ozone and whined with electricity. By the time I reached home, soaked and shivering, the storm had passed."

Readers who have spent time enjoying Arizona's outdoor beauty and its starkness will recognize Lamberton's imagery. His page is his canvas, and he paints with words, like when he writes of fall weather "that blows dead sycamore leaves around me like tiny hands waving good-bye."

This kind of writing should also tickle your outdoor reminiscences and longings and make you wonder the publication date of Lamberton's next book.

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