Nature and Environmental Book Reviews

Short List of Best Nature and Environmental Books



Nature and Environmental Book Review:
Wilderness and Razor Wire

Book Review by David Yarian Ph.D.

Wilderness and Razor WireWilderness and Razor Wire: A Naturalist's Observations from Prison
Ken Lamberton

This book gets a thumb’s up for a great title, conjuring images of Vietnam War-era perimeters and the dark unknown lurking just beyond. The subtitle lets the reader know the reality is both more prosaic, and more interesting: Ken Lamberton was a high school biology teacher in Arizona who ran away with one of his female students. After two weeks, they were tracked down, Lamberton arrested – and soon sent to prison.

He was sentenced to 12 years in a medium-security prison located outside Tucson. As an inmate convicted of a sex crime he was harassed, beaten on several occasions, and put in solitary confinement for his own protection. Somewhere along the way he discovered writing, and began to write articles for local and regional natural history magazines.

Through his writing Lamberton found a voice for his suffering, his sorrow for his stupid mistakes, the pain he had caused his wife and three daughters – and for his hope. During his difficult years in prison, the glimpses of the natural world available to him strengthened his resolve and his gratitude for being alive to the marvelous complexity of the natural world.

Throughout the book he describes the inhumanity of the prison’s totalitarian system and the small ways in which nature penetrates the razor wire to soften the edges of life in a cell. The wire, he observes, cannot keep the wind and weather out; neither, it seems, can it prevent migratory birds from stopping over in the few trees in the prison yard.

He notices with some pleasure that the guards and prison staff struggle with nature, attempting to keep it out or cut it back: the indigenous shrubs are pruned mercilessly, but blossom anew each spring; part of the prison yard is paved, but it shelters frogs, lizards, bugs, mice and the ever-present birds. Even though it is against prison rules, many inmates keep small animals in their cells as pets.

Always alert to the life around him, one evening Lamberton is startled: “At 10 pm on the eve of el Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, a great horned owl materializes at the end of the run. At first I think someone has left a mop leaning against the railing but then the mop head shifts slightly and a pair of unblinking yellow eyes focuses on me. The bird is huge, out of place. The yard is on lockdown and the run is dark. Most of the cells I can see from my window are dark, too. The owl perches twenty-five feet away, right outside the last cell on the upper tier.”

Part of his work in the prison is to teach science and natural history classes to the inmates. He enjoys this work, bringing to each class an animal or plant he collected from within the prison yard. He likes seeing other inmates get involved with nature, and observes how the eyes of hardened prisoners would grow less guarded and wary as they contemplate the mysteries of a desert plant or a caterpillar’s cocoon.

From his cell Lamberton gazes at the nearby mountains: “I can see the tonsured pate of Old Baldy from my cell window. The peak is always there, a fixture on the southern skyline, always dead serious. And not just from my narrow window. Mount Wrightson rears up from the wrinkled Santa Rita range and makes its presence felt – at least for me. I see it from everywhere in this prison. It follows me when I walk the yard, glares at me while I wait in line for my commissary. From beyond the fences it draws my attention like a lover I cannot attend to. Too much of me is tied to the place, and the mountain keeps testing the knots.”

His knowledge of nature and his gift for poetic language make the scene come alive. “Madera Canyon scoops out the right side of Mount Wrightson and spills onto the desert. The canyon is a classic riparian drainage of cottonwoods, ash, and sycamore. Silver-leaf oak and alligator juniper pepper the dry hillsides, but in the deep grottoes, water seeps from banks held tightly by horsetails, mosses, and yellow columbine and fills dark pools thick with horsehair worms and diving beetles. Pale gray tongues of lichen lick granite boulders unscoured by high water. The canyon is home to creatures with mysterious names: brown creeper, hermit thrush, wood pewee, elf owl.”

This remarkable book brims with compelling prison stories and beautiful descriptive language. But most of all it is a kind of spiritual journey – by a man who made a terrible mistake, and who is holding on to life and the love of his family with all his strength.

Acknowledging that most inmates cut themselves off from the people they loved outside – because you do “hard time” inside if you don’t – Lamberton takes the harder path of staying connected to his wife and daughters. He is determined to participate in parenting his children, so he does nature study with his daughters on visiting days, prowling the yard to find bugs and frogs.

This is a quietly startling book situated in the extreme environment of prison. Despite moronic prison administrators, sadistic or perverted cellmates, and the ever-present threat of violence, Lamberton simply holds on – to the wild nature around him and to the love he has for his family.

Return to top of page