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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Desert Walls

Air Date: Week of

For twelve years, Ken Lamberton wrote about the natural history of his desert home in Arizona. His essays described the caves, canyons and dry ponds of the landscape, but it wasn't outdoors where he honed his prose, it was in prison. At 27, Lamberton was convicted of child molestation and sent to jail. He's since completed his sentence, along with a book about the nature of his crime, called "Beyond Desert Walls: Essays from Prison."


CURWOOD: Ken Lamberton spent much of his early career teaching others about the Arizona desert. As a biology instructor and YMCA camp counselor, he led students through caves, canyons and desert plateaus, always on the lookout for rare animals and artifacts. But at the age of 27, he had to give it all up. Ken Lamberton is now a published nature writer, but it wasn't the open desert where he honed his craft--it was in prison.

Mr. Lamberton served twelve years for child molestation and while incarcerated, he wrote collection of nature essays, now published, called "Beyond Desert Walls: Essays from Prison." Many of them are attempts to make peace with his family and his crime that began with an obsession with a 14-year-old girl who worked at his summer camp.

LAMBERTON: You think of most camps as being in the pines with lakes and rivers, and canoeing; this is a desert camp and it's centered mostly around horseback riding and some other desert-type activities, camp craft skills, hiking. It's not low desert as we have here in Tucson, it's a little bit higher grassland desert and so it's about ten degrees cooler than Tucson would normally be in the summertime, so there's outdoor activities don't become an issue because of the heat.

CURWOOD: And at this camp you met your wife. What was that summer that you first met your wife. What was that like?

LAMBERTON: That was my second summer working at this camp. And camp is a whole different thing. Your inhibitions are, well there aren't any I guess. It's a very magical place and when Karen walked into my life I noticed her immediately and I knew I wanted to be with her. And we hit it off right away. She was helping direct the same program that I was working in and camp was just one of those places where everything is just laid bare. I mean, you do your laundry together. And so our relationship developed and we spent many nights, sleepless nights, under the stars. Unfortunately, you know where this leads is when my victim arrived, I began repeating the same thing and so I've destroyed a lot of precious memories that my wife had by bringing somebody else into the situation, into our camp.

CURWOOD: What happened, the girl whom you victimized sexually, she comes to camp what, the summer of 1986?


CURWOOD: And you're, what, about to be a father, your wife…

LAMBERTON: Right. My wife is pregnant with our third child. We had two small girls and we're all there. We've moved to the camp after the school year. So, there was already a relationship that was developing and it just took off when she came to camp. So the relationship grew into this obsession. I saw no way out of it except running away with her. And that's what we did before the camp season ended. In August, we decided to run away together. It lasted two weeks.

CURWOOD: And she was how old and you were how old?

LAMBERTON: She was 14; I was 26, 27.

CURWOOD: What do you tell people in those circumstances? What, how do you explain your feelings about what happened in the past?

LAMBERTON: Well, I, people ask me all the time, what were you thinking? And the best answer I can give them is that, I just wasn't. I was fueled on my emotions and my brain, my mind was not engaged at all. So, I'm not trying to absolve myself of any responsibility. I feel completely responsible for my actions during that time and I regret it deeply. I mean, the damage that it did to my victim, to my family, to my children, it's baggage I'll carry for the rest of my life that I'll never escape. And you know, truthfully, I'll probably define myself as a prisoner for the rest of my life.

CURWOOD: Now as someone who was convicted as a sex offender, I understand that there's a certain hierarchy among inmates and that…

LAMBERTON: Oh, yeah.

CURWOOD: You even write that sex offenders are at the very bottom of that ladder, but…

LAMBERTON: They are.

CURWOOD: During your time in prison you were recruited to teach science and nature to your fellow inmates.


CURWOOD: How do you think this made you fit in within the prison community with the label of sex offender yourself?

LAMBERTON: Well, first of all, I was in a facility that was largely sex offenders, probably 60 percent. But there were others that were not and sometimes there would be trouble with them, but not very often. But I think that because I decided to teach in education, to share my knowledge and my skill, that I was respected by these men and, in this case, helping them gain their GEDs.

CURWOOD: What sort of lessons did you offer them?

LAMBERTON: Well, I had this enormous science background so the first thing I did was develop a science program that involved a lot of activities. The yard we were on was what they call an open yard, which means that the inmates can travel from their cells to and from classes and dining facilities. And so I tried to develop activities where it would take us kind of outside the classroom. And I used what resources I had, insects that I would find in the yard or a bat, you know that would cling to the roof from the night before. I'd catch him in like a jar so we could examine it and look at the structure of its wing and take it outside and release it. I developed some astronomy programs because we did have some evening classes and one of the things that I was really connected to in prison was seeing stars. I was glad for that, seeing the sky, seeing the stars at night, seeing Orion in the wintertime swing overhead.

CURWOOD: In any sense, did being in prison give you an advantage as a nature writer?

LAMBERTON: Yeah, it really forced me to focus. I think it's Kathleen Norris, she knows something about the cloistered life. She wrote a book about it. She talks about being forced inward by the spareness that is outward. And that's what it did for me. It really taught me to pay attention to details. There's not much in that environment and so you become attuned to everything that moves. Every little trespass that comes through the fences, through the razor-wire, even if it's an insect, or a bird, or a weed that comes up through the cracks in a section of concrete. And you rejoice in those. It's nature. I found a wilderness inside of a prison. And it was right there before my eyes.

Ken Lamberton
(Photo: Karen Lamberton, 2002)

CURWOOD: So, this is a long time that you were there. What, twelve years?

LAMBERTON: Twelve years.

CURWOOD: What was it like returning to your family? You had now, unlike probably most prisoners, you had this group of people that were very anxiously awaiting your return.

LAMBERTON: Yeah, well most wives, most families of inmates are gone within the first two years. Mine stayed with me for 12. So I had a place to go; I had that family support. My wife said a few months before I went to prison that my children would always be my children. There is nothing I could do to escape that. And that she would always be my wife. And, boy, talk about a confrontation, all I wanted was out. I was still, you know during those, that foggy time between my arrest and when I actually went to prison, you know, I was still wanting to continue the relationship and my wife was really in my face about it. And it was the birth of my daughter, Melissa, where I finally made a decision that I was wrong and that I needed to come back to my family.

CURWOOD: And without violating her privacy, what's happened to your victim? Did your victim testify at the trial?

LAMBERTON: Yes. By this time, she had realized, I guess, pretty much what I did. That I had made a horrible mistake and she thought I should go to prison. And I know she went on with her life. She went to a school, graduated I believe at the law school here at the University of Arizona and is practicing law somewhere now.

CURWOOD: Now, have you gone back to your camp, the summer camp, since you've been released?

LAMBERTON: Actually, I haven't. I've been back to the area; I've been to the caves that we explored and the mines. I've been to the area all surrounding it. I've looked down on the camp from a mountain bridge above it, but I've never actually stepped foot back in the camp and neither has my wife. She spent some time there after my arrest, kind of finishing up things because she was very involved with the camp also. But she says, my wife feels probably the same way I do. She says there are ghosts there that she continually bumps into. She has no desire to go back.

CURWOOD: So, why don't you move farther away from the area here? Why do you keep all this so close to you?

LAMBERTON: Yeah, well, my wife talks about it all the time. She'd like to move away. I think it's a need to kind of start over. But you know, the thing is that our friends, our church, our family, they're all here and they know and there's a kind of, they know about me and the crime and the long incarceration, what my family went through and there's some comfort and security in that. And really, I believe that there isn't so much a "starting over." What my wife really has given me is not a chance to start over, but a promise of continuing. And, so that's what we're doing. We're just continuing with our lives in this place, you know, carrying everything with us, carrying our past with us, the scars with us.

CURWOOD: Ken Lamberton is author of "Beyond Desert Walls, Essays from Prison." Ken, thanks for taking this time with me today.

LAMBERTON: Thank you, Steve.

[MUSIC: Birdsongs of the Mesozoic "Birdgam" Dancing on A'A (Cuneiform) 1995]



"Beyond Desert Walls"


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