Dec 17, 2011

Wilderness and Razor Wire

by Ken Lamberton

This is one of the books I found on the John Burroughs Medal list, and was lucky enough to get through Paperback Swap. It was written by a former teacher who received a twelve-year sentence for having an affair with an underage student. During his time in prison, he kept his spirits up by observing what he could of the natural world around him- desert wildlife, birds and plants- and began writing essays on the subject. Ended up publishing numerous articles and essays about wildlife and nature in journals; I'd actually like to read a collection of those. This book is a kind of mesh describing his thoughts and emotional states while imprisoned, some of the details of prison life, how the system worked, the sadism of the guards, his observations of other inmates, etc. Mostly it is about what bits of nature he could connect to: naming birds that visit the prison yard, watching sparrows that build nests. The ants, cicadas, other insects that busily carry out their lives. The growth and spread of various plants, especially weeds and wildflowers. Patterns of weather and changing seasons. His grief and fury when trees are cut down and flowerbeds paved over because they pose a "security risk". I found most touching to read about the interactions of others with the wildlife: lots of inmates were curious to watch tarantulas hunt other bugs. Some kept birds or ground squirrels as illicit pets. When the author's family visits he engages his daughters in hunts for flowers, insects and toads.

Most of Wilderness and Razor Wire was an interesting read. But it was hard to ignore the unpleasant facts. One is the nature of his crime. He never goes into unnecessary details, but describes his guilt and remorse at betraying his family. The weird thing was that the man who wrote the forward tried to excuse his crime, calling it merely a crime of passion and of love. He said it wasn't comparable to crimes of violence, that if it had been a different era, would be considered no crime at all. It was strange going into the book having had that thrown at me. I would rather I had not read the intro. I would rather have not known what he'd done at all. It was hard sometimes to look past it and enjoy the nature bits.

The other part that bothered me was to read about his background as a naturalist. He was the kind of kid who liked to shoot animals (or run them down on the road) just to collect a specimen. Even protected species. Had a kind of cruel streak and enjoyed killing animals, taking them apart, engaging in taxidermy with the remains. You get the impression that only part of it was a fascination with learning. I thought this aspect of his character might fade a bit after so many years in prison, especially when I saw how sympathetic he was to his fellow inmates with their pets, to the living things around him, down to the very weeds in the concrete. But then I'd read about things like how he'd glue down the feet of insects to hold them still so he could draw them (and his drawings are quite nice, by the way.) No mention of whether they were set free again.

It's a kind of harshness, a raw edge butted up against sensitive feeling and passion for nature that kept me intent on the pages as an uneasy and enthralled reader. I'm a bit curious to read more of his books if I can find them, but wary of liking them.

rating: 3/5 ......... 218 pages, 2000

more opinions:
Southern Rockies Nature Blog


  1. Those two things -- sleeping with a student and killing animals as a kid -- would have been pretty significant obstacles between me and the book too. Though I do like reading about life in prison.

  2. Yeah. It made me rather uncomfortable. I kept hoping he would change a lot in prison, but in spite of the remorse and emotional travail I felt like his character was still more or less the same in the end...


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