Kim Wyatt Reviews Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods by Christine Byl
When I was 18, I got a job at Yosemite National Park. I thought I’d stay a summer; I ended up returning for 13 seasons. Ostensibly, I was there to work, to make a living, but the rewards were far greater: the living was done every minute of every day in a paradise made of river and rock. I saw no good reason to return to the “real world.” So I connected with Christine Byl’s first book, Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods. Armed with an English literature and philosophy degree, Byl finds herself after college seeking diversion in Glacier National Park where she becomes a “traildog,” a laborer who builds, maintains, and designs trails. One season leads to another and then finally makes a life, one in which Byl not only finds her path but builds it herself.
I’m a sucker for books about working in our national parks, especially one that drops Kierkegaard, Derrida, and Czeslaw Milosz in addition to the usual suspects like Virgil, Emerson, and, of course, Thoreau. Except that Byl went into the woods not to live deliberately, but to earn a paycheck. She also lucks upon a life that suits her “inner dirtball.” Of clearing fallen logs, downing trees, and moving rocks for days on end in temperamental weather, she confesses feeling “Purposeful and competent, almost embarrassed that the rituals of work can make me feel so happy.”
The book’s structure is similar to that of a trail. It’s organized in six chapters around the places that shaped the author (in Glacier National Park and parts of Alaska) and their corresponding tools: axe, rock bar, chainsaw, boat, skid steer, and shovel. Chapter subtitles offer a more traditional arc. It’s an interesting construct, to organize your life by tools, and its effect is subtle. After learning about the origin of the tool—its history, mythos, or vocabulary—blocks of seemingly unrelated text about work and life are then laid like stones. Each section is surrounded by white space, requiring a leap to the next: as a whole, they work together. One chapter becomes the foundation for the next, and like a good trail, they lead somewhere.
Byl is concerned with definition, with defining, with making sense of things: she wants a language for the world of labor, for the work specifically of the iconoclastic traildog. She seeks to understand her experience through the lexicon of her newfound trade, in words like hitch and kerf. She writes, “Language isn’t all it takes, but getting words right is how you start to belong.”
Packing a Leatherman, she still takes time to observe; Byl is, after all, a philosopher. In sentences laid out as carefully as her trails, laborer and poet meet: “It seems that only in the absence of seeking do senses clear enough to see: lily, wolf, falling star.” She records lists of plants and flowers: “Spoken, they bloom again.” And of Alaska’s famed Copper River: “The sound of the Copper is a constant hiss, the glacial water so thick with silt it’s like liquid sandpaper against fingers dipped in the river…”
There is a refrain about wildness echoing throughout the book—she never forgets where she is, and her place in it. “When trees and brush go aflame right before leaves and blooms pale at winter, I also wonder: Will I have even minutes as full of purpose as these plants do, when my hue is tinted by the tasks of my hands?” And Byl the observer is not without a sense of humor: Deep into her Alaska hitch, her home has an outhouse and wifi. “I tell people who find this odd that we skipped the 20th century.” She falls in love with her chainsaw: “I could feel it from the first minutes I held it—love. Danger and freedom, right there in my arms.” And she advises the reader on the best plants for wiping one’s ass. She notices everything.
In addition to the unusual structure and topic—physical, blue-collar work in the woods—there is something else that’s striking about Dirt Work: the competence of the female narrator. Byl arrives at a hitch, rolls up her sleeves to get to work, and doesn’t worry about how she looks doing it. Her competence, her confidence that she can figure things out, is her greatest asset. Of course, there is bravado and posturing by the trail crews, but it’s not borne solely of gender, it’s borne too of proximity and being human and Byl takes it largely in stride. Talking about the women she saw doing the work she was asked to perform, women whom she’d later see with all of their faults and vulnerabilities, she writes, “But first, I saw toughness, that assurance and vigor. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.”
It’s refreshing to read a book featuring an unapologetic woman narrator, not one who is on her way to being capable, or looking for someone else to anoint her capable. Byl just gets things done by watching others and then giving it a try. When handed an axe, she writes, “It didn’t occur to me to think, ‘I don’t know how to chop.’” The feminism in this book is not overt, it’s matter of fact. Competence is not gendered, it’s assumed.
Although readers of this book will likely be seasonal workers looking for kinship, feminists seeking gender analysis, and armchair adventurers hoping for a good story, Dirt Work should be recommended reading for policymakers—there is a disconnect between those who make the trails and those who fund them. The handwork that maintains our wilderness trails and our ability to experience them speaks to the best part of us, and is essential.
One idea that could be more developed: I wanted to know more about the process of becoming a writer—at what point did Byl decide to pursue an MFA—“the unlikely thing that lured her north”—and what led her to that decision? Which of her observations compelled her to put pen to paper and make it story?
Dirt Work is largely about the tools we use and how they shape our lives, but also about not simply building a path, but recognizing and determining its route. Byl combines her book smarts with her natural aptitude for physical labor and arrives at the conclusion that: “trailwork has been an unexpected constant, the magnetic pull that swings my inner needle true, the thing that has taught me, in a way, how to live.”
“I want to honor this world, show you its value,” she writes. In Dirt Work, with pen and ink, the tools of the storyteller, Byl proves up to the task.