Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods
by Christine Byl

Beacon Press, 2013. ISBN 978-0-807-00100-4.
Reviewed by Susan J. Tweit
Posted on 08/17/2013

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Life Lessons; Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment

"Hitch: noun. An extended stint in which a trail crew lives and works in the backcountry, typically eight or ten days long. Most of the summer is spent 'on hitch.' Also called 'the woods,' as in 'when did you get out of the woods?'"

Christine Byl was a new college graduate tired of school when she moved West, looking for Thoreau's "authentic" life. She landed in Missoula, Montana, "a town where writers and laborers, professors and loggers not only drank at the same bars, they were sometimes the same people." Needing to earn a living, she applied for a job on a National Park Service trail crew.

Byl had never worked with her hands or at a job outdoors, so she was surprised to find that trail work was not only challenging and interesting, she was good at it. As she learned skills, stamina and love of building, Byl found the work deeply satisfying. That summer job "in the woods" ended up becoming her career and shaping her life.

In Dirt Work, forty-something year-old Byle looks back at that life with humor, introspection and a kind of reverence (in the sense of real appreciation) for how lucky she was to fall into working in wild country with trails and tools, and for those she met and all she learned along the way:

Over the past twenty years of my life, books have taught me some things, people have taught me many things, and tools have taught me everything else. I mean this as neither romantic nor prescriptive. It just means that touch and work are part of what I had to learn.

Byl's experiences weren't always pretty. "Girls" (still) have to prove themselves in the world of manual labor, and in places Byl's narrative is as raw, raunchy and hard as the work crews can be. Accidents happen. Even when the heavy physical work is uplifting to the spirit, it is simply grueling as evinced by the physical toll on Byl's body:

Mine has small muscles on skinny limbs, two broken fingers permanently crooked, callous-shod feet, legs that can eat up the miles. Carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists, two hernia surgeries, joints that feel older than I am.

I gravitate toward narratives of women who choose to walk off the usual path, especially women who work in the wild outdoors. I was one such when I was young, determined to make my own way in the mostly male world of field biology, spending weeks and months in the wilderness studying what grizzly bears ate, what sagebrush had to say about the landscape, the patterns of past wildfires.

It's not just that I identify with the Christine Byls and Kate Braids of the world (I also reviewed Braid's Journeywoman, on her life as a framing carpenter). I do, even though a competence with tools is a recent achievement for me. It's that by going beyond the boundaries within which we often box ourselves, these women show us what is possible, what they—and we—never dreamed of.

God bless manual labor, for my lungs and legs and my bank account and my friendships, and yes, for my mind, which wanders while I do my tasks, which tinkers while expectations wane, which unwatched, partakes in that inexplicable sorcery: wind and sweat in a pot with idea and image, mix them until they bubble and steam.

Byl's Dirt Work is the best kind of sorcery: her writing and her story take us beyond our roles and beyond our imagining to show us new ways of being our very own selves.

Read an excerpt from this book.

Christine Byl lives on a few acres of tundra north of Denali National Park outside the town of Healy, Alaska, with her husband and an old sled dog. She received her MFA in fiction from the University of Alaska-Anchorage, and her stories and essays have appeared in Glimmer Train Stories, Crazyhorse, The Sun, and other magazines, journals and anthologies. She owns and operates a small trail design and construction business. Visit her website.

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