Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods by Christine Byl

dirt workChristine Byl opens her memoir with the pleasant scene of herself and three fellow crew members, crusty and dirty, having a post-hitch beer at a small-town Montana bar. A young woman approaches and asks how she keeps up with the boys, one of whom volunteers that it’s all they can do to keep up with her.

She then backs up and tells the story of how she got there. Like many young women in our culture, Christine was expected and expecting to go to college, to do cerebral work and keep her hands (literally) clean; but a summer gig held her, and she reveled in physical challenges, in learning new things, in the mechanical world. Eventually she reveled in her hardening muscles and her expertise, in surprising men with her ax-work and in mentoring other young women coming up in the “matriarchy” of trail work (still predominately male) within Glacier National Park.

After six seasons in Glacier, alongside boyfriend and eventual husband Gabe (a delightful character: mostly off screen, but clearly a capable young man in his own right, and clearly happy to stay lovingly out of Christine’s way), she does return to graduate school, in Alaska. But during the summers she still works on building and maintaining trails, this time in Denali. Christine and Gabe come to love Alaska – yes, even the winters: there is a delightful passage arguing that the light summers are in some ways harder than the dark winters, and I made both my parents (recently moved from the Mexican to the Canadian border) read it. They settle a few miles outside the borders of Denali National Park, and Christine finds a balance between the cerebral – she gets an MFA in fiction, and writes this beautiful book; and the physical – she and Gabe now run their own independent trail-building company.

So many things to love in this book; where to begin? As a sometimes volunteer trailworker myself, I don’t pretend to know 2% of what Christine does; but I might know just enough to appreciate what she loves about it, and what a challenge it can be. I still haven’t mastered the efficient, all-day ax swing myself, but I’d like to. Also, I have a friend named Susan who I’ve written about before, who has a great deal in common with this author. (I briefly wondered if “Christine Byl” was a pseudonym.) Susan, like Christine and apparently like many trail workers, has an advanced degree but chooses to labor for a living; she’s a woman in what is clearly a man’s world, and is half of an independent trailbuilding company. I get the impression that while it’s hard work, Susan and her husband Ryan wouldn’t do anything different.

Christine writes beautifully about the phenomenon of choosing to do physical work when she could be keeping her hands soft. She writes about the well-intentioned questions her family asked, about when she was going to get a “real job”: she says that they have confused happiness with orthodoxy. (I can only imagine how many of us can sympathize with that concept!) She writes about the “sorority” of men in trailwork, and the way that pulls women together; she writes about the pride she feels when upending male expectations of her blonde head and small frame. As a writer, and clearly a gifted one, she structures this book as solidly as she would a bridge or retaining wall. Each of 6 chapters is represented by a tool (axe, rock bar, chainsaw, boat, skid steer, shovel), a location (North Fork, Sperry, Middle Fork, Cordova, Denali twice) and a locale (river, alpine, forest, coast, park, home). Within those chapters she roves and rambles, musing on natural phenomena, social relations, her own body and personality, strengths and shortcomings, and then returns to tool and place to ground herself. The structure of this book, then, is both well-anchored and floating, and I found that it worked very well.

I was charmed by Christine Byl’s honesty; her love of place; her range of experiences and understanding of two worlds, that of universities and that of woods; and of course her lovely writing. She’s hard as nails, with two hernia surgeries and a preference for outhouse over indoor plumbing. She’s brash and can tend towards a loud and dirty mouth (that makes two of us), but she’s got a soft core. I like her; I’d like to be her friend, and of course I’d really love to learn from her.


Rating: 10 pulaskis (my personal favorite trailwork tool).

I fear I’m getting out of control with the perfect-10 ratings, friends, but what can I say: it’s been a great year for reading. I will take a little of the credit, in that I think I’m getting better at picking what I’ll like, and not wasting time on what I won’t. But mostly, wow, there are some amazing books out there!

10 Responses

  1. Christine is in VT at the Breadloaf writers conference near my cousin’s home; good people in good places….
    (check out her FB page too)

  2. […] attention. This is, incidentally, the image referenced in my recent (new favorite) read, Dirt Work: Christine Byl called this a “lyric” defining “wild”. So that’s an […]

  3. […] as much as do many of my favorite authors. Odd, that. In fact, I enjoyed Christine Byl’s Dirt Work far more. And she hasn’t won any Pulitzers […]

  4. […] time ago, and had it loaded on my iPod along with many others. And then Christine Byl (author of Dirt Work) praised it mightily on her facebook page, and it moved to the top of my […]

  5. […] Dirt Work, Christine Byl (nonfiction) […]

  6. […] recommended by the authors of Fire Season and Dirt Work, this one moved to the top of the […]

  7. […] you loved it, Tassava! Next up is Dirt Work, which I believe he is also loving. Stay […]

  8. […] it, and if you don’t love it I’ll buy it off you. (He loved it.) I repeated it with Dirt Work, which also turned out well. I think I’m going to put Grizzly Years into the same […]

  9. […] I saw this book, it reminded me immediately of Dirt Work, which I loved. Similar concept: young woman is educated to be an academic, a writer, a journalist […]

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