Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods by Christine Byl (Beacon Press, 2013)
What I love most about Christine Byl’s Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods is the obvious physical competence behind her words. She studied her co-trail-workers, learned from them, practiced, and actualized the physical skills needed to labor. Combine that with her background as a philosophy major and ongoing voracious reading habits, and you have a contemporary-woman who knows woods, tools, literature, and her own mind. She writes about place and our connection to land and the reasons why we labor rather than sit. Byl eloquently reflects on her chosen path of work:
Trail building feels right most of the time. I examine my life’s work with the stern eye of a Protestant—the vocation, the calling—and the open heart of a Buddhist—the hope of right-livelihood, of doing no harm. If I felt my work aligned with damage and asphalt over trees and space, I would like to think I could never have done it this long.
After graduating from college, Byl begins seasonal trail work in Glacier National Park and later works in Denali. Types of tools, which she learned to use while working for the National Park Service, arrange the shape of the memoir. A master’s degree drew her to Alaska, but she and her husband find home near Denali where they now run their own trail-contracting business. Byl writes, “Whether we move or whether we stay, most of us are trying to know some place, to get our hooks into a home. Home found me when I wasn’t even looking anymore.”
Byl’s writing about women and labor—and about how others (say National Park tourists) react to seeing a woman with a chainsaw—are the finest, and most succinct, I’ve yet to read. Her philosophical take on the divide between mental work and sweat work are fantastic. She is careful to point out that we are all human no matter what we do. Yet always, fundamentally, wildness enters back into her story:
Wild is head back hollering at the sky, a moment that contains the full world. Wild is not tame, not bound, not constrained, constricted, condensed. Wildness is big or it is small, but it is open—open mouth, season, door, heart.
At IFOA and forestry events, we often talk about educating across generations, about engaging the next generation to help connect them with our lands, public and private; Byl’s Dirt Work will help. Buy it for your adult children. Buy to help teach the value of our National Parks and of labor beaded from sweat. Christine Byl’s Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods is a beautiful, artfully written memoir.
—Renée E. D’Aoust
[This book review first appeared in the Idaho Forest Owners Association Newsletter.]