The Campsite Reviews Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods
By Christine Byl
Beacon Press, 2013
Reviewed by: Meghan J. Ward
Never before have I read a book that made me feel like I had dirt sitting under my fingernails from flipping the pages. But as the title of this book suggests, Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods is a gritty read. Christine Byl’s words create a full-bodied sensory experience of life on the trail, from the muddy mess of trail-building to the curse words of her crew mates.
Beyond the stories of her work as a “trail dog”, however, are thought-provoking passages about the more complicated matters of life: gender dynamics, cultural views on labour, the role of the natural world in our modern society, and what it means to belong. It’s the kind of deep thinking that results from considerable time spent working hard in the outdoors, where sometimes your thoughts are your only company.
Dirt Work tells the story of Byl’s journey into the woods working on trail crews in Montana and Alaska, and how a temporary, seasonal position became her life’s passion. Being a frequent trail-user myself, Byl’s book provided me with a window into a world I didn’t know much about: where these trails come from, how much work they are to maintain, and just how much planning (and skill) goes into how each stone is laid, how each tree is felled.
A master storyteller, her writing style is witty, lyrical, thoughtful, engaging, and raw. Her more poetic sections are at times hard to grasp, but give the reader a chance to pause, reread, and reflect. I particularly love how her writing brings life to her cast of characters (“He smelled of liquor distilled through flannel,” she writes about “Dwight”) and her environs in the wild. These descriptions bring the reader alongside her journey through people, place, and time. A series of vignettes – descriptions of tools, definitions of “wild”, notes on the vernacular – break up the narrative and create a patchwork of a story, each piece providing a window into Byl’s education in the woods.
What really stuck with me from Dirt Work are the dichotomies Byl highlights and weaves into her stories – dichotomies about gender, our perceptions of what it means to have a ‘real job’, and the convergence of wilderness and human impact. One passage in particular touched me deeply, and I read it out loud to the people sitting in the room with me. In it she provides her thoughts about the days following 9/11 when she was working in the woods while the rest of the nation was dealing with trauma:
“I am thankful for that positioning, not to bury my head in wilderness at the expense of the human, but because that dichotomy – steadiness in the face of mayhem – reminds me that peace is possible. Reminds me that even amid terror and silencing, aggression and defense, there are pockets of life indelibly sublime, and that we can remember them, bring them to the fore, not to escape the reality of violence, but to counter it, to temper hopelessness and despair with wind, water, light.” (From Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods)
I have read a lot of memoirs based around someone’s experience working, exploring or surviving in the outdoors. Byl’s is one of the rare accounts that gets beyond the purely biographical, beyond what one person learned through his or her ordeals. We humans tend to cut the same paths and make the same mistakes. Dirt Work takes us on a new trail and, in addition to a great story, provides us with the seeds for discussion around important topics.
If you’re looking for some great campfire conversation, bring this book along.
Back in April 2013, The Campsite was pleased to participate in Christine Byl’s blog tour. Check out all the participating blogs here.