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Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods

de Christine Byl

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603342,853 (3.83)10
A lively and lyrical account of one woman's unlikely apprenticeship on a national-park trail crew and what she discovers about nature, gender, and the value of hard work   Christine Byl first encountered the national parks the way most of us do: on vacation. But after she graduated from college, broke and ready for a new challenge, she joined a Glacier National Park trail crew as a seasonal "traildog" maintaining mountain trails for the millions of visitors Glacier draws every year. Byl first thought of the job as a paycheck, a summer diversion, a welcome break from "the real world" before going on to graduate school. She came to find out that work in the woods on a trail crew was more demanding, more rewarding--more real--than she ever imagined.   During her first season, Byl embraces the backbreaking difficulty of the work, learning how to clear trees, move boulders, and build stairs in the backcountry. Her first mentors are the colorful characters with whom she works--the packers, sawyers, and traildogs from all walks of life--along with the tools in her hands: axe, shovel, chainsaw, rock bar. As she invests herself deeply in new work, the mountains, rivers, animals, and weather become teachers as well. While Byl expected that her tenure at the parks would be temporary, she ends up turning this summer gig into a decades-long job, moving from Montana to Alaska, breaking expectations--including her own--that she would follow a "professional" career path.   Returning season after season, she eventually leads her own crews, mentoring other trail dogs along the way. In Dirt Work, Byl probes common assumptions about the division between mental and physical labor, "women's work" and "men's work," white collars and blue collars. The supposedly simple work of digging holes, dropping trees, and blasting snowdrifts in fact offers her an education of the hands and the head, as well as membership in an utterly unique subculture. Dirt Work is a contemplative but unsentimental look at the pleasures of labor, the challenges of apprenticeship, and the way a place becomes a home.    … (mais)
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Exibindo 3 de 3
A solid adventure of a book about the romance and lure of manual labor on wilderness trails. Sometimes maudlin, trite and corny, as if it was written by someone trying a bit too hard. But usually, fascinating, with detailed descriptions of tools, work and lifestyles in temporary and permanent wilderness communities, a non-stop work ethic, and natural beauty. ( )
  Sandydog1 | May 29, 2019 |
Heard author speak at Festival of Faith at Calvin College in 2014. She spoke about subcultures, and how you never know what you're going to end up doing with your life. The book is wonderful. ( )
1 vote sarahlouise | Jul 6, 2014 |
To paraphrase another beloved American nature writer, two roads diverged, and I, I left school for work in Montana and Alaska and got myself an education anyway. {...} I saw how place becomes as much a part of you as idea or experience; how inner shifts happen knee-deep in a hole. And inner shifts predict outer ones.

It’s place, not story or characters, that Byl puts at the heart of her book, which combines an homage to nature and tools with a memoir of her traildog (“a laborer who works in the woods maintaining, repairing, building, and designing trails”) years in Montana’s Glacier National Park, Alaska’s Cordova Forest Service, and Alaska’s Denali National Park. She parses her experience into six chapters, each opening with a profile of a tool -- axe; rock bar (crowbar/fulcrum); chainsaw; boat; skid steer (Bobcat earthmover); and shovel -- that features literally and thematically in the chapter. (Of course, nominative determinism would say her attraction to tools is no accident; the Americanized version of the Dutch word for “axe” is, after all, “byl.”)

I love explorations of nature and explorations of workplace and I anticipated loving this memoir. But while Byl is likeable, her experiences just aren’t new or interesting and the writing is workmanlike -- flat and unevocative. The only glimpses of insight and originality I encountered were in those riffs on tools and in Byl’s occasional tendency toward lists -- “What tourists say to a female traildog”; “What {traildogs} want to say to tourists”; what she’ll miss about working on trails -- that develop into something, often funny. I’m fresh enough from reading Tracy Kidder’s memoir, Good Prose, that a line still echoes: “With good writing the reader enjoys a doubleness of experience, succumbing to the story or the ideas while also enjoying the writer’s artfulness.” Here, I felt neither.

(Review based on an advance reading copy provided by the publisher.) ( )
2 vote DetailMuse | May 8, 2013 |
Exibindo 3 de 3
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A lively and lyrical account of one woman's unlikely apprenticeship on a national-park trail crew and what she discovers about nature, gender, and the value of hard work   Christine Byl first encountered the national parks the way most of us do: on vacation. But after she graduated from college, broke and ready for a new challenge, she joined a Glacier National Park trail crew as a seasonal "traildog" maintaining mountain trails for the millions of visitors Glacier draws every year. Byl first thought of the job as a paycheck, a summer diversion, a welcome break from "the real world" before going on to graduate school. She came to find out that work in the woods on a trail crew was more demanding, more rewarding--more real--than she ever imagined.   During her first season, Byl embraces the backbreaking difficulty of the work, learning how to clear trees, move boulders, and build stairs in the backcountry. Her first mentors are the colorful characters with whom she works--the packers, sawyers, and traildogs from all walks of life--along with the tools in her hands: axe, shovel, chainsaw, rock bar. As she invests herself deeply in new work, the mountains, rivers, animals, and weather become teachers as well. While Byl expected that her tenure at the parks would be temporary, she ends up turning this summer gig into a decades-long job, moving from Montana to Alaska, breaking expectations--including her own--that she would follow a "professional" career path.   Returning season after season, she eventually leads her own crews, mentoring other trail dogs along the way. In Dirt Work, Byl probes common assumptions about the division between mental and physical labor, "women's work" and "men's work," white collars and blue collars. The supposedly simple work of digging holes, dropping trees, and blasting snowdrifts in fact offers her an education of the hands and the head, as well as membership in an utterly unique subculture. Dirt Work is a contemplative but unsentimental look at the pleasures of labor, the challenges of apprenticeship, and the way a place becomes a home.    

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