Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods by Christine Byl
Beacon Press, 2013; 231 pp
Reviewed by Clinton Crockett Peters
Dirt Work is a squirrely book to lasso into a review, at once perfect and a disaster.
I love Byl when she is at her best: unromantic, unapologetic, witty, nuanced, compassionate and dirty. She takes us, shovel in hand, along the trails of Glacier National Park as she builds, shores up, remodels, whacks, and clears trail for the National Park Service.
One of the best choices Byl made was to tell her "trail dogging" tale meanderingly, episodically, essayisticly. Her organizing principal is a trip to the tool shed. But the tools don't really anchor the memoir, Byl's voice does. Her tone is in parts blue-collar wise guy and clear-eyed poet. Byl takes up the dual perspective of reflective elder and surprised novice, a hallmark of many essayists.
She is also remarkably adept at leapfrogging the anticipated romance of wilderness description, "When animals appear, cliches sidle up close. Watch out. Soon there will be "electricity" between a bear and be, "dignity" in a lone wolf's eyes."
Satisfactorily, Byl pursues the complexities of a woman crossing into the closed-circuited culture of outdoorsmen, "I think what deeply unites us [female trail dogs] is that most of us have so recently been beginners. In the labor worlds, women more often remember what it felt like to not know, to be expected not to know, to be taught."
There's also the honest, self-implicating reflection: "Too bad there's still that occasional thrill of seeing someone else stumbling along and thinking, relieved, This time, it's me who knows."
Which is good, but then something happens. Byl moves to Alaska. The sensation is something akin to a break up. I was fully invested in Glacier Park, the animals, the topography, and the people – the eccentric, affable trail dogs swinging pulaskis alongside Byl. In Alaska, I lose the close meandering and gradual increasing investment in a landscape and in the writing velocity.
While Byl maintains the playfulness, and the, mostly, creative investment in language (and there are many fine moments) something about the prose becomes deadened. Characters sometimes get reduced to stereotype. Nostalgia steps in. Byl starts posturing.
For instance, this line, "We've sallied forth, of course: trips abroad, holidays with family, arts residencies, a semester of teaching Outside, a winter cabin-sitting for a friend, but always returning in between.” I don’t know how to feel about a narrator who feels the need to establish her privilege bonafides to justify gracing the state with her inhabitance.
The prose is at its worst in the second half when it is precious around the edges of an uncertain sense of entitlement, a tone mostly at odds with the sure-footing, nuanced and reflective prose of the first.
Byl's tale is ultimately fascinating, and if I could wave a magic wand I would have her rewrite Dirt Work as one sustained narrative set in Glacier. I would wait for Alaska to be a sequel, a Dirtier Work.