Tired of school, broke and eager for a change, Christine Byl took to the woods with a National Park Service trail crew.

Much later—after 16 summers of manual labor in Alaska and Montana, maintaining, repairing, designing and building bridges, ditches and trails—she came to realize that “a deep education is one of both head and hands.”

Through sheer physicality, Byl breaks open encrusted dichotomies: nature-culture; work-pleasure; male-female; mind-body. “An authentic life,” she finds, “will be built, at least in part, on ordinary verbs: wake, plant, dig, mend, walk, lift.” She comes to revere tools and the artifacts that define us as they did our flint-wielding African ancestor, Homo habilis. Fans of Thoreau might cringe at the trail crews’ sometimes industrial arsenal, and the scope of the landscape alteration involved. Yet much of the work is conservation.

“Just as we mark the world when we live in it, so the world marks us,” Byl writes.

Her co-workers’ hands—with their “knobby joints, chapped knuckles … a purple thumbnail, taut tendons in the wrists”—are badges of belonging that she cherishes all the more as her own hands start resembling theirs. The skills she acquires, which have served down-to-earth folks forever, apprentice her “not just to mastery but to history.” Wearing her blue-collar, feminist sensibilities on plaid flannel shirtsleeves, Byl refuses to romanticize grunt work. Nor does she see nature as automatically redeeming self or society.

As a rookie in an agency dominated by men, she learns from both “lifers” and “newbies,” from mule-packers and shop mechanics, from “tough-ass women kind enough not to laugh in my face.” Dirt Work brims with this subculture’s rich humor and jargon. A “hitch” is a work shift (eight days). Green Park Service pants and fleece make up a “pickle suit.” A “traildog” is a crewmember whose duties include “logging out”—clearing deadfall from trails. Older crewmembers pop “vitamin I” (ibuprofen) like candy.

Byl now runs her own trail-design and construction business near her favorite place—Denali National Park, in Alaska. “Our work speaks for us,” Byl writes, speaking on behalf of all traildogs, who seldom brag about what they do. And her work speaks volumes for this woodswoman and wordsmith.

This review originally appeared High Country News.

Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods

By Christine Byl


256 pages, $24.95