When author Christine Byl took a seasonal job building trails in Glacier National Park in 1996, she assumed it would be something she would do a season or two before moving on to a "real" job. Nearly 20 years later, she's still building trailsfrom her home in Alaskaand has written Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods, published in April. The book is a story on the pleasures of hard work, Byl's personal experiences with the wild and what it is like to be a woman in a "man's world." Byl, who moved to Missoula in 1995 and spent subsequent winters here through 2002, took time from her book tour of the Pacific Northwest to answer a few questions for the Indy.
In Dirt Work you show us how hard the work was. Where did you find energy to write?
CB: As long as I've done trail work, I've written very little during the field season. I am constantly thinking and mulling over things while I work, but all my writing on the page happens in the off-season. The book was written intermittently over a span, about 2002. All of the Glacier stuff was written way after the fact, and I think it started because of how much I missed Montana. I had never written about it when I lived there, but once in Alaska, I thought about it a lot.
The book itself began with the stuff about tools, particularly the ax. I never meant to write a non-fiction book, let alone a memoir, but once I started on the tools, it drew me into the larger story of the subculturewhich I think is fascinating, and not well enough knownand then my own story became the lens through which to explore that world.
Have you often encountered an attitude that any woman who writes an "outdoor" book needs to be sharing some deeply emotional "finding herself" type story, particularly given the success Cheryl Strayed has had with Wild?
CB: For sure some people have an expectation for a more emotionally disclosing story, especially since Strayed's book came out just a year before mine. And yes, I think there is definitely a bias, or perhaps an expectation, regarding women writing non-fiction, that we will be more personally confessional, more focused on the self than the larger world, more interested in "our own story." There is, of course, much good writing like this. But if this isn't what you write, it can be frustrating to be pigeon-holed, or critiqued for writing another way. I don't think men get this personal pressure. I have not seen Barry Lopez or Michael Pollan critiqued by people who wish they felt more connected to them, who want to know how they met their spouse, etc. It's also frustrating when reviewers or readers pass over the larger ideas in books by women (in my case, about work and gender and wilderness and apprenticeship) in order to focus on the more personal details. I would much rather talk about the subculture than about my personal life, let's put it that way!
In the early days of your career, working in and around Glacier National Park, you are one of a handful of women. When you move to Alaska, you are about the only one. Has that changed?
CB: I don't know how the Glacier crew looks these days, but I think that was an unusual experience, working with four or five female crew leaders. I think there's been a gradual increase in women in labor and trades overall, but certainly not exponential, and although there are women on crews, a small percentage of them stick with it for much more than a few years. There's still a lot of cultural bias, and subtle institutional barriers, that prevent women from committing to a manual career.
One of the themes running through the book is the crude humor among the workersbehavior that isn't considered particularly "female" by the culture at large. Some readers critiqued you for not attempting to change that kind of behavior. Have you been challenged along those lines?
CB: I strongly disagree with the notion that women exist in order to attempt to change anything about men, about male culture, whatever. We can certainly try if we want to, but women exist for the same reason men doto be our fullest selves. I think I'd be betraying the cause of feminism far more by prescribing certain behavior as appropriate for women than I would by cussing. In general, those criticisms come from men who want women to be a certain way, not from women, who just want to be whoever they are already, whether it's culturally appealing or not. And I've got news for those who think that women are generally not inclined to swearing or dirty jokes or voracious appetites. I've worked with bawdy women and prudish men, and everything in between. As with any quirk of personality that is often ascribed to gender, I found there is actually far more variety within the genders than there is between them.
Christine Byl reads from Dirt Work at Shakespeare & Co. Fri., Oct. 25, at 7 PM. Free.The story was updated Oct. 25 to reflect the accurate amount of time Christine Byl lived in Missoula.