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.
Christine Byl lives on a few acres of tundra north of Denali National Park outside the town of Healy, Alaska, with her husband and an old sled dog. She received her MFA in fiction from the University of Alaska-Anchorage, and her stories and essays have appeared in magazines, journals, and anthologies. She owns and operates a small trail design and construction business.
In honor of Earth Day, we asked a handful of our nature writers: "What
is one thing that people should do to connect with nature? Why
is it important?" Here are their responses. Read, enjoy, and GET OUTSIDE!
Go outside. Be outside. It sounds obvious, I
know, but it's amazing how easy it is to forget this. In the noble but often
all-consuming quest to make sustainable choices and fight big environmental
battles and visit spectacular places, daily time spent present in the outdoors—skiing,
walking the dog, splitting wood, just watching—is the most grounding thing I
know of. It not only hitches me to the details and inhabitants of my own place,
it reminds me that I am nature. Not separate from it. As reliant on my
ecosystem—no matter how fragile or fractured—as a chickadee, a birch tree, a
moose. For me, this realization is the most important thing: the world is my
The best way I know to connect with nature,
sullied and otherwise, is to spend a week descending a river in a canoe. Why a
river? Because water is the root of all biology, and gravity is its only motor.
Why a week? Experienced paddlers agree that it takes at least three days to
leave day-to-day time-clocked headspace behind and enter "river
time," leaving at least three days of circadian gravy. Why is it
important? You can tell me when you get back.
So many things come to mind
with this question, the biggest one being: Go outside. Alone. Spend time alone in nature. But something even more important, I think,
is to come to know well one wild creature that lives where you do. Today,
after cleaning my teeth, the dental hygienist showed me a photo she'd taken and
posted on her Facebook page. It was a photo of a coyote with a dead
snowshoe hare in its jaws that she took near her house. The big white
feet of the hare looked longer than the coyote's face. The coyote's coat
was thick and luxurious. She told me she'd seen lots of showshoe hare
tracks in the snow on her walks, but that was the first hare she'd seen in a while.
She told me she'd dreamed once of being a wildlife biologist. But in a
way, she is. She is a citizen biologist. Because she knows these
creatures intimately, knows their habits, she couldn't stand by if something
threatened them. I believe she'd act. So my advice for Earth
Day is to come to know a species of wild creature that shares your habitat,
even if it's just a house sparrow.
Or a flock of crows. Or a family of raccoons. Or monarch
butterflies. Or a spider. Consider it a neighbor, not just another
animal. When you encounter this animal on your walks outside (alone as
often as you can) say hello, even if it's just a whisper, or a voice in your
It may be a sad and telling measure of our disconnection
from nature that we even feel the need to contemplate the question, “What is one thing that people should do to
connect with nature, and why is it important?” It implies that the
objective is difficult to achieve, requires time and effort, and one can only
attain this level of connectedness through methodical planning and perhaps a
good self-help book. It’s not, it doesn’t, and you don’t really need anything
more than a doorway to a natural environment.
A regular fix of nature doesn’t have to be complicated or
time-consuming. One deep irony being an outdoor writer who works at home is
that I can go an entire day literally without stepping outside once. It’s
easy, in fact, to get lost in what I’m working on and suddenly realize, at the
end of the day, that I have no idea whether it’s warm or cold outside, sunny,
windy, or snowing. Then I know what I have to do: walk out into my back yard.
I take nothing—especially not my phone. I have two trees and
a garden and it’s mostly quiet back there except for the birds flitting between
my trees. I see the colors of flowers and drink in a big visual gulp of green.
In an adequate dose, green can solve any problem; I’m convinced of that. And I
just stand out there, doing nothing except listening and watching—feeling the
sun’s warmth, the breeze on my arms. My blood pressure takes a nice, healthful
dip and levels off. I’m pretty sure it does, anyway, based on the instantaneous
sense of relaxation I gain just by stepping out there.
Often, I only spend ten minutes in my yard—not a very deep
commitment to connecting with nature on a given day, I admit. But there’s a
huge ROI in psychological and emotional gains for the insignificant time and effort
invested. I’m no health professional or psychologist, but I will confidently
predict that if you carve out ten minutes in every workday to stand under trees
and listen to birds singing, you will live longer, raise smarter children,
develop amazing abs, enjoy a more vigorous sex life, and smile more often. Or
at least the last thing.
I need and regularly get more than ten minutes a day outside
(in a good week, all day, every day). You should, too. Leave home for a day or
a week and go someplace off the grid. Hike a mountain, paddle a river, climb a
cliff, sit by a lake, fish a stream. We evolved to live in the natural world
and we starve ourselves physically and emotionally when we divorce ourselves
But in the interim, those ten minutes under a tree—now
that’s the ticket.
May 6 marks the 150th anniversary of the death of Henry David Thoreau, the father of American nature writing. His influence on contemporary environmental writing is still very significant, and this weekend, we're highlighting that influence on our blog. Today, we hear from Christine Byl and Brad Tyer, two forthcoming Beacon authors.
Christine Byl is the author of Dirt Work, forthcoming from Beacon Press in 2013. She lives in a yurt outside of Healy, Alaska with her husband and retired sled dogs. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Crazyhorse, The Sun, Glimmer Train,Broadsided Press, Lumberyard, and others. She worked on trail crews on public lands for 15 years; with her husband she now runs a family business doing trail design and construction.
I had not split firewood or hoed a row of beans when I first read Thoreau in high school English. I lived in urban Michigan, had no experience with subsistence tasks. Yet I loved Thoreau from the first page. Now I live in Interior Alaska, off-the-grid without running water, and daily chores take up much of my time (picking berries, hauling water, cutting wood). But the reasons I was drawn to Thoreau in high school remain consistent now: something about what centered him made sense to me—life connected to a place you lived, and what you did there. I liked how he was humble yet sure of himself. I liked that he admired squirrels.
As a writer, I've respected other things. His cultural critique feels germane 150 years out. He's a dialectical thinker, finding fertile ground between assumed dichotomies. He summons a childlike wonder at the world. He reminds me to laugh, to take words and ideas seriously, but myself less so. Simply put, Thoreau writes with mind, heart and body fully engaged. Among the many writers who've influenced me, Thoreau may best embody Henry James’ famous quote: "A writer is someone on whom nothing is lost."
The conventional way to write off Thoreau is on his so-called inconsistencies (Walden wasn't wild, it was a mile from Concord!), but Thoreau's wisdom is that he never claimed a deliberate life had to happen in the middle of nowhere. An authentic life isn't an escape: it has less to do with location than attentiveness to it.
Despite the solitude he was best known for, I think Thoreau would make good company. (I feel so friendly toward him that I refer to him in my mind by the pet nickname, HDT.) I can imagine working in the woods with him, tossing 8-foot logs into the truckbed, making him blush at a bawdy joke. After, in the cool spring evening I'd pour us hot cocoa (mine with whiskey, his without.) I can see myself leaning on the axe near the splitting stump while HDT quotes himself from Walden, "Every man looks at his wood-pile with a kind of affection." Yep, HDT, and every woman, too.
Brad Tyer is the author of Opportunity Montana, forthcoming from Beacon Press in 2013. He is a journalist whose work has appeared in Outside magazine, High Country News, the Texas Observer, and many other newspapers and magazines.
I grew up the child of a first-generation middle-class family for whom a motorboat and a weekend place on a lake defined the lap of suburban luxury. My parents were just a generation removed from fishing for food and rural isolation as facts of life; to transform those memories of need into leisure marked their triumph over circumstance. They’d escaped. To prove it, they bought a place to escape to.
I’d never heard of Thoreau, but it was our Walden. Like Henry’s cabin, adjusted for interstates and dams, it was just north of town (Houston) on a reservoir (Lake Conroe). Curb to gate, we could drive there from home on the other side of the city in about as long as it took HDT to walk into Concord and bum a beer from Emerson. We called our place Hard Times, with the reflexive self-deprecation of insecure East Texas arrivistes.
At the other end of Lake Conroe was the only Walden I knew of: a lakefront development of condos clustered around a marina full of boats at the western end of what had once been the San Jacinto River. Walden had a golf course and tennis courts. Walden had a shop on a pier selling gasoline and life jackets and bait and polo shirts embroidered with the resort logo. Walden was the rich end of the lake.
It was years before I read Thoreau’s Walden and understood the references and aspirations playing out at the rich end of the lake—and, acknowledged or not, at our end too.
What I remember of Walden is the occasional diamond clarity of its sentences, and Thoreau’s constitutional contrariness. I don’t remember his celebrations of nature so much as his condemnations of so-called civilization.
To realize that developers were repackaging that contrary clarity as a hive of internal combustion, on a time-share basis no less, marked maybe my first real awareness, in retrospect, of the ways of the commercial world. They’d take a word that meant something—Walden—and turn it upside down. They’d try to fool you. They’d advertise one thing and sell you another. Your parents could do the same thing: Hard Times my ass...
Words can serve truth, or they can serve their speakers. That’s an awareness—call it a bias; fair enough—that I’ve carried through 20 years of journalism aimed, when I could see, at clarifying that which has been obfuscated. It’s a bias that informs Opportunity, Montana pretty deeply. As influences go, it’s indirect, but that’s the note Thoreau sings for me.