Sometimes it seems as though the world is held up by pairs of opposites: mind and body, good and evil, subject and object, male and female. Eastern philosophies from Vedanta to Buddhism teach that in fusing these dualities, there is a release of creative energy. Christine Byl’s new book Dirt Work makes that abstract theory concrete with grounding stories of her merging of masculine and feminine characteristics working on trail crews in Montana's Glacier National Park and Alaska's Denali National Park over fifteen years.
Much like the art from ancient India, Tibet, China, and Japan depicting half-male, half-female deities, Byl's imagery provides the opportunity to meditate on the philosophy of non-duality. Describing men and women hard at work on the trail, she writes:
“Those same bodies, so inhabited, provide us the ungendered moments, too, the times when cultural roles and physical parts deconstruct and we become people working side by side. The best times, with men and women, are those when the moment demands every last thing and there's no room in the brain, no will in the muscles for the extraneous whose strong nice ass I'd sleep with. We aren't checking each other out, and we even forget to evaluate ourselves, free for moments from awareness and appraisal."
Her manual labor is not just a release from the more inward, mental work of writing -- it is the catalyst for it. The mountains are her muse, and the book is organized around her beloved tools. In learning to swing an axe and run a chain saw, she strengthens the muscles required by her literary craft. Her intimacy with materials conventionally associated more with men than with women provides the bliss and the friction from which creativity springs.
In her 1929 essay “A Room of One’s Own," Virginia Woolf writes:
“And I went on amateurishly to sketch a plan of the soul so that in each of us two powers preside, one male, one female; and in the man’s brain, the man predominates over the woman, and in the woman’s brain, the woman predominates over the man. The normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two live in harmony together, spiritually co-operating. If one is a man, still the woman part of the brain must have effect; and a woman also must have intercourse with the man in her. Coleridge perhaps meant this when he said that a great mind is androgynous. It is when this fusion takes place that the mind is fully fertilised and uses all its faculties.”
On the one hand, Byl’s clearing of trees and moving of boulders is simply an extension of her most essential self -- the one that has always been more comfortable playing in the dirt than wearing a dress. “It’s a great fit for me,” she recently told her college alumni magazine. “It’s the person I always was as a kid.”
On the other, it’s a conscious effort toward achieving the spiritual cooperation and vital, balanced mind to which Woolf aspires. Byl is clear about the privilege embedded in her choice of manual work and her reasons for it: “I was not born to labor, not led to it by heritage or expectation. In the age-old dichotomy made too much of, I was headed away from physical work, toward the education meant to save me from it…It turns out, reality is more interwoven -- more interesting -- than dichotomies allow; it turns out I had a lot to learn.”
Humility, dedication, and insight are integrated into all levels of Byl’s working life -- the blue collar and white collar. We're lucky to have her connect those too often polarized worlds for us.