While writing to an Australian friend this morning, I found myself tempted to describe a planned hike as a bushwalk. I immediately checked myself, as expats so often do, and realized that I had not used the term bushwalk is so many years that it had been lost from my vocabulary. It made me so sad to think that there were parts of my speech, perhaps even parts of my Australianness, that were slipping away.
Bushwalk is such a gloriously Aussie word. While Americans vigorously hike and the English ramble or roam, Australians, mate, we just go for a walk, you know, in the bush. Both parts of the word so eloquently demonstrate both the irreverence and bluntness of Australian english, and probably also our lassiez-faire attitudes to difficult tasks and potential danger.
Many years ago, I took a solo bushwalking trip into a remote part of New South Wales where majestic river red gums tangle and weave around each other, cluttering the banks of muddy rivers like a seven year old’s bed hair. It was midsummer so I pulled up under a shady gum and started to make my camp. A local wandered past with his dog and told me, much to my surprise, that I was in danger.
River red gums have a unique survival adaptation: When they are heat-stressed and dehydrated, they drop limbs. Big ones. Like the one right above my tent.
I looked up at the now-sinister looking tree, moved my tent and marveled at what it took for this unanimated, immovable and insentient gum tree to evolve such a smart and simple lifesaving technique. The whole tree was more able to cope with drought if it could streamline its operations, and it had found a way to do it. Incredible. This sense of awe is the reason I started bushwalking in the first place.
So of course I was sad to have discovered that the word bushwalk – once such a big part of my life – was gone. It, as a symbol of my roots, had been lost and replaced with the perfectly acceptable but somewhat empty word hike.
It’s worth noting that my sacrifices have been minuscule and easy compared with people who have had to change their lives, cultures and their religious practice to fit in. I got off lightly but it was still so hard. I can imagine what it must be like for someone for whom America is far more alien.
After a rough start, when it felt like no one could understand me, these days I am mostly understood if I strive to pronounce my Rs and drop the more impractical idioms from my writing and speaking. An old friend came to visit recently and said I sounded like a yank. I was equal parts defensive and proud, but I am at peace with that dichotomy.
So as I actively grow into American vernacular and pronunciation, that means some other parts of me have to die. Like those gloriously clever river red gums, I must lose limbs from time to time in order to survive.
Main image: A river red gum at Bolin Bolin Billabong on the Yarra River at Bulleen, Victoria. Creative Commons, Nick Carson.