The Write Stuff: Going Bush by Kirsty Gunn

Welcome to our regular feature showcasing the talents of the nation's best writers.

Author Kirsty Gunn. Picture: Contributed
Author Kirsty Gunn. Picture: Contributed

Maybe the dictionary can help: Bush: n. a woody plant in size between a tree and an undershrub. That’s from the Chambers 20th-Century Dictionary, a British Dictionary with ‘up-to-date English’ as it states on the flyleaf, with ‘everyday words’. And sure enough, right before us, here’s the little British bush we all know so well, with its flowering leaves and dainty wooden branches, that ‘woody plant’. But coming straight after, there it is: ‘Bush: wild uncultivated country: such country covered with bushes; the wild. –v.i. to grow thick or bushy. –v.t. to set bushes about: to cover. adj. bushed, lost in the bush: bewildered.’

And that word: bewildered . . . 

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Though, the girl thought, she herself, she knew, could never be lost there . . . 

Even so, bewildered, yes.

But never lost there.

No. Never.

In the New Zealand of my childhood people used an expression within which was the nightmare of a place so overridden with manuka and scrub you might never escape it. This phrase, it seemed, existed permanently in a kind of future tense – that you might walk into and inhabit and be lost in: ‘Going Bush’. My father used to say it, about a friend who’d made the decision to go into remote and difficult country, allowing himself to be altered by that experience. ‘Ah yes, old Malcolm. He went bush in the end and you couldn’t get much sense out of him by then.’ As though, my father seemed to imply, by walking into that dense growth, a person would never afterwards be freed from it; changed forever. ‘Poor old Malcolm wasn’t good for anything after that,’ my father said, ‘he went bush, alright.’ And friends of my parents would talk about it at parties, how they might go bush themselves – as a way of escaping from the easy daily routine, joking with each other about it, topping up their whiskies and laughing. The men saying that they might take a rifle in there and a fishing rod and think about never ever coming home again. ‘That sounds just fine to me!’ Or people would use the phrase at the beginning of the summer, as a way of describing how they were planning to relax, like they were ‘going native’, another expression that intimated the horror of an irreversible change. Women did not use this expression, they had no need. For them, in those days, there was no other life that might claim them – or that is what we children thought. They refreshed their lipstick and shook their heads when their husbands offered them another sherry. Only men went in there, into the Tarawheras or the Ureweras or the Kaimanawa Ranges. They came home, sun-blackened and with beards or stubble on their faces, laughing and smelling of earth and drink and something else – seeds or mould or blood.


Born in New Zealand but now resident in Scotland, Kirsty Gunn’s novels include The Big Music and The Boy and The Sea. She will be discussing Going Bush (Sylph Editions, £12) tomorrow at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.