Toi Iti responds to a beautiful book of photographs of sparsely populated King Country towns
Step one, take land. Strip it, stack the wood, start a farm. Now build a town! Post Office, school, chapel. Milk flowing? Build a dairy factory. Need a bank? Got it. Shop? Yep. Build some more houses. Look, the natives are building new maraes, huh, good on ‘em. WWI. WWII. Build a War Memorial Hall. RSA. That’s about the last of the wood. Plant some more. It’s the 60s already?! Wow, cities. What, you’re all leaving? Okay, there goes the dairy factory. They’re building a bigger one a few of towns over. Oops, bank’s shut. Not the Post Office!? Jesus! What, you’re leaving too Jesus?! Fine, whatever. I draw the line at the Cossie Club though, this is depressing and I need a drink.
Welcome to rural town NZ. Once the the engine rooms of the economy, they are now the decaying backwaters of our hinterlands. Those who stayed, the handful of farmers who could never survive the townie life but do okay off their daddy’s daddy’s land. Descendants of ballot winners. Them and some Māoris who stayed home, who may have land but probably don’t and if they do, they own it with 100 cousins. Someone has to keep the marae open so whānau can come back when they’re dead.
But that’s a community. A proud one. The leftovers of a past era.
Sara McIntyre’s Observations of a Rural Nurse is a visual ode to the King Country backblocks. A photographic poem of abandoned rustic beauty.
It’s a weird phenomenon, the term King Country. A farmer-slang kind of nickname. The only one that references a popular Māori uprising from the New Zealand Land Wars but used in an endearing way by mainstream NZ. It’s odd it stuck but it did. And so did these communities. They stuck around and lived in the houses that everyone else left. Wallpapered walls crammed with photos. Loved ones lost, haunting hallways and living rooms. Looking on, trapped in time.
Those community halls though. If you’re going to strip a land of its ancient forests, turn them in to community halls. And Post Offices and schools. They are the archetypical NZ rural building. No leaky homes ‘round here mate. And even if it did leak, it won’t rot. Only untreated native hardwood need apply.
Churches are good ways to use wood too. Jesus the Carpenter would have approved. Māori did. We lapped it up. We like a good Himene (Hymn). There is always a quietening when you step through these doors. Even the religiously uninclined would have to be dead not to sense it.
There are some spaces that have a less holy ambience. Forsaken buildings with lurking kehua (ghosts) line the the forgotten streets of these towns. Reminding us of the impermanence of our endeavours.
For me, it is the Māori/Pākeha dynamic of these towns that talk from the page. Where the conquerors and conquered lived in relative peace for generations. Not teaching local or national history helps. Can you imagine this Rodeo if they did?
I live in one of these kinds of towns, though on the east coast not the west. A small place called Ruatoki. My father tells yarns of bowling greens, “come alive’s” (booze-fuelled fundraisers) and tennis courts. Sounded kinda Tūhoe bougie tbh. We had our own cheese factory. Ooh la la. It’s rubble now.
All the hills around us were pasture then too. He said they’d go up there as kids and burn the bush if it threatened to come back. Used rimu for the fences. Bougie as. Obviously they got sick of it after the bottom fell out of the the lamb and wool market. Fifty years later, the bush is back. Though Fletchers did get a permit to plant pine through there in the 80s. We told them they could roll their permit and smoke it. They left.
Like a lot of our whānau. To the cities and beyond.
I’m actually one of those exports, sent off to Auckland Grammar to play rugby and make something of myself. Didn’t make it back till I was 40. I returned to a post-settlement era where we’re cashed up and own part of the Empire State building. Eye roll. It feels ironic but I’m not sure it strictly is. Good being home though. To live in the exact place where countless generations of your family have lived is a peculiar blessing in this increasingly transient world. It solidifies a feeling of continuum, even with the ebbs and flows of economic fortune. Tūhoe leadership are striving for permanence, no doubt born from trauma of invasion. But I’m not convinced that’s how nature works. Just like the ghost towns of the King Country, who couldn’t perceive they were building castles made of sand, we too cannot see the gifts or perils of tomorrow. For myself, I would prefer not to end up hanging on a wall somewhere or under a headstone, the living grasping to me for their own comfort. Turn me to dust and let me rest.
These towns grew in an era directly after the land was taken and the native people subjugated. Built out of decimated native forests and funded on pastures fertilised by decimated phosphorus rich Pacific Islands, there is no escaping the narrative as I thumb through Sara McIntyre’s photographs. It’s both nostalgic and nauseating. But it is what it is and it is a part us. A part of our story. And there is a beauty in that.
Observations of a Rural Nurse by Sara McIntyre (Massey University Press, $55) is available in bookstores nationwide.
* Made with the support of the Matatuhi Foundation *