Observations of a Rural Nurse
Massey University Press
Reviewed by Fairooz Samy
To be "at home" is to have connections with our communities, our dwellings, and our environment. In Observations of a Rural Nurse, Sara McIntyre honours those connections. Her book captures a decade in the life of the King Country and its inhabitants, lovingly and joyfully. Sara’s father is Peter McIntyre, the artist and author best-known for his series of books on New Zealand landscapes, the most personal of which is Kākahi, a painted love-letter to the former sawmill town.
Without opening the book, its title could see it mistaken for an instructional text. This is not the fault of the cover photograph, but rather the creamy muslin-cloth-like material that makes up its hardcover. It’s pleasantly heavy – the kind of book that warms your lap if you flip through it on the couch, yet not so cumbersome that it won’t fit on your bookshelf. Observations is primarily pictorial but includes several personal essays about the author’s childhood in the region and her experiences as the titular rural nurse, which is helpful in providing context as to McIntyre’s credentials. Each photo comes with a brief caption, giving the year, location, and title, sometimes accompanied with enlarged quotes. Its pages are thick, but not glossy, in keeping with the book’s rustic images
It’s obvious from the ease with which her subjects carry on with their lives in her photographs that McIntyre’s years as a King Country district nurse have made her a friendly presence. An indicative photograph is McIntyre’s portrait of Manu Lala, proprietor of the Kākahi General Store, which has been in the Lala family since 1937. The store sells everything from fishing rods to tomato sauce, and each transaction happens alongside copies of Peter McIntyre’s books, proudly displayed by the register. The store is colourful, but this snapshot of the town’s beating heart also reflects its economic struggle of the body around it. Much like the general store, Kākahi is resisting oblivion brought about by urbanisation and redundancy.
Te Rohe Pōtae is as famous for the sumptuousness of its scenery as the hardiness of its people, and McIntyre’s photos show us both. There is the family enjoying a picnic by the Whakapapa River, the children more interested in treats laid out on chequered blankets than the crystal waters running past. We see Alan Taumata, lifelong resident and Kaumatua, cradling his Jack Russell in the kitchen, photographs of his former pets hung behind him . We observe a group of young boys at the Kākahir rodeo decked out in bite-sized cowboy hats and boots, excited just to be there. On the opposite page, we find their adult doubles – grown cowboys, backs to the camera and absorbed in the action. We see teenagers riding scooters and horses between each other’s houses. On the wide streets of Kākahi, neither mode of transport is out of place.
We arrive again at the idea of "home". McIntyre’s images invite readers to care about Te Rohe Pōtae, its people, and its future. It also raised in my mind, the question of what it means to be home, but more importantly where will the county’s children play now that the school has been shut down? Who will follow Taumata as Kaumatua if poverty forces more residents out? How many more generations of Lalas will be able to call Kākahi home? Observations of a Rural Nurse elicits interest in its subject’s future rather than simply preserving its past.
First published ArtZone #84