NSW Premier’s History Awards – recognition for environmental history

Congratulations to Grace Karskens, Luke Keogh, and Matthew Colloff, who have won major awards as part of the 2021 NSW Premier’s History Awards.

Grace Karskens won the Australian History Prize for her book People of the River: Lost Worlds of Early Australia (Allen and Unwin, 2020). The jury citation reads:

People of the River is an impressive reflection on the pivotal place river landscapes played in the early history of Australia. Karskens tells her story from a range of perspectives as she explores the ways that different groups of people make their own mark on a river and surrounding landscape. In doing so, the book does not shy away from telling the truth about the violent, unjustifiable invasion of the area. It looks deep into the history of the landscape to show what the land means to its Aboriginal owners, before describing the racist attempts to sever physical and psychological connections to that place. 

The book offers a somewhat hopeful assurance that Aboriginal resistance succeeded in maintaining long-held connections to the area. Karskens asks readers to take a deeper look at a river landscape that many people cross in their travels with little thought about its historical significance. Her book says here is a place where people crossed physical, social and cultural divides. 

People of the River stood out from the field for its depth of research and accessibility.  Beautifully written, it is a work of rigorous scholarship that seamlessly integrates different historical perspectives and was a pleasure to read. 

Luke Keogh won the General History Prize for his book The Wardian Case: How a Simple Box Moved Plants and Changed the World (University of Chicago Press, 2020). The jury citation reads:

In this engaging history Luke Keogh delves into the curious history of the Wardian case. These miniature greenhouses were central to the successful movement of plants around the world in the 19th century — shipping precious species across hemispheres, seasons, and latitudes, when journeys were long and unpredictable. The invention by Nathaniel Ward of this simple-looking but ingenious contraption changed the transportation of plants by keeping them alive. 

At a time when the natural sciences were rapidly expanding, when botanists and biologists were madly classifying the natural world, and museums were being built to house such knowledge, the Wardian case enabled living specimens to be transported across the globe. Keogh ably recounts the intense scientific curiosity and excitement of this period, but also reflects on the huge cost of that imperial mobility and acquisitiveness. This is a global history of colonialism as much as a study of the natural sciences. 

In this generous and carefully written account, Keogh brings a curator’s eye to produce a detailed history of one object—but it’s so much more than that. The Wardian Case is a story of colonial ambition as well as scientific invention. The great toll of the Wardian case—the introduction of invasive species, establishment of colonial plantations, and the extractive economy of colonisation—is as critical to this compelling story as the quest for scientific and technological knowledge that it represents. 

Matthew Colloff won the NSW Community and Regional History Prize for his book Landscapes of our hearts: reconciling people and environment (Thames and Hudson, 2020). The jury citation reads:

Landscapes of Our Hearts is a compelling, elegantly written exploration of Australia’s diverse landscapes in all their beauty and mystery. From the High Country to the Willandra Lakes, from the intricacies of water management in NSW to Moreton Bay figs in Sydney’s Domain and beyond — the author looks at how different people and communities have made their mark on the environment, and how those environments have, in turn, shaped us. It suggests that a renewed connection to the landscape may help us re-imagine a shared and sustainable future. 

Landscapes of Our Hearts is a work of impressive breadth, a work of real intellectual and creative ambition. Sometimes lyrical, sometimes, hard-hitting, it interweaves environmental history with memoir, with Indigenous voices, fieldnotes, settler diaries, literary references and more. It asks the reader to look anew at our history, at the natural world, and ask ourselves how we might speak to each other across cultural divides and find creative ways to deal with climate change. 

This book takes a bold, inventive approach to the writing of history. There’s a questing voice at the heart of this text. Landscapes of Our Hearts digs deep to ask big, important questions—and resist simplistic answers. The writing is sophisticated and accomplished; it moves confidently across the domains of science and culture. Matthew Colloff synthesises research and ideas from multiple fields to create a highly readable work of history. This is a substantial and outstanding achievement.