Dr Matthew Colloff’s 'Landscape of Our Hearts' wins NSW Premier's History Award

10 September 2021

The beginnings of Dr Matthew Colloff’s award-winning book stems from the day Matt first arrived in Australia.

“Getting off the long-haul flight at Kingsford Smith airport on an autumn evening in 1994, I smelled that extraordinary and distinctive perfume of eucalyptus oil carried down from the Blue Mountains. it hooked me immediately, before I even knew what it was. For Australians it is the unmistakable aroma of home. For migrants it is part of the aura of their new country.”

Dr Matthew Colloff is an Honorary Senior Lecturer at The Fenner School of Environment & Society – and his book Landscapes of Our Hearts has recently won the 2021 NSW Premier's History Award in the NSW Community and Regional History category.

In 2014 he wrote an environmental history of the river gum Eucalyptus camaldulensis. Research for that book took him on a journey through the harsh Australian landscape, from the floodplains and wetlands of the Murray–Darling Basin and to the dry creek beds of Central Australia. Landscapes of Our Hearts emerged from the themes that did not make it fully into the river gum book: the triangle of relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples and the land; how we make meaning from our environment; how landscapes are altered by us and we, in turn, are changed by place.

The central message of Landscapes of Our Hearts is that the Australian Landscape and its history reflect both our psyche and self-portrait.

Matthew explains, “The idea is encapsulated in the last paragraphs of the book: ‘… the power of the landscape as a force in history has been marginalised in debates about the relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. It is time to bring Landscape and Country back to the heart of deliberations about our future.”

As anyone who even just written a short essay can attest, writing a book is no easy task. How’d he do it? A rigidly-self-enforced daily target of at least 500 words a day, walking the dog along Ginninderra Creek, and a deep personal change that came from writing from a growing personal relationship with the land.

“What changed for me in writing the book was the realisation that in telling stories about Australian landscapes I had to stop writing with my head like a scientist and start putting myself in the shoes of the readers and make connections with them by writing from the heart.”

As with something so personal in nature, Matthew also has his doubts - that the book “would be read as the bleeding heart sentiments of a lefty, greenie, middle-class, privileged, middle-aged white man.”

He says that turned out not to be the case.

“Any such twaddle was rapidly expunged from the manuscript by the superb editorial team at Thames and Hudson Australia. I got lucky there – those people have become trusted friends,” Matthew said.

While winning the Award is a highlight, the great honour Matthew recalls receiving for the book was a review from Indigenous author and Patrick White Award winner, Tony Birch in The Sydney Morning Herald.

Prof Birch wrote: ‘I was struck by the universality of the story of a love of place that Colloff remembers with fondness… it is a story of the heart, a gentle polemic asking that we, as a national community, explore new ways of thinking about and being in place.’

Landscapes of Our Hearts is published by Thames and Hudson Australia, and is available online.