History Professor Receives George Perkins Marsh Prize

By Staci Wilson, CHASS Dean’s Office Student Intern
March 1, 2012

Each year the American Society for Environmental History awards the George Perkins Marsh Prize for the best book in environmental history. This year’s recipient is UCR’s Professor of History David Biggs for his 2011 book published by University of Washington Press, Quagmire: Nation-Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta.

Professor Biggs’ interest in the Mekong Delta began just after completing his BA at the University of North Carolina in 1992 when he began work as a volunteer teacher for the California-based non-profit Volunteers in Asia. A self-described “water person,” Biggs traded in youthful excursions in the swamps and coastal marshes around his hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina for field trips out of Saigon to the Mekong Delta. He fell in love with this region, its distinctive riverine culture, and its history. From 2000 to 2002, back-to-back Fulbright fellowships allowed him to live in the region and hone his delta dialect of Vietnamese. Research in Vietnamese, French and American archives eventually produced his 2004 dissertation “Between the Rivers and Tides: A Hydraulic History of the Mekong Delta.” His research in the delta also involved extensive stays at ecological research stations where he studied rice farming, aquaculture and human ecology. His stays in the delta countryside also permitted the gathering of oral histories from several dozen elderly resident. These interviews find their way into Quagmire and show in very personal terms how struggles over land and water often intersected with anti-colonial and Cold War battles. What was in 1900 largely a watery wilderness has in the past century grown into a kind of hydraulic city, Biggs argues, where more than twenty million people produce most of Vietnam’s rice and food.

Since coming to UCR in 2004, Professor Biggs won several more awards including a UC Presidential Research Fellowship in the Humanities, a Center for Ideas and Society residency, an award from the Academic Senate Research Fund, and a National Endowment for the Humanities summer stipend to produce Quagmire. The book has received very positive reviews, most recently in the February issue of The American Historical Review. The George Perkins Marsh Prize will be formally presented to Professor Biggs on March 31 at the American Society for Environmental History’s annual conference in Madison WI.

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