RAMBLINGS OF A RARE PLANT HUNTER by Marcus Harvey
Reviewed by Trevor Pitkin
I often wonder when I come across the phrase ‘rare plant hunter’ whether the adjective ‘rare’ applies to the hunter or to the plants they seek. It is probably fair to assume it applies to both. The history of plant identification over the centuries is populated with some rare characters indeed, people who ventured far and wide, either on their own dedicated mission, often well outside their comfort zones, or as part of a broader journey driven by colonial ambitions. Many were not botanical specialists but were very keen observers.
Marcus Harvey came relatively late to plant hunting. He obtained tertiary qualifications in environmental design and librarianship, though held down many other jobs, and started a number of business ventures. The most significant of these, in the context of this book, was his nursery, Hill View Rare Plants, set up in the early 1990s and based in Hobart. At this point his hunting and seed collecting journeys to Greece and Turkey began. His core interest was bulbous plants, which he raised and sold across Australia through mail order, initially based on a plain text plant list, eventually advancing from 2005 to coloured catalogues with truly beautiful cover illustrations, which are included in this publication.
As the internet age matured, Marcus began publishing individual Ramblings on his website. This book assembles these stories of adventure, tales that easily demonstrate Marcus’s deep and broad-minded curiosity about the world and a down-to-earth awareness of the possibilities of everything he encounters. In his own words: ‘At Monodendri, after a mandatory recovery shower, we reflected on what an incredibly rich and interesting day we had just spent…plants, history, architecture, sociology, poetry, metaphysics, eating, drinking, escaping, looking.’
This book is neither simply a travel memoir nor a plant lover’s compendium – it is much more.
In 2016 Marcus passed away. In the book, Marcus’s partner, son and sister have contributed their recollections and reflections of special and everyday times with him. These contributions enrich and reinforce the impressions of Marcus emerging from his writing and poetry.
I visited Sicily in 2014 and shared with Marcus some images of plants I had come across. His published adventures had inspired me to wander off the track and see what I might find. I had found a rare Narcissus – which Marcus identified readily, generously conceding that it was the first one he had ‘seen’ in the wild and congratulating me on having one up on him!
On one shipment of my plants from Hill View Rare Plants, Marcus included – without any explanation – some poetry. It struck me again as an act of generosity. Ramblings contains several examples of the poetry of Marcus Harvey. The piece he sent me, which is not in the book, is called Harvest:
A summer’s harvest Lies scattered before me This spill of tiny dreams Like unopened messages Ripe with possibilities Now my bespangled thrall Grit, grain, seed, burr and thistledown State of the art packaging Forged in the elemental Germed with new beginnings This is God’s Holy Dust Each bears its marks of kin Jostling with inheritance Some leafed in emerald Some earthed in cinnabar Primped in rock and light Sphere, parachute, wing and arrow the geometry of survival Prodigious instruction distilled within Root tap, stem sap, shoot The whole miracle set to spring Such great hopes for these small packages Not windblown nor water-washed But transplanted by desire Unwitting emissaries sprouting Love letters arriving with the sun
Having absorbed this, you surely will want to taste more.