I met Marvin Roberts at Shaw’s a few years ago; he was standing behind me in line, and said, “lady, that’s the worst looking rhubarb I’ve ever seen.”
I’ve told this story before. Marvin insisted I follow him to his home on Witham St. for some real rhubarb, not the wilted stuff available in a grocery store on a Sunday night at 8:30.
“Just give me time to get home; I’m on my bike.”
Marvin was that very thin man with a gray beard you always saw riding a bike in the Shaw’s neighborhood. He had a Ph.D. in Botany, and had taught in four different universities, the last being Salem State. His paper on the ballistic seed dispersal of the illicium plant received international attention. (Exploding ilicium seed pods, the plant’s great evolutionary trick, can shoot 40 feet.)
I can’t say I was a real friend of Marvin’s, because he was very private, but I spent enough time to see – and admire – how much Marvin loved growing things. His garden, I’ve said many times, was raucously vibrant and diverse: those thick juicy stalks of rhubarb had leaves the size of tabletops. Jumbled over a 1/4 acre hillock grew asparagus, rhubarb, raspberries, blueberries, peaches, cherries, horseradish, kale, beans, every kind of allium and herb, and that’s only what I can remember.
After just a short tour of the garden with Marvin, I no longer saw a quiet Gloucester guy, grayed by time, who rode his bike everywhere, or an academic who referred to plants only by their Latin genus and species, who read the NYT front to back every day, quoted from yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, and noticed when I missed a week writing my column, as he did; I saw a skinny kid who loved science more than anything in the world. I didn’t see the aging Marvin worrying a discolored peach tree leaf with earth-stained fingers; I saw a boy in his parent’s Ohio backyard who loved nothing more than a whole day with his hands in the dirt helping his father plant potatoes.
On Cape Ann Marvin collected red algae to make his own blanc mange. He grew things from produce that Shaw’s was tossing out. He salvaged begonias (Begoniaceae) and lamium (Lamiaceae)that people had long ago placed on graves in the cemetery, and that were being composted, and he grew them into lush decorative elements beside his herbs. I’m lucky to have received a grandchild lamium from one of these salvages.
I’m also lucky to have received some Coral Bells (Saxifragaceae,) from Marvin. The original plant is on his mother’s farm in Ohio; Marvin planted divisions from that plant in each of the four states in which he lived. Coral Bells in Marvin’s Witham St. garden were practically taking down a wall, such was the energy with which they burst out of the crevices. Now there’s one in Folly Cove, too.
A book loan from Marvin, be it horticulture, history or a cookbook, was always a good one. I learned from him about the history and international significance of wheat, and later about Helianthus tuberosus (Jerusalem Artichokes), and discovered in his loaned cookbooks a great recipes for a Christmas Porridge and Cape Cod Fish Balls. If anyone stumbles upon the Burpee Cookbook, snatch it; it’s great. That was a loan from Marvin long ago, and I’ve been looking for my own copy ever since.
Tragically, I still have a couple of books I need to return to him. I just now learned Marvin died last September at 66 years old; his cousin, Jody Brickner, reported it was a heart attack. Many on Cape Ann, and in his neighborhood will miss him, including his friends at the Rockport Farmers Market, where his rhubarb sold out in minutes. I hadn’t seen Marvin since last spring, but I will miss him at every turn of the garden season. Rhubarb and raspberry will never be the same.
Passion is such an overused word these days, but I think I can use it legitimately here, and it is the exact thing I so deeply admired in Marvin. I think passion is something you do even though no one is watching. You do it when reward, or praise, or credit have long since vanished as relevant. Passion is that thing you continue to study when it makes no difference to anyone except yourself; you do it truly and honestly only for your self. Maybe even the self doesn’t matter; maybe the self is lost to an honest passion.
I don’t know many people with a real passion for anything, except Marvin, who was the perfect study. He ventured into the world quietly and lived privately, but I know he never stopped wondering about his soil or marveling at the vigor of his Egyptian onions.
Marvin Roberts will be buried at home in Ohio; I hope the earth above him is covered in Coral Bells.
For anyone interested in making a donation in Marvin Roberts’ memory, Jody Brickner sends this message:
“Marvin taught and did research at Stone Lab for The Ohio State University many summers. This would be a fitting place if anyone were interested in making a donation.
http://stonelab.osu.edu/fosl/give/ – Anything research or education oriented here would please him.”
“Also, his three-year-old great niece has cystic fibrosis, and a donation to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation at her fundraising page would be another way to honor his memory. There is a place for a note for the participant, and that way you can be sure that her parents will get the message. Her name is Annabelle Hanson. Her mother is Marvin’s niece.”