If you’re a student of nature, and interested in Canadian conservation and environmental causes, you’ve probably heard of Mary Majka. Sanctuary: The Story of Naturalist Mary Majka, published by Goose Lane, is an authorized biography detailing the life of this important figure to New Brunswick’s Bay of Fundy.
Since I am neither a student of nature or particularly well-informed about environmental causes, I had never heard of Mary Majka, and found this book to be more interesting for its depiction of her life. The story begins in Poland where she is born to upper middle class parents, and leads the reader through the shocking hardships of WWII to her subsequent immigration to Canada, a place where she finally could put down roots and find her true calling—conservation and environmentalism.
Mary Majka is best known for her educational children’s TV program, “Have you Seen?” which ran in the Maritimes from 1967 to 1974; for the establishment and leadership of naturalist club movements in New Brunswick; and for being the driving force behind the internationally acclaimed Mary’s Point Western Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve on the Bay of Fundy. As well, she successfully campaigned for the restoration and preservation of a few historic buildings and sites in communities along the coast.
Do perseverance and fierce loyalty to causes stem from our personality and inclinations, or do they develop through surviving traumatic experiences? As I read Mary’s story, who’s now a fragile 83, I thought it was probably a bit of both.
I wept for the young girl who lost her father and was separated from her family, experiencing so much fear and uncertainty in war-torn Europe; I marveled at her energy and determination during her years of activism; and her story left me wondering why I’ve never felt that passionately about anything. Lots of us care about causes, but not enough to actually do anything about it.
Years ago, I had a friend who came to study in Canada from Peru. Like Mary, she found herself in Ontario without being able to speak a word of English. I often told my friend how brave I thought she was to do such a thing: to leave her home and family in search of a better life. She would shrug and in a thick Spanish accent say, “You do what you have to do.” I wonder if Mary would say the same thing.
The author, Deborah Carr, knows her subject personally and spent many years interviewing Mary for this complex book. Their friendship didn’t seem to inhibit her ability to show the more prickly aspects of Mary’s sometimes overbearing character. (Bossy people get things done, even if they create some friction along the way.) Full of black and white photographs and candid interviews with Mary, her friends, and her colleagues, Sanctuary is the story of a life lived with the firm knowledge we are all connected to the natural world, and the desire to make people like me aware of it.