Mary Majka at Mary's Point.

On August 22, 1951 Mary Majka walked off the gangway of the USS General Blatchford tied up at the quay at Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She was 28 years old and had a suitcase in each hand and $20 in her pocket. A Polish refugee, she had arrived with her husband, Mieczyslaw, as DP’s — displaced persons — to seek a new life in Canada. After two days of waiting in the arrival halls, when the train pulled away from the station, it plunged through fields and forests, over rivers and along oceans, revealing a natural landscape that instantly captured her heart and imagination.

USS General BlatchfordOn the other shores of the Atlantic she left the land of her birth shattered by a World War; friends and relatives killed in fighting and in death camps; her mother, brother and grandmother; her native language and culture; and every material possession not packed into those two suitcases. Her steps across that gangway marked a dramatic end and an uncertain beginning. A medical doctor and graduate of the University of Innsbruck in Austria, she found work as a domestic servant. However, one thing that she never parted with in any of the migrations that she was propelled along by the dramatic gusts of history she lived through was her love of nature.

Mary & Mieczyslaw Majka at the University of InnsbruckWhen Mary Majka arrived in Canada in 1951, the word “environmentalist” hadn’t yet been invented. Rachel Carson’s seminal book, Silent Spring, which arguably began the movement that we now call environmentalism, was only published in 1962. So, at least initially, she didn’t consider herself an environmentalist, but rather a naturalist, a term that she soon learned she had to carefully distinguish from naturist, which is what nudists referred to themselves as. Indeed, some people did not realize the distinction, which lead to a few awkward moments when Mary and Mike introduced themselves as enthusiastic ‘naturalists’ to new acquaintances. “Would you like to get involved,” they would ask to averted eyes?

If truth be told, after settling in Albert County, New Brunswick where her passion for nature really took root and blossomed, Mary was more often than not referred to, not as a naturalist, but as a “shit disturber” — and she took a great deal of pride in the description. And that’s because what that meant for her was not accepting the status quo. Inspired by early activists such as Rachel Carson, who drew attention to how the use of pesticides such as DDT was affecting bird populations, she realized that safeguarding that natural environment — that ‘home’ she had come to love and cherish from her earliest days in Poland, then during her long stay in Austria, and finally in her new “native land” — was not something you could take for granted.

Semipalmated Sandpipers at Mary's Point

Indeed, taking nature for granted, was precisely the problem. It was something that human civilization had been doing for far too long. Exploiting forests and fisheries as if they could never be harmed or would never run out. Using chemical solutions to ecological problems, never considering what the environmental fallout would be. Treating the world’s oceans like a bottomless sink into which humanity could pour its wastes forever and ever. Draining marshes, cutting forests, developing waterfronts, and damming rivers without ever considering what would happen to all the birds and bees, all the fish and fowl, the beetles and the butterflies that dwelled in those places. We were depriving nature of a home and nature is our home — a process that would ultimately leave everyone homeless and destitute.

What Rachel Carson, and my mother, and early environmentalists like John Muir and Henry David Thoreau realized, was that we, human beings, were tenants on this planet and the house we lived in was called nature. Its well-being was not about evicting everyone else, but rather learning to coexist with our fellow birds and beasts. Realizing that it was a collective home created by all those who dwelled in it. That we were all passengers on a Noah’s Ark called planet Earth — and that harming any part of the vessel was an injury to all, threatening the future of one and all.

Mary Majka caring for Harp Seal baby.In common with those early naturalists and environmentalists, Mary become conscious of the fact that we were slowly pulling out the nails that held the planks together. Pesticide residues, ozone holes, raw sewage running into rivers, clear-cut forests, endless rubbish accumulating in garbage dumps … these were causing leaks in the Ark. The ship was taking on water and rather than caulking the seams we were drilling more holes in the hull. If we didn’t do something about this forthwith we would all go down to Davy Jones Locker with the vessel. 

A central principle of environmentalism is the adage, “think globally, act locally.” Mary Majka instinctively understood this. She wasn’t a trained biologist or ecologist; indeed she only became a medical doctor somewhat reluctantly and accidentally. Consequently, she didn’t approach this maxim from the perspective of a scientist — although throughout her life she read avidly in many disciplines — but rather from a deep intuitive understanding of nature and the interrelationships of living creatures, coupled with a lifetime of carefully observing nature. Of going out into the natural world and watching and listening to what was happening around her. Of discerning relationships from these observations and then taking those insights and connecting them to a wider body of scientific knowledge.

Mary Majka feeding red squirrel

Mary Majka knew that the issues of living sustainably and harmoniously with nature and in nature were global ones — but that solving them involved rolling up your sleeves and doing what you could in your own backyard. That a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step — and then the next, and the next, and the next. And in her backyard she saw wetlands that were threatened, sandpipers that needed a place to feed and roost during their migrations, a pristine river valley threatened by a garbage dump. And so she rolled up her sleeves and got to work — and occasionally disturbed some dung — but more often than not she won people over by her candor, charm, directness, honesty, and passion. More often than not people said yes, and when they didn’t, she didn’t take no for an answer.

Shorebirds at Mary's Point

Mary was a key force in the establishment of the Bay of Fundy Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve, an enormous tract of marshes, beaches, and forests on the Bay of Fundy where millions of migrating shorebirds stop to feed and rest, en route from their breeding grounds in the Canadian Arctic to the Caribbean and South American coasts where they spend the winter. The reserve protects a myriad of other creatures, large and small, that dwell in such often-endangered coastal habitats.

Mary Majka and Agnieszka Trzonka in the Caledonia GorgeMary was also a key figure in the establishment of the Caledonia Gorge Protected Natural Area; a portion of the UNESCO designated Fundy Biosphere Reserve. It is a river valley of exceptional beauty and biological richness that was once threatened by the establishment of a garbage dump — a plan to turn a pristine jewel of nature into a rubbish heap. Mary fought tooth-and-nail against such folly and lived to see it preserved, with a network of hiking trails established and a stunning look-off and picnic-ground — a key scenic, natural, and biodiversity treasure protected for all time for present and future generations.

Mary also turned her attention to the precious human history and heritage of her adopted homeland, establishing the Harvey Bank Shipyard Park which houses the Anderson Hollow Lighthouse, and the Old Bank Museum in Riverside-Albert, overseeing their reconstruction, running the summer programs that brought thousands of visitors to see them, and administering them as president of the Albert County Heritage Trust. She also established the Molly Kool Heritage Centre, now located at the gateway of Fundy National Park, housed in the ancestral family home of Molly Kool (1916-2009), the first female sea captain in North America, and only the second in the world to have received her master mariner’s papers to captain ocean-going vessels. A pioneering Canadian woman, Molly, who Mary got to know in the last years of her life, had hitherto been almost forgotten by her fellow Canadians.

Harvey Bank Shipyard Park

Mary helped establish the Moncton Naturalists Club (now called Nature Moncton) and was a founding director of the New Brunswick Federation of Naturalists (now known as Nature NB). She established nature centers in the city of Moncton, and a children’s nature program at Fundy National Park. She was one of the founders of the Fundy Guild, a citizen’s group that supports the study and enjoyment of the human and natural history of Fundy National Park. Her book, Fundy National Park, published in 1977 by Brunswick Press, is still the definitive volume about the park. From 1967 to 1974 she hosted an outdoor education television program called Have You Seen? on CKCW TV in Moncton, and reached a generation of youth growing up in the province. As her biographer Deborah Carr made clear in Sanctuary, she came to Canada seeking sanctuary and through the process created it for others. She did all this and much more.

Mary Majka teaching children in Fundy National Park

Mary Majka passed away on February 12, 2014 at age 90, in fact, only a few weeks shy of her 91st birthday. Her personal conservation efforts have come to a conclusion. We scattered her ashes on the shores of the Bay of Fundy where the falling tide washed them into the mudflats where Corophium volutator, the amphipod that is the key prey item for migrating shorebirds, dwell. In August those crustaceans will be consumed by sandpipers and plovers en route to their wintering grounds in Surinam, and Mary will then take flight across the ocean along with the birds that she loved and worked to protect

So, now it’s time to ask, where do we go from here? How do we continue this work that Mary Majka devoted herself to for four score and more years?

Mary Majka and Great Horned OwlIn my view, what must be done is to continue her initiatives. To care for nature and every living thing within it, not just for our own spiritual and material well-being, but for their sake as well — and there has never been a time in history when it has been more important to do so — because there has never been a time in human history when the environmental challenges we face have been more critical.

When we began reading Silent Spring in 1962, no one knew about, or imagined a phenomenon called “climate change.” We were worried about pesticides. Paul Erlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb warned of a potential demographic crisis. Pollution was poisoning the planet. In 1970 a group of us formed a chapter of Pollution Probe in Moncton and marched to the Petitcodiac River bearing a casket on our shoulders and warning of the consequences of pouring untreated sewage into the Bay of Fundy. We worried about of non-biodegradable litter that was turning the roadsides of our province, and our country, and the world — into rubbish heaps of plastic, glass, and aluminum. These made us angry and sad, indignant and irate. 

Mary Majka releasing a Puffin in Dipper Harbour.

But what we never imagined was a planet with a fever. A world where sea-ice in the Arctic Ocean might disappear entirely. Where the Greenland ice cap might destabilize and melt itself away. Where the Antarctic ice sheets would calve, not only icebergs, but vast fragments of themselves. Where sea level would precipitously rise — not over the span of tens of thousands of years — but over a human generation or two. Where breeding cycles of birds would get out of synchrony with their food sources. Where polar bears would have no sea ice from which to catch seals — and seals no sea ice on which to whelp. Where coral reefs would disappear as a result of ocean acidification. Where permafrost would melt releasing large quantities of the powerful greenhouse gas, methane into the atmosphere. 

Mary Majka in Texel, the Netherlands.

Mary Majka worked tirelessly for decades to establish the Mary’s Point Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve (named, not after her, but after a Mi’kmaq woman, Mary, who once lived on the peninsula and was a friend and guide to the Acadian people who settled the marshlands at the mouth of the Shepody River in the 18th century). If sea levels were to rise by a meter, what would happen to all the marshes, the dunes, and the wetlands that are such a key component of this extraordinary place where she lived and which she loved?

Mary Majka watching shorebirds at Mary's Point.

We never imagined world where once-in-a-century droughts or floods, wildfires or hurricanes, ice storms or tornados, became once-in-a-decade, or even more frequent, phenomenon. We never imagined a giant Pacific garbage gyre with uncountable amounts of floating rubbish. Of micro-plastics that endlessly accumulate in water bodies, never breaking down and choking the zooplankton that mistakenly consume it as food. Of bees — whose pollination activity is the basis of virtually all the food, animal and vegetable, that we consume — dying off in massive numbers. Of Monarch butterflies disappearing from the migration routes that they have flown since long before human history.

Mary Majka teaching children about nature

As environmentalists in the 1960’s we never imagined any of these things — and yet in varying degrees they have all come to be.

To honour Mary Majka’s legacy and continue her work we need to face all of these challenges head-on and commit ourselves to “thinking globally and acting locally”. To, first and foremost, stop burning fossil fuels like there is no tomorrow, because if we don’t, there really will be no tomorrow for our civilization. To finding ways of living sustainably. Like Mary Majka, to realize that all living creatures share a common origin, and a common destiny. That we are all inextricably linked, from the DNA that illustrates our ancestral lineages and our common biological basis, to our reliance on one another within the biosphere that we have collectively created, and that is our common home.

Mary Majka hiking in the TatrasWe have to start at home. Understand what is happening around us. Do what we can in our lives to make a positive contribution. To talk to our friends and neighbours — educate and encourage them. To talk to our decision makers — push and prod them. Like Mary, to not be content with the status quo — to be prepared to stir up some guano. Because we face significant challenges, and we need to make changes, and changes don’t always come easily. There is and there will be resistance to cleaning up our act. But there are great rewards to be realized as well in making a planet that can harmoniously sustain us, and the next generation, and the next generation after that. Phasing out the use of fossil fuels won’t be easy or simple, but learning to live sustainably and developing renewable energy can be rewarding — both for the soul and for the pocketbook.

In her 90 years on this blue orb, Mary Majka realized that it is possible for someone to make a difference. To make a tangible contribution that makes the world a better place — that brings joy to the heart and gives sustenance to the next generation. These insights and actions inspired many people during her journey on this planet.

Mary Majka was my mother.

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He has a Russian Studies degree from Dalhousie University and the Pushkin Institute in Moscow. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.

Christopher Majka

Christopher Majka

Christopher Majka studied oceanography, biology, mathematics, philosophy, and Russian studies at Mount Alison and Dalhousie Universities and the Pushkin Institute in Moscow, and was a guest researcher...