As a pioneering nature conservationist and unlikely local TV star, Mary Majka worked determinedly for decades to preserve shorebird sanctuaries and to protect historic sites in New Brunswick.
A driving force behind Canada’s first Western Hemisphere shorebird reserve, on the Bay of Fundy, she donated land and spurred others to do the same in her quest to help millions of migrating birds.
“I was so overwhelmed, I practically cried,” she said in 2012, recalling the first time she saw a flock of shorebirds on the bay’s expansive mud flats. “I had never seen so many birds.”
Every summer, throngs of birds fly through the Bay of Fundy from the Arctic before continuing their 4,300-kilometre journey to South America. The beaches at Johnson’s Mills, located 35 kilometres south of Moncton, are flooded with as many as a quarter of a million of them. About three-quarters of the world’s population of semipalmated sandpipers stop there for roughly three weeks to rest and feed on the enormous reserves of tiny shrimp before moving on.
After witnessing kids and dogs chasing and throwing rocks at the birds, Ms. Majka felt no choice but to become their guardian and protect their habitat. Being a conservationist, she once said, “is more than a profession. It is a lifetime occupation. I feel almost like a nun.”
Ms. Majka had a deep connection to nature. When the tide was low she would sometimes lie on her back on the great mud flats, waiting. Tens of thousands of migratory sandpipers and plovers would flood the flats, some so close she could touch them. Other times she and her two sons would swim quietly in the bay, while birds swooped above their heads.
“There are many things in nature that remain unspoken and cannot be written about or explained. You have to live in nature to experience it. It is like being a guest in someone’s home. You can visit and become familiar with the layout and habits of the occupants, but until you live there, you cannot hear its heartbeat,” she told Deborah Carr, author of Sanctuary: The Story of Naturalist Mary Majka.
Since her lobbying for the protection of the shorebirds’ habitat began in the mid-1970s, the Nature Conservancy of Canada has acquired close 475 acres in the Johnson’s Mills area. The group also runs the Shorebird Reserve and Interpretive Centre.
“Mary was very clear in her mind about what was right and what was wrong,” said Linda Stephenson, the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s Atlantic regional vice-president. “She simply didn’t take no for an answer.”
Born in Czestochowa, Poland, in 1923, she had a privileged childhood. Her mother was a Czech countess, also named Maria (née Chorynska), and her father, Henryk Adler, was a school principal. Her world crumbled, however, with the death of her father and the Second World War. The family was plunged into poverty and a teenaged Maria was sent to Austria during the war to work as a hospital and kitchen worker at a forced labour camp and later as a farmhand.
After the war, she studied medicine at the University of Innsbruck. There, she met her husband, Mieczyslaw (Mike) Majka. After they graduated from medical school and were designated as displaced persons, they chose to emigrate to Canada in 1951.
Arriving in Halifax on an American troopship with little money and speaking barely any English, they were put on a train for Hamilton, where Dr. Majka had an uncle.
Ms. Majka became a stay-at-home mom raising their two sons and chose not to practise medicine. It was a choice she didn’t regret. “My life as it has unfolded,” she told Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic, author of People in Transition: Reflections on Becoming Canadian, “has probably been much more interesting and diversified.”
When her husband finished his medical residency in 1961 they looked to other parts of Canada to settle, having never felt at home in Ontario. Drawn to New Brunswick for its natural beauty, they bought a cottage on Caledonia Mountain. It was not far from Moncton, where Dr. Majka worked as a pathologist. It was a rustic place with a wood stove, an outhouse and outdoor shower; they were the mountain’s only human residents. Ms. Majka fell in love with it and spent hours hiking and exploring the mountain.
“When it was quiet, you had the feeling you were alone, you were the crown of the mountain. They called me Mountain Mary or Queen of the Mountain,” she told Ms. Carr.
The family later moved to Mary’s Point, a 12-square-kilometre wetland at the head of the Bay of Fundy. Many people believed the point was named after her and that pleased her, but it was named for a different Mary, an Acadian Mi’kmaq, according to Ms. Carr.
Ms. Majka was soon giving presentations at her son’s school about the migration of birds. Known for her animated style and her ability to translate nature into everyday language, she created her own TV show in Moncton called Have You Seen?, which aired from 1967 to 1974. On the show, she might bring in a turtle or another wild creature and talk about it and its habitat but she didn’t want to just focus on nature. She wanted to talk about protecting habitats.
“Terms like ‘environment’ and ‘ecology’ were unknown,” she told Ms. Carr. “In a way I was pioneering, and because I wasn’t working elsewhere, I was free to concentrate on this work. … I was becoming quite outspoken. At times, people thought I was mad.”
She became involved in naturalist groups and led interpretive programs for children. On one occasion, she took a group to visit a working beehive and encouraged each child to approach the hive quietly and unobtrusively.
“My message was, if you approach nature in that way, not disturbing and not harming, then it won’t harm you,” she said.
She trained with the National Audubon Society’s naturalist program in Connecticut and developed a nature program for children at Fundy National Park. She also taught outdoor education at schools around Moncton.
“She had a single-minded determination,” Ms. Carr said in an interview. “She had this great faith in her own abilities. She’d never consider defeat or failure.”
A rugged woman, with a strong Polish accent, a quick wit, a wonderful ability to tell stories and a personality that could also be domineering and difficult, she was initially considered odd by local residents. It wasn’t every day that they saw someone who ran barefoot through the meadows, kept a bearskin rug in her living room, picked wild mushrooms and showered outdoors.
In 1972, she teamed up with David Christie, then a student at the University of New Brunswick, to found the New Brunswick Federation of Naturalists. Within a couple of years, they were lobbying for the protection of Mary’s Point, recognizing that it lay on a major route for many species of migratory birds.
Mr. Christie went to live with the Majkas and became like an adopted son. Over the years, she and Mr. Christie looked after as many as 200 injured creatures, from beavers and owls to flying squirrels and songbirds. Ms. Majka said they were able to release 60 to 70 per cent of them back to the wild.
Linda Stephenson, the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s Atlantic regional vice-president, remembers once visiting Ms. Majka’s home and being eagerly shown all the animals she was rehabilitating. On a tour of the makeshift cages around her property, they stopped at an injured great horned owl. When Ms. Majka went near the cage and spoke, the bird became noticeably calm.
“She was such a powerful force of nature,” Ms. Stephenson said.
Ms. Majka’s conservation work extended to the preservation and restoration of the province’s historic buildings and sites. She once hauled out her sleeping bag and slept by the Sawmill Creek Covered Bridge, near Moncton, fearing that the local heritage landmark was in danger of being vandalized.
When she saw children in need of care, she opened her home to them. Over the years, dozens stayed with the family temporarily. In the mid-1990s she became the guardian of Aga, a Polish girl whose parents couldn’t care for her.
For her work, Ms. Majka received the Order of Canada in 2006. Motivated by a strong desire to give back to the country that had accepted her when she had no home, she strongly believed that “one leaves the world a better place than one found it,” her son Chris Majka said.
Ms. Majka died on Feb. 12 in Moncton after suffering a stroke. She was 90. She leaves her sons, Chris and Marc; adopted daughter, Aga Ranney; and granddaughter, Olivia; as well as members of her extended family, David Christie and Wendy Stevens Cross. Her husband, Mike, died in 2007.