17 February 2011

Private and Public Sanctuaries of the Heart : A book review and giveaway of Sanctuary

Sanctuary: The Story of Naturalist Mary Majka by Deborah Carr. Goose Lane, 19.95 pb.

Author Deborah Carr had known Mary Majka for 15 years when she embarked on a series of interviews with the naturalist in 2003, having been endlessly fascinated and entertained by the older woman’s energy, dedication to nature, and tales of her past. “I felt compelled to write her biography,” she says, and although daunted by the task, the first-time author but seasoned freelancer worried that if someone didn’t begin catching Mary’s life story, it would disappear like the migrating shorebirds around their homes in Albert County, New Brunswick.

From afternoon chats and much research comes the tenderly written and hugely inspiring Sanctuary: The Story of Naturalist Mary Majka, a biographical jaunt that takes readers on a journey spanning decades, continents, wars and resettlement.

Majka, daughter of Polish nobility and long-ago immigrant to Canada, has in her 87 years lived a life that reads like a fairy tale, complete with handsome princes and monsters. In her case, the handsome prince was her husband Mike, to whom she was married for over 50 years; the monster was the specter of World War II, which saw her separated from her surviving family members and imprisoned in a work camp while still a teenager.

After immigrating to Canada and spending ten years in Ontario, Mary, Mike and their two young sons moved to New Brunswick in 1961, taking up residence in a cottage on Caledonia Mountain, not far from Hopewell Cape and the mighty Bay of Fundy. Surrounded by and inspired by the landscape and wildlife of the mountain, Mary became passionately dedicated to educating others about the value of nature and of local history. Over the years she has been a champion of preserving local habitat for shorebirds and other types of wildlife, helping to establish naturalist societies and nature interpretation centres.

So full and diverse has Majka’s live been that it isn’t an exaggeration to say she has lived several lives, including that of wife and mother. But it is her work as a naturalist, teacher, and adamant voice for preserving of natural habitat such as Mary’s Point Shorebird Reserve (named for an aboriginal woman of the same name, not for Majka) for which she is most widely known and given accolades. A member of the Order of Canada and the Order of New Brunswick, among others, Majka found her strengths and her passion for preserving natural and historical sites in middle age, when many would have been content to rest upon their laurels and slow their pace.

In this respect, Carr feels especially connected to Majka, as she embarked upon her career as a writer in her middle years. She acknowledges that Sanctuary wasn’t the easiest book to write; she had only been working fulltime as a freelancer for several years when the compulsion to write Mary’s story became too strong to ignore.

“Having only written for newspapers and magazines, I had no idea how to tackle such a large project as a biography,” she admits. The interview process was draining for both women, as it “demanded much from us, emotionally, so we had to tackle it in small chunks of time.” It was also difficult to corroborate so much of Mary’s early life where she had been separated from her family—plus there was the challenge of telling the rich story of a life fully lived. At times there may be a surfeit of details of people from Mary’s past and present, but the story doesn’t falters its pace or energy.

Over the course of several years, the pair continued the process, sometimes setting the work aside for months at a time while Carr addressed the demands of earning a living. During a carefully planned sabbatical from other work in 2008 she completed the book’s draft although at times she says she felt so immersed in Mary’s story that it felt like she was losing herself. The two have danced a complicated dance as interviewer and subject, student and mentor, and it’s been a highlight of the book tour that Mary has been able to attend some of the readings and signing events along with her biographer.

If there’s a single word to describe Majka, it would be indomitable. Despite privations, language barriers, bureaucracy and other hurdles that would have defeated lesser mortals, Majka with her husband forged a new life in Canada, and went on to work tirelessly to create sanctuary for wildlife, for habitats, and more. Although passionate about nature, she has also been a tireless advocate for the preservation and restoration of structures of historic worth, from a 19th century bank building to some of New Brunswick’s aging and unique covered bridges. In that way, as she created sanctuary for nature and human made articacts, she also found something of a sanctuary for her own life.

During the interview process, Deborah told Mary that she believed her life’s story would be a moving inspiration to others. Mary dismissed that idea, feeling that her story wouldn’t change anyone’s attitudes, but Carr strongly disagreed, then and now. “I’ve already seen evidence that Mary’s story is changing how people see themselves and their role in the world,” she says. “I hope that it encourages people to give space in their life for passionate response to something. The universal lesson of (Mary’s) life isn’t necessary about nature or the environment, but it’s a call to live passionately and authentically, no matter where the passion lies.”

I loved this book, and not just because I have known Deborah for a number of years and consider her a friend as well as a colleague. We call each other 'neighbours across the bay', since we share that mighty Bay of Fundy, and have a passion for the natural world around us as well as for the written word. I loved it because I was enthralled at the passion and determination of a single person who absolutely was determined--and is still determined--to make a difference in this world. Would that we were all a little more like the altruistic and dedicated Mary Majka--and as determined to illuminate the stories of such people as Deborah Carr is.

Almost forgot!! I plan to give away a copy to a commenter on this post, who answers this question: what naturalist inspires you to be a better steward of your garden, your community, your world? I'll make a draw next week, and will also announce the winner of the previous draw at that time! 


  1. I haven't read this book yet but you've convinced me. Have heard good reports in other book reports so I am oing to look for it in my local bookstore -I'm in Moncton New Brunswick- this weekend.

  2. It wasn't a naturalist that inspired me to be a better steward. While living in Ottawa, I had the absolute good fortune to be introduced to a community activist named Bonnie Mabee. Bonnie was the very definition of a spitfire. A retired teacher, we worked together to develop a funding proposal for an urban garden, and over coffee, I listened with the utmost attention to her tales of guerrilla gardening, wildlife conservation and community development.

    As a result, I took over the reigns at my local community garden and have volunteered to improve parks and other public spaces in my neighborhood in Ottawa.

    As a new resident to Halifax, I look forward to applying the wisdom that Bonnie shared with me.

    @AubrieMcG on Twitter

  3. Welcome, Cara, to Bloomingwriter! I forgot to add the bit about the book giveaway until after you had commented, so I'll add you to those in the draw even though you didn't know about the question.

    Aubrie, thanks for such an inspiring comment, and welcome to Nova Scotia!

  4. All children are born naturalists. Here is a poem I wrote inspired by the wondrous works of Mary Majka and David Christie:

    The Bay shows many faces, her wonders to behold,
    Sculpted from the ancient rock, and eternity’s undertow.
    The key of G wrapped in foggy cloak
    The peace of Cap Enrage..
    Where earth & sky become as one
    Joined by rock and wood and sea,
    Tis there my soul abides.
    Tis there that I must be.

    Now as a magic lamp of God
    Dost sparkle on the sea
    Where briny birds cry and the eagle rides
    The sky’s own mystery
    A symphony of greens call out
    In multi colored hue
    The driest eye within the heart
    Where rivers run anew…

    The energies of the countless souls
    Haunted echoes of the past
    The freedom road and heavy load
    Life seeks it’s needed path.
    Yet children find moonlight and moss
    On ancient climbing trees.
    Where the midnight wind and the bars’
    Moan tends, the heart’s flow as the tide
    Cross Fundy’s ancient longing
    Tis there I must abide.

    Can a heart pretend, or a mind comprehend
    That you behold, but cannot be
    At heaven’s gate the colors blend
    In life’s sweet symphony
    A single bird sings it’s heart’s refrain
    As sunlight fades to sea
    My soul at rest from eternal quest
    And I am what I must be.

  5. Wow, Rick, what a fantastic poem! Thank you so much for sharing your passion for this rugged coast of ours.

  6. I think it might have been John James Audobon who inspired me. My grandmother gave me a sticker book of Audobon birds when I was young. I was enthralled. Although he was not a naturalist, per se, his beautiful drawings made me want to learn about wildlife conservation, and that led to an interest in landscape conservation. I've poked around in the topic for decades, doing a little bit here and a little bit there, and hoping the small contributions have helped lead to a larger difference.
    Andrena Teed
    Smith's Cove, NS

  7. Adrian Montfort-Guy18 February, 2011 09:24

    I think I am most inspired by a Victorian lady. Octavia Hill.

    She campaigned primarily for (and ended up providing) decent housing for the poor, but was equally passionate about "the life-enhancing virtues of pure earth, clean air and blue sky."

    She campaigned against building on existing suburban woodlands and saved Hampstead Heath for the enjoyment of the people. She believed so much that the natural open spaces were vital for the soul of a community and for the health of the people. Thanks to her the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty (National Trust now) was created which has protected so natural and wild places from the greed of developers.

    Not bad for one Victorian woman of very modest means. Certainly one of my heroes.

  8. Hi Jodi,
    Thanks for dedicating this blog to a wonderful theme...a book written about an Amazing women who devoted much of her Life to saving, preserving our most valuable treasure - the enviroment ! Although I do not know her or of this book...sounds like something I definitely would be interested in reading ! There is so much beauty in Nature, of this world, along with her beloved creatures that most do not recognize or appreciate...so much taken for granted & makes me so very sad. My Heart is firmly planted into the Heart of Mother-Earth, in which much of who I am has been influenced by my Father...who didn't have any credentials, no name in Lights or fame, but had the biggest Heart for the LOve of Mother-Earth ! I remember as a child...things like nature walks, tending his gardens, feeding the birds, making bird houses, recycling anything & everything, watching him cry at a Nature show on TV...or just sitting on the back deck enjoying the sun & listening to All the birds singing ! He knew must about plants, native & ornamental...& All the names of the birds & indentification of site & song...A truely great man...a true enviromentalist...& I miss him...he passed away 5 years ago.

  9. This sounds like such an interesting read!!!
    I've always been inspired by David Suzuki. His tirelless quest to educate and help people understand the consequences of their actions is admirable. Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring is another hero.
    Cheers, Shelagh

  10. This sounds like a fantastic read Jodi.

  11. Hey, Jodi. It looks like a terrific book.

    Freeman Patterson has been an inspiration since I first read Photography for the Joy of It in the 1970s. The grace in his writing and in his photographs affected me profoundly then. They still do. He's one of those people I'm grateful to share a planet with.

  12. Thanks for this, Jodi!It is such a pleasure to read about everyone's own inspiration.
    Rick - fabulous poem.
    Rachel - Freeman Patterson is one of Mary's dearest friends
    AliceInParis - Silent Spring was the book that motivated Mary to action back in the 60s.

    PS: you don't have to add me to the giveaway list...I have a boxful of my own !!

  13. Hi Jodi

    Thanks so much for the post on Mary Majka. growing up in Moncton - she was the first person I was exposed to who was so passionate about nature. As a child we would snow mobile on Caledonia Mountain, not far from her house. She had a huge Samoyed that would come out to "visit" as we were unloading the machines. I pleaded for days with my parents to get a dog just like hers every time I saw it.
    It may well have been her early influence that has fueled my interest in the natural world and gardening. This will have to be an addition to my library.

  14. Would love to win your book but am not aware of the question.

  15. What a fabulous collection of stories we have here! Thanks to everyone for taking the time to read and take part in this discussion (including the wonderful author).

  16. Anna: Read the text in red at the end of the post.

  17. I gave three copies of this book as Christmas gifts in 2010 but still haven't bought one of my own. Knowing Deborah's writing as I do, I have no doubt it will be an enthralling read. I wasn't familiar with Mary myself, but my daughter who has an Environmental Studies Science degree, was.

    I think Henry David Thoreau's writings have always been an inspiration to me, especially after reading "Walden".

  18. This book sounds like an inspiring one - I am always inspired by local people - especially women - working away despite what you KNOW would be disapproving looks and gossip from small-town folks who would not approve of their "eccentric" ways (I'm guessing.)

    My inspirations were all around me from birth - my grandmother, my parents, other relatives no longer living - all showed me that stewardship of land and resources, and taking responsibility for your community and your world, was kind of your first "job". I don't remember ever "learning" it - it was just a reality of life, and one I took to very readily!

    As for outside influences - first was Jane Goodall (whom I wanted to be - or at least work with) - known for chimpanzee study, but branching out to saving our natural world. I continue to think she is wonderful. And David Suzuki was a hero of mine from way back.As a young Biology student,I kept leaving my Dalhousie bio.lab class to go upstairs to hear him speak (then back down for the next step in the lab) and upstairs again...I still think he has one of the best takes on the environment, and whether we will actually succeed in turning our destructive actions around in order to save the planet. Big influences to try to live up to, for sure!


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