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Marjorie McAvoy on Building a Life in Nature

This story was a collaboration between Marjorie McAvoy and NBEC's Stories for Change working group.

Photographs by Jen Hazard; Interview by Kalisto Zenda Nanen

Written by Bri Dostie; Edited by Audrey Cole & Sarah Madronal.

With additional support by Rosanna Gargiulo, Adrienne Singer, Nirmala Young, and Emily Weyrauch

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Marjorie in the woods behind her house

Making a committment

When Marjorie and her family purchased 57 acres in Bowdoin Maine, they made a commitment to spend time outside. 

 

"We said, 'we're going to buy this property so we can spend more time outdoors, do things outdoors, build things, create things, or chop things down, but whatever we do – we're going to actually do it.'"

 

Marjorie and her husband have raised seven children (now between 15 and 30 years old) in the woods around their home, using their surroundings as a place for adventure, relaxation, hard work, and learning.

 

“When my children were young, I homeschooled all seven of them, and we used the outdoors as part of our school. Part of our science curriculum involved gathering water at the pond to study, going into the woods to look for different insects, animal tracks, eggs and feathers. We’d explore microbiology, take nature walks, and play detective with tree identification. In any weather, there was always something that you can learn outside, whether it was science, history or math. I saw homeschooling as an opportunity to fully embrace the outdoors."

 

Integrating learning and curiosity with the outdoors into her childrens’ lives set the tone for continued outdoor experiences as they got older, and naturally became part of their family history and traditions.

 

“I made sure that they understood how much I enjoyed the outdoors, and they took to it as well. One of my favorite places to hike is in Bar Harbor, where Timothy proposed. It’s a special place for us, right on top of Cadillac Mountain. The children have really embraced what I love about Maine, and even though some of them have moved away, they come back. Every year we go back to where we've already been. They want to visit the lighthouse and sit by the ocean, they want to go hiking, and they want to go to Sebago Lake where they spent summers. Hopefully, the homeschooling and outdoor activities we did when they were young are embedded in their minds”

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Marjorie and her husband Tim in the woods behind their house

From Brooklyn to Bowdoin

Marjorie grew up in a three story apartment building that her family purchased after immigrating to the United States from Haiti. Her grandmother and uncle both lived on the third floor in two apartments, her aunts lived on the second, her cousins lived on the first, and more family lived in the basement apartment. Marjorie was the last of 4 children and the only one born in the US. 

 

In Marjorie’s young life, most of her time was spent indoors with family. “My childhood didn’t have a lot of time outside. My family members were immigrants, so the focus wasn’t to go out and relax or do walks or swims or anything like that. It was work, school, and playing within the building, because it just wasn’t safe to be out on the street.”

 

With family living nearby, she had the opportunity to spend time around uncles and aunts, particularly over the summer while her mother worked. Marjorie remembers spending one summer with her uncle Bobby and his 'American' wife. They lived in an apartment near a park, and her aunt began bringing Marjorie to visit the playground.

 

“It was a small playground and it had swings and trees around it. I just thought it was the nicest little area and I never wanted to leave.”

 

Those fond memories in parks and playgrounds within New York City made an impact on Marjorie and inspired her to seek more time in nature as an adult. “I didn't grow up with a family that spent time outdoors. They just didn't have time for that, and that was okay. But I knew that I wanted to be someone that was surrounded by the outdoors.”

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Marjorie and her husband Tim in the woods behind their house

Learning how to be outside

Marjorie speaks highly of her experiences outdoors in Maine. “Even in our own backyard picking blueberries, it was such a different world for me…I immediately knew that this is what I needed to be at peace.”

 

But there was also a learning curve in Marjorie’s transition into a more nature-based lifestyle. “When I first started trying to spend time outdoors, other than in the summer I didn't enjoy it, because I didn't know how to be outdoors. I didn't know how to dress properly. I didn't know how to protect myself from the elements, or the bugs or the ticks. I’d get a tick on me, and it was over.  I was like, ‘I'm not going  back out there.’”

 

Marjorie credits her husband with encouraging her and ultimately better preparing her to enjoy the outdoors.  “My husband would say, ‘We just got to do this… and we got to pull socks over your pants, you gotta put the bug spray on, and you got to wear a hat and gloves.’ He would tell me what to do and it worked, so I thought, ‘Oh, okay, this is better, I can do this.’”

 

Winter was especially hard for Marjorie to adjust to and is still a challenge today. Like most folks, she struggles with the short hours of daylight, cold, and snow. But now those challenges are less overwhelming and Marjorie still finds ways to revel in the small moments outdoors.

 

 “When I get up in the morning knowing that I have to feed the chickens and look for eggs, I don't really want to go out there because it's cold and dark. But as soon as I step out, I think, ‘This is good. Like, I should be out here.’ And it's just for a few minutes because I have to come back in and get dressed for work, but it feels like I'm doing something for me, and I'm enjoying something that is freely there for me to use.”

 

Sharing these lessons is an ongoing commitment for Marjorie. She now encourages others who may feel discouraged by conditions or accessibility to learn about how to accommodate themselves to be able to enjoy outdoor activities. 

 

“What I would say to someone that wants to enjoy the outdoors but hasn't, or maybe they're not enjoying it for whatever reason, it's probably something that can be fixed. All of the issues that I was having, I no longer have. I had no problem going out this past summer when it was just so rainy, and wet and gross. We still had our garden and the chickens to take care of, but it didn't bother me going out in the muddy grossness because I had the right gear…So what I would say to anyone that wants to enjoy the outdoors is that they have to know how to protect themselves from the elements.”

 

Marjorie hopes that sharing her outdoor experiences with her extended family will encourage more of them to enjoy the woods with her. 

 

“The barrier sometimes is that people don't know it, they've not done it. They're scared of it. But seeing other people that look like you, that are in your family, or friends of yours, that say that they love being outside, they love hiking…it can trigger something in your head, like, ‘I guess I could go hiking.’”

 

“Maybe, little by little, I can have my extended family just open up a little bit. They're all like ‘Nope, I stay inside with AC, where everything’s safe.’ The ‘we don't do the outside thing’ is how my extended family views it. I wish they could just see it and try it and not just think I'm just the weird cousin that lives in the woods of Maine.”

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Marjorie's chickens

Sustainability through action

Over the years, Marjorie has come to recognize the importance of balance in human relationships with the natural world.

 

“Humans should respect this planet that God gave us to live on and not treat it so horribly. I had seven kids, so I had to use a lot of resources. But as I got older and I realized what was going on with our planet it really bothered me the things that we do–and won’t even talk about it within our own communities, within our church, my family…they just can't see how important that stuff is. I don't think God intended us to come here and just make a mess of it, to over-breed animals, to have a gluttonous amount of food to eat, and to have plastic polluting our waters. I don't think it's supposed to be that way. ”

 

One thing that Marjorie noticed in her life was how much less waste she produced after switching to cloth diapers. She started using them due to her daughter’s sensitive skin, but the cost-effective and environmental aspects of the switch impacted her. “Once I switched,” Marjorie says, “I was like, wow, this is wonderful… I don't have to keep buying more and keep throwing them away.” 

 

Her excitement in this small discovery led Marjorie to open her own small business, Maison des BéBé. It functions to provide more cloth diaper options for environmentally conscious parents and offers advice on caring for children and the planet while on a budget. “I talk in my bio about how impactful it could be if we would just take these little, small steps, you know, by doing something that's good for your child, good for the environment, good all around.”

 

For Majorie, all this work–her business, homeschooling her children, learning how to be comfortable and safe outside–is more than worth the effort. 

 

“I think that nature is a place that God has given us to regain our thoughts, to slow down, and to enjoy what He's put here for us. The strange flowers that I haven't seen before, they're just growing in the woods, or the way that we have that waterfall and we didn't put it there, but it's beautiful–natural water just falling and freezing and falling and just looking gorgeous in every season. You can't get that same feeling being inside of a house, watching it on the television.”

 

Marjorie credits her experiences outdoors as some of the most beautiful moments of her life, and she likes the ability to find her own way of interacting with the natural world.. 

 

“My husband is more like ‘Don't touch anything, don't ruin it, leave it just like that.’ I want to change it just a little bit. I want to be able to sit on the ground and not worry about, you know, everything crawling up my legs.” 

 

Now, with most of the kids out of the house, Marjorie curates her outside time for herself. 

 

“When the kids were young, it was more about teaching them the things that I didn't have growing up. I spent a lot of time at the lake and at the pond and in the woods, looking at birds and the feathers we’d find and the rocks and just all stuff that I'm not really interested in, but it was educational. But now, I don't have to focus on that anymore. When I'm out in nature now, it's about me and whatever beauty I find. It's just about ‘I love how these rocks look, I love this trail, and I love the smell of these pine trees.’ I go looking for what I like now.”

 

She finds that being outdoors is always better with another person.

 

“Even when it's snowing and we go out and the snow is muffling the sound and it's so quiet and pretty. I love that. We could just talk–as loud as we want or soft as we want–it doesn't matter.”


 

Postscript: Interviewer Kalisto and story drafter Bri would like to thank NBEC’s Stories for Change working group for the opportunity to work on this piece with Marjorie, particularly since both have homeschooling experience with an emphasis on outdoor learning.  

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This story was created and published in January-March 2024

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