- "Foxes" has to be the first word in this farewell tribute to Maine's eminent environmental journalist, Phyllis Austin, whose primary passion was being in and speaking out for wilderness habitats and all the creatures that depend upon them for survival. Phyllis radiated a profound connection and commitment to all wildlife, but foxes were her totem, and they gathered around her home as if they knew that. She turned a forest glen on her land into a burial ground for foxes felled by sickness, hunger, harsh weather, or careless drivers. She created wooden fox icons and hung them from trees. She picked up fresh road kill and laid it in places they frequented. She could distinguish - and imitate - fox calls, from whining and yelping to barking and growling. She admired their cunning, their lithe beauty, the fidelity of mates and the antics of their kits. Seeing a healthy fox population fed her hope that the natural world would survive.
Born and raised in Four Oaks, North Carolina, Phyllis dreamed of becoming a Southern Baptist missionary in China. Her convictions changed while earning a BA in Religion and Sociology at Meredith College in Raleigh, but over time, she turned her childhood missionary zeal into a journalism career focused on conservation issues. That career began with a short stint covering city news for the News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina. Next, as member of the Associated Press capitol bureau in Columbia, South Carolina from 1966-1969, she initiated the bureau's environmental coverage, reporting on nuclear power in addition to civil rights marches and riots. Moving to Maine in 1969, she covered the State House for AP and in 1972 became AP's first environmental writer for New England.
Phyllis' signature work as an investigative environmental reporter took off in 1974 when she began working for the weekly alternative paper, Maine Times, which allowed for the sort of in depth reporting that earned her a reputation as a uniquely thorough journalist who explored issues with intensity, integrity, historical perspective, and balance. Providing a reasoned voice for thoughtful public policies and management practices, she aroused appreciation for and understanding of forestry, land use, public utilities, rural community development , and conservation. She flushed out sources, interviewed relentlessly, and spent countless days hiking the wilderness areas she wrote about. Deeply informed and fueled by passion, her work had a major impact on policy-making, influencing the passage of regulations and laws to strengthen environmental protection. It garnered Phyllis numerous honors within and beyond Maine, including two of her profession's most prestigious national awards - an Alicia Patterson Journalism Fellowship in Washington, DC, and a John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University.
When the Maine Times ceased publication in 2002, Phyllis freelanced for a range of publications, including AMC Outdoors, Backpacker, Wild Earth, Yankee, and Down East, among many others. She co-edited a collection of essays titled, On Wilderness: Voices from Maine (2003) and authored two substantive biographies: Wilderness Partners: Buzz Caverly and Baxter State Park (2008) and Queen Bee: Roxanne Quimby, Burt's Bees, and Her Quest for a New National Park (2015).
Phyllis' commitment to doing work that contributed to conservation of the natural world came from her conviction that she and everyone else - whether they know it or not - need it for spiritual sustenance as well as physical. In her words, "I hold the value that there is a need to be in places where we are not in control and where our hand is not felt." Her greatest passion was to move through such places on foot - especially in Maine, Alaska, Scotland and Nepal. Nothing gave her more joy than donning her hiking boots, putting feet to ground, and feeling nature's fingers pressing the small of her back, guiding her forward.
Phyllis also ice climbed and cross-country skied. In 1984, she experienced a horrific cross-country ski accident that led to many surgeries over many years. For three decades, she expended the colossal effort it took to deal with chronic pain and stay fit enough to pursue mountain trails. But in 2016, complications from the accident and surgeries brought her to an impasse. The day after her 75th birthday, she voluntarily stopped eating and drinking. A week later, she slipped away peacefully at her home on November 21, 2016, encircled by close friends.
Phyllis is survived by Anne Dellenbaugh, her partner of 25 years; other members of the Dellenbaugh family, Caro, Meg and Jareka; many North Carolina relatives; and her beloved dachshund, Lark. Her sister, Sandra Penny; and their parents, Mabel and Joe Austin, predeceased her.
Phyllis' last published article, "On Reaching the End of the Trail," appears in the current edition of AMC Outdoors. In it, she laments losing her capacity for mountain hiking, shares her mantra, "Do it while you can," and confesses that no life could be long enough to satiate her love of hiking. She took her last hike - a gentle one - just six days before her death, weaving her way between the young pines and spruces she recently planted in the woods at her Mere Point home in Brunswick, Maine. While she has come to the end of her trail on the earth she loved, she leaves lasting trails for others through her writing and her life's expression ...
A memorial service has been set for 11 a.m. Monday, January 23, at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Brunswick, 15 Pleasant St. Phyllis asked that, in lieu of flowers, contributions be made to Final Exit Network, which provides education regarding end of life choices, www.finalexitnetwork.org. Just days before she died, she also asked that we make contributions to help protect elephants, www.elephanttrust.org. Those who wish may write a note of condolence to the family at www.brackettfuneralhome.com.
Published on  November 29, 2016