The Universal Notebook: Phyllis and the 'Queen Bee'

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Phyllis Austin and Roxanne Quimby are two of my favorite Maine people.

I have known Austin, Maine’s leading environmental writer, for close to 35 years, having worked with her on the staff of Maine Times in the 1980s and 1990s. I have met Roxanne, co-founder of Burt’s Bees, just once, but, in the interest of full disclosure, her family foundation did fund a book project I worked on.

With the publication of “Queen Bee: Roxanne Quimby, Burt’s Bees, and Her Quest for a New National Park,” (Tilbury House, Publishers, Thomaston), Austin has become Quimby’s de facto biographer, explaining in great detail how Quimby became a wealthy businesswoman, philanthropist and champion of a proposed North Woods National Park.

Austin has dedicated her professional life to the Maine Woods, reporting on the dramatic changes in the industrial forest and wild lands for the Associated Press, Maine Times and Maine Environmental News and in her previous book, “Wilderness Partners: Buzz Caverly and Baxter State Park” (Tilbury House, Publishers, 2008).

Austin is an exhaustive reporter who likes nothing better than to wade into the depths and details of a story, mining documents and talking to people until she has a complete picture. I would often have to stretch to get to 2,000 words, but Maine Times editor Peter Cox would routinely have to chop his way through 10,000 words of Austin’s prose to get down anywhere near 2,000.

Austin first met Quimby in 1994, when she did a story on Maine’s business climate that discussed how Burt’s Bees had moved to North Carolina largely because Maine could not provide economic incentives for the grassroots business. In 2009, with a great deal of land changing hands along the East Branch of the Penobscot, Austin began talking to Quimby about her land acquisitions. “Queen Bee” grew out of those conversations.

“This was Maine woods history in the making,” Austin said of Quimby’s quest to create a national park. “If I didn’t write it, it wasn’t going to get written.”

Initially, Quimby worked closely with Austin on the saga of Burt’s Bees and the dream of a North Woods National Park, but even after she stopped answering Austin’s unending questions, she provided access to people who could help tell the story.

The one person she could not get access to was Burt Shavitz, the bearded beekeeper who is the face of Burt’s Bees. Shavitz was forced out of the business because Quimby was afraid his womanizing, to which he confessed in the 2013 documentary film “Burt’s Buzz,” would lead to legal problems. Just to get to meet the iconic Burt and see how he lived, Austin arranged to accompany friends when they visited the suspicious Shavitz.

Quimby read the book before it was published and asked a lot of questions, but “Queen Bee” is in no way an as-told-to or campaign biography. Austin admires Quimby, but she presents the hippie entrepreneurs-turned-philanthropist in all her idiosyncratic glory. People who don’t like Quimby will find plenty of reasons to justify their prejudice and people, like myself, who like her and what she is trying to do, will have theirs affirmed, too.

Last month, Medway (252-102) and East Millinocket (320-191) voted against the creation of a national park between Baxter State Park and the East Branch in nonbinding referendums. Resistance remains strong in the paper-mill towns, but support seems to be growing elsewhere. The fact of the matter, however, is that Mainers probably will not get to vote on the creation of a national park. That’s not the way national parks come into being.

Next summer, the National Park Service will celebrate its centennial. There is a good chance the NPS will be announcing several gifts of Quimby land in Maine and out west. That would make 2016 a logical time for the federal government to launch a North Woods National Park, perhaps by President Obama designating Quimby’s woodlands a national monument.

“I think next year it should all come to a conclusion,” Austin said of the national park proposal. “There are two people who can make that happen: President Obama and Roxanne.”

Austin and I have reconnected since I moved to Brunswick last September. I have been down to see her on Mere Point several times as she has been recovering from knee surgery. Her focus these days is mending, so that she can go hiking in Scotland come September. When she tells me she’s done writing, I’m not sure I believe it, but she insists “Queen Bee” is it for her.

“I want to spend my energy and time outdoors and not at a desk anymore,” Austin said, stroking Lark, the latest in a long line of dachshunds. “I’m tired of deadlines, but the mountains never get old.”

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.