In Memoriam

It is with sadness, but also with many fond memories, that we mark the passing of environmental heroine Phyllis Faber on Jan 15 at age 95. The California Native Plant Society and Marin County have lost a visionary leader.

Phyllis grew up in an 11th floor apartment in New York City and came to love wildflowers while at summer camps in Maine. She graduated from Yale with an MA in microbiology, and initially worked in that field, coming to botany later. Phyllis married Ed Faber and settled in Marin County in 1971, where they raised a daughter and two sons.

Phyllis Faber pPhyllis FaberUpon moving to Marin, Phyllis set about learning as much as she could about the Marin flora. She often expressed gratitude to late College of Marin professor Al Molina for guiding her. Further botanical education was received from Herbert Baker and Robert Ornduff, professors and directors of the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden. She turned her interest in botany into a passion for protecting wetlands. Phyllis became an environmental consultant and ultimately a principal with Madrone Associates, specializing in marshland vegetation. As a wetlands biologist, she monitored restoration projects in San Francisco Bay for more than 20 years. She published two books on wetland plants and taught biology classes at both College of Marin and Antioch University.

A key source of knowledge and inspiration to her were Wilma Follette’s guided wildflower and taxonomy walks through Marin County’s unique biodiversity. Phyllis participated in many of them, and the two women became lifelong friends. In September 1974, a group of dedicated native plant lovers that included both Wilma and Phyllis founded the Marin Chapter of the California Native Plant Society, then a fairly new state organization. Their energy and vision molded our organization advocating on behalf of native flora in Marin County. Phyllis served on the Chapter Board as Legislation Chair and on the Scholarship Committee.  Phyllis on Wilma’s 90th Birthday Hike As a long-time Chapter Council representative, she recalled that a great advantage of going to Chapter Council meetings were the full-day field trips with other CNPS members all over the state. These helped her become familiar with the native flora of much of California.

In addition to her work for Marin Chapter, Phyllis was a leading contributor to the state CNPS organization. In the 1980s and 90s, she was editor of the CNPS journal Fremontia, maintaining the format established by her predecessor Margedant Hayakawa. Starting in 1989, she also served for many years as VP of Publications for CNPS, expanding that role of the organization with its first book, California’s Changing Landscapes, following with a series of local floras, and finally producing the celebrated California’s Wild Gardens. She served on the state CNPS Development and Membership Committee. Phyllis was named a Fellow of CNPS in 1996, an honor granted to the organization’s outstanding contributors and leaders.

Phyllis was also active in environmental advocacy beyond CNPS. UC Press hired her as an editor to completely revise and update their line of natural history guides. Her interests in broader environmental issues and planning led to a campaign in 1972 to create the Coastal Zone Conservation Act, Proposition 20, which established regional planning for coastal benefits. “Proposition 20 changed California,” she noted, “and it was a citizen initiative; I’m really proud of the citizens of this state for having passed it.” After passage, California State Senator Peter Behr appointed her to the regional Coastal Commission, where she served from 1973 to 1979.  Her public service also included many years as Chairman of the Advisory Committee to the Signature Natural Areas Program of the CA Department of Fish and Game.

She learned early on that, “to prevail, science has to fit together with policy in a political world.” She co-founded and led classes for the Environmental Forum of Marin, training a cadre of volunteers to be effective and influential workers and speakers in the field of environmental planning.  She was quick to recognize opportunities for collaboration, often of creative and novel kinds, and believed that this was essential to effective conservation. With West Marin dairy woman Ellen Straus, she founded the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT), the first land trust in the nation focused on protecting farmland. Phyllis provided training at Audubon Canyon Ranch and served with the League for Coastal Protection and the Planning and Conservation League (PCL). Her efforts even extended overseas, where she helped to produce educational materials about the native plants of Madagascar.

Phyllis will be remembered for her tireless work for the environmental movement in Marin as well as her well-informed and passionate advocacy for the natural world. She did not mince words expressing her opposition to environmental destruction or to people who promoted it or were complicit with it. On the other hand, Phyllis was always approachable and friendly. She warmly encouraged efforts to expand ecological understanding and sustainability, especially for younger people.

Phyllis had a wry sense of humor. When talk turned to the challenges of downsizing in later life, she nonchalantly said, “It was easy for me. My house burned down.” She relocated to a condo overlooking her beloved marshes. Recently feeling the limitations and infirmities of advanced age, she smiled and said, “I’m happy.  I live in a beautiful place, I have had a wonderful life, and I am surrounded by marvelous people.”

Phyllis Faber’s many accomplishments changed the face of Marin County, leaving a legacy that benefits us all. We will miss her broad smile and perennially positive outlook!

Marin CNPS filmed an oral history with Phyllis in 2011, which is available for viewing on our YouTube channel CNPS Marin: