Margaret Graham, who explored, nurtured and engaged, died at 70

11/29/2018

Margaret McClintock Graham, a former director of the Tomales Village Community Services District who helped run Mostly Natives nursery for over 30 years, died last June in a car accident in Colorado. She was 70 years old.

Margaret is remembered by many in West Marin as a warm, straightforward friend and dedicated member of her community. Her husband, Walter Earle, said she was the bravest woman he ever knew. 

That bravery manifested itself in myriad ways: trips that spanned the globe when she was a student in college, a move to an unfamiliar coast, a willingness to engage with a goodhearted stranger. When a tree came down in her neighbor’s driveway, she was the first to come over, chainsaw in hand. Once, in her youth, during a party at the mansion of Colorado Governor Richard Lamb, Margaret observed well-heeled guests making a mess of the floor’s white carpets and asked the governor if she could go barefoot in his home. He laughed and told her he would be honored. 

Margaret’s curiosity led her to be knowledgeable about a range of topics, and she loved the natural world in particular. “When you talked to Margaret, you had a good time,” her friend and neighbor Sara Duskin said. “You left feeling you’d had a good conversation, whether it was about her lavender plants or a political issue or where she’d been hiking.” 

Margaret was born on Sept. 6, 1947, in Denver, Colo. to Charles Andrew Graham and Jean Charters Graham. Mr. Graham was a Yale-educated lawyer and Mrs. Graham a professor of political science at the University of Denver who later worked for Gov. Lamb choosing judicial appointments for the state’s courts. 

Both of Margaret’s parents were involved in Democratic politics and held fundraisers for various candidates, including Tim Worth and David Skaggs. Margaret had two older siblings, Andy and Judy, both of whom have passed on. 

After attending the Colorado Rocky Mountain School, a boarding school near Aspen, Margaret went off to Barnard College in New York City. But she found the city far too noisy, left after a year, and matriculated to Friends World College, a Quaker school that allowed her to get an education all over the world. 

As part of her program in cultural anthropology, Margaret travelled to the Middle East, India, Nepal, Kenya and Japan. She hitchhiked in Afghanistan and learned how to navigate a Volkswagen bus through streets lined with sleeping drunks in Kenya. She graduated in 1972 and arrived in West Marin soon after. 

Margaret’s first home in Marin was in Point Reyes Station, in a house on the mesa owned by a friend of hers from Colorado. The natural beauty appealed to her; in addition to loving flora and fauna, Margaret was an avid hiker. 

While in Point Reyes Station, Margaret was briefly married to Richard Wiltermood and had a son, Rishi. When her friend sold the house on the mesa, Margaret purchased a 1957 Chevy school bus and parked it on a friend’s property in Marshall. She lived there for a number of years with Rishi in tow.  

“It was a school bus from Shasta County, so it was one of those shorter, squat ones designed for skinny little country roads,” Mr. Earle said. Margaret had just moved out of the bus and into an old chicken coop she had fixed up on a property across the street when the two met.

Margaret first encountered Mr. Earle in 1981, thanks to dead fish and a good sense of humor. At the time, both were employed by the Department of Fish and Game. Margaret was working for the wardens, ensuring that fish buyers were not swindling fishermen. Mr. Earle was in charge of sampling fish to determine the herring spawn count. 

One day, while he was picking out fish to sample, a co-worker yelled that he was turning on the offloading machine—implying that a boatload of fish was about to fall on Mr. Earle. He quickly jumped aside, only to realize that the other man had been joking. Relieved to find himself fish-free, Mr. Earle started laughing—a reaction that endeared him to Margaret. 

“I looked over and saw this woman, and she was smiling, and she came over and said, ‘I just figured you’d be mad when he did that, but you laughed!’” Mr. Earle remembered. 

Margaret was intrigued by the work the men were doing, and soon after she became Mr. Earle’s new partner, both in life and in the fish sampling business. They were married on Oct. 9, 1982, and had a son, Kris, in 1984. 

In 1983, Margaret and Mr. Earle decided they wanted to do something with a piece of property they had purchased in Tomales. 

While Mr. Earle had worked as a gardener and landscaper, Margaret initially protested, saying she didn’t know anything about plants. But she quickly learned, and when Mostly Natives opened off of Highway 1 in 1984, she was in the thick of it, growing the nursery’s supply of native shrubbery. 

Nancy Shine, who worked at Mostly Natives for 25 years, remembers Margaret teaching her the names of the native plants and the many ways to care for them. “She liked plants that were shrubs, and trees and grasses—she wasn’t so much into the flowering plants,” Ms. Shine said. She used to tease Margaret that she unduly enjoyed deadheading (the process of removing dead flowers from a plant) because it allowed her to attack the flowers. 

While some might find it difficult to work alongside one’s spouse day after day for three decades, Mr. Earle said he had always found it a pleasure. “She was super curious about everything,” he said. “She was good at customer service and answering people’s questions.” Eventually, however, the amount of time and energy expended on the business became too much for the couple, and they sold it last year. 

Margaret was “a big personality in Tomales,” Ms. Duskin said. At various points in time, she was involved in a host of community organizations in town, including the Marin/Sonoma Mosquito and Vector Control District, the Tomales Village Community Services District and the Tomales Emergency Response Network. She was also involved in the creation and maintenance of the downtown park. 

Both friends and family spoke to her ability to truly be present, both in the community and in her personal interactions. “When you went into the nursery she was so there,” Ms. Duskin said. “She always put down what she was doing and would ask you about yourself.” 

Her son Kris agreed, saying that his mother’s presence in his life had been a sweet and steadying constant. 

“She was never not there, never afraid to tell me flat out what I needed to hear,” he said. “She was just there, and that’s the part I’ll miss the most.”

 

Margaret is survived by her husband, Walter, sons Rishi and Kris, and granddaughter, Anika.