Shared Mortality no. 1

Just over the border of Wellfleet and South Truro, Bound Brook Island isn’t really an island. During exceptional high tides historically Bound Brook would swell and cut an island from the mainland. To the contemporary traveler Old County Road shows no exceptional signs of bridging, and getting to Bound Brook Island feels very much like many other Cape Cod drives along the edge of a tidal marsh.

For at least 8,000 years before European incursion, the island was part of the unceded Wampanoag homelands. European use of the land dates back to at least 1640 first mostly for agriculture and later as adjunct settlement to the bustling Duck Harbor. By the late 19th century, the silting and shoaling of Duck Harbor as well as the advent of the railroad shifted the maritime activity of Wellfleet southward to Duck Creek, and the island population (probably never more than about twenty families) began to dwindle.

The Lombard Cemetery is a curious artifact because it’s the only marked graveyard on the island. Robert Finch has written about two likely scenarios as to why the cemetery exists. The first is its folklore as a smallpox cemetery. Solitary graves in the woods often gather this reputation, but Finch rightly notes that the death dates of the three family members interred span fourteen years — which make their deaths by the same plague unlikely. He prefers the reasoning of Jack Hall (a longtime resident of the island), which suggests that the Lombards lived in the three-quarter Cape across Bound Brook Marsh. Hall believes that Mary Lombard died of smallpox and Thomas buried her across the marsh, but visible to the house.   Thomas later buried their son there (who died of Tuberculosis — perhaps also explaining the isolation of his grave), and ultimately he joined them.

Finch’s account feels right to me, but isn’t exactly satisfying. Mary Whorf McGuiggan, writing in the Provincetown Independent, thankfully fills in the details. 

I prefer not to sentimentalize the past, especially the lives of people who lived hardscrabble lives like rural Cape Codders. Artifacts like these graves remind me of the complexity and unknowability of their lives — and the stories that can be deciphered from the scant information engraved on the stones underscores the differences between our times on this land. Differences aside, though, encountering the Lombards deep in the woods prompts connects me via a deep sense of shared mortality. It’s useful to be reminded, especially as the season cuts more light from every day, that every moment matters.

The Lombard’s house across the marsh, visible barely through the trees from the gravesite, and more clearly from a location roughly a quarter mile to the east.

Field Guide: Walking & Painting on Cape Cod 
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