Sometimes the history of a place speaks to us in indirect, or hidden ways. Yesterday afternoon I took a walk up Lombard Hollow, one of half a dozen or so glacial valleys that run roughly parallel from east to west along the Wellfleet-Truro line. I don’t remember walking up this hollow before in December. It is a different place now, so open and bare, like a room with the walls removed. Its contours seem alive, active. As you walk up the nearly flat, fairly straight road, the ridges on either side loom high and level. Their green shoulders and gentle dark ravines move toward and then away from you. Bleached swamps gape and then close, like sliding stage sets.
At first glance there is not much human history to be seen here. Unlike the other hollows in this area, Lombard Hollow contains no houses, nor did it ever, as far as I can ascertain. None of the local histories mention any previous residents, or for that matter, any event of note that occurred here. Nonetheless, despite the lack of discernible cellar holes, human artifacts, or recorded history, Lombard Hollow was indisputably used. The old wood road that runs its entire length is proof enough of that, having served, if nothing else, as access to wood lots. And it is, after all, named after an old Cape family – the Lombards - so someone claimed possession.
If you look carefully, the woods themselves hint at human history here. The valley floor is covered with large pitch pines, many over a foot in diameter. Beneath the pines are shorter, smaller oaks. Since pitch pines seed into an abandoned field first, followed later by oaks, this suggests that the valley floor was an actively worked field or pasture within the last century. Moreover, there are a few large old oaks spreading their long limbs through the strait pillars of the younger trees. These were likely trees deliberately left to provide shade for cattle.
If one takes a side road up out of the valley and onto one of the flanking ridges, one finds additional evidence of human use. The ridges are dominated by oaks, suggesting that the ridges were used for cutting firewood. Cape Cod oaks are what are called “sprout hardwoods”, and will continue to re-sprout after repeated cuttings.
There is also evidence of more recent human use of these ridges by its current owner – which is the Cape Cod National Seashore. Over the past couple of decades I have come upon small marked-off test plots on Lombard Hollow’s southern ridge. Here the Seashore conducted controlled burns to determine the effect of regularly burning underbrush as a means to prevent larger, uncontrolled forest fires. No controlled burns seem to have taken place here for several years, however. On most of the test plots the ground cover has reestablished itself and signs of previous burns are hard to find. . But at least one of these burns appears to have gotten out of control, or else was started from other causes. In any case there is an area of about two acres in extent that was thoroughly blackened, killing a number of the oaks. When I first came upon it, it looked as if the entire area had been engulfed by a black flood. Even today one can see where the trunks of surviving trees were blackened half-way up.
So despite first impressions, Lombard Hollow does have a long and ongoing human history. One just has to look more closely to see it.