U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuge planner Carl Melberg looked around as Noman’s Land came into view. “Some of the old guys remember parking their boats off Noman’s and watching the fighter jets come by,” he recalled. “It was like watching fireworks out there.”
Closed to the public since the 1930s, on Tuesday I had the chance to accompany the Fish and Wildlife Service, the guardians of the island, on their most recent visit to the Noman’s Land Island National Wildlife Refuge.
The day began at Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in Falmouth. The group on this trip included Chet Bigelow, a rough-talking former Marine and ecological mapper from the James Sewall Company in Maine, contracted by Fish and Wildlife, and refuge officer Chris Kelly, who previously worked at Logan Airport for Fish and Wildlife where he would regularly intercept animal paraphernalia. “During the Soviet Union era I would grab guys stepping off the planes carrying $300,000 of caviar in a suitcase,” he said. “Say what you want about them, the Soviets ran good sturgeon fisheries.”
Today Fish and Wildlife was not after black gold, though. Biologist Stephanie Koch and invasive plant technician Amber Carr were hunting invasive species — autumn olive, white poplar and swallowwort, among others — while Lesley Sneddon of NatureServe and Mr. Bigelow were out to map the vegetation of Noman’s. Ms. Sneddon had spent the previous day on Monomoy Island with Mr. Bigelow and was immune to his charms.
“Republicans and Democrats are both idiots,” he proclaimed before stepping on the boat.
“Oh boy, let’s not get into that,” Ms. Sneddon laughed.
Once aboard, Ms. Koch handed out a pamphlet to the civilians that depicted increasingly menacing explosive devices we were apt to step on while ashore, and made us sign a release form effectively absolving the government from responsibility should we be obliterated.
“So which one of these is going to blow us up?” Ms. Sneddon asked, half-joking.
The trip to Noman’s from Falmouth is an hour and a half jaunt down the Vineyard Sound and around Gay Head, which, if possible, might be even more spectacular from the water. Pulling ashore, the most prominent landmark is Cobble Spit, an unusual scat-splatted peninsula of pebbles pointing accusingly toward Squibnocket. On this day it was almost entirely blotted out by cormorants save one spent rocket casing attached to a parachute. Spotting a boater sitting dangerously close to shore further down the beach Mr. Kelly shook his head.
“It’s just dangerous,” he said. “Even we don’t anchor our boats, we moor them. His anchor could drag on an explosive.”
With that unwelcome reminder, I took my first hesitant steps off the boat. Anyone’s first few steps on Noman’s must be filled with trepidation, but with each step you gain confidence until by the end of the day you are almost daring the island to claim you as the a belated casualty of bombing practice.
Besides birds, which seemed almost contemptuous of our presence on their island, the second thing you notice on Noman’s is trash, lots of trash. There are endless tangles of fishing line, forgotten birthday balloons, giant sheets of rusted metal, mismatched flip-flops and great monoliths of battered lobster traps.
Then you notice the smell. Noman’s smells awful.
Upon arrival, Ms. Koch and Ms. Carr immediately spotted a pair of threatened oystercatchers they had seen on previous trips and searched for their chicks, a task made exceedingly difficult by the tweezer-beaked, harlequin-colored birds, which have a habit of stashing them in the beach grass and then leading rapacious gulls all over the beach.
“I just want to thank everyone for getting me out here today,” announced Mr. Bigelow. “Don’t get a graduate degree if you ever want to go outside again.”
On the walk to the supply containers near the middle of the island, Ms. Carr asked the group if they knew the common name for rosa rugosa. Everyone knew the answer: rugosa rose. I laughed nervously.
The supply containers were filled with snakes, which Mr. Kelly dispatched nonchalantly to search for replacement signs he would prop up to warn would-be washashores to keep out.
The trail up the center of the island passes what Mr. Melberg referred to as the wine cellar, in fact the remains of the foundation of an anonymous building, now overgrown and colonized by seagulls.
“It’s almost like they’re talking isn’t it?” Mr. Melberg asked. He was right. On Noman’s birds, especially gulls, sound strangely more colloquial. Mr. Melberg followed Mr. Kelly to the highest point on the island, indicated by a marker installed by the Army Corps of Engineers. This is The Summit, and it offers the best survey of Noman’s unique vegetation. To the untrained eye it looks like an undifferentiated mass of swaying shrubs, but official Fish and Wildlife literature lists eight different habitat classes on the island, including cranberry swale and cattail marsh. By Ms. Sneddon’s estimation there are at least 16 different systems, some of which exhibit strange plant associations, a quality she attributes to the unusual land use history of the island.
Noman’s was inhabited for thousands of years by the Wampanoags, with whom Fish and Wildlife is in private negotiations about visiting the Island for ceremonial purposes. When Europeans moved in, in 1666 they denuded the land and struggled to eke out a living on the inhospitable rock. By the time the Navy leased it from Joshua Crane in the 1940s, stories surrounded the island of lonely farmers driven to insanity from solitude and stir-crazy children possessed by strange spirits.
At midday Ms. Koch radioed that there was someone else on the island.
“Do they have grappling hooks?” Mr. Kelly responded sarcastically, noting that we were all accounted for and there were no boats on the north side of the Island. The south side of the island is lined with cliffs matched in grandeur only by Gay Head. The figure was never spotted again that day.
“There’s probably ghosts here,” Mr. Melberg commented offhandedly as we approached Luce Cemetery which hangs onto the edge of an eroding wall of the north shore of the island. The lone visible grave is marked by a toppled marble headstone and a collapsed rectangle in the ground roughly the size of a body.
“We’re supposed to keep an eye on the cliffside of the cemetery to make sure nothing comes out,” Mr. Melberg said in a moment of macabre humor.
On the walk back to the Cobble Spit, we passed dozens of flightless juvenile seagulls, butterflies and dragonflies of all design, pods of seals and everywhere carcasses.
For all its luxurious natural abundance, the overwhelming impression Noman’s imparts on its visitors is that nature is not sentimental. Seals rot in the sun unattended and forgotten, gulls pull oystercatcher chicks from the clutches of frantic mothers and the massive snapping turtle of Brackish Pond pulls the mangled corpses of sea gulls away from the spent shotgun casings of the shore and into its brackish depths. It does not feel like a place for humans and we can’t help but feel like intruders in the animals’ presence.
“When you’re here you get this amazing sense of solitude,” said Mr. Melberg. “We are pushing for a federal wilderness designation so that we can preserve that sense of wildness out here. That sense of truly being alone.”
“It’s a good thing this place is covered in ordnance,” added Mr. Kelly, “otherwise there’d be houses all over the place.”
Before we pushed off for civilization Ms. Sneddon excitedly announced the discovery of towering buttonbush plants and unusual fern communities.
That night as the Fish and Wildlife team drove back to their Sudbury headquarters the sun set as it always does on Noman’s, silently and unseen by man.