Getting lost in Shelter Island’s Mashomack Preserve

The road taken. Up this trail and hidden from a main Mashomack path in a shelter of trees lies the Nicoll Family Cemetery. (Credit: Ambrose Clancy)

The road taken. Up this trail and hidden from a main Mashomack path in a shelter of trees lies the Nicoll Family Cemetery. (Credit: Ambrose Clancy)

It was one of the rare times you get lost and it doesn’t matter.

Even with directions to the Nicoll Family Cemetery in Mashomack and several good landmarks to watch for, every one was missed.

The day itself might have had something to do with distracting the visitor. It had stormed all night, and now at mid-morning the fierce rain was just now-and-then showers drifting from a sky the color of porridge. The wind, though, was still up, like strong surf, climbing and falling. All along the twisting, washboard road heading from Route 114 through Mashomack, light broke through the lumpy clouds, catching fallen leaves as they swirled and darted.

The search for the cemetery was started because someone said it was an active — an odd word for the subject — private cemetery, and there was mention of it in historians’ Patricia and Edward Shillingburg’s comprehensive chronicle of one of the Island’s founding families, “The Nicolls of Sachem’s Neck.”

There are nine known cemeteries on the Island, according to the Shelter Island Historical Society. Two are on the grounds of Sylvester Manor. The Island churches, Our lady of the Isle, St. Mary’s and the Presbyterian Church maintain almost all of them including the Nicoll Cemetery, cared for by the Presbyterians. A private association takes care of the Emily F. French Memorial Cemetery.

Two helpful women at Mashomack’s Manor House told the visitor he’d come too far and gave directions to go back about half way to Route 114, stop at the grassy spot, look for a split rail fence and a path leading up off the road.

The path to the cemetery was missed, of course, but one of the advantages of being lost is the luck of discovery, to be in Mashomack on a day that’s like a hinge on a door, swinging the season wide open.

It was a good walk up a hill, the sharp, vinegar smell of autumn on the wind. The sky broke with patches of blue peeking through as the path wound around a large meadow of pale grass and curved down to meet another path through the trees.

After an hour’s solitary hike of seeing no one, where the call of a bird was an event, there was the startling sight of a walker appearing around a bend.

Shelter Islander Holly Cronin smiled when asked if she knew where the cemetery was. “You’re here,” she said, pointing up a trail rising steeply to the right. “You can’t see it from here, but it’s right up there.”

Ms. Cronin said she walks in Mashomack often and has visited the cemetery on occasion. Looking at a meadow rolling away to a stand of yellow trees waving in the distance, she said, “You never get used to it. You still feel the magic. ”

The cemetery isn’t seen until almost the last step at the top of the hill.

Two six-foot-high monoliths with rusted chains swung between them greet the visitor. A tall headstone topped by a cross stands inside the iron rail fence of the graveyard. Black letters are cut into granite on a stone table. Rainwater pooled in names and dates carved in the stone.

Like most cemeteries, it’s a place that brings a hush inside.

It seems only children and the childish think of cemeteries as depressing or morbid places. Samuel Beckett wrote, brightening his observation with a pun, “Personally I have no bone to pick with graveyards, I take the air there willingly, perhaps more willingly than elsewhere, when take the air I must.”

The oldest Nicoll headstone here is that of Joanna DeHoneur Nicoll who died in 1772. But is she really buried here?

Which begs another question: What’s an old cemetery without a mystery?

“We don’t think she was living here at the time,” Ms. Shillingburg said when asked about Joanna. “We find it just a little weird that she was buried there. It’s somewhat of a mystery. Her husband was spending much more time in Islip than he was here. One of the thoughts we’ve had is that her children may have put a tombstone in her honor.”

Since 1772 —  or perhaps a bit later — Nicolls have been buried in the sheltered copse at the top of the hill.

One of the last was Delancey Nicoll, whose remains were laid to rest here in the autumn of 2009, his daughter, Jessica Nicoll, said.

Reached at home in Northampton, Massachusetts, Ms. Nicoll is the director and chief curator of the Smith College Museum of Art. Growing up in Bayport, she remembers going to Mashomack and the family cemetery on summer days.

“We’d go out and have a picnic, a real treat,” she said, remembering the beauty of the place and her father’s sense of being “anchored. We’d read the tombstones and think of the people and their times.”

Ms. Nicoll plans to be buried here.

Walking out and down to the main path, a dead tree bleached white by wind and rain stood like a stick figure of a man, with one arm raised, as if beckoning, bringing on the thought — not quite yet.