S you head into Maurice River Cove from Delaware Bay by boat, the great eagle's nest of Garren's Neck Swamp soon looms into view. It is a famous nest, and an ancient nest; for it has a place in the chart of every boat that sails up the river, and has had for I don't know how many years. From the river side of the long swamp the nest is in sight the year round, but from the land side, and from the house where we lived, the nest could be seen only after the leaves of the swamp had fallen. Then all winter long we could see it towering over the swamp; and often, in the distance, we could see the eagles coming and going or soaring in mighty circles high up in the air above it.
That nest had a strange attraction for me. It was the home of eagles, the monarchs of this wide land of swamp and marsh and river.
Between me and the great nest lay a gloomy gum swamp, wet and wild, untouched by the axe and untraveled, except in winter by the coon-hunters. The swamp began just across the road that ran in front of the house; and often at night I would hear the scream of a wild cat in the dark hollows; and once I heard the pat, pat of its feet as it went leaping along the road.
Then beyond the swamp and the nest stretched a vast wild marsh-land, where the reeds grew, and the tides came in, and the mud-hens lived. And beyond that flowed the river, and beyond the river lay another marsh, and beyond the marsh another swamp. And over all this vast wild world towered the nest of the eagles, like some ancient castle; and over it all—swamp and marsh and river—ruled the eagles, as bold and free as the mighty barons of old.
Is it any wonder that I often found myself gazing away at that nest on the horizon and longing for wings?—for wings with which to soar above the swamp and the bay and the marsh and the river, to circle about and about that lofty eyrie, as wild as the eagles and as free? Is it any wonder that I determined some day to stand up in that nest, wings or no wings, while the eagles should scream about me, and away below me should stretch river and marsh and swamp?
To stand up in that nest, to yell and wave my arms with the eagles wheeling and screaming over me, became the very peak of my boy ambitions.
And I did it. I actually had the eggs of those eagles in my hands. I got into the nest; but I am glad even now that I got out of the nest and reached the ground.
It must have been in the spring of my fourteenth year when, at last, I found myself beneath the eagle tree. It was a stark old white oak, almost limbless, and standing out alone on the marsh some distance from the swamp. The eagle's nest capped its very top.
The nest, I knew, must be big; but not until I had climbed up close under it did I realize that it was the size of a small haystack. There was certainly half a cord of wood in it. I think that it must originally have been built by fish hawks.
Holding to the forking top upon which the nest was placed, I reached out, but could not touch the edge from any side.
I had come determined to get up into it, however, at any hazard; and so I set to work. I never thought of how I was to get down; nor had I dreamed, either, of fearing the eagles. A bald eagle is a bully. I would as soon have thought of fearing our hissing old gander at home.
As I could not get out to the edge of the nest and scale the walls, the only possible way up, apparently, was through the nest. The sticks here in the bottom were old and quite rotten. Digging was easy, and I soon had a good beginning.
The structure was somewhat cone-shaped, the smaller end down. It had grown in circumference as it grew in years and in height, probably because at the bottom the building materials had decayed and gradually fallen away, until now there was a decided outward slant from bottom to top. It had grown lopsided, too, there being a big bulge on one side of the nest near the middle.
The smallness of the bottom at first helped me; there was less of the stuff to be pulled out. I easily broke away the dead timbers and pushed aside the tougher sticks. I intended to cut a channel clear to the top and go up through the nest. Already my head and shoulders were well into it.
Now the work became more difficult. The sticks were newer, some of them being of seasoned oak and hickory, which the birds had taken from cord-wood piles.
I had cut my channel up the side of the nest nearly halfway when I came to a forked branch that I could neither break off nor push aside. I soon found that it was not loose, but that it belonged to the oak tree itself. It ran out through the nest horizontally, extending a little more than a foot beyond the rough walls.
Backing down, I saw that this fork was the support of the bulge that had given the nest its lopsided appearance. A few large timbers had been rested across it, small loose pieces had gradually lodged upon these, and thus in time brought about the big bulge.
I pushed off this loose stuff and the few heavy timbers and found that the fork would bear my weight. It now projected a little way from the walls of the nest. I got a firm hold on the forks out at their ends, swung clear, and drew myself up between them. After a lively scramble, I got carefully to my feet, and, clutching the sticks protruding from the side, stood up, with my eyes almost on a level with the rim of the great nest. This was better than cutting a channel, certainly—at least for the ascent, and I was not then thinking of the descent.
I looked over the protruding sticks of the rim. I caught a glimpse of large dull white eggs!
Eggs of shining gold could not have so fascinated me. There were thousands of persons who could have gold eggs if they cared. But eagles' eggs! Money could not buy such a sight as this.
I was more than ever eager now to get into the nest. Working my fingers among the sticks of the rim for a firm grip, I stuck my toes into the rough wall and began to climb. At some considerable hazard and at the cost of many rents in my clothing, I wriggled up over the edge and into the hollow of the nest where the coveted eggs lay.
The eagles were wheeling and screaming overhead. The weird cac, cac, cac of the male came down from far above me; while the female, circling closer, would swoop and shrill her menacing, maniacal half-laugh almost in my ears.
Their wild cries thrilled me, and their mighty wings, wheeling so close around me, seemed to catch me in their majestic sweep and almost to carry me in swift, swinging circles through the empty air. An ecstasy of excitement overcame me. I felt no body, no weight of anything. I lost my head completely, and, seizing the eggs, rose to my feet and stood upright in the nest.
The eagles swept nearer. I could feel the wind from their wings. I could see the rolling of their gleaming eyes, and the glint of the sun on their snow-white necks. And as they dipped and turned and careened over me, I came perilously near trying to fly myself.
What a scene lay under me and rolled wide and free to the very edge of the world! The level marsh, the blue, hazy bay, the far-off, unblurred horizon beyond the bending hill of the sea! The wild, free wind from the bay blew in upon my face, the old tree trembled and rocked beneath me, the screaming eagles wove a mazy spell of double circles about me, till I screamed back at them in wild delight.
The sound of my voice seemed to infuriate the birds. The male turned suddenly in his round and swooped directly at me. The movement was instantly understood by his mate, who, thus emboldened, cut under him and hurled herself downward, passing with a vicious grab at my face. I dodged, or she would have hit me.
For the moment I had forgotten where I stood; and, in dodging the eagle, I almost stepped over the edge of the nest. I caught my balance and dropped quickly to my knees, completely unnerved.
Fear like a panic took instant hold on me. Only one desire possessed me—to get down. I crept to the edge and looked over. The sight made me dizzy. Sixty feet of almost empty air! Far down, a few small limbs intervened between me and the ground. But there was nothing by which to descend.
I was dismayed; and my expression, my posture—something, betrayed my confusion to the eagles. They immediately lost all dread of me. While I was looking over, one of them struck me a stinging blow on the head, knocking my cap off into the air.
That started me. I must climb down or be knocked over. If only I had continued with my channel to the top! If only that forked branch by which I ascended were within reach! But how could I back over the flaring rim to my whole length and swing my body under against the inward-slanting nest until my feet could touch the fork? But if I ever got down, that was what I must do; for the eagles gave me no chance to cut a channel now.
Laying the eggs back for the time in the hollow, I began tearing away the rim of the nest in order to clear a place over which to back down.
I was momentarily in danger of being hurled off by the birds; for I could not watch them and work, too. And they were growing bolder with every dash. One of them, driving fearfully from behind, flattened me out on the nest. Had the blow been delivered from the front, I should have been knocked headlong to the ground.
I was afraid to delay longer. A good-sized breach was opened in the rim of the nest by this time. And now, if the sticks would not pull out, I might let myself over and reach the fork. Once my feet touched that, I could manage the rest, I knew.
Digging my hands deep into the nest for a firm hold, I began cautiously to back over the rough, stubby rim, reaching with my feet toward the fork.
The eagles seemed to appreciate the opportunity my awkward position offered them. I could not have arranged myself more conveniently to their minds, I am sure. And they made the most of it. I can laugh now; but the memory of it can still make me shiver, too.
I had wriggled over just so that I could bend my body at the waist and bring my legs against the nest when a sharp stub caught in my clothes and held me. I could get neither up nor down. My handhold was of the most precarious kind, and I dared not let go for a moment to get off the snag.
I tried to back out and push off from it, but it seemed to come out with me. It must be broken; and pulling myself up, I dropped with all the force I could put into my body. That loosened, but did not break it. Suddenly, while I was resting between the efforts, the thing gave way.
I was wholly unprepared. All my weight was instantly thrown upon my hands. The jagged sticks cut into my wrists, my grip was pried off, and I fell.
Once, twice, the stubs in the wall of the nest caught and partly stopped me, then broke. I clutched frantically at them, but could not hold. Then, almost before I realized that I was falling, I hung suspended between two limbs—the forks of the white oak branch in the side of the nest.
I had been directly above it when the stub broke, and had fallen through it; and the two branches had caught me right under both of my arms.
For a second I was too dazed to think. Then a swish of wings, a hard blow on the neck, and a shooting pain made my position clear. I was not down yet nor out of danger. The angry birds still had me in reach.
Hanging with one arm, I twisted round until the other arm was free, then seized the branches and swung under, but not before the eagles had given me another raking dab.
Here beneath the branches, close up to the bottom of the nest, I was quite out of the reach of the birds; and through the channel I had cut in my ascent, I climbed quickly down into the tree.
It was now a mere matter of sliding to the ground. But I was so battered and faint that I nearly tumbled. I was a sorry-looking boy—my clothing torn, my hands bleeding, my head and neck clawed in a dozen places.
But what did I do with the eagles' eggs? Why, I allowed the old eagles to hatch them. What else could I do? or what better?