The Hawk's Nest

By George Sterling

Spring's back, and subtly stirring, deep below,
Awake the memories of long ago….
It was in middle March we freckled pests
Were wont to go and rob the fish-hawk's nests.
The cedar trees had slipped their snowy cowls;
Long Island 's ice had melted; the big owls
Had seen their downy children on the wing
And wrangling crows were lunatic with spring.

An apple and a sandwich on each hip,
Saturday morning we would make the trip,
A four-mile row across the turquoise bay
To where the swamps of Shelter Island lay,
Ultima Thule of adventure's reach-
A land of lonely woods and trackless beach,
By my forefathers of the Pilgrim caste
Fliched from the guileless redskin in the past.

We beached at last our boat and crossed the sands
Like mariners that win to distant lands;
Climbed the low bluff, in which a feathered mole,
The blue kingfisher, drove a slanting hole;
Crossed the warm meadow, reached the silent wood
Where the dark eyrie of our quarry stood.
Then, the huge nest, unhid by verdant cloak
In dying cedar or in leafless oak.
Lofty it seemed to us, we being small,
For now the younger maple seems more tall.
Far off the fish-hawks saw us, toiling through
The thickets where the snarling cat-brier grew.
Far off we heard their melancholy cries,
Falling like icicles from out the skies.

However loud the soaring ospreys wailed,
Our hearts were flint; the eyrie must be scaled,
And I, as I remember that far time,
Was always chosen for the riskier climb.
Often the poisoned vine or stubborn briar
Beset the trunk that led to our desire;
Often the tree rose slippery and dead
That bore the bulk suspended overhead;
And one must be half-cat to gain the crest
Of the impenetrable, bulging nest.
Woven and braced with stick and branch it rose,
Flat on the top and soft with seaweed dried
On sunny sands above the reaching tide.
There the big eggs, three often, seldom four,
Lay at the center of the shaggy floor-
Cream-colored, blotched with chocolate. From the sky
Fell the sad hawk's intolerable cry;
But ere one bent to take the cruel prize,
The wood beneath, the meadows and the shore,
Far straits, and sky-lines never seen before;
Southward, the elms and steeples of our home;
Westward, the blue Peconics, flaw with foam.
Lighthouse and cape and inlet eastward lay;
Beyond, the wider reach of Gardiner's Bay,
Where, on the future night-skies, rapier-rayed,
The wheeling lights of the destroyers played.
I stood on Glacier Point not long ago,
Watching the Merced foaming far below,
And seemed to gaze from no more awesome height
Than at that time of boyhood's semi-fright.
Dear days and friends! Where shall I find you, where?-
Gone like the wind that tossed that day my hair!

With eggs in cap, and cap in clutching teeth,
I joined my fellow-robbers far beneath;
Then homeward, each one babbling of the time
When he had made an ever braver climb.
Again we crossed the shoreline, set the oars,
And took our way to less romantic shores.
(What should we have for supper there? Ah! What
Shed fragrances from frying-pan or pot?)
There smooth eggs, once duly drilled and blown
In proud "collections" were demurely shown.

Poor trophies! Do you linger to this day,
In that old village by the turquoise bay?
(The rats and mice ate mine!) Long afterward,
Revisiting, a negligible bard,
My town of birth, I found, with some annoy,
The times had made another sort of boy,
Hard, clever, clean, incurious, complex,
Their conversation motors, money, sex.
Movies they praised in no uncertain words,
Shunning the woods and kind to all the birds.
Alas our urchin band! Along the shore
The power-launch stammers where we rowed before
And on the wood-paths where we wandered then
The feet of roving boys go not again.
So change is on us. But the ospreys still
Cry from the changeless heavens-sad and shrill,
Building their nest by swamp or lonely farm,
Where rascal egg-thieves come no more to harm.
And still I muse, a thousand leagues away,
On dear adventures of a humbler day,
And still in dreams of boyhood mischief I
Can hear the great birds wailing from the sky. 

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