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Ye old 'Goose Tree' may not be long a-standing

"It is difficult to realize how great a part of all that is cheerful and delightful in the recollections of our own life is associated with trees."

— Wilson Flagg

This may be the last spring for my friend the Goose Tree. Fifty-plus years is old for a cottonwood, I'm told. Her trunk is starting to split straight down the middle. Thick strips of bark tumble off her limbs and onto the grass with each sturdy breeze.

My mind tumbles back to the life she has seen. The lives she has sheltered. The venerable tree has survived several floods. Droughts? No doubts. She's been nibbled on by beavers and climbed on by kids. Her once long limbs, arching out over the Rogue River, were perfect for swings.

Today she resembles a flat-topped curiosity. The victim of an unfortunate haircut five years ago, she nevertheless rocks her brutal crop like a true diva.

Honking Canada geese vie for top spots on the platforms created by her lopped limbs. Bragging and flapping, the geese play king of the hill — looking for girlfriends, taunting their bachelor brothers not favored with a top-tier view.

At the base of the Goose Tree's trunk, new families gather to nibble on dandelion greens and nestle in the grass.

Around this time of year a few years ago, from deep within the Goose Tree's branches glinted what looked to be a ball of fire. Startled, I grabbed a pair of binoculars and peered into her foliage to see the source. It was an orioles' nest. A pair of the beautiful orange-and-black birds had bedazzled their home with strands of silver tinsel stolen from my neighbor's glittery windsock. As the nest swayed in the breeze, the tinsel caught the light of the setting sun — setting the stolen bling aflame.

One day the Goose Tree delivered three baby ducklings onto the lawn. I was positioning my hammock in her shade, preparing for a nice snooze, when three little balls of fluff scampered across my bare toes.

At first I thought the fuzzy trio must be baby wood ducks. The wooden nest box hammered into the tree's trunk had been the abode of a pair of breeding wood ducks prior to my arrival. But the shy ducks abandoned their weathered rectangular home once I — and my three hairy hounds — took possession of the riverside property a decade ago.

Then I remembered the strange behavior of a little mallard hen. In recent weeks, I'd been startled to see her shoot in and out of the foliage near the trunk of the Goose Tree.

"You're no tree dweller, you silly girl," I told her. "Get back in the water."

Shows what little I knew. About 10 percent of mallard hens will figure out that higher is better after losing eggs in ground nests to predators.

Little Huey, Dewey and Louie had hopped from their nest, built 20 feet up the Goose Tree's trunk by their crafty mallard mama.

The ducklings followed me around the lawn, peeping piteously. Mama was nowhere to be seen. I didn't want the babies to imprint on me. I already had a full complement of critters. But how to keep the babies safe from my canines' curiosity, plus the eagles, osprey and herons who are regular visitors to my place? The hounds went in the kennel. I decided to corral the little peepers for their own protection in an old wire cage, then headed back into the cottage to keep watch.

Within minutes Mama was on the lawn, advancing on the babies' jail with the steely-eyed determination of a mother bear.

I headed out to the lawn with a handful of Cheerios and tossed the treats her way. As she gobbled up the goodies, I released the babies, who waddled off toward her. Then back to me. Then over to her. Back and forth they dithered. I swear I could hear the Goose Tree chortling.

Then Mama decided it was time for their first swim in the Rogue. The hen jumped off the edge of the lawn and landed gracefully in the river. The babies teetered on the edge, peering down at the rocks 20 feet below. They decided one mighty leap from nest to grass was enough for a duckling's first day out of the egg and ran back to me. Peeping. Mama quacked her parental disapproval and swam off. The babies looked at me expectantly.

"Wait for your babies!" I cried. "They're coming! They're coming! Give us a minute!"

I put a duckling in each hand and tucked one inside my shirt, then scrambled down the boat ramp. It was a great plan until I slipped. We were all headed for a bad landing on the pointy rocks. In desperation, I tossed each of the hand-held ducklings as far as I could. Plop. Sploosh. Two safely down.

Twisting to protect the last breast-tucked baby, I landed half-assed backwards on the rocks. Ouch! I was a mass of cuts and bruises. But the duckling was unscathed. I released Dewey into the river to join the other two merrily swimming siblings, and their mama.

Phew! The Goose Tree and I sighed with relief.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.