Derrick Catlett has always been a tree hugger. At least in the sense that the guy loves trees.
When he was a Boy Scout growing up in Haynesville, he would raise his hand and volunteer for anything to do with nature.
Instead of doing my English homework, I was out identifying plants and trees, he said.
In 2001, he graduated from Perry High, where he was a member of the schools Future Farmers of America team that finished first nationally in nursery landscaping competition. (He placed third in the individual competition.)
So it should come as no surprise when he started working for the plant operations department at Macon State College in 2006, he took it upon himself to start identifying and mapping the more than 4,500 trees on campus using a global positioning system (GPS).
He had checked about 2,000 off his list. Then came the night of May 10, 2008.
It became known around Macon as the Mothers Day Tornado. It was certainly the mother of all storms.
Strong winds knocked over an estimated 3,900 trees across the 170 acres, uprooting large oak trees and snapping pines like toothpicks.
The college lost about 90 percent of its tree canopy. When the winds quieted, only 600 landscaped trees were left standing.
After the fallen trees were cleared, walking to biology class at Macon State was like stepping on the surface of the moon.
It was a blank slate, said Derrick.
But its not how far you fall, its how high you bounce.
Within months, the college unveiled plans to remake the landscape. Trees would be planted. Buildings would be added. Additional land was purchased in the area bounded by Columbus, Ivey and Fulton Mill roads, and will eventually more than double the size of the campus to 450 acres.
Derrick was named the schools arborist in January. He estimates between 1,400 and 1,600 trees have been planted since the tornado, including some 500 large trees since last October. (He has mapped them in an app called ArcGIS that can be downloaded for free from iTunes.)
Part of that campuswide tree planting plan -- just call it shade restoration -- includes 17 themed groves that make up the Waddell Barnes Botanical Gardens.
One of the largest annual events on campus will take place tonight at Macon State for the third straight year.
Weather permitting, between 5,000 and 7,000 people are expected to attend the Tunes and Balloons event as part of the 30th Cherry Blossom Festival. Watching the balloon glow after dark is always one of the most spectacular sights of the festival.
It also provides the college with an opportunity to show off its new Cherry Grove at the edge of the tennis courts on the east side of campus.
As five hot-air balloons line up across the baseball fields and another 10 tie down tethers on the infield of the walking track, Derrick hopes folks will wander over and take a peek at the new cherry grove. (He will be stationed at a table near baseball field No. 2 should you have any questions.)
It features 100 trees and 10 varieties of ornamental flowering cherry trees as part of a demonstration grove. These are not just the iconic Yoshinos, which transform Macon into the cherry blossom capital of the world every spring.
Its an experiment, Derrick said. There are enough varieties with staggered bloom stages to keep the grove alive with blossoms from November until April. (Dont worry. Nobody is proposing a five-month festival.)
Yes, there will be extra innings of synchronized beauty along the soft slope of a hill. The Yoshinos are joined by Taiwan flowery cherry, autumn cherry, Okame cherry, snow goose cherry, weeping higan cherry, pink snow showers weeping cherry, snow fountains weeping cherry, Kwanzan flowering cherry and Akebone Yoshino cherry.
They are still young, adjusting trees, but the blossoms are beginning to pop out.
They have only been in the ground for three months. Hopefully, they will be grounded for a long time.
Reach Gris at 744-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org.