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Students tap red maple trees in science class

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Open up an environmental science textbook and you might be greeted by the wild and mysterious landscapes of Alaska or the vast expanses of Africa. While learning about these environments is good, it can be easy to overlook the great mysteries in one’s own backyard. One aspect of Northern Virginia that many may not know is that it is part of the only region in the world whose unique spring climate fosters production of maple syrup.


“I think that syrup is a sign that God loves us and wants us to eat pancakes,” said Mark Moran, science teacher at Saint John Paul the Great Catholic High School in Dumfries. For the past two winters, he has been teaching the science and craft behind maple syrup production in an effort to inspire his environmental science students.


“We are living in a culture that is so tech-oriented,” said Moran. “I want them to open up their eyes to the beauty of nature around them.”


As with many great ideas, what got the ball rolling — and the sap flowing — was a simple question.


“Hey Mr. Moran, have you ever thought of tapping maple trees?” asked Joe Costello, a sophomore in 2015. Costello recently learned that his family had harvested sap in Vermont, and thought it was the type of project Moran could use. Moran’s response was, “No, but I am now.”


Moran immediately set to work researching the process. He identified some red maples on school property that would work for tapping. Before arming his class with drills, 5-gallon buckets  and spiles, which are a spouts for conducting sap, he put together an in-class lesson on sap production.


When temperatures are above freezing, sap and water flow through an outer portion of the tree trunk called the sapwood. When temperatures drop below freezing at night, this process stops, but resumes again when temperatures are above freezing during the day. This period of time is called “mud season.” Virginia’s climate is not as consistent as the big syrup producing state of Vermont, so syrup season varies from year to year.


“It’s definitely a labor of love,” said Moran. “The students help with all the work, which is a relatively simple process but labor intensive.”


In 2015, they collected several gallons of the translucent watery sap, and worked with the school chef, Courtney Williams, to boil off the water. They were able to make a quarter-gallon of the darkest, most flavorful grade of syrup. The following year, they tapped a dozen trees during the first week of February and gathered 80 gallons of sap, which yielded 1 gallon of syrup.


Peter Loesel, freshman at Virginia Tech, was a student in Moran’s environmental science class last spring.


“He made the class educational as well as entertaining,” said Loesel. “It (taught) what I consider valuable (lessons) about how the world works and how we as Catholics interact with the world and should be good stewards of the earth.”


Moran is gearing up once again for another sugar run but the forecasted warm weather might limit the sap they will be able to collect. Regardless of how much syrup they produce this year, Moran hopes what will last longer than a pancake on a plate is the students’ new-found appreciation for nature and the little gifts that God gives them every day.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017