Blacklick's Shepherd's Corner Ecology Center taps into visitors' connection with nature

Marla K. Kuhlman
ThisWeek group
Volunteer Kayla Long of Columbus drills a hole into a sugar maple tree before inserting a tap to extract sap Feb. 25 at Shepherd's Corner Ecology Center, 987 N. Waggoner Road in Blacklick.

Although maple-sugaring tours, which allow guests to tap into trees for sap and their inner spirits for reflection, are booked at Shepherd’s Corner Ecology Center this month, the organization has a yearlong slate of activities that help provide a link to the natural world.

“Give gifts of peace and joy” is written on a sign at the entrance to the 160-acre center, 987 N. Waggoner Road in Blacklick.

Shepherd’s Corner Ecology Center is a nonprofit outreach of the Dominican Sisters of Peace. It has a mission to invite others to experience the joys and responsibilities of caring for land, life and spirit and inspiring others to become shepherds of creation in their own corners of the world, said Sister Rose Ann Van Buren, Shepherd’s Corner administrator.

“The caring of the land is so important to us and educating to make people understand the importance of the land and animals,” she said.

Miranda Land, program manager at Shepherd’s Corner Ecology Center, holds a 1.35-ounce bottle of maple syrup made from tapping trees on the 160-acre Blacklick property.

The sugaring tours are a hobby for the center, said Miranda Land, who became Shepherd’s Corner's program manager in fall 2017 after being an AmeriCorps volunteer there since September 2016.

“It’s a way to get people connected with the land,” Land said. “With our lives, we’re so busy that we rarely take the time to just be.”

Land said the number of people interested in the tours far exceeds the capacity to host this year because small groups are necessary as a result of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

She suggested anyone interested in booking a tour next season should follow the center on Facebook.

Tree tapping

Led by Land and Dustin McQuade, Shepherd’s Corner land and building manager, each two-hour tour has a capacity for eight participants.

When tapping a tree, McQuade said, he looks where a tree previously was tapped. 

“We basically do the 4-6 rule,” he said. “You use your hand. Go 4 inches over on either side of old tap – 4 inches over and 6 inches up or you can go down, too.”

 When drilling into the tree, McQuade said, he uses a 5/16th-inch bit.  

“That’s the size and that’s the size tap we’re going to use,” he said while tapping trees Feb. 25. “When you drill into the tree, you’re going to drill in with a little bit of an angle up, maybe 10% up. What I do, I put tape on my drill bit so I don’t drill too far. You don’t want to go too far into the tree.”

He said he enjoys the taste of the sap, likening it to Gatorade.

“Some people harvest the sap,” McQuade said. “There’s a lot of nutrients and minerals in it.”

When driving the actual tap into a tree, he said, you want to listen to the sound.

“You can hear the sound change,” McQuade said.  “There’s two systems you can use (to collect sap): the buckets with tubing that comes out or you can use the bag.“

He said he has found the bag system to be the easiest method.

After collecting the sap, the syrup-making process advances to what’s called the Sugar Shack that was constructed from wood on the property.

“The sap goes into a preheater, and the sap will go through channels (in an evaporator pan),” McQuade said. “We heat it with wood. There’s 60 acres of wood on the property, so we’ll never run out of wood. Wood is a renewable resource, and it’s free.”

He said it takes about an hour to boil 45 gallons of sap.

Land said it takes 40 to 43 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup.

“It depends on the sugar content,” she said. “We tap, and Dustin and I collect, boil it down and finish it off.”

In 2011, McQuade said, the center processed 28 gallons of syrup.

“It’s the most I’ve done,” he said. “We did 100 taps that year.”

Dustin McQuade looks through a refractometer that’s used for measuring sugar content in making maple syrup at Shepherd’s Corner Ecology Center.

Land said temperatures are a main factor when it comes to harvesting sap.

“You need below-freezing temperatures at night that creates a vacuum in the tree so sap flows,” she said. “We’re usually wrapping up in March.”

Kayla Long of Columbus, a sophomore environmental-policy major from Ohio State University, tapped trees for the first time Feb. 25.

“It’s really a cool thing to be part of,” she said. “It’s easier than I expected.”

Long said she volunteers at the center when she can.

“I started volunteering with gardening, anything they needed help with,” she said.

Meditation trails

The center holds other activities that are open to the public throughout the year.  

Beginning in April, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Fridays, guests may tour the property for a suggested donation of $2 per person.

Anyone planning to visit should call 614-866-4302 or email scecologycenter@gmail.com.

Visitors may walk meditation trails or two labyrinths.

“We have a whole series of meditation trails that are reflections on the land,” Van Buren said. “It’s a guided walk for visitors with stations.”

Each station offers something for the mind, body and spirit, according to the center’s website, shepherdscorner.org.

Each station has a sign with theme-centered facts, reflections and suggested activities, according to the website.

The Capitol Square Rotary provided funding, labor and assistance with the stations, and students from Upper Arlington High School also helped plan each site, according to the website.

Van Buren said the two labyrinths on the property are meant to provide peace, insight, comfort, healing, energy and connection.

The website describes it this way: “Walking this circular path provides a time of quiet and meditation and reminds us of our life journey with its twists and turns.” 

Farm Fresh 5K

In 2020 and before, the center had been home to a garden, with the purpose to “grow to donate,” Land said.

Food has been donated to Gahanna Residents In Need and the Bishop Griffin Resource Center, serving residents in east and southeast Columbus, according to Land.

“We would donate as much as we could,” she said. “Food insecurity is a big thing.”

For this year, Land said, the center is partnering with Johnstown’s From Scratch Farm.

“We will still be donating,” she said. “It’s important to help small producers.”

Shepherd’s Corner also will hold its 15th annual Farm Fresh 5K, a hybrid all-terrain run/walk, June 10-12, with proceeds benefiting the center and its initiative to donate fresh produce to those in need.

Over the past 20 years, Shepherd’s Corner has donated 32,830 pounds of naturally grown produce to local food pantries, according to the center's website.

To form a team, email Marguerite Chandler at mcop1213@gmail.com or register online at shepherdscorner.org/5k.

Van Buren said she hopes visitors to Shepherd’s Corner feel welcomed by staff members and by the land and that they have a sense of the commitment of the Dominican Sisters of Peace to care for creation, to understand that Earth is our common home and that all of us have a responsibility to protect it not only for today but also for future generations.

mkuhlman@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekMarla

A few more photos:

Dustin McQuade, land and building manager, attaches a collection bag to catch sap extracted from a sugar maple tree Feb. 25 at Shepherd's Corner.
Dustin McQuade, land and building manager, hammers a tap into a sugar maple tree to extract sap Feb. 25 at Shepherd's Corner.
Sugar maple tree sap drips from a tap Feb. 25 at Shepherd's Corner.
A sample bottle of maple syrup is shown at Shepherd's Corner on Feb. 25.
Shepherd’s Corner Ecology Center, at 987 N. Waggoner Road in Blacklick, is an ecological ministry supported by the Dominican Sisters of Peace. The 160-acre property offers a wide array of agricultural, educational and spiritual opportunities.
A walk in one of the two labyrinths at Shepherd’s Corner is meant to provide peace, insight, comfort, healing, energy and connection.