New trail honors unusual partnership
Developer donates land used by popular teacher so it will remain a resource for nature education

By James Hohmann
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 1, 2009

John Chapman is a Loudoun County developer who has made a lot of money building on land that Loudoun Valley High School teacher John DeMary has spent 37 years teaching his students to nurture.

The two Johns were to have a trail named after them at a groundbreaking ceremony Friday in Purcellville. Chapman, 57, has put 10 acres into a conservation easement that blocks development. DeMary, 60, and his students have been erecting footbridges and laying sawdust over a trail they cleared on the land, which includes one of the few remaining stands of old-growth forest in town.

The unlikely partnership that led to the Chapman DeMary Trail began when Chapman's son, Sam, took two of DeMary's classes seven years ago.

DeMary, a science and environmental education teacher, is beloved by his students, partly because he takes them outside so much. In the 1980s, he brought his classes to a stretch near the football field with beautiful wildflowers. Bulldozers later destroyed it.

"When I first came here, you could go out any direction and be in a nature area in five minutes," DeMary said. "Little by little, they were all gone."

So he began walking out to the Chapman land, essentially all that's left. Much of it is in a flood plain, where the South Fork Catoctin Creek streams and migratory birds fly through seasonally. Sam Chapman, now 24, took DeMary's class and told his dad how much fun he had in it.

"No matter where we were outside -- if you look at any plant, tree or bug -- he'll give you the name and tell you the history of it," Chapman said he told his dad. "I hunt and I fish and I spend a lot of time in the woods and outside. I never really appreciated the other stuff that comes with nature."

John Chapman, whose office is in Purcellville, became convinced after he walked around the property with his son.

"When they asked me about preserving those trees, I choked up a little bit and said, 'You realize this is pretty nice property,' " he recalled. "I've cut down a lot of trees in my day. Sometimes it's right, and sometimes it's wrong. This time, it was wrong."

DeMary took one of his classes out among those trees last week to put finishing touches on a section of the trail. A few of the 24 upperclassmen began horsing around as they headed onto the trail.

"You guys are forgetting your trail etiquette," DeMary said, chiding them. "Use your ears. Close your mouth."

They quieted down. They could hear leaves crunching under their feet, birds chirping and cars speeding over the bypass.

A donated load of sawdust filled the back of a Ford F-150 with West Virginia tags (DeMary lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains, about 25 miles from the school). The girls grabbed rakes. The boys took shovels and wheelbarrows.

"Is this your pickup truck?" Tyler Deisher, 18, asked.

"Yeah," DeMary said.

"This is a piece of crap," Deisher said.

The class laughed. Some of the students then turned their attention to the rotting skull of a deer carcass.

Sophie Swan, a 17-year-old teacher's aide, took DeMary's class last year. She said that they spent a lot of time in the forest identifying plants and birds and that DeMary always had a story to tell about whatever they saw.

"We didn't usually have time to get to the end of the trail, because the class period is only an hour and a half," she said.

DeMary is getting help from the shop classes, which are building six tables for an outdoor classroom in an open area of the preserved land that's about a mile from the school entrance. There's an entrance to the middle of the trail that weaves through the 10 acres via a medical center parking lot. DeMary plans to put a butterfly garden there.

The Newton Marasco Foundation is collecting donations for the Friends of the Chapman DeMary Trail, a booster club that plans to pay for tree markers, educational kiosks and kits, with binoculars and field guides, for students to use when they walk around the property.

Amy Marasco Newton, president of the foundation, said she was impressed with DeMary when she visited his classroom a few years ago. Her group's goal is to inspire young people to take a leadership role in environmental stewardship, and she said she thinks DeMary does that as well as anyone.

"I think I probably learned more from him than I did in graduate school," Newton said. "He's quite the Jeffersonian naturalist."

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