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Audubon Center
Night School
An astronomy class at the Trinity River Audubon Center introduces Dallasites to the stars above and the nocturnal animals below.

Saturn
NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

On a clear but muggy evening in early April, two minivans pull into the Trinity River Audubon Center’s graveled parking lot. Out of each hops a chattering group of fifth-grade Girl Scouts. As they skip toward the center with their leaders trailing behind, it’s hard to tell whether they notice the sky, shot with pink and gold from the setting sun, or the bright gibbous moon hanging high above them.

In an education room with a sweeping view of the center’s string of ponds, Zeshan Segal leads the girls and a couple of families with kids in a lively conversation about telescopes. It’s the center’s first astronomy class, and though he’s nearing the end of a long day, Segal’s energy doesn’t flag. He quizzes his audience on constellations and kills time with educational games while two University of Texas at Arlington students set up a huge, shiny telescope on the deck outside. When they’re done, the UTA students brief the kids on what they’ll see tonight: Saturn, Ursa Major, Polaris, the Pleiades—and of course, the moon. Out on the deck under a darkening sky, the Girl Scouts turn suddenly silent while they wait their turn to stare through the powerful telescope at a pea-sized image of Saturn, complete with its swirling, peach-colored gases and perfect purplish rings.

Suddenly the deck lights come on, outshining the stars. Segal, ever resourceful, scares up several orange plastic flashlights and encourages everyone to follow him on a night hike along the center’s winding trails. He stops once to teach them to spot wolf spiders (shine your flashlight at chin level, and look for their glinting eyes) and tells the story of reclaiming the toxic landfill that used to be here. It’s only April, but Dallas is already steamy with the heat and humidity of a long Texas summer, and the mosquitoes are starting to emerge in force. At the far end of Great Egret Pond, Segal tells the class to stop and listen. There’s a soft breath of wind, carrying the tinkle of champagne glasses across the water from the cocktail party in the Audubon center’s main hall. Under the almost-deafening roar of crickets and cicadas, several bullfrogs croak out a low, steady bass line.

“You know why we listen to bullfrogs?” he asks in a hushed voice. Heads shake.

“They tell us how healthy this place is,” Segal whispers, and the Girl Scouts at the front nod in quiet rapture. At the back of the group, two girls are still staring up at the sky, open-mouthed, searching for the Big Dipper. Across the moonlit pond, the Audubon center glows in the darkness like a huge, hope-filled bird, and somewhere in the distance, a killdeer’s high, fine trill pierces the night.

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