South of the city lies one of Dallas’ biggest and best kept secrets: the Great Trinity Forest. The largest urban hardwood forest in the United States, the Great Trinity Forest covers some sprawling 6,000 acres along the winding banks of the Trinity River. Upon completion, the 10,000 acre Trinity River Project will be the largest urban park in the world.

Tucked in the midst of this forest, on a former illegal dump site, is the non-profit Trinity River Audubon Center (TRAC). Built by the city of Dallas in 2008, and managed by the Audubon Society, TRAC serves as important space for habitat preservation, environmental education, and conservation advocacy in Dallas. The center hosts field trips, home school groups, hikers and birdwatchers, and even weddings.

As a Maguire Fellow, I am spending my summer at TRAC working with its summer camps. Using anthropological methods and frameworks to evaluate the camp programs, I am investigating how the summer adventure camp program at TRAC reflects and enacts broader values of conservation and environmental education. Through participant observation – by which I mean simply joining in with camp activities and watching what happens – and interviews, I hope to gain more insight into TRAC’s culture, and more broadly, learn more about environmental ethics and education.

These adventure camps are day camps designed for elementary age students. It’s TRAC’s hope that these camps can connect kids with nature. Weather permitting, we spend time every day hiking and exploring the trails that wind through the property. I have joined in on two weeks of camp so far, and have been surprised at how much I’ve learned. Much of our learning is very hands-on. One day we all took out binoculars and bird guides on our hike. As we watched birds swoop overhead, the kids shouted as they identified the birds they were looking for.

Dressed to go searching for creatures in the pond.

Another morning we set out to learn more about insects. At first glance, the small meadow below the classroom looked unoccupied. Tall grasses swayed gently in the wind, but there was little other movement. Once we slowed down, however, watching the field with patient, careful eyes, we saw that this small patch of land was in fact teeming with life including grasshoppers and katydids and crickets bounding, spiders weaving their webs, bees pollinating flowers, dragonflies letting loose a low hum as they darted towards the pond. Each child was given a long-handled net for catching insects and a small glass jar in which to gently (and temporarily) trap their prizes. Later, using field guides and microscopes, we took a closer look. Suddenly, the tiny hairs on the spotted legs of the green lynx spider were visible. We could see the differences between different kinds of grasshoppers, and the ovipositor (the tubular organ used for depositing eggs) that marked females from males.

A yellow garden spider caught on one of our hikes.

This is not merely a world in which we live, but one which we can reach out and touch. The world around us is filled with life, is alive. Saving the whales or the panda bears is an easy sell. But what are our obligations to the spiders? Environmental education, in many ways, introduces children and adults to this world that surrounds them, and the field of environmental ethics contends with our moral obligations in the face of issues such as wilderness loss, reduced biodiversity, ecosystem degradation, and climate change – complicated matters that are tightly related to patterns of economic development, systems of power, and inequalities. Sometimes, the lessons we teach at camp are far simpler: don’t squish the bugs.

The legs of a green lynx spider under a microscope.

While we were learning about decomposers at camp last week, we held several species of snails in our damp hands before watching them make trails along our lab tables. Scientists believe that slugs  actually evolved from snails, and not the other way around. Why does this matter? For the slug, it matters because it is more flexible than shell-bound gastropods, and thus can squeeze into tight hiding spaces to protect itself. For the scientists, it matters because this information is based on a deep understanding of time and the fossil record, knowledge that has taken centuries to develop and tells us something important about the way life on this planet works. For you and me, perhaps it matters most to know that there are curious questions in our world that can be seriously contemplated and oftentimes, though not always, answered.

One afternoon, while peering down through his microscope at some leaves gathered during our morning hike, one of the youngest boys excitedly proclaimed, “It’s like a whole new world!”

Sometimes when you stop and look at it, it really does seem like something new.

Visit the Trinity River Audubon Center website here to learn more.