Do high school students think about carbon very often?

This question crossed my mind during the Quivira Coalition’s Annual Conference in 2010, titled The Carbon Ranch, when I met Mariah Chen, then a junior at Midland, a boarding school located about an hour’s drive north of Santa Barbara, California. Mariah attended the event with Katie Isaacson, who manages Midland’s 10-acre farm (and cooks for the kids on Fridays). To graduate, seniors at Midland are required to complete a thesis project, and Mariah wanted to initiate a carbon ranch project on school property. She had picked up the idea from John Wick, director of the Marin Carbon Project, whose wife was a friend of Mariah’s mom (it’s a small world). Mariah and Katie came to our conference to hear John speak and to pick up ideas for the thesis project.

They introduced themselves, prompting me to say “How cool! I’ll have to visit Midland one of these days and see how things are going.”

Well, thanks to the persistence of Katie and her boss, Ben Munger, I had the distinct pleasure of visiting Midland last month as part of my carbon pilgrimage to the Golden State. I was very glad I went.

I don’t know anything about boarding schools, but I could tell right away that Midland is unusual. Although it is a college preparatory school, it looks like a summer camp. Located on 2400 acres of lovely, rolling foothills near Los Olivos (pop star Michael Jackson was a neighbor), its campus is set in a large grove of trees and the buildings exude a rustic charm. At the same time, 20% of the school’s energy is supplied by a still-expanding solar energy project, managed by faculty and students. Sustainability is definitely part of Midland’s curriculum. That’s why I wasn’t surprised to learn that a school tradition requires all one hundred students to chop wood and heat their water for their daily showers. How many prep schools do that, I wondered?

I arrived in time for the evening assembly. At the sound of a deep bell, students and faculty gathered in a large circle in front of the dining hall to share news, thoughts, instructions, and plans for upcoming activities, including an exchange trip to Mexico and a sailing adventure for Spring Break. Then we went inside to eat a meal that included veggies from the school’s farm. The hall quickly filled with restless teenage energy, maybe more so than normal. That’s when I noticed that something was missing: no gadgets. Personal electronics are prohibited on campus. If students want to access the Internet or send an email, they have to visit the library. How many prep schools do that?

Ben Munger graciously hosted me for my stay. A former Forest Service archaeologist and Midland student, Ben had returned to the school with his wife to direct the land management aspects of the property, as well as teach. The land is grazed by cattle, and until 2003, it had been leased to a neighbor and his family for well over 75 years. However, Ben wanted to go in a new direction with the program – what he calls a “carbon ranch future” – and when the lessee refused to go along, they parted ways. Ben found a new lessee who was willing to manage for ecological goals, and as Ben put it “They haven’t looked back.”

Enter Mariah Chen. Her goal was to establish a 10-year experiment in some of the pastures to study the impact of short-duration cattle grazing on the carbon and nitrogen content of the soil via various study plots. Her hypothesis was this: rotational grazing may increase carbon sequestration while improving land health. She speculated that the ideal rotation was five days of grazing – which is the amount of time it takes for the next generation of microbes in the soil to be generated, she wrote in her thesis. Very cool! I won’t go into the details. I’ll just quote from the last paragraph:

“The potential to mitigate climate change through carbon sequestration through rotational grazing and its effects are enormous….Midland School is playing an astronomical role in helping to bring this topic in the right direction: producing a study, committing 2000-plus acres to rotational grazing, and proving that all you need to do to contribute is to start.”

That’s exactly right. Whether the experiment ultimately bears out her hypothesis or not ten years from now is not as important as simply asking the question in the first place. And then trying to answer it. Few schools are even thinking about these issues, it seems to me, but one of them is Midland.

I knew I wouldn’t see Mariah Chen on my visit. She graduated in 2011 and is now studying environmental policy at Columbia in New York. But I did have the pleasure of interviewing the heirs to Mariah’s carbon project: Miles Dakin, a junior with a strong interest in chemistry, and Wallace Cooley, a freshman from a ranching family in northern California. Each is eager to keep the project going for their own reasons. I thought this was illustrative: the interests of all three students involved in the project – policy, chemistry, and ranching – shows how diverse carbon can be. And how exciting.

Chopped wood, solar energy, farm veggies, books, cattle, soil – it’s all carbon at one level or another. It was great to see it all in action.

I’m eager to learn how things go for Midland’s carbon project. And for Mariah, Miles, and Wallace. Young people today are the inheritors of a world in which carbon will be increasingly on their minds – for better and for worse. While we have a pretty clear picture of the carbon challenges ahead, especially atmospherically, the opportunities are just emerging. What will be key to both is leadership – and thanks to places like Midland, young leaders are on the way.

Ben Munger talks grass to a Midland class.