A Passion for Language and Nature
by Ellen Weiland ’95
In 2008, my husband, Kai, and I founded Wilderness International along with 25 other people in Europe. Kai is the CEO of the foundation and I serve as President of the Board of Directors. Our focus is the conservation of rainforests on the west coast of Canada by purchasing the land directly.
My life is a journey! I love to travel and explore the world because it so beautiful. Without Annie Wright Schools, I would not have chosen such an international life; that is for certain. Annie Wright made me an independent woman with dreams, and gave me the ability to trust that I could achieve them. I learned this from my teachers and the students I lived with in the dorms. So I am very, very thankful.
After graduating from college, I was hired by Chicago-based McKinsey & Company—the largest management consulting company in the world. I worked for them in Germany, China, and Switzerland for seven years. I had developed an interest in China during college. I love languages. Now I speak Mandarin fluently, as well as French, Russian, German, and English. I told myself I wanted to master the most difficult language, so I chose to learn Mandarin. Mastering Mandarin was a journey in itself. At that time, no one realized it was going to be a world language, and they questioned why I would want to focus my energies on Mandarin. In 2000, I received a scholarship to study for one year at Chung Ching University. I was one of the first foreigners in this city of 30 million Chinese and was a novelty. There was absolutely nothing “western” in this city, no western food or clothing of any kind. I only lived in China for two and a half years, but I studied the language for seven.
It was while I was living and working in China that I found what I missed most was nature. Kai and I were dating at the time and we decided to meet in Canada after my stay in China. Kai was in a seven-year program based in Tharandt, Germany, studying to be a forest scientist. The university program was the first of its kind and focused on forest sustainability around the world. While we were in Canada, we both fell in love with the landscape.
What led us on the next stretch of our journey and really prompted us to take action was our discovery that Canada had dropped out of the Kyoto Protocol in 2011. Canada’s forests are being destroyed at one of the quickest rates. Our goal was to do something small but very effective, so we decided to buy land directly. So far, we have purchased three pieces of land and have been able to protect 401 acres of pure wilderness containing 2,000-year-old trees in coastal rain forests. This one small act has affected greater concentric circles of life in this habitat. If you don’t have the trees that give shade to the rivers and ocean, it will affect the salmon, which in turn affects the bears, and so on.
Perhaps the most important part of our work at Wilderness International is passing the information along to students and getting them personally involved. In Germany, we work with 74 schools. We go into the classroom and educate the students about the temperate rain forests. The kids then have the opportunity to go out and do something by participating in our “Walk for the Wild” sponsored walks (the biggest one had 8,000 students).
Every summer we take a group of eight to ten students, including students from the First Nations, along with scientists from different universities, to the west coast of Canada on a rainforest expedition. We walk, kayak, explore the forests, measure trees, study botany, research salmon, and involve the students in the protection of these tempered rainforests. Each year, the highlight is when we take the children in a helicopter or seaplane to see an aerial view of the forest. This is always the most emotional part of the trip as well, because from the air you get the full effect of how much of our forests are disappearing. On Vancouver Island, only two percent of the original rainforest is left.
Sometimes it takes a journey— leaving your comfort zone—to find out what is happening in the world and where your passion lies. But if you don’t travel and don’t go around with your eyes open, you don’t see the possibilities. Leaving your routine and trusting you can make a change allows you to see the world with different eyes. My parents encouraged me to go abroad, and I am so grateful for that encouragement.
Ellen came to Annie Wright Upper School from Dresden, Germany, as an exchange student with the organization ASSIST (American Secondary Schools for International Students and Teachers). She is currently based in Berlin. Learn more about Wilderness International at www.wilderness-international.org.