Julia Butterfly Hill lived for 738 days, from December 1997 to December 1999, in the canopy of a giant 1500 year old redwood tree named Luna. She ended her revolutionary action when an agreement was made with Pacific Lumber Company to spare the tree and a 200 foot buffer zone surrounding the tree. Sanctuary Forest based in Humboldt County, CA facilitated a negotiation between Julia, from her perch 180 feet in the canopy, and the Pacific Lumber Company, that included a 50K payment for lost logging revenue (this sum was later donated to research for sustainable forestry). Sanctuary Forest became the trustee of a conservation easement to protect Luna and continues to protect her.
Julia Butterfly Hill had ascended the giant redwood as a 23 year old who agreed to participate in a ‘tree sit’ action while attending an environmentally inspired festival.
I find it fascinating that Julia was an accidental activist with no experience or grand goals but to cling to something in the moment that for her was essential. She couldn’t believe that anyone would take a chainsaw to an ancient tree or destroy the last remaining redwoods that had been standing for up to 2000 years. She tells people that she would never have thought it was possible for her to achieve such a feat before she actually did it. Julia’s story speaks loudly to each one of us about our personal power.
One young woman’s extraordinary action brought saving trees to the world’s attention and contributed to the decline of logging ancient forests. Her example gives us a model to realize that our lives and unique expression can be a gift to benefit the world.
Julia’s father was an evangelical minister and her family was always on the road, living in a camper until she was ten, rarely staying in one place two years. She grew up playing outside and felt at home in nature. During a hike with her family when she was six a butterfly landed on her finger and stayed for the entire hike, hence the nickname, ‘Butterfly’.
After a serious car accident and period of recuperation in her early twenties Julia had a revelation that her life had been out of balance. “I had been obsessed by my career, success and material things.
The crash woke me up to the importance of the moment and doing whatever I could to make a positive impact on the future.” She took a trip west to a Reggae festival/fundraiser to save an old growth forest where she connected with a group of “tree sitters” on the northern CA coast who were protesting the clear-cut logging of redwoods by the Pacific Lumber Company.
She learned at that time in 1997 only 3% of ancient redwood ecosystem remained. She visited an old growth forest and was awed by the redwoods’ wisdom, energy and spirituality and wanted to make a difference. An introvert and nature-lover, living in a tree for a week or two seemed like something she could do.
“Earth First! was doing tree-sits to call attention to the urgent need to protect ancient trees, and they needed someone to stay in a redwood tree so the loggers couldn’t cut it down; because nobody else volunteered, they had to pick me. On December 10, 1997, I put on the harness and ascended Luna, 180 feet up. What I thought would be three or four weeks in the tree turned into two years and eight days. I returned to the ground only after the company agreed to protect Luna and the surrounding grove.”
Two 6 x 6 foot platforms in the tree’s massive canopy were Julia’s home for over two years. She used a solar powered phone by which she served as an in-tree correspondent attracting international media attention. Volunteers hiked 2 1/2 miles up the mountain to deliver food and supplies. Julia endured one of the harshest El Nino storms, was harassed by helicopters and threatened by loggers who were felling trees around her and even received death threats. Most of the time she was wet and cold and sometimes the “discomfort and fear left her sobbing in the fetal position.”
“I knew that if I continued to debate politics and science and stayed in the mind instead of the heart and the spirit, it would always be about one side versus the other. We all understand love, however; we all understand respect, we all understand dignity, and we all understand compassion up to a certain point.
But how could I convince the loggers to transfer those feelings that they might have for a human being to the forest? And how could I get them to let go of their stereotypes of me? Because in their mind, I was a treehugging, granola eating, dirty, dreadlocked hippie environmentalist.”
She received strength from the wisdom of the tree, she said. The bond that developed between Julia and Luna must have been profound. There is no doubt she loved the tree.
She marks her life simply: before tree, during tree and after tree. After the highly publicized experience with Luna she has continued her activism in various ways, as a writer (bestseller The Legacy of Luna and One Makes the Difference handbook), defending rights of nature, social justice and co-founding a number of environmental organizations as well as inspiring films, books and music. One of Julia’s projects, What’s Your Tree?, challenges individuals to find a passion that guides your life, that you can be in service and so inspired that you can’t help but make a difference.
My favorite quote is, “the role of the revolutionary artist is to make the revolution irresistible”; I see the two year tree-sit in the canopy of a giant redwood as non-violent civil disobedience that blossomed into public art and Julia as a revolutionary artist.
Julia’s story, her love of nature, and her spontaneity resonate with me. During much of my childhood I, too, was a nature girl at home in the woods. As a mother I am motivated to protect and restore this beautiful earth for our children and future generations and as a teacher I encourage my students to find their ‘art’, their passion. I recently moved to a farm to reconnect with nature and create art designed to honor and celebrate the natural world, with bees and trees as symbols for our interconnection with nature.
Another way I am taking action is working with TreeSisters Heartwood Volunteer Team and contributing monthly to planting trees through TreeSisters’ tree-planting partner organizations. I had the pleasure of meeting Clare Dubois from Bristol UK, founder of TreeSisters, at an event in Manhattan a few years ago. I heard Clare speak passionately from her heart about this huge vision, to call on women to step into their nature-based wisdom, to reforest the tropics in ten years and to restore balance on behalf of nature. I see some parallels between Julia and Clare’s stories.
Like Julia, Clare began her life as an activist after her car crashed (into a tree!) which changed the direction of her life. Clare was given a mission and a map and the motivation to begin TreeSisters. The reasons are clear: the planet is out of balance in many ways, cannot sustain this rate of destruction and we must restore forests to sequester carbon and cool the planet.
Women joining together and donating monthly to give back to nature are given a ‘platform’ through TreeSisters to heal Mother Earth for our (collective) children, while receiving support through various offerings. TreeSisters Groves, women’s circles, are being created in communities around the world designed for sistering support, empowerment and creative opportunities for taking action.
You can go here to learn more about TreeSisters and the powerful work they are doing for the planet!
By Marriott Sheldon
Top photo by Tracey Barnett