Butterfly in a Tree

Earth First! tree-sitter Julia 'Butterfly' Hill talks about irresponsible logging, direct action, corporate media, and the unconditional love of planet Earth.

| Tue May 26, 1998 3:00 AM EDT

On December 10, 1997, a 23-year-old Earth First! activist climbed a 200-foot-tall redwood tree on Pacific Lumber property, and positioned herself on a six-by-eight-foot platform in protest of the company's logging practices. Today—168 days, numerous winter storms, and countless cellular phone interviews later—Julia "Butterfly" Hill, now 24, is still up there in the tree dubbed "Luna," fighting the good fight and breaking the world record for tree-sitting. Who is this young Arkansas native who has given up the earthbound life—and defied winter storms and numerous attempts by the timber company to dislodge her—all for the sake of the ancient forest? The MoJo Wire found out.

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Why did you go up into the tree?
I came out here with no knowledge of anything except that the forests were disappearing at alarming rate and that that was wrong, and that I needed to do anything and everything that I could to stop it and to bring about public awareness about what is happening out here. When I got out to the area, base camp was closing and people were leaving, going to visit their families for the holidays, et cetera. One day there was someone walking around saying 'I need someone to sit in Luna, can anyone sit in Luna'? and I was like, "I'll do it!" (laughs) Because I had been trying for days to get plugged into something or anything and it wasn't happening. When this opportunity arose I was like, hey, here's something for me to do. Things were very chaotic on the ground and the tree-sit was in a lot of peril, and so I said, "I'm going to go up there"...but shortly into it I realized that I needed to stay up here and not allow my feet to touch the ground again until I had done everything in my power, through the power of the universe, to bring about worldwide awareness if I possibly could, and to stop the destructive logging practices here. I felt raising public worldwide awareness is very important.

Not many people could do what you're doing. What experiences in your life have made you the kind of person that can do this?
Lots of things have made me do this.... It's up to all of us to look into ourselves and find what we do best and offer that in service to the universe. One of the things that's helped me through this is that I was raised in a very religious home and my parents raised me to have very strong convictions and to stand by them no matter what, and never back down unless I was proven wrong, and if I was proven wrong, to ask forgiveness gracefully.

Are you religious?
I am a spiritualist. I believe very strongly in the spirituality of the universe.

Is that how you were raised?
I was raised in a non-denominational Christian home, but I just don't agree with organized religion in any form. I believe that God is within us and we are God. Everything is part of this universal body of life.

How has this experience changed you?
It's opened me up to an amazing amount of unconditional love for all life.... In the beginning I had to sit through some really intense things including [watching] all these beautiful and incredible trees around me smashing into the ground, and knowing that the men who were doing it didn't care about the trees, didn't care about the forest, and didn't care about people's lives because they're cutting right next to the mudslides and destroying the families' homes in the town of Stafford. I was so blown away that these people had such lack of respect and love.

So in the beginning I was very, very overwhelmed by sadness and frustration and anger, and I was trying so hard not to let that overwhelm me and I prayed a whole lot just asking for guidance and help, and I realized one day that I wasn't being so overwhelmed by these feelings...I was beginning to absorb them.... As each tree fell, I lost a part of myself, so I had this big open hole inside of me and when I prayed and asked for help and guidance, I tapped into the unconditional love of our Earth. That is the love that no matter what we do to destroy or disrespect her she continues to give us life. Through that life she is giving us unconditional love.

Do you have any idea when you'll come down?
I gave my word to this tree and the forest and all these people basically around the world whose lives are being destroyed right along with these forests that I wouldn't allow my feet to touch the ground again until I felt I had done everything I could. And right now I still don't feel that's happened. I feel there's a lot more to be done. And right know this sit has gained a much-needed spotlight that we can shine on the forests and on the issues and love and respect.... For now it's just day by day and breath by breath and prayer by prayer.

Do you think you'll stay with Earth First! and with the environmental movement?
Most definitely...I look at Earth First! more as a movement than as an organization, in that when we put ourselves first we suffer, but when we put the Earth first then everyone is helped—and so I'm definitely going to stay involved in the environment, but I'm also very much a people person and I believe the two are connected. It's not just the trees and the forests to me, it's the people.

What the worst thing you've had to face up there?
Watching the trees fall. Looking down and seeing the bleeding stumps everywhere.

What's the best thing?
Reaching the world, spreading this message that I feel so strongly about with the world. Affecting lives in a positive way. And it's an amazing experience—it's an experience that no one else has ever experienced before. It's amazing to have to give yourself completely and totally to what you're doing and know that to live and die for what you believe in is better than anything else in the world. It's beyond description of words.

What is it like at night?
It would be different if I were out in the depths of Headwaters Forest, but I happen to be above the town of Stafford, California, and there's [Pacific Lumber's] Scotia Mill a few miles from me. It's not really like being in the center of the dark, deep heart of a forest. Most of the western sky is obliterated by the lights of Scotia and Pacific Lumber, and there's lots of noise along with Highway 101 that runs right down at the bottom of the hill. So the world of "down there" is still definitely part of the world up here.

How often do you see other people?
That varies. When media is on a roll (laughs), sometime I see people a few times a week. And other times in the sit I've gone for weeks without seeing people.

Do you get lonely?
No, not at all. You know this platform is very, very, very small. It's a six-by-eight living platform, but that is the kitchen, the bedroom, and the living area all in one spot, so it's really four by six feet long, as far as the actual space goes. That's just not much space, and so it's nice to have [the] space by myself.... I have an amazing relationship with the tree. I tell people I've become one with this tree and with nature in a way I'd never thought possible, and they laugh because I have this phone that my ear is attached to all the time, and a beeper going off, and a planner and all of that. But that to me shows the power of how incredible nature is—the fact that I'm still connected to nature even though I have this constant influx of technology and people. That's another thing; I do anything from two hours to eight hours a day of interviews. So I'm talking to people a lot. Sometimes I've been for days and days without people and it's beautiful. Even though I'm really close to civilization there are still birds, all different kinds of birds, including hummingbirds that are coming back. The birds especially come back now that the logging's done and spring is here and often in the eastern sky on a clear night there's gorgeous stars...

What's been the toll on your health?
I feel pretty good. It's been really, really hard, but as hard as it's been on me physically, all I have to do is think about the seven families in the town of Stafford who no longer have a home. And all I have to do is think about the animals whose homes are these forests that are being destroyed. And all I have to do is think about all the people's lives that are being destroyed by these forests [being destroyed], and all the physical hardships I've been through seem like nothing compared to that.

Have you gotten sick?
No, lately they burnt the clearcuts which is just horrible, one of the many atrocities they do in their logging operations. And for a bit of time they were burning all around me and unlike people on the ground, I can't get into a building; I just had to sit in it. And that really aggravated my allergies. And this fluctuation in weather; it kind of aggravated that. But to me that's not important. It's so nothing compared to everything else that's happening.

How does your family feel about this?
My family is extremely supportive. Everyone is involved pretty much; my father, my mother, my grandparents, my aunt. It's amazing, I have incredible support from my family. And actually that family now is extended all over the world; specifically in this West Coast area, I have an amazing family that's totally taken me in and that cares about me tremendously.

What do you think of the media coverage of you so far?
I think corporate media is holding true to its name, which is corporate. They tend to focus on things like—silly stuff, which is what I try desperately hard to keep anyone from focusing on because it's not about, "What does a woman do who lives in a tree for five months?" It's, "Why does a woman feel like she had to go and live in a tree for five months to stop what's happening? What is happening that's that terrible?" And to me that's where the story is. And of course corporate media won't focus on that, because that's too hot a topic for them for some reason...basically because it's corporations that are doing this kind of destruction. But more local media has been extremely important, especially radio because anything live, I have more of a chance of telling the truth...and speaking without being censored or edited to death.

What's the dumbest question anyone has asked you?
Well it's not necessarily dumb questions...but the questions that are focused on the most, that I refuse to talk about anymore, are things that go along the lines of personal hygiene.

What has been the worst incident you've had with the media?
For some reason it's not breaking through to television media, and I think that's because of corporate pressure, but that's just my own thought.... CNN finally...held a debate between [Pacific Lumber CEO] John Campbell and myself...so they were showing that in the background while we were talking, so that was actually extremely favorable, and now a local station is running a piece.... The local area is so heated—I'm not just a tree hugger; I'm definitely a people hugger.

What message do you have for the world?
The hope and the beauty of our future is deeply rooted in love and respect for all life, because you don't destroy and you don't hurt and you don't kill that which you love and respect, and that is everything and everyone including these ancient forests.

What can the everyday man or woman do?
Every single person can make sure that every action and thought and word is based in love and respect.... Then look inside and see what is their strong suit, what do they have to offer to the universe—specifically in this forest, in raising their voice. The corporate entities and the political power that walks hand in hand with them has an extremely loud voice because it's taken a lot of the power from the people. And so the people have to rise up and speak out and say "We want our power back. You're supposed to be representing us and you don't anymore and so we want our own voice back because you're not being our voice."

What would you say if you were face-to-face with Charles Hurwitz (CEO of Maxxam Corp., which owns Pacific Lumber)?
The first thing that I would say to him is that Luna and I and the forest love him very much. And that's very, very important to me that he knows that...I strongly believe that it is the hole inside people that causes them to destroy the Earth, and it's got to be filled with love and respect if we're going to heal the Earth.... The second thing I would tell him is that he would be able to feel the power and the success that he is trying so desperately to find by nurturing the Earth instead of by destroying it...I would ask that he help us provide a sustainable future, not only to the forest but to the economy, which he's not doing right now.

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