Our inculturation as “moderns” sometimes leads us to view unconventional people in a misguided light. Portrayed as a tree-hugging radical, Julia “Butterfly” Hill is a well-known environmental activist and writer, best-known for her two-year long “tree-sit” occupation of a 200-foot tall ancient redwood tree in Humboldt County, California, to save it from being cut down by loggers. I’ve written about her before, and regardless of what mainstream media has said, Hill is one of those inspiring, unforgettable figures precisely because of her act of profound courage. She is one of those modern mystics that have blazed a path into a great spiritual unknown, starting with this singular act. As I said before: “You can speak Gandhi and Martin Luther King, non-violent civil disobedience, in the same breath; certainly, this image of a woman standing tall on a even taller tree, surrounded only by sky, is that indomitable human spirit in the service of love and truth.”
But judge for yourself; here are some of her own words, from Inner Self:
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“Committed Love in Action” – article by Julia Butterfly Hill
I was born into a deeply religious family. My father was an itinerant preacher and we traveled across the country offering our service to rural communities. My father would preach, my mother would sing, and my brothers and I would perform puppet shows to entertain the young ones. My early life lessons were to respect my elders and to offer myself to the greater good.
In our family we placed God first, community service second, and our own personal concerns last. Like many teenagers, I rebelled against my upbringing and questioned the way I was raised. Because we were extremely poor and religious, I rebelled by valuing money and deviating from organized religion.
I graduated from high school at sixteen. I decided to study business in college because I truly believed that our value in society was measured by our financial wealth. Because I am someone who prefers experiential learning, I left college and opened my own restaurant when I was eighteen. I am a hard worker, and the next two years of my life were devoted to this business. I even helped others run their enterprises. My life revolved around saving for the future. Yet like most young people, I liked to party and have fun.
In 1996, I was out late with some friends, and I was the designated driver. I was driving a small two-door hatchback and was rear-ended by a drunk driver in a Ford Bronco. The steering wheel jammed into my skull, causing brain damage.
The accident affected my short-term memory and my motor skills. I underwent nearly a year of cognitive and physical therapy. During this period, I had time to contemplate the possibility that I might not fully recover. What if I could not function normally again and what if that impaired my ability to work and earn money, the way I had become accustomed? This possibility struck a chord in me that forced me to question my perceived values. I realized that my value as a human being was certainly greater than my ability to earn money. I began to ponder what my true meaning and purpose on Earth were.
When your way of life is threatened, nothing is ever the same. I suddenly saw everything in a new light. All the time and space I had taken for granted became precious. I realized that I had always been looking ahead and planning instead of making sure that every moment counted for something. Perhaps because I had injured the analytical side of my brain, the more creative side began to take over, and my perspective shifted. It became clear to me that our value as people is not in our stock portfolios and bank accounts but in the legacies of life that we leave behind.
My parents’ legacy began to take hold. I guess I really am the daughter of a preacher. Having survived this horrible accident, I developed a greater appreciation for the sanctity of all life. I resolved to change my life and follow a spiritual path. If I was to become whole — and that meant body, mind, and spirit — I was going to have to find out where I was meant to be and what I needed to do. I decided that, when I was well enough, I would go on a journey around the world. I would visit places that had deep spiritual roots. In those roots, in that common thread of spirituality, I felt, I would find my sense of purpose.
Once I had recovered sufficiently to travel, I jumped at the first opportunity for adventure that presented itself. Neighbors were heading west to California, and I joined them. Along the way, we had a chance encounter with someone who raved about the beauty of the Lost Coast of California and the redwoods.
On the way to the magnificent shore, we entered Grizzly Creek State Park to see the California redwood giants. Upon entering the forest, I felt something calling to me. I started walking faster and experiencing an exhilarating energy. I broke into a run, leaping over logs as I plunged deeper into the forest.
After about a half mile, the beauty of my surroundings started to hit me. I slowed down for a better look. The farther I walked, the larger the ferns grew, until three people with outstretched arms couldn’t have encircled them. Lichen, moss, and fungus sprouted everywhere.
The trees were so big that I couldn’t see their crowns. Their trunks were so large that ten individuals holding hands would barely be able to wrap around them. Some of the trees were hollow, scorched away by lightning strikes and forest fires. Wrapped in the fog and moisture that they need to grow, these ancient giants stood primordial and eternal, a long line of sentinels stretching back to the age of the dinosaurs. My feet sank into rich earth with each step. I knew I was walking on millennia of compounded history.
As I headed farther into the forest, I could no longer hear the sounds of cars or smell their fumes. I breathed in the pure, wonderful air. It tasted sweet on my tongue. Everywhere I turned I could see, smell, hear, taste, and touch life force. For the first time, I really felt what it was like to be alive, to feel the connection of all life. The energy hit me in a wave. Gripped by the spirit of the forest, I dropped to my knees and began to sob. Surrounded by these ancient giants, I felt the sensory film caused by our fast-paced, technologically dependent society melt away. I could feel my whole being bursting forth into new life in this majestic cathedral. The tears turned to joy and mirth as I drank in the beauty of it all.
Two weeks later, I learned that if I had walked a little farther along the path, I would have been dumped into a clear-cut courtesy of Pacific Lumber (PL)/Maxxam Corporation. When I first saw a photograph of a clear-cut, I thought that a bomb had been dropped in the forest because the land looked devoid of all life, charred and desolate. The photos depicted a horizontal forest where ancient trees crisscrossed the landscape like scattered bones. “How could redwoods that could thrive for thousands of years be felled by chain saws in less than an hour?” I grieved that our culture could destroy such a precious gift of Creation.
Learning about the clear-cuts made me feel like a part of myself was being ripped apart and violated, just as the forests were. For me, these redwood cathedrals are the holiest of temples, housing more spirituality than any church. I desperately wanted to do something positive to help protect these ancient beings that are the lungs of the planet.
I returned to the Lost Coast to pray for guidance. I believe in prayer, but ultimately the biggest power in prayer for me comes from the willingness to accept the answers. So I added, “If I’m truly meant to come back and fight for these forests out here, please help me know what I’m meant to do, and use me as a vessel.
On December 10, 1997, when I was 23, I climbed into the canopy of a thousand-year-old redwood tree named Luna to try to save her life and to help make the world aware of the plight of ancient forests. From my perch 180 feet above the ground, I was able to see the Pacific Lumber mill where redwoods are turned into lumber. I could see the Eel River swollen with mud from deforested slopes. I could see the town of Stafford that was destroyed by a mud slide caused by PL’s/Maxxam clear-cutting practices.
When I lived in the branches of Luna, I withstood El Nino storms, helicopter logging that ravaged the forest canopy, and the tremendous sorrow of witnessing the family of trees surrounding Luna cut to the ground. Each time a chain saw cut through those trees, I felt it cut through me as well. It was like watching my family being killed. And just as we lose a part of ourselves with the passing of a family member or friend, so I lost a part of myself with each fallen tree.
Like any threatened animal that is torn from its habitat, my first impulse was to strike out at the forces that were killing the forests. I wanted to stop the violence, pain, and suffering. I wanted to stop the men who were cutting the hillside in complete disregard for the forest and the people’s lives in the town of Stafford below. I had hate for everything, including myself, because I was disgusted to be part of a race of people with such a lack of respect.
I knew that if I didn’t find a way to deal with my anger and hate, they would overwhelm me and I would be swallowed up in the fear, sadness, and frustration. To hate and strike out was to be a part of the same violence I was trying to stop. And so I prayed: “Please, Universal Spirit, please help me find a way to deal with this, because if I don’t, it’s going to consume me.”
I have seen a lot of activists overcome. The intense negative forces that are oppressing and destroying the Earth wind up overcoming many of them. They get so absorbed by the hate and anger that they become hollow. I didn’t want to go there. Instead, my hate had to turn to love, unconditional Agape love.
One day, through my prayers, an overwhelming amount of love started flowing into me, filling up the dark hole that threatened to consume me. I suddenly realized that I was feeling the love of the Earth, the love of Creation. Every day we, as a species, do so much to destroy Creation’s ability to give us life. But the Earth continues to give us life anyway. And that’s true love.
If the Creation source and Mother Earth keep giving us the gift of life, then I had to find it within myself to feel and express unconditional love for the Earth and humanity, even for those destroying the gift of life.
Through a series of challenges, I was able to experience and transform feelings of frustration, rage, and grief into perseverance and positive action. I was broken on every level, physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. It was only after living in the face of destruction and being pummeled by the elements that I could rise to my highest potential: a being inspired by love of the Earth and humankind.
When I almost died in a torrential storm, tossed about like a rag doll for sixteen hours in ninety-mile-an-hour winds, I lost my fear of dying, which proved to be the last attachment. Letting go of fear and embracing love freed me, like the butterfly frees itself of its cocoon. I began to live day by day, moment by moment, breath by breath, and prayer by prayer. I had come through darkness and storms and had been transformed.
True metamorphosis occurs only when we face our attachments and inner demons, free from the buzz of commercial distraction and false social appearances. At some point in our lives we need to leave the comfort and security of our cocoons and emerge as creatures with fragile wings and a strong resolve to survive life’s hardships.
The image of the butterfly has been with me since childhood. When I was a child, I was often melancholy and despondent because of difficulties in my life. During times when I felt alone in the world, I often found solace in nature. When I was seven years old, a butterfly landed on me and stayed with me for hours while I hiked in the mountains of Pennsylvania. Since then butterflies have always come to me in times of need, sometimes in reality and other times in visions and dreams. At one point, a vision came to me of a butterfly poking out of a cocoon. When it finally broke free it was a magical butterfly with prismatic colors. As the butterfly emerged, the cocoon’s brown shell turned into a shimmering ribbon that unwound. The message that came to me with this vision was, Through life’s trials and hardships we arise beautiful and free.
That was when I began to learn how to internalize the process of the butterfly, which is all about understanding and letting go of our attachments. There were many times in the course of the two year Luna vigil that I had to let go of my attachments, including my attachment to my own life and personal comforts.
There were moments when it would have been easy to feel too comfortable in Luna. Connecting to her in such a strong way was a heady experience. But when we feel too comfortable, we make careless mistakes. And at 180 feet off the ground, a fall, or even an accident, could have killed me. So even when I slept, my senses remained attuned, because a creak or a groan could have meant that something was breaking that my life might literally depend on.
I couldn’t afford to ever really relax, because I couldn’t afford to make a mistake. And not just on the physical front; I had to be on guard spiritually as well. Because my actions, increasingly spot lighted, affected people’s perceptions about the forest, environmentalism, and direct action, I felt that I needed to be careful about my every word and deed. The timber industry and corporate government could attempt to exploit and discredit me, and I was concerned that that could strip other activists of their credibility. I often felt exhausted and drained by the responsibility of being a spokesperson and the struggles of living without everyday comforts.
Yet each time that I’d start to feel the fire within me wane and that I couldn’t face another day, the great spirits of the universe would send something to fan those flames into the bonfire I needed to renew my strength. When I felt overwhelmed by demands and pressure, I would remind myself to take time and remember to breathe. That was part of the lesson that Luna taught me: to be still and listen, even in the chaos of my life.
Prayer had taken me to the Lost Coast, prayer is what guided me to the redwood forest, and prayer is what led me to Luna. Prayer is what had given me the strength to continue all this time. And someday, I knew, prayer, patience, and an open heart would guide me down.
Prayer taught me to practice compassion, understanding, and acceptance of our perceived differences. The common thread that humanity shares is that we are all children of the Earth. We all need clean air, food, and water for our survival. We are all planetary citizens, and the ancient trees are living, breathing elders that remind us to respect and honor what we cannot replace.
Every religion in the world builds shrines, temples, and churches so people can worship and feel connected to Creation. The ancient forest cathedrals are also places of worship where we feel connected to the Creation source. Yet they are continually desecrated by industrial logging practices. The desire to protect these sacred forests can unite all denominations, because protecting the remaining ancient forest ecosystems is amoral imperative on behalf of all life.
For millennia the two-million-acre redwood ecosystem thrived and sheltered myriad species of life. In the last 150 years, 97 percent of the original redwood forests have been destroyed by timber corporations. With only 3 percent of these native forests remaining, species like the marbled murrelet and coho salmon are on the brink of extinction; at the same time, people fear that they will lose their jobs and futures. Big business cut-and-run logging operations have instilled a false dichotomy: jobs versus the environment. As long as we label each other “loggers” and “environmentalists,” it is difficult to find our common ground and restore the forests and diversity that are our true legacy.
During the tree sit, I dialogued with loggers in an effort to reach common ground and gain a deeper understanding of the issues. I developed a good rapport with the workers, but the spokespeople of Pacific Lumber continued to dehumanize me. After awhile though, PL/Maxxam realized that their threats and actions were not forcing me down from Luna. Because I had learned to speak out from a place of compassion and love, higher-ups within PL started to treat me like a person rather than an “eco-terrorist.”
I was like water wearing away at the stone. Water acts differently than a hammer and chisel, which chip away at something. I was just a constant presence that sooner or later would be heard. Not because I’d pounded in the message, but because I was always there. I began talking with John Campbell, the President of PL. He actually came to a clearing across from Luna so we could meet and see each other as people rather than adversaries. He brought me a six-pack of Pepsi as a gift and I gave him a crystal from a powerful mountain in Arkansas. He was giving me something that he thought I might miss and I was giving him a gift from the Earth that I hoped would open his heart. Our funny gift exchange exemplified how although we come from two different perspectives and had different values, we could still communicate.
Talks eventually led to negotiations to protect Luna and a buffer zone around her. Reaching an agreement was a nearly yearlong process with many stumbling blocks and stalemates. During the course of the negotiations, Pacific Lumber wanted me to denounce tree sitting, civil disobedience, and forgo my freedom of speech. I was unwilling to compromise my beliefs, morals, or values, or to sign away my First Amendment rights. I was determined to not come down until I had done everything in my power to protect Luna. I wanted to protect Luna for the thousands of people across the country and around the world for whom she had become a symbol of hope, a reminder that we can find peaceful, loving ways to solve our conflicts.
Another sign of hope was the alliance that was forming between labor and environmentalists. One of the most exciting alliances in recent history is the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment (ASJE) that was formed by striking United Steelworkers of America and environmentalists who found common ground fighting against Maxxam Corporation’s destructive practices. At a time when the negotiations fizzled and I had to let go of my hopes of resuming my life on the ground, a locked-out U.S. steelworker named John Goodman entered the negotiating ring. John had worked for Kaiser Aluminum, a subsidiary of Maxxam Corp. John, a Texan like Maxxam CEO Charles Hurwitz, was a stalwart negotiator along with several key environmental activists.
In reality, the support of thousands of people around the world helped turn the tide and create an environment where the corporation was compelled to do the right thing and protect this incredible being that came to represent hope and the power of committed love in action.
Finally, after 738 days living in the canopy of an ancient redwood tree, the Luna Preservation Agreement and Deed of Covenant was recorded, protecting Luna and a 200-foot buffer of her family around her in perpetuity. We succeeded.
Sometimes, people ask me, “What next?” and I have to laugh because living in Luna’s embrace was not a stunt that I need to top. It was an experience that I will build upon in my life of service. The magic of living with Luna is an experience that I relive every day as I share the messages and wisdom that she lovingly shared with me.
I will continue to stand for what I believe in, and I will refuse to back down and go away. No person, no business, and no government has the right to destroy the gift of life. No one has the right to steal from the future in order to make a quick profit today. It’s time that we as humans step back into living only off the Earth’s interest, instead of drawing off the principal. And it’s time we restored some of the capital investment we’ve already stolen.
It is our responsibility to stand up for the life that we’ve recklessly squandered, no matter the consequences. So I’ll continue to hold the light strong even in the midst of darkness. I will continue to believe in the power of prayer and love as guiding forces in this time of global transition into the next millennium. By living in a respectful and sustainable way we enrich our lives and make the world a better place for all species.