Interesting People Throughout History Julia Butterfly Hill — Tree Hugger

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By Pam Teel

Environmental activist, Julia Butterfly Hill, was born in 1974. She is best known for having lived in a 200-foot tall, 1000-year-old, California redwood tree for 738 days between December 1997-1999. The tree, affectionately named Luna, was slated to be cut down by the Pacific Lumber Company. Hill eventually made an agreement with the lumber company to save the tree.

Hill’s father was a traveling minister, so in her early years, she went from town to town living in a 32-foot camper with her parents and two brothers. While camping out in various places, Hill always enjoyed discovering the hidden gems in the area. She would love to take hikes and explore rivers. One day a butterfly landed on her finger and stayed with her for the duration of her hike. (Where she acquired the nickname butterfly.) It wasn’t until Hill was in middle school that her parents decided to stop traveling and settle down in Arkansas.

When Hill was 22 years old, she was involved in a near-fatal car crash. She was hit from behind by a drunk driver. The steering wheel of the car she was driving penetrated her skull. It took over a year of extensive therapy before she was able to walk or speak normally.  During that time of convalescence, she felt that her whole life had been out of balance. Graduating from high school at 16 and going right to work, she found herself obsessed with career, money, and material things. The crash woke her up and gave her a new direction in life. She wanted more of a spiritual connection than just all work and no gratitude for it. She decided to take a road trip to California and attended a fundraiser to save the forests. She was interested in the group of front liners who had been taking turns tree-sitting in the giant redwoods in Humboldt County to keep the logging company from cutting down more of the ancient redwoods.  The trees were on a windswept ridge overlooking the community of Stafford. On New Year’s Eve 1996, a landslide in Stafford caused by the clear-cut logging resulted in most of the community being buried by 17 feet of mud and tree debris, and eight homes were destroyed. Organizers wanted someone to stay in the tree for a solid week and when no one else volunteered, they picked her, even though she was not officially affiliated with the environmental organization. Soon afterward though, she was actively supported by many other environmental groups.

So, on Dec. 10, 1997, Hill climbed the 1,000-year-old tree to a height of 180 feet. It took another hour and a half to create a makeshift base and bring the rest of the provisions up. She was happy when she could undo her harness and finally rest from exhaustion on the two 6 by 4-foot planks that formed her platform. There she remained for two years and thirty-eight days.

Hill stated, “When I entered the ancient redwoods for the first time, I dropped to my knees and began to cry. I connected with a higher purpose for my life. These beautiful forests were being clear-cut, and I wanted to do something.”

Hill learned many survival skills while living in the tree, such as seldom washing the soles of her feet, because the sap helped her feet stick to the branches better. She used solar-powered cell phones for radio interviews, became an “in-tree” correspondent for a cable television show, and hosted TV crews to protest old-growth clear-cutting. With ropes, Hill hoisted up survival supplies brought by an eight-member support crew. To keep warm, she wrapped herself tight in a sleeping bag, leaving only a small hole for breathing. For meals, she used a single-burner propane stove. Throughout her ordeal, she weathered freezing rains and 40 mph winds from El Niño, helicopter harassment, and a ten-day siege by company security guards who blocked her team from supplying food to her. She was intimidated by angry loggers who downed trees around her very close to the redwood she was in. Only about 3 percent of the ancient redwoods remain today after being cut down by loggers.

The winter of 1997-98 was a particularly brutal one in Northern California due to the powerful El Niño storms. “One night I thought I was going to die,” Hill wrote in The New York Times. “The wind was 90 m.p.h. Imagine you’re on a bucking bronco. Put that bronco on a ship at sea, in the middle of a storm; then put those 180 feet in the air. I was broken, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, suffering frostbite, and cut off from the only people that cared whether I lived or died. I grabbed Luna (the tree’s nickname) and started praying.” Hill said she survived by learning to live as one with Luna, swaying with the tree as its branches bent in the winds.

A resolution was reached in 1999 when the Pacific Lumber Company agreed to preserve Luna and all trees within a 200-foot  buffer zone. In exchange, Hill agreed to vacate the tree. In addition, the $50,000 that she and other activists raised during the cause was given to the logging company, as stipulated by the resolution. The money was then donated to Humboldt State University as part of the agreement for research into sustainable forestry.

Unfortunately, later in 2000, Vandals cut into the tree with a chainsaw. A large gash in the 200-foot redwood was discovered by one of Hill’s supporters. The gash was treated with an herbal remedy, and the tree was stabilized with steel cables. The bracing system helped the tree withstand extreme windstorms with peak winds between 60 and 100 miles per hour.

As of spring 2007, the tree was doing well with new growth each year. Caretakers routinely climb the tree to check its condition and to maintain the steel wires. Luna is under the stewardship of Sanctuary Forest, a nonprofit organization.

Since her tree sit, Hill has become a motivational speaker (holding some 250 events a year), a best-selling author, and the co-founder of the Circle of Life Foundation (which helped organize We The Planet, an eco-friendly music tour) and the Engage Network, a nonprofit that trains small groups of civic leaders to work toward social change.

On July 16, 2002, Hill was jailed in Quito, Ecuador, outside the offices of Occidental Petroleum, for protesting a proposed oil pipeline that would penetrate a virgin Andean cloud forest that teems with rare birds. “The cloud forest is stunning,” she said. “It’s this deep, lush green, spangled with explosions of red, yellow, and purple from the flowers, birds and insects. The environmental destruction they saw along the pipelines that had already been built was horrendous.” Hill was later deported from Ecuador.

In 2003, Hill became a proponent of tax redirection, resisting payment of about $150,000 in federal taxes, donating the money to after-school programs, arts and cultural programs, community gardens, programs for Native Americans, alternatives to incarceration, and environmental protection programs. She stated that she takes the money that the IRS says goes to them and she gives it to the places where her taxes should be going.

In 2006, Hill protested the sale of the South Central Farm in an attempt to save the 14-acre farm from developers.

Julia Butterfly Hill’s time with Luna had far surpassed the record for the world’s longest tree sit at more than eight times the previous 90-day record. The experience had affected her so deeply, she said, that she now thinks of her life in terms of “before tree” and “after tree.”

“The person I’d been when I’d gone up and the person I was when I came down were so profoundly different that I wasn’t sure how I was going to be able to live in the world again,” Hill told The Sun in 2012. “When I set foot on the earth, there was a lot of emotion. There was extreme joy because we’d protected the tree and the grove around it, which a lot of people had said was impossible. But there was also sadness. I had become so much a part of that tree, and it had become so much a part of me, that I wasn’t sure I would fit in with other people.”

Hill started the “What’s Your Tree” project to impress on people that even if they can’t sit in a tree for two years, they can still have a cause that drives them.

“What’s Your Tree helps people clarify their purpose and passion, then take action,” Hill told The Sun. “We all have our own version of a tree sit that’s out there waiting for us. It’s our life’s calling. There is a ‘tree’ for every one of us, and this tree can call us to be bigger than we believe ourselves to be and to create a life that is more amazing than we can imagine.”

Even today, Hill’s legacy lives on. She has been the subject of several documentaries, interviews, and books, including her own 2000 memoir, The Legacy of Luna, and has influenced numerous musicians:

•  On December 10, 1998, a benefit concert was played at the Mateel Community Center in Redway, California during Julia’s “tree sit”. Artists performing were Bob Weir and Mark Karan as an acoustic duet, the Steve Kimock Band, and the Mickey Hart Band. Hill took part in the event, reading her poem “Luna” via telephone while the Mickey Hart Band was performing “The Dancing Sorcerer”.

•  The character Sierra Tierwater in the 2000 novel A Friend of the Earth by T. Coraghessan Boyle was partially inspired by Hill.

•  Hill was the subject of the documentary Butterfly (2000) broadcast on PBS POV. She is also featured in the documentary film Tree-Sit: The Art of Resistance. Both films document her time in the redwood tree.

•  The 2000 twelfth-season episode of The Simpsons called “Lisa the Tree Hugger” was conceived when writer Matt Selman heard a news story about Hill.

•  In Penn & Teller’s 2003 first season of their documentary television show, Bullshit, Hill appeared as a Special Guest Expert on the episode “Environmental Hysteria”.

•  Hill and her events were featured in the 2010 Michael P. Henning documentary film Hempsters: Plant the Seed.

•  The main character of the 2017 Swedish children’s book Julia räddar skogen (Julia saves the forest) by Niklas Hill and Anna Palmqvist is named after Hill. The book is about a child who occupies a tree in order to hinder the construction of a new highway.

•  In The Overstory, by Richard Powers, the character Olivia Vandergriff, is loosely based on Hill.

•  Trey Anastasio and Tom Marshall wrote a song called “Kissed by Mist” about Hill.[41]

•  In 2002 Los Suaves made a song in honor of Hill called “Julia Hill” on the Un paso atrás album in which the singer is “Luna”.

•  The Red Hot Chili Peppers 2003 song “Can’t Stop” contains the line “J. Butterfly is in the treetop”.

•  Neil Young made a reference to Hill in the 2003 song “Sun Green” on the Greendale album in which the title character: “Still wants to meet Julia Butterfly”.

•  Casey Desmond wrote a song called “Julia Butterfly Hill” which appeared on her 2006 album No Disguise

•  In 2009 Idina Menzel wrote a song called Butterfly referring to Hill.

Julia is still fighting for many causes but more behind the scenes due to injuries sustained from being rear-ended, not just the first time, but from two more car accidents after that. None of them were her fault.  She also has severe asthma that got worse after all the inhaling of all the smoke when she was up in Luna from the clearcut burning. She had 2 hip replacements and learned that she had late-stage Lyme disease that severely damaged her, gave her a heart attack, and made her brain foggy and messed up for quite some time, but she still strives on fighting for her causes.