An Interview With Julia "Butterfly" Hill
On December 10, 1997 Julia "Butterfly" Hill scaled "Luna,"
a 1,000-year-old California redwood tree that was in danger
of being included in a massive clear-cut by Pacific Lumber,
a division of the Maxam Corporation. And while "tree sits"
have become the norm for environmental activists looking
for a drastic way to put an end to clear cuts in old growth
forests, Hill's determination has been the object of
inspiration for environmentalists and frenzied derision for
loggers. For over two years (738 days), Hill did not come
down from her 180-foot-high perch. She repelled everything
from helicopters to El Nino to personal doubt, and her
resilience garnered worldwide attention for the
preservation of the planet's endangered wood.
SAM MARTIN FOR MOTHER: You are
amazingly busy these days. How are you adjusting to the new
life of a public spokesperson?
JULIA BUTTERFLY HILL: Well, nothing has
changed since I was in the tree, other than that now I'm
going all over the place. I've been a spokesperson for a
long time. The only difference is that instead of being
able to do it all from one spot, now I have to go around
MOTHER: What was a typical
February or March day for you and Luna?
JBH: Well, the Februarys and Marches I was
up there were completely different. One year was El Nino
and one was La Nina. One had excessive amounts of wind and
rain and the other excessive amounts of snow. They both bad
a lot of sleet and hail.
Julia's home for 738 days was this small treetop tent,
subjected to constant wind, rain and snow.
MOTHER: Did you ever get
frightened or discouraged because of the weather?
JBH: Well, the first winter frightened me
out of my mind — but it wasn't just the weather. I was
sitting in an active logging area and the [logging] company
was doing everything they could to get me down. I was also
going through personal dilemmas, so the first few months
were probably the most brutal and difficult of all. After
that I started settling in and learning how to just
be. And in that process, which a lot of people
spend time in Yoga learning how to do, I was able to handle
the next winter and the next hardships a little easier. It
never got easy, but I certainly learned ways of breezing
through the difficulties. And of course, there were many
times I felt discouraged and a lot of times where I was
crying, thinking I'm one human being, I can't
take anymore, I can't do anymore. But then I would
look and see the beauty of the forest and I would see the
destruction of the forest, and I would remember why I was
up there. That kept me going.
MOTHER: There's a passage in your
book that I particularly like. It had to do with the first
winter, and the wind was blowing so hard that you thought
you might get blown off your platform. But you eventually
stopped fighting it and decided to bend with the storm and
the tree. Did you learn some life lessons when you were up
in the tree, and do you use them when you face new
JBH: Absolutely. But I knew that was going
to be my biggest challenge. One time, before I came down, I
was holding Luna and crying and praying and asking myself,
how will 1 hold this heart center when the world is
trying to pull me in a billion different directions? How am
I going to hold on to the lessons I've learned from this
perspective when I'm no longer in this perspective?
It's a beautiful challenge, because in the challenge is a
continuation of proving to people that it is possible. This
heart center is so deep within me that I know it to be
true. And it's not something that a teacher has to teach me
or a politician has to tell me is legal or scientist has to
tell me it's scientifically possible. It is a truth that I
know to the very depth of my core.
MOTHER: Do you look forward to
getting back to a more simple, less publicized way of
JBH: Well, I am definitely planning to do
next year a little differently than I've done this year.
I'm learning as I go. One of the things my book doesn't
mention is that I have a business background. I graduated
high school when I was 16, then I went straight into
college and majored in business. I opened my first business
when I was 18, sold it when I was 20 and started setting up
systems to run other people's businesses for them. I was
totally in that world of money and things and money and
things. [The problem was] it was never enough. In the tree
I realized that the more stuff we have, the more stuff we
need to take care of our stuff. I always use the example of
a car because a majority of the people in this country, and
even in the world, who have cars take better care of them
than they do the earth. And yet to have a car you have to
have registration, you have to have a license, you have to
have fuel in the car, you have to have fluid in the car,
you have to have good tires and good belts, and the screws
and bolts all have to be tightened down. Before you know
it, a huge portion of your time, energy and money goes into
taking care of one thing called a car. So I keep my life
simple. I have one mug that I bring with me everywhere I
MOTHER: Do you support any kind of
for estry? Selective logging, for instance?
JBH: I absolutely support sustainable
forestry. And the reason is that — I'll use my business
background here for a moment — everyone in the business
world that you talk to knows that a wise long term
investment is one where you put in a strong initial
capital, then you only draw off the interest. Now, if you
talk to corporations that are in [it] for the short term,
they want to extract it all out and move on to the next
one. The earth — in a healthy, natural state — is a very
strong capital investment. The reality is, we've been
blessed to live on a planet that supplies our needs. But in
order to meet those needs, we have to take from the earth.
That's part of our symbiotic function. If you see any
predator species in the wild, they actually play a
symbiotic role. When they get out of control, they go
extinct. It's the same thing with us as human beings.
MOTHER: What was the deal that
prompted you to come out of the tree?
JBH : A deal was struck [with Maxam
Corporation] on December 17, 1999 after nearly 10 months of
negotiation in which they agreed to just protect Luna. They
said, Okay Julia, we'll protect the tree, come down and
leave — us alone." And I said, "Well the tree's not going
to stand in a clear-cut by itself. You need to protect the
buffer around it that I've been physically able to protect
by being here." That's when I asked for the 200-foot
radius. There is a typo in the book that says 20 feet, but
it's 200 feet. It was the amount [of surrounding trees]
that I was able to physically protect [by sitting in Luna].
So then they said they wanted $50,000 to protect the zone
around it, and I asked them to donate it to their workers
because their workers had recently been laid off [due to]
their horrific logging practices. They ended up donating it
to a college.
MOTHER: It must have been an
emotional time for you to touch ground again.
JBH: On December 18 I touched the ground
because they'd agreed to protect Luna in that buffer zone
forever. Even if governments pass laws, and even if people
buy and sell the land, this agreement that we made is
basically like a law. The deal is like a conservation
easement that runs with the land so no one may ever go in
there and cut it again. So no, [coming down] wasn't
difficult. In my mind, it wasn't done until it was done.
And unfortunately because [the agreement] had been leaked
out to the public, everyone was watching. We were going to
sign the agreement on the very last minute of the afternoon
on that Friday so that it wouldn't go onto public record
until Monday. That would have given me the weekend to turn
off my phone, turn off my pager and say goodbye. But for
some reason they ended up signing it earlier than that and
of course the press immediately picked up on it and people
were going crazy. I mean, it was a really intense time. I
had to come down the very next morning.
MOTHER: What do you mean "people
were going crazy?"
JBH: Well, because of what I've done while
I was in the tree, part of the world wanted me to stay up
there forever until all of the world's forests were saved,
or at least all of the redwoods. And part of the world
wanted me to come down, and part of the world wanted me
dead. All three components of that just went nuts in their
own way. And I didn't want to come down the tree to 2,000
people. I wanted to come down to a group of hand-picked
individuals because I knew it would be intense.
MOTHER: And is that what actually
ended up happening?
JBH: Yeah, but that's because I came down
the very next morning. They posted security guards at the
base of the tree because there were threats to my life.
There were a lot of people at the base of the hill, but at
the bottom of the tree was just the group of people that I
chose to be there.
MOTHER: What was it like coming
down? It must have been an incredible moment for you after
JBH: Yes, the moment I touched the ground
I literally felt like I was being electrocuted. I was
electrocuted when I was a little girl, and I know what it
feels like. Part of me was filled with ecstatic joy. I was
on the ground again! I could touch it and kiss it, which is
the first thing I did. I kneeled and kissed the ground.
MOTHER: Did you take a hot bath
JBH: Well, I walked barefoot for three
miles back down the mountain that I had walked up 738 days
before ...straight into a press conference with hundreds of
television cameras and photographers and radio and
newspapers. And then I got in a car, which was really
intense [laughs] and I drove to a little cabin out in the
woods, where I strategized with my team because we were
getting on a plane the next morning to go to New York to do
"The moment I touched ground, I literally felt like I was
MOTHER: So what's next for you?
Are you planning other projects?
JBH: One of the best things I can do with
my time is to share that energy and that spotlight that
surrounds me with groups who deserve to have it or who
aren't getting it. February 1  was the formal
eviction notice by the government for the Navajo's to leave
Big Mountain [in Arizona] and I was there with them
standing in solidarity and doing press.
I did a lot of workshops and presentations at colleges to
get young people to go down there. I've helped protect two
more [tree] groves by doing events that bring in community
and raise money. I'm going to Maine in a few days to try
and help push through the Maine Woods Initiative, [which is
meant to protect] a beautiful area of for est and lakes
that's in danger of being privatized and developed. Here in
the redwoods I'm continuing to do a lot of things. I helped
raise money to make people aware that we're working on a
people's initiative to protect the old growth here because
our governor and our legislature keeps selling us out. So,
you know, I'm just doing, doing, doing, doing.
MOTHER: I think
your biggest accomplishment by sitting in the tree has been
to let people know that it's still possible for one person
to stand up to huge industries. Do you have any advice for
those of us who simply can't live in a tree for two years
but want to preserve what we think is important to
JBH: Yes. The first thing is living
simply. It's all fine and dandy to stomp our feet and point
our fingers at corporations, but if we're buying their
products and buying into their game then we're helping them
continue. The second thing I always ask people when they
ask what they can do is `what do you love to do?'
Because if you find a way to use what you love to do for
the causes you care about, then you last forever. And you
find a strength for when the times are hard. An example...
say you're an artist. Find other artists who are
like-minded and hold gallery events where you highlight a
cause of concern to you, whether it's the forest or the
nuclear plants or ending genetically modified food and
herbicides and pesticides in our food and in our clothing.
Do your art show, have speakers, have videos, have stories
written by each artist on the wall about why they care.
Have addresses to your local representatives there on
tables with sample letters so that people can write about
this concern, and all of a sudden you're raising community
support. These are the kinds of things that spark people's
interests and that have longevity. And these are the kind
of things that anyone can do.
MOTHER: Thank you so much for your
time. Best of luck.
JBH: Thanks so much.
In the last week of November 2000, unidentified vandals cut a potentially fatal gash in
Luna. Efforts to save the now world-famous
redwood are ongoing.