Out of her tree

Julia Butterfly Hill sat in a giant redwood for two years, then kicked the big boys' butts. Now her book's a bestseller and she's talking about a movie deal.

Published June 1, 2000 5:04PM (EDT)

Tree-huggin' hippie crap. That's the thought, borrowed from "South Park's" Eric Cartman, that floats through the mind of a skeptic who's looking at the cover of Julia Butterfly Hill's bestseller, "The Legacy of Luna."

In case you've been held hostage in Sierra Leone or the Philippines lately and haven't seen the book, the cover photo shows the winsome Hill, looking ever so much like a long-haired version of Juliette Binoche, with her arms and bare feet wrapped about her beloved redwood. Hill's eyes turn away from us, toward some lofty, Utopian vision in the distance, and it's all one can do not to hurl.

But if you can get past the Hallmark-style bathos on the exterior of the book, the interior offers a truly thrilling adventure of a girl and her tree. Granted, there are plenty of saccharine moments when Hill, during her now famous two-year Earth First-initiated tree sit in Humboldt County, Calif., communes with nature or prays to the Universal Spirit to guard over her. Yet Hill, 26, really did put her life on the line from 1997 to 1999 in the course of her battle to save a 1,000-year-old redwood she named Luna from the Pacific Lumber Co., a division of the Maxxam Corp. And in the process, she kicked some corporate tail!

The good fight is the one you win. And Hill did indeed win. In 1999, Pacific Lumber rolled over and agreed to a deed of covenant to protect Luna and create a 20-foot buffer zone around the massive tree. Not bad for a young woman who left her home in Arkansas on a whim and ended up in California with the odd idea in her noggin that she could help save the redwoods.

More than saving Luna, she dramatically illustrated what was at stake in the extinction of old-growth forest. She helped in other ways too. Instead of the public's general perception of environmentalists as ragtag leftovers from a J.R.R. Tolkien novel, here was a young, well-spoken, courageous young woman with the looks to challenge the |berbabes on the catwalk.

Hill's now at it 24/7 as a co-founder of the nonprofit, environmentalist Circle of Life Foundation -- doing interviews, promoting her book (the profits from which go back into Circle of Life), speaking to civic groups and rallying the faithful to the ramparts. Think of her as a 21st century Petra Kelly. The environmental movement may never again be the same. I caught up with Hill during a hectic day in which her publicist reported receiving some 400 e-mails. Yikes!

What's your life been like since you left Luna?

I knew I was coming down to a whirlwind; I didn't know I was coming back to a tornado. [Laughs.] The gale force has been more than I could possibly have imagined. I thought my life in the tree was intense. But there, because I was not as accessible to people, it was a little bit slower. Now, every day I'm bombarded with requests and trying to juggle it all. All the issues are so important, and trying to plug in what I feel is most effective with my time and energy is a challenge.

How many interviews do you do a day?

It varies. Today I do eight, and then I go to a community event tonight right after that. So it's a full day. There are certain questions which are always asked, but there's usually something different about each one. My challenge is trying to get out what I want. That's the reason I do the media. I don't do the media because of "Woo-woo, Julia Butterfly," as I call it. I'm not into promoting me. I'm into talking about why I've done what I've done, why I continue to do this work and why other people should care.

Go with that. Tell me what you want us to know.

I want people to know that 97 percent of the ancient redwoods are gone. And of the remaining 3 percent, only 1 percent is permanently protected. The other 2 percent is disappearing daily at a horrific rate.

I want people to know that there are issues everywhere around the world -- that every community has issues facing them both socially and environmentally. From the air, to the water, to the forests, to nuclear waste, to the continued genocide of indigenous peoples. All of the issues.

I don't stop there. Because that's what disempowers people and overwhelms them. They think, "Oh, there are too many issues. I as one person can't make a difference." So the next message is: "OK, how do you make a difference? How do you as an individual make a change?"

I use the analogy of the hand. Any time we point a finger at what is wrong in the world, there are three fingers pointing back at us. I look at those three fingers as power, responsibility and love -- in daily, community and global life. It's not "Can we make a difference?" It's that we do make a difference because we have the power to change the world through everything we do and say.

That love part sounds interesting. Could you be a little more specific?

We live in a world that tells us not to care, to consume everything in sight. It tells us that being cool and being an individual actually means buying what everyone else is buying and doing what everyone else is doing.

For me love is not about froufrou New Age-ism. It's about a way of living and honoring the interconnectedness of life and accepting our responsibility and our power to change the world for the better.

Let's break it down. What are we doing in our daily lives? We live in a disposable society. We throw so much away. But it doesn't come from nowhere. It comes from the planet and it comes from future generations' lives.

So what do we do in our daily life? Are we buying paper cups every day and throwing them away, or are we willing to bring a reusable mug with us everywhere we go? Are we willing to stop using paper or plastic when we go into a store -- and bring our own cloth bag? Are we willing to bring reusable containers everywhere so that when we go out to eat we don't take our dinner home in a throwaway container?

The average American consumes [what used to amount to] 14 generations' worth [of products] in a single generation. So those small actions aren't small at all when they're multiplied by every person in this country.

Let's take that to our community. What issues are facing our community? Whatever it is that sparks your passion, find a way to help. Whether it's writing letters, attending rallies, signing petitions or direct action -- there's something that everyone can do.

Then take that globally. We should take the time to be conscious of where our dollars are going, and be willing to take our money back, even if it's our favorite store. That's the way we're going to protect the world. I can't do it alone. I'm not a superhero who swoops in and saves the day. I'm doing my part. Now it's time for everyone to do their parts too.

Your story is very dramatic. And perhaps people are longing for that kind of drama in their lives, but isn't what you're prescribing rather mundane by comparison?

The drama of my story is what has kindled the numbed consciousness of mainstream society. We live in a very image-oriented world. And the image of living in a tree for 738 days is what gets people interested in an issue that they may not have otherwise been interested in.

I'm not negating direct action. I lived in a tree for two years, and I'm continuing to do direct action. I was in Washington with the actions against the IMF and the World Bank. And I'm planning on going to the Democratic Convention [in Los Angeles] to speak out against the lies of our political leaders. I absolutely believe we have to get active. But I believe that the two go hand in hand. The personal is powerful. The personal is our hope.

What part does politics play in all of this? Or is that something we have to be cynical about?

People who are cynical say, "I'm not going to vote" or "I'm not going to be involved in politics." But all that means is that those who are involved are just going to be stronger and louder. I think cynicism is part of what's led us to a world in which our politicians no longer reflect individuals, communities and the planet.

I advocate for people in the voting process to stop voting the lesser of two evils. Vote for anything but Democratic or Republican. No, we're not going to see a third party get elected right away, but there'll be no hope for one if we don't start exercising our muscles in that direction.

There's a very narrow window of votes between Democratic and Republican, and that's because they almost mean the same thing. There are very few decisions that separate the two. If they see those votes in that narrow window of opportunity going to third parties, they'll be challenged to make their actions meet their words and we'll begin to see a shift in the politics we see now.

Faced with a choice between Al Gore and George W. Bush, who will you vote for -- assuming there are no third-party candidates to your liking?

I will not vote for George Bush or Al Gore -- period -- because neither of them reflects the needs in our world. So they don't get my vote; I will not vote for the lesser of two evils.

The kind of personal involvement you advocate strikes me as similar to religion, in that a devotee of a religious order would have to change his or her entire lifestyle to adhere properly. Is there some parallel there?

Maybe slightly, but religion comes across as a very rules-and-regulations kind of thing. And I'm not about rules and regulations; I'm about being an active, conscious, compassionate, respectful, loving human being.

I think we've been led to believe there's some puppet master in the sky pulling our strings, and there's not. It's us -- right here, right now.

But there is a large spiritual element to your book "The Legacy of Luna." In many instances, you find solace in prayer.

It's vital. But there's a difference between religion and spirituality. Religion is human beings trying to understand and shape spirituality. To me spirituality transcends the confines and barriers of religion. It's about honoring the sacred that is all life -- all of it.

Are there plans for a film of your book?

I've been approached by numerous movie producers, but I'm very concerned with integrity. For instance, Charles Hurwitz, the CEO of Maxxam, the corporation I'm protesting, is good buddies with Steven Spielberg.

If someone who buys my rights [to "The Legacy of Luna"] sells them to someone else, I have to be able to control who they sell it to. If someone like Spielberg buys the rights, either the story doesn't get told at all or they skew it to make Hurwitz look like a benevolent man.

Until I find someone who's going to uphold the integrity of the story, I'm not going to sell my rights. My right to share my story, I believe, is very powerful in getting others motivated and active in the world.

By Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to Salon. He lives in Los Angeles.

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