The cowardliness of their convictions

Score another one for environmental activist Julia "Butterfly" Hill, as an ugly attack on the tree she saved illuminates her strengths and promotes her cause.

By Douglas Cruickshank

Published December 1, 2000 11:06PM (EST)

It was a simple, ingenious act: On Dec. 10, 1997, Julia "Butterfly" Hill climbed 180 feet up an ancient redwood tree near Stafford in Humboldt County, Calif., and refused to descend until the owners of the tree -- the Pacific Lumber Company -- agreed not to cut it down.

The company huffed and puffed and threatened and fumed, but no one (including, perhaps, Hill herself) suspected that the young woman would not budge from her perch for over two years. When she did, 738 days later on Dec. 18, 1999, it was only because Pacific Lumber had finally promised to let the tree stand and put it permanently off-limits to loggers.

Last weekend it was discovered that the tree -- estimated to be between 600 and 1,000 years old and known as "Luna" by Hill and her supporters -- had recently been attacked with a chain saw, cleanly sliced to a depth of 32 inches halfway around its 38-foot circumference. That's not something you do with the 16-inch Homelite you picked up at the local hardware store; that's the work (and a lot of it) of a professional using a large, professional-grade chain saw. It's also a hit-and-run job by a cowardly thug.

To its credit, Pacific Lumber's response to the vandalism has been swift and exemplary. "I think the company is as shocked and horrified as we are about what's happened," Rondall Snodgrass, a representative of Sanctuary Forest, the land trust that now owns the tree, told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. And lumber company spokeswoman Mary Bullwinkel is quoted in the paper as saying, "We're cooperating in any way we can. We're very sorry this has happened [and we're] hopeful that none of our employees are connected to this." The company has also pledged expertise and equipment to help preserve the tree.

As of this writing, reinforcing braces have been installed on Luna's trunk -- they resemble giant staples -- and, according to the Hill-affiliated Circle of Life Foundation, "Sanctuary Forest, Pacific Lumber, visiting arborists, foresters, engineers and other specialists believe that the tree can survive if it can be stabilized before a heavy windstorm." The good news is that redwood trees are one of the hardiest species on the planet. (The sad news is that only about 3 percent of the old-growth redwoods remain.) They're virtually impervious to parasites and can withstand an extraordinary amount of damage from fire and other natural assaults. However, their shallow root structure does make them vulnerable to high wind, and a tree that's been deeply cut into is, of course, more vulnerable still -- to an above-ground break.

In all likelihood, Hill's Luna will remain standing for many decades, hopefully centuries, to come. But the issue here is not a single tree. It's not trees at all  it's people, it's a character issue and it has everything to do with how change, even in highly charged circumstances, comes about in civilized society. After all, each of us wants to get our own way. The methods we use to achieve that reveal a great deal about us and our character, or lack of it.

Drawing on her convictions, her intellect and sheer physical courage, Hill prevailed against a considerably bigger, richer opponent. She used her own words and daunting willpower to sway public opinion and attract media attention. She was nonviolent, consistently polite, gentle in tone but unrelenting.

It's true that Hill broke the law by trespassing on Pacific Lumber's property to make her point, but what she did was well within the scope of other acts of civil disobedience, which in retrospect, in the arc of history, have been seen as simply the right thing to do. The person or people who attacked the tree, however, represent all that is selfish, spineless, vicious and intellectually pathetic in humankind.

The logging industry, and the loggers who support families by doing a very tough job, are in a difficult spot: Everybody wants wood, nobody wants trees cut down. And Lord knows they get a mixed message from those who they see as their opposition. I couldn't even begin to count the number of environmentally concerned people I know (myself among them) who have redwood decks or fences. But the tree attack underscores a simple truth: Kindness and decency always trump viciousness. And whether you agree with her or not, what Hill did she did decently, which is far more than can be said for the sneaky moral Munchkin who attacked the tree. Luna may stand or Luna may fall, but the chain-saw wielder has only succeeded in promoting Hill's cause and illuminating her strengths, while casting a shadow on the many decent, hardworking people in the logging industry.

The whole thing has reminded me, for some reason, of a passage in a book I read at least 30 years ago, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater." Thanks to a certain pack-rat tendency, I was able to pull a very dusty copy off my bookshelf. In the story, one of fiction's great characters, Eliot Rosewater, is to baptize newborn twins. "What will you say? What will you do?" another character asks him.

"Oh  I don't know." Eliot's sorrow and exhaustion dropped away for a moment as he became enchanted by the problem. A birdy little smile played over his lips. "Go over to her shack, I guess. Sprinkle some water on the babies, say, 'Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies: 'God damn it, you've got to be kind.'"

Douglas Cruickshank

Douglas Cruickshank is a senior writer for Salon. For more articles by Cruickshank, visit his archive.

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