Two Decades On, the Enduring Resolve of Tree Activist Julia ‘Butterfly’ Hill

Julia Butterfly Hill
Courtesy

It’s been nearly 23 years since environmental activist Julia “Butterfly” Hill climbed down from a giant thousand-year-old California redwood tree named Luna, after calling it home for two years. Here’s how her activism has stood the test of time.

It’s been more than two decades since environmental activist Julia “Butterfly” Hill climbed down from a giant thousand-year-old California redwood tree named Luna.

Hill caught the attention of the world when she became a spokesperson for Luna. In total, she spent 738 days in the Humboldt County redwood (December 10, 1997, to December 18, 1999). She lived on a six-foot platform nearly 200 feet above the ground.

Like other environmental activists in the region at the time, Hill was protesting the Pacific Lumber Company’s deforestation plans. She descended only after reaching an agreement with the lumber company that protected Luna and 200 feet surrounding the tree. A year later, the tree survived a chainsaw attack and is currently under the stewardship of the nonprofit, Sanctuary Forest.

“I came down to a hurting world – constantly wanting and needing my help with everything they cared about.  From their child’s book report, to trying to save local trees and community gardens, to ending animal cruelty for food, to creating the department of peace in response to endless wars. The issues and challenges were endless,” Hill writes on her website.

The strain was too demanding, she says.

“On December 18th, 1999, I returned to Terra Firma after over 2 years living aloft in the branches of my best friend, and best teacher, Luna,” she notes. “I gave generously for over 15 years because of my deep love for all that connects us. But the toll and price on me was too much.”

Metamorphosis

These days, Hill doesn’t go by “Butterfly.” She’s “Julia,” a life coach and sometimes food blogger making her way in the modern world. “I am no longer available for anything at all relating to me being ‘Julia Butterfly Hill,'” she says on her website. “That part of who I am is complete within me.”

The world now has many “Julia’s” like teen climate activist Greta Thunberg who founded the youth movement Fridays for Future and was named TIME Magazine’s person of the year in 2019. There’s Extinction Rebellion and Direct Action Everywhere. Now in her mid-80s, actor and activist Jane Fonda is also taking up the fight, protesting and starting her own climate PAC.  

But what would Julia “Butterfly” Hill do now as the world faces the unprecedented catastrophic threats of climate change? How would she handle the social justice issues of a generation as Black Lives Matter protests continue to escalate across a politically charged America?

“If you see an injustice in the world, and you have the opportunity to say something and do something and you choose to do nothing, your inactions are as much of a part of the injustice in the world as the actions of others,” she told KHSU’s Geraldine Goldberg in 2017, revisiting the 20 years since she left Luna. Goldberg covered Hill during her two-year residency, doing a master’s thesis on it. “I knew I had to say ‘yes’ even though I didn’t know what I was saying yes to,” she said.

Julia Butterfly Hill in Luna
Courtesy

Hill recounts the label “ecoterrorist,” used repeatedly by Pacific Lumber (and other industrial giants) against her and others working to save Luna. “And here we were, completely peaceful every step of the way,” she told Goldberg.

“And they were the ones who had been violent, over and over and over again.” Hill says Pacific Lumber representatives were the ones caught on video camera being violent, not the people supporting her efforts to save the old-growth forest.

Forest teachers

More than two decades on, Luna still stands despite increasingly more wildfires and a vandal attacked the tree in 2000 with a chainsaw.

For the past five years, Stuart Moskowitz has been caretaker of the easement as part of the Sanctuary Forest Board of Directors.

“I’ve told the story for the Global Organization of Tree Climbers and I talked remotely to over 130 treetop camps in 25 countries around the world via Zoom and Instagram for their 2020 Big Canopy Campout,” he wrote in his 2021 update. 

Legacy of Lua
Courtesy Stuart Moskowitz

“The story continues…the cables and brackets [added after the chainsaw attack] have been weathering for 21 years; maintenance will be needed. Sanctuary Forest and Humboldt Redwood Company anticipate working together on a strategy that’s best for Luna. These cooperative efforts bring environmentalists and loggers together, creating space for other topics, too. Working cooperatively helps bridge our differences,” he says.

Hill still calls Luna the best teacher and best friend she’s ever had. She says her relationship with Luna was visceral, moving so quickly and comfortably within the tree even at 180 feet off the ground.

“It wasn’t that I became comfortable,” she said, “it’s that I began to trust communication with Luna.” That communication with Luna, and all life around her, tuned her into something even greater.

“One day, through my prayers, an overwhelming amount of love started flowing into me, filling up the dark hole that threatened to consume me,” she wrote in her 2000 memoir Legacy of Luna. “I suddenly realized that what I was feeling was 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 that Creation continues to do everything in its power to give us life anyway. And that’s true love.”

So just what exactly would Julia “Butterfly” Hill do now as Earth Day nears climate change continues to threaten our forests and trees? She’d likely start by planting a seed, a seed of hope, she says. “If you’re the only person left, as long as your hope is committed in action, then hope is alive in the world.”

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