The public-shaming genius made international headlines and inspired a generation of eco-crusaders.
On December 10, 1997, the barefoot environmental activist Julia “Butterfly” Hill climbed up a 600-year-old, 200-foot-tall redwood tree in a remote corner of Northern California, and stayed there for 738 days. A native of Arkansas, Hill had teamed up with Earth First!, a group of by-any-means-necessary, redneck-hippie eco-warriors best known for its legally dubious “monkey-wrenching” protest tactics. Hill, however, brought a Zen-like mysticism to the movement, and her motivation for occupying the tree, dubbed “Luna” (“anyone that would climb this high is a lunatic,” she later explained), was as much about spirituality as it was politics. “There’s no way to be in the presence of these ancient beings and not be affected,” the exhausted 24-year-old told a group of reporters after descending the tree in December, 1999. “There’s something more than profit, and that’s life.”
People had been tree sitting before Julia Butterfly came along. But Hill ushered in a new sense of urgency and determination, the likes of which were completely irresistible to the press. Between riding out torrential El Niño storms and freezing winds from her precarious 8-by-8-foot plywood perch, she conducted radio interviews via solar-powered cell phone, and hosted reporters and photographers willing to make the two-hour climb to her rustic penthouse. On Earth Day in 1999, Joan Baez and Bonnie Raitt even dropped by. Baez called the visit “one of the most remarkable experiences of my life.”
Neighbors living downhill from Luna have often credited Hill with saving their homes from impending mudslides exacerbated by heavy logging in the area. But not all locals were so enamored. Hill’s standoff added fuel to long-simmering resentments pitting Humboldt residents and lumberjacks, who saw the meddling hippie and her legion of international supporters as a threat to their way of life. In September 1998, while Hill was almost a year into her occupation of Luna, David Chain, a fellow Earth First! activist, was killed by a logger-felled tree after a confrontation in nearby Headwaters Forrest. “I understand non-violent protest,” a Humboldt pharmacist named Merilyn Ross told the Ukiah Daily Journal after the incident. “But I’m not so sure Gandhi would have sat in a tree for two years — not over whether to cut the tree down.”
In fact, Hill’s and Chain’s brand of nonviolent protest is exactly the sort of thing Gandhi would have done. And Butterfly, despite her local reputation as an outsider naif drawing unwanted attention to a company town, was carrying the flame into a distinctly modern moment. The late ’90s are remembered, amidst their pre-millennial anxiety, for the innocent optimism of a time when the internet still felt like a path towards human connectivity, goodwill, and understanding. Hill’s use of a cell phone to communicate with the rest of the world is significant (consumer mobile technology was still in its infancy) as was her relationship with the media, which showed a sophisticated strategy for wielding power through the press. Her protest worked: Luna was spared the chainsaw (though nearby redwoods continue to be cut). When Hill finally came down, wobbly kneed and ecstatic, she said “it was so cold and wet this morning, I had to laugh, because I was so thankful that I don’t have to sit through another winter.’’
The activist’s home consisted of an 8 x 8 ft. plywood platform and tarps to keep out rain. Her partners in the Earth First! environmental advocacy group supplied Hill with provisions and protection during her two-year stint as a tree sitter.