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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood speaks with Julia Butterfly Hill, who perched in a giant redwood in Northern California for more than two years to save it from being cut down.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Years ago on a trip to Northern California, Julia Butterfly Hill fell in love. Her new passion: the ancient redwood forest. She returned home to Arkansas and sold her belongings. She then headed back west to take up the fight against the company cutting down these magnificent trees, the Maxxam Corporation. For her part of the protest, Julia Butterfly Hill volunteered to sit in a 1.000-year-old redwood named Luna. Her home would be a four-by-six platform 18 stories off the forest floor. She would live there longer than she, or anyone, could have imagined. Julia Butterfly Hill has some unique qualities. She's the daughter of a preacher, with a powerful faith. She's also a graduate of business school, and carries herself with a touch of glamour. But in the end, her story demonstrates that anyone with commitment and courage has the power to make a difference.

HILL: When I first entered the ancient redwoods I fell to my knees and began to cry, because the power, the spirituality, the life force, the majesty of these trees is truly overwhelming. And a few weeks later, I saw a picture of what looked like a bomb had been dropped in the middle of it. And I looked to the person at EPIC, the Environmental Protection Information Center, where I saw the picture, and I said, "What is this?" And they said, "This is what Pacific Lumber Maxxam Corporation does to the forest and calls business." And I just couldn't believe it. It ripped out my gut. It ripped out my heart. It made me sick and sad and overwhelmed all at once. And it inspired me and motivated me to take action. It was -- it was not so much a choice, although I know we all have choices. It was more of, Julia, you cannot turn around and walk away from this. You have to do something.

CURWOOD: But you decided to take some direct action. What were your goals in joining the people who were demonstrating to protect the trees?

HILL: I was just so happy to finally have something to do. I mean, I didn't know what that something was going to be, and I tried getting plugged into the forest protection movement in many different ways for a while, and just couldn't find a way to get involved. And the tree sit was the first thing that came my way that I could plug into, and it was really quite funny, because the person who was looking for someone to sit in this tree didn't want to choose me at first. Because like everyone else, they had never seen me before, weren't quite sure what to make of me, or if they should trust me or not, and didn't want to take the time and energy it would take to train me. But when no one else would volunteer to go up into the tree, they had to pick me.

CURWOOD: Now, when you first went up Luna to sit in a demonstration to keep this tree from being cut, how did you feel that first time you went up?

HILL: Well, standing at the base of the tree, it was so beautiful and so magnificent and huge, a 200-foot-tall tree, 15 feet in diameter at the base. I'm five foot ten, and it takes 12 of someone my size with arms outstretched to encircle the base of this tree. So it's really, really phenomenal. And then, though, somebody hands me a harness that's held together with duct tape, and says --


HILL: (Laughs) This is, yes, exactly. And says, "This is what you're going to use to climb it." I said, "Okay." So I put it on, and they show me how to climb, and my climbing lesson 101 was basically, "This is the rope you climb on." And this rope that's about the width of my thumb comes snaking down from up so far above I can't see where it begins from. So I just put it on and went for it, but about 75 feet above the ground, the perilous condition of my life on a teeny-tiny rope with a harness held together by duct tape started sinking in. And --

CURWOOD: Oh, yeah.

HILL: Yeah.

CURWOOD: So you wanted to come back down. Slowly.

HILL: (Laughs) I certainly didn't know I had a fear of heights until that point. And then all of a sudden I had a fear of heights. But I felt this calling, telling me to just close my eyes and put my hands and my feet up against the tree, and when I did I found all this energy flowing through me back down into the roots of the tree. And it immediately grounded me. And then I opened my eyes, and I just kept my eyes on the tree, and I shot up that tree. I actually at that point made it from the ground to the top of the tree, 180 feet up, where the first platform was, in about 15 minutes, which at that time was a record. And I laughed, I think it was because I was so afraid, I just wanted to get somewhere and get somewhere fast. (Both laugh)

CURWOOD: Now, you did a couple of shifts sitting in this tree as part of the organized tree sit. But how did you feel about the prospect of living in a tree for a month?

HILL: I felt that three weeks to a month was just a little bit of a stretch for me, and I thought this could be interesting. But I didn't realize I was climbing up into the tree in the worst winter in the recorded history of California, and the famous El Nino of '97 from which all of the world's problems were blamed.

CURWOOD: And you didn't realize that instead of a month, it would be two years, a little more than two years before your feet would touch the ground again.

HILL: Seven hundred and thirty eight days.

CURWOOD: You were risking your life then. Many times, in fact, you thought you might die in the storms, when they threatened to cut down the tree. And then a protester, Gypsy, was killed while you were up in the tree. He wasn't in a tree, he was killed by a tree that was cut down in a controversial scene, in which some people feel that really, he was deliberately or accidentally deliberately killed by the people that cut the tree. You heard this over the radio, right?

HILL: Actually, I had a solar-powered radio phone, and I got a call from a woman whose forest name is Felony, who is a beautiful, young, vivacious woman. And she's always laughing and always funny. And she was crying desperately hard, and said, "Julia, Gypsy's been killed." And I started screaming, "No," louder and louder and faster and faster, as if maybe, if I did it enough, if I did it loud enough, if I did it fast enough, it could change what had happened and bring Gypsy back. And of course, life doesn't work that way. So, my sadness comes from the fact that I believe that the destruction we're doing to the environment is the direct reflection of the destruction of our lives. Because I don't believe that this is our Earth to possess, I believe that this is us, Earth, to protect. And so, when we see the violence being perpetuated on the environment, it is a violence to human beings. And Gypsy's death to me was the absolute saddest proof that any of us should need that we are so disconnected as a society, that our values are so misled, that we could place value on making a quick buck, making a paycheck, over protecting the last remnants of ancient redwoods. And over the protection of somebody's life.

CURWOOD: How do you think the death of Gypsy influenced the loggers that you were dealing with?

HILL: Gypsy's death further polarized a community that's already polarized, but it also woke people up. It was also a call to people about how far out of balance we've gotten. And a lot of people within the timber industry, they are good people. They're just trying to make a paycheck. They're trying to put food on their tables, and have a life and a sense of security. So his death, I think for a lot of them, was not okay, either. They don't want people to die. They just want to try and find a way to be able to pass down their jobs to their children and their children, just as their fathers before them have.

CURWOOD: So, the people at Maxxam, the people who own what they consider the right to cut this tree, weren't very happy to have you. What kinds of things did they do to try to get you out?

HILL: I climbed up for the third and final time on December 10th, 1997, and the morning of December 11th they began cutting trees all around the tree I was in. They cut two of her babies growing off of her trunk. And they're saying, "We're going through the base of the tree, you better come down." Then they cut trees directly at Luna, hitting Luna while I was in it, and nearly knocking me out. They then hovered a twin-propeller helicopter 75 feet above my head with 300 mile an hour updrafts. They then placed me under a 10-day security blockade, surrounding me with ropes and floodlights and security guards, who in their own words said they were there to cut off my supplies and starve me down. When I told them they might starve me to death but they wouldn't starve me down, they then started blowing air horns all night to cause sleep deprivation.

CURWOOD: At one point, in reaching out to these timber folks, you sent down a bag with a photograph of you and some granola. How did they respond to that?

HILL: I believe that labels and stereotypes are extremely dangerous for our society. So when the loggers were at the base of the tree screaming at me, I remembered that I had this picture in the tree with me at the last party I attended before selling everything I owned and climbing up into a tree. And I'm decked out in this silk suit and my hair is done, and I have a tan, I have makeup. And I thought, ah, this might work. So then I thought about the granola. So I dropped -- I gave them a warning and said, "I'm dropping this bag down." And they screamed, "You better not drop anything on us!" And I said, "Calm down, calm down. It's just a picture and it's a bag with some granola. You ought to eat it." And so I dropped the bag down on the ground, and everything gets quiet for a moment. And I wait and I wait and there's no response. And I said, "Hey, are you down there? Did you find it?" And they screamed up, "This ain't you!" And I said, "Yes it is." "No, it's not!" And it was a back and forth yes it is, no it isn't, and then they finally said, "Well what the heck are you doing up in a tree, then?" And so, it was really funny. It kind of helped to break the ice. It took away the stereotype. And it really opened us up to be able to start treating each other like human beings.

CURWOOD: While you were in the tree, you started a dialogue with the gentleman in charge of the logging operation there, a Mr. Campbell. And you started negotiations with him. Eventually, those negotiations succeeded from your perspective. You got a deal so that you could, the tree would be protected, and you could come down.

HILL: When I decided that I was going to stay in the tree longer than the three weeks to a month, I gave my word that my feet would not touch the ground again, no matter what, until I had done everything I could to make the world aware and raise consciousness, and number two, protect the tree I was in, and hopefully some around it. And on December 17th, 1999, we had reached the world in a way I never could have imagined being a part of. People, thousands upon thousands of letters from around the world, of people saying, "Thank you for helping me realize the power of my actions. Thank you for teaching me the importance of personal responsibility." And as well, we had a legally-binding document that forever protects this over-one-thousand-year-old ancient redwood and some of the acreage around it. We reached those goals. The goals that I had set, we accomplished. So I climbed down, because we had done it. It is just one piece in the puzzle. There is a lot of work still to be done.

CURWOOD: Julia Butterfly Hill's book is called The Legacy of Luna -- her story of being in a tree for two years to protect it, the redwood. Thank you so much for taking this time with us today.

HILL: Absolutely. Thank you, Steve.



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