Making a Difference: One Woman, One Tree and One World
for Common Ground Summer 2002
by Virginia Lee
Julia Butterfly Hill is one of those naturally charismatic people who life just happens to. A woman who is dedicated to living every moment of every day to its utmost fullest, she exudes a powerful energy, a passion for the truth that defied the Pacific Lumber Company until they recognized the error of their ways. Through her heroic efforts of living in a 200-foot redwood tree named Luna for 738 days, this majestic old-growth redwood and the forest around it was saved.
Her story is one reminiscent of David and Goliath out of the Bible, and well documented in her mesmerizing autobiography The Legacy of Luna (2000, Harper San Francisco). On the heels of this national bestseller, Julia has written a new book One Makes the Difference, which was just released by Harper in Spring 2002. In these pages, she steps beyond her personal story, reminding us that we are all capable of greatness, we are all capable of acts of heroism for the love of the Earth. We are all players on the same team, and the prize is survival itself.
Refreshingly honest, straightforward and articulate, a conversation with Julia is as engaging—and challenging—as her life in a tree must have been. Whether speaking by call phone from a platform 180 feet above the ground in Luna or on her way to catch a plane at Dulles airport, the message is the same: Love the Earth, Live in the Moment, Have the Courage to be Your Higher Self. She makes it seems so simple. And it is. And at 28, her journey has just begun.
CG: Although you have probably told this story hundreds of times, would you tell our readers what inspired you to do the tree-sit in Luna?
JBH: It began with a car wreck I had in August 1996 that made me re-examine my value system. I began a search to find out why I am here on this planet, separate from what my parents had taught me and separate from what society was teaching me. While traveling around the country with some friends, I ended up in the redwoods of northern California and had a very profound and magical experience.
When I found out two weeks later that 97 percent of those trees are already gone, that lumber companies were still cutting them down at that very moment, and spraying massive amounts of toxic fuels, herbicides and insecticides on the logging sites, I thought, “I have to do something.” When I saw the devastation, I got an answer through my prayers. It was: “Julia, if you walk away from an injustice in the world, your inaction is just as much a part of that injustice as the actions of others.” I knew if I walked away, it would mean the same thing as cutting down another tree.
Before this moment in my life, I had never done any kind of direct environmental action. I didn’t have any experience other than the fact that I grew up with two brothers and no sisters, so I had climbed a lot of trees. When I heard that someone was needed to tree-sit in Luna, I volunteered. It wasn’t something I ever intended to do. It just sort of happened.
CG: Was that the breakthrough you had been seeking to understand your higher purpose in life?
JBH: For me, it was. But in every moment of every day, the universe is calling us to rise to our higher selves. It’s just a matter of listening. So many of us just walk (or run) right on by without even noticing, because we are living in this society that is oriented to what I call “bigger, better, faster, now.” As a result, we miss numerous opportunities of creating really beautiful things in life. Sure, I did a really intense action, but it was only because I was in a place in my life where I could do that.
Every moment of every day, there is a chance for us to make a difference in the world, to live our lives for a higher purpose. I am sad that most of the time we miss it, because we are rushing by. One of the most valuable things that Luna taught me was taking the time to be still, to pray, to be willing to listen to what I receive. That’s important for all of us.
CG: Is that why you’ve written your new book, One Makes the Difference?
JBH: Absolutely. It’s my response to all the kind words people have said to me, like “Thank you, Julia, for showing us how one person can make a difference,” with the emphasis on CAN. My response is that every single choice we make in every moment of every day affects the world whether we see it or not. So make that choice consciously and make it count.
It’s not a question of whether we CAN make a difference, because we DO make a difference. The question we have to ask ourselves is: What kind of a difference are we going to make? Every day, we have the opportunity to be the hero and the healer —or be part of the pain and suffering and destruction. That’s every single moment of every day. I really wanted to bring that consciousness that I gained in the tree down into the everyday hustle of our lives.
Any one of us is capable of greatness. Every moment offers the potential for greatness. I often talk to people about how we worship the celebrities in our society. What I call “celebrititis” is a disease where certain people are considered more special than everybody else. I tell people that I don’t want to live in a world with leaders and followers. I just want to live in a world with leaders. Every moment is a chance for greatness and it doesn’t matter if you’re the person sitting at a desk answering the phone or you’re the one (like me) with a microphone in your face.
CG: Julia, how did you get the name “Butterfly”?
JBH: When I was about seven or eight years old, I was hiking in the mountains of Pennsylvania and a butterfly landed on me and stayed for hours. It has been a part of my name ever since. I started calling myself Butterfly that day, because it stayed on me all the way home.
Later when I was in my teens, my friends started calling me Butterfly without even knowing about the experiences I’d had. There was another beautiful, crazy moment when I had been up in the tree for 100 days and there was a big rally, someone brought me a picture of a big beautiful orange butterfly, the species of which is actually named “Julia Butterfly.” Biologically, it’s the only genus of its kind, whose habitat is native to Texas, Florida and Central America.
CG: Would you say that the transformational quality of the butterfly is a metaphor for what has happened in your life?
JBH: Absolutely, we all have totem animals. Some of us see them and some of us don’t. I had a very difficult childhood, so the butterfly came at a very important time in my life and has continued to come at different times to help and guide me. It has been a very powerful totem and I am very thankful for it.
CG: Why do environmentalists sit in trees?
JBH: Direct action in all of its forms, whether it’s a person sitting in a tree or locked to a bulldozer, means that people are putting their bodies on the front line. First and foremost, you must realize that direct action is a sign that every other system is failing. But it doesn’t mean that those systems cannot be healed.
Direct action is all about shifting consciousness in order to change systematic problems. When you see people putting their bodies where their beliefs are, because corporations are failing and governments are failing and consumers are failing, it brings a spotlight to that problem. Often that action will shift consumer awareness, for example into realizing that a forest is not a product. Often direct action will delay things long enough to give people working within the legal system enough time to get laws passed and policy changed.
Direct action is usually a last resort and it’s dangerous. But it’s the front line of consciousness. You don’t do it unless nothing else is working, when eco-systems are disappearing and communities are disappearing. We’ve seen throughout history that the greatest changes have happened when people were willing to put their bodies—and their beliefs— on the line. If their lives are being destroyed anyway, it’s a way of making a statement. And it’s a moral responsibility as a human of conscience.
CG: What do you think of the eco-terrorist movement as popularized by books like The Monkey Wrench Gang?
JBH: Eco-terrorism is not The Monkey Wrench Gang. Eco-terrorism is Maxxam Corporation destroying what little is left of our old-growth redwoods, spraying herbicides and pesticides over the forest floor. Eco-terrorism is Monsanto genetically engineering our food and our future. Eco-terrorism is a government that’s trying to drill for oil in Alaska’s Arctic Wildlife Refuge. And we have to hold them accountable for what they do.
CG: How did you break through the stereotype of prejudice that usually pits loggers against environmentalists?
JBH: That’s the crucial part. Psychologically, the stereotypes and labels are what make us create an “other.” Whenever we create an “other”, we can destroy it. The reality is that whether we like it or not, we all share the same planet together. We have to figure out how to get human with each other. For me, it was a matter of trying to relate to the loggers as human beings. I stopped talking to them about the issues and just began asking about their lives, things like “Are you married? Do you have a girlfriend? Do you have babies? Seen any good movies lately?”
Being human together is critical to creating change. It was Gandhi who said, “Although I have to learn to love my neighbor, I don’t have to like him.” We have to find that place where we can love all beings.
CG: It seems that you had as many issues with Earth First! as you did with Pacific Lumber. In retrospect, how did you reconcile them both?
JBH: As human beings, we’re always going to be diverse. It’s not about Earth First! or Pacific Lumber; it’s about being very diverse people in an very diverse world living on a very diverse planet. No matter what group or organization you deal with, there’s always going to be a wide spectrum of personality. How we deal with the conflicts that come up is what really matters.
Earth First! is an anomaly. Everywhere you go, it means something different. Some Earth First! activists are my best friends and there are other Earth First! activists who hate me to this day. Earth First! is not a movement of everybody who thinks the same way. The only way I can continue to work with different groups is by being honest and trying to respect diversity—even with people who don’t respect the diversity in me. I have found that is what works the best. It doesn’t make everyone like me, but I am going to love people whether they like me or not. I often point out to people in the movement how ironic it is that we are working so hard to protect diversity in the natural world, yet we don’t tolerate it in each other. I don’t want a monoculture of a movement any more than I want a monoculture in the world.
CG: Do some people in Earth First! approach the movement as others approach a religion?
JBH: I try and look at it from the viewpoint of passion. Passion is very important, but it can sometimes keep us from seeing the truth. How often do we get into an argument with our loved ones, people we’re close to— maybe even married to, but the passion gets so intense that it’s like blinders on a horse. We can see straight ahead but we can’t see the larger context we’re in. The same thing can happen whether it’s in the logging community, in the direct action community or just in our everyday lives. That’s a challenge for all of us, no matter who we are.
CG: What is the greatest lesson you learned from Luna?
JBH: It’s hard to pick one thing because the whole experience taught me so much. It’s like asking me if I prefer my hands or my feet. My two years of living in Luna is so integral to who I am today. If I had to choose one thing that encompasses everything I learned, it would be the understanding that love is a verb.
CG: How did you decide when it was finally time to come down?
JBH: When I was up there, it was an every day, every moment challenge. Every day I would ask myself, “Am I meant to be here still? Am I still being effective? Or would I be more effective on the ground?” All these questions would race through my mind.
But I had given my word that I wouldn’t come down until I had done everything I could to accomplish two goals:
1) Make people aware of what was going on.
2) Try to get the forest area I was in protected forever.
I couldn’t control other people, but I could control my own will. I knew it was going to take a lot more than just me sitting in a tree to protect Luna. It took 738 days to build the critical mass of consciousness necessary to save that tree. In the beginning when no one knew about it, it seemed like Pacific Lumber was trying to kill me. They hovered a twin propeller helicopter above my head that nearly blew me out of the tree. They cut trees directly around Luna, two of which crashed into her. They tried starving me out and shone spotlights on the tree 24 hours a day so I couldn’t sleep. They say they weren’t trying to kill me, but they knowingly took actions that could very easily have taken my life. They knew they were risking my life.
CG: Psychologically, what did it take to survive in a tree for two years?
JBH: Courage. When people say, “I couldn’t have done that.” I say, “I couldn’t have done it either.” The origin of the word courage is “coeur,” which is French for heart. And that’s where our true strength comes from.
The stories of heroism that came out of September 11th, as tragic as that day was, speak the same truth. People did not run back into burning buildings to grab their stock portfolios. They risked their lives to save the lives of others. And that’s the courage that comes form the heart. Any of us are capable of greatness when the circumstances demand it.
CG: Did you feel any divine guidance throughout those two years?
JBH: I think divine guidance is always there. It’s just whether or not we’re awake to it. I’ve found in every moment in every day, ever since coming down, phenomenal teachers and guides in my life. The tree taught me how to awaken to that reality. We have divine help, inspiration and guidance available to us all the time.
CG: What has happened to Luna since you left?
JBH: The tree was attacked by a person with a chainsaw about a year after I came down. Luna had become a powerful symbol. And as is often the case when something becomes a symbol, it is vulnerable to attack.
CG: Do you have any idea who did it?
JBH: Yes I do, but the kind of evidence that would bring about a conviction is very controversial. Some people are just too afraid to come forward to testify. If I had been able to bring those people to justice, the thing I would have asked for from the court is not to send them to jail, because I don’t believe jail helps anybody. Instead, a better form of rehabilitation would be a few months of what I call peaceful activism and conflict resolution training. Then maybe add a few years of restoration work out in the forest, where they would have to help heal a forest that’s been injured. To me, that’s the kind of justice that fits the crime. I don’t really believe in punishment. I believe in solutions, I believe in redwoods and I believe in healing.
CG: Do you still see Luna?
JBH: I do go visit her regularly and she’s doing incredibly well. It will take longer than you and I are alive for her to grow back, but she’s alive. When a tree is over 1,000 years old, they don’t grow back very fast.
CG: What has it been like to return to life on the ground?
JBH: It’s just a new way of practicing the lessons I’ve learned. Some of it is easier than living in a tree and some parts are more difficult. Life is a blessing no matter where you are, every moment of every day. And I actually thrive on the challenges. A lot of people thought I was living some kind of fairy tale existence up in the tree, but it was anything but peaceful with active logging going on around me.
CG: Are you enjoying a more comfortable life?
JBH: I don’t think I know what a comfortable life is. But I have a glorious, joyful life that I am very thankful for. Things like walking down the street and seeing a tree root pushing up through the concrete is what makes me happy. I usually take the time to stop and cheer that tree on.
CG: If you were to have children, would you build them a tree house in the back yard?
JBH: First of all, I’m not going to have children because I know that every choice comes with a responsibility. I understand the magic of wanting to have your own child, but I also understand that we’re not doing a good enough job of taking care of the earth that we’re bringing those children into. On top of that, there are a lot of babies already here who need love. Personally for me, I tell people that if they want to have the experience of a child, have that experience with one. I honor that desire to be a part of the magic of creation. And then extend your love beyond that child and adopt those children who are already here.
For me, I experience the magic of creation every day so I don’t have to bring a child into this world as a validation of who I am. When my life settles down and I have some kind of a space that allows me to nurture, then I will adopt children. And I will probably adopt children who are at an age when no one wants them anymore. And about the tree house—if they wanted one, we would probably build it together.
CG: Would you talk about your love/hate relationship with the media?
JBH: First of all, it’s important to know the difference between the mainstream corporate media and what we call the alternative press. Mainstream media is funded by corporations who have a vested interest in people NOT becoming proactive. So, it’s very difficult for writers who have a lot of passion for the story, because their mandate is to print an article that is not too controversial. For me, it’s been difficult to spend two hours with a writer, and then see what comes out on the other side.
I tell people that I don’t expect them to either believe or not believe in what I’m doing. That’s not what I’m asking for. But some writers are so concerned about being unbiased that they don’t tell the whole truth. They’ll skirt around facts that would hold people accountable because they want to seem unbiased. To them I say, why even tell the story?
The biggest function of the mainstream corporate media today is to feed our society’s addiction to entertainment. We’ve created this dynamic where the media entertains people rather than informs them, so we spend more time covering stories about what Hollywood celebrities are wearing than about which corporation is polluting our children’s lives. The truth is that we are products of our environment. From the moment we are born, we are conditioned to want entertainment. We are like sponges who absorb the advertising that is fed to us, especially to our young people. The media defines our values, from what we eat and drink, what we drive to what kind of clothes we wear.
That’s why an important part of shifting consciousness is to encourage people to change how they view the world. That’s why all of us becoming a voice in the media is crucial, and not just accepting what the mainstream feeds us.
CG: As a naturally private person, what has it been like for you to be the focus of so much public attention?
JBH: That’s been one of the biggest gifts of myself I’ve had to give to the world, being willing to put myself in the spotlight and stay there. It is really brutal. People only know me in the context of what the media portrays, so they don’t stop to think that you don’t climb into a tree to get attention. Even as a little kid, you climb into a tree to seek solace and solitude. Originally, I went into the tree to be alone. Being in the spotlight all of a sudden was a real shift for me. I was never the kind of kid who dreamed about being a star. It’s not in my personality.
The celebrity aspect of all this makes it difficult, but I also see it as a blessing. Being in the spotlight can warp people really easily. But because I don’t particularly like it, it helps keep me grounded. It helps to keep me human and it helps me stay real.
CG: How do you see yourself?
JBH: I see myself as a person deciding to offer my life in joyous, loving service to the world.
CG: Would you call this a spiritual path?
JBH: Spirituality is not a way of life. It is my life. The path is me, it’s the sun shining down on the path, it is everything. It is not even just a path. It is the whole experience of being who I am.
I tell people that my religion (which to me is the way I practice my spirituality) is love. And to me love is a verb. I think that all the “isms” have served their purpose in our world, but that now they are becoming detrimental. They are creating labels and boxes that separate us, instead of bringing us together. When they were first created, it was a way of defining things and connecting with them more. But I think we’ve already gotten to that point and now we’ve gone too far.
If you like to breathe, you’re an environmentalist, like it or not.
CG: Did living with Luna make you an environmentalist or have you always been one?
JBH: My family was a group of accidental ecologists, because we were very poor. As a family of five, we only had one plastic grocery bag full of trash at the end of the month. It wasn’t because we were environmentally conscious, it was because we were poor. It was a part of my consciousness without realizing it was a part of my consciousness.
I didn’t know anything about the world because my father was an itinerant preacher. All I knew about was religion. I didn’t know that I needed to be awake and be active in the world. Because I didn’t know to even question it, until I found out what was happening in the old-growth redwoods. Through finding that out, I began to learn about what is really going on in the world. I tell people that this isn’t our Earth, it’s us Earth. We are the planet, and it’s up to use to make it a healthy place.
Activism is about all of us; we’re all activists. Every moment of every day we’re changing the world. Are we going to choose to be positive conscious activists or destructive unconscious ones? No one is perfect, but it’s better to be part of the solution than part of the problem.
CG: Have you ever considered taking on the protection of the Amazon rain forest?
JBH: Sure, I’ve thought about taking it all on, but I’m just one person. On a slow week right now, I get 25 requests for my help from commentates around the world. And sometimes it goes up to 150. I can’t do it all.
But I may be going down to Chile, Argentina and Ecuador. I know some people sitting in trees in Ecuador right now. I’m would like to try to go down and get some support for them and hte forest.
CG: Have you ever considered a career in politics?
JBH: I’ve definitely considered it. I consider everything that comes to mind. You know, stranger things have happened.
CG: In your mind, what is the greatest threat of globalization?
JBH: I think we need to be careful about what words we use to define globalization. The reality of globalization is the Big Bang, Creation, and whatever way you relate to the beginning of Life. Since the moment of inception, we’ve been globalizing. Micro-organisms have been spreading across the face of the planet for millions of years.
But corporate globalization is a phenomenon unto itself. Corporations are not people, even though they have given themselves identities. They are machines which have been given a specific purpose to fulfill, and that is to make a profit. And unfortunately, because they are not human beings, they don’t come with a heart or a spirit. There’s no value for compassion, respect or care for the common good. And as such, corporate globalization is massively exploiting the people and cultures of the planet, in order to fulfill its mission.
That’s why we have to look for solutions in our own lives, by supporting local businesses, buying locally grown food, using local services and resources. Every penny we spend is vote on the future of the planet.
CG: Who is the intended audience for your new book, One Makes the Difference?
JBH: The intended audience is anyone from any walk of life who can pick this book up and learn some new things, as well as be reminded of some things they may have forgotten in the bustle of everyday living. More than anything, I want whoever reads this book to be inspired to be a agent of positive change in the world. There’s something in here for kids, for adults, for hard-core environmentalists—and maybe even something for CEOs who want to change the way they operate their business. It’s possible to make a profit and protect the interests of the planet. I believe that there’s something in this book for everyone.
CG: If you had one minute to speak to the whole world over television or radio, what would you say?
JBH: I would say to think of love as a verb. I would tell people that ecology and economy both come from the same root word oikos, which in Greek means “house” or “home.” The only way our true economy is ever going to work is if we put our love into action by protecting our shared home for everyone.
I would list a couple of examples of places where they have held up economics as an excuse for exploitation and then show the reality of what happened as a result—places like the Pacific Northwest, the Amazonian rain forest and Papua/New Guinea. I would show examples where ecology has not been respected in the name of economics, and how that has destroyed people’s lives.
Then I would try to grab as many people as I could and bring them into the camera, and say, “By the way, these are all people putting love into action.”
CG: What do you think it would take for the principles of economy to work in harmony with the principles of ecology?
JBH: For people to take their money back. As long as corporations continue to make a killing financially, they’re going to keep on doing it. As long as they have incentive to exploit, they’ll continue to do it.
I tell people that the world is going to change one of two ways: It’s as if we’re building this big beautiful house with all the things we could never possibly need. But if you take a closer look, you’ll realize that we are using the foundation to build the house. And the foundation can’t support it. Either enough of us will become conscious and restore the foundation or the house is going to collapse. Either way it’s going to change. Those of us who are choosing to live joyous, conscious lives of loving service right now are putting pieces of that foundation back into place. we’re building a new kind of home. And if the big house crumbles, our humbler, smaller one will make it through. But then again, the big house might not crumble. To quote a Turkish proverb from One Makes the Difference: “No matter how far you’ve gone down the wrong road, turn around.”
CG: What do you plan to do next?
JBH: Anything is possible. I climbed into the tree on December 10, 1997. If you had asked me in August what I would be doing at Christmas, I wouldn’t have seen what was coming. I do believe in strategy, I do believe in analysis. I majored in business in college and I enjoy using the logical side of my mind, but I also have a very strong belief in magic. We can’t see everything. And if we try and plan things too much, we’ll plan ourselves right out of the possibility of something incredibly beautiful happening in our lives.
But to answer your question, I’m working on promoting youth activism right now. The young people today are the leaders of tomorrow.
CG: What kind of world will we be living in 20 years from now?
JBH: That depends on who reads your article, and who doesn’t. And what choices they make from this moment forward.
Virginia Lee was Associate Editor and served on the Editorial Board of Yoga Journal from 1980-85, and has been widely published in magazines ever since. She was a regular interviewer for Common Ground from 1992-2004. She has also written two books: The Roots of Ras Tafari published by Avant Books of San Diego in 1985, and Affairs of the Heart published by Crossing Press of Freedom, CA in 1993. She currently lives and works in Santa Cruz, CA.