Julia Butterfly Hill is an unusual human.
She lived for more than two years in a tree. Now, as a species we come from arboreal ancestors, but few of us have attempted to return to life among the branches. Our bipedal locomotion and tool-making hands long ago equipped us for existence on the ground, while our ape cousins adapted more to the forests. In evolutionary turns, our choice seems to have worked out. We won.
But, we also spread globally and sometimes catastrophically, and our impact on our original woodland habitat hasn’t always been good. It has mostly been bad.
Enter Julia. Between 1997 and 1999, her home was high up in “Luna,” an ancient redwood tree she was attempting—in the end, successfully—to protect from logging.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from her, but I went anyway to her 2 p.m. speech at Mount Mercy University’s Chapel of Mercy. And it was the second time in as many weeks that a powerful speaker in the Chapel of Mercy moved a large audience.
This was a bit different. The previous speaker had been a Holocaust survivor. Ms. Butterfly Hill is a survivor too—a survivor of a traumatic car accident, a survivor of attempts, with sounds, lights and even gunshots, to get her out of a tree. But she was in harm’s way not because she was an innocent victim of evil that came hunting her—as the Holocaust speaker had been—but rather because she chose that path in order to try to accomplish some purpose.
According to Butterfly Hill, her father told the media during her stay in the tree that there wouldn’t be any outlasting Julia.
Unfortunately, I arrived at the Chapel of Mercy just in time to hear her speak, equipped with legal pad and camera, but no pen. So I can’t quote her directly, and must give just some impressions of her speech.
Well, here are some points I recall:
- She said that it’s pointless to feel our individual actions have no consequences—that problems like environmental pollution are too big for us as individuals to tackle. Even inaction is a choice and an action, and we can’t exist without having some sort of impact.
- She noted that, in her adventures, she often felt fear. Overcoming that fear is the only way she knows she has courage, she said. And she encouraged her audience to live courageously.
- She spoke passionately about spirituality, rather than religion. But she acknowledged she was in a sacred space, and she was very respectful of the Sisters of Mercy.
In some ways, I’m lucky I forgot a pen. I could just listen, and focus on trying to take pictures in the low light of the chapel. I think she might have wondered a bit at me, sitting there in the audience, snapping away. I deliberately did not flash, and my camera is fairly quiet, so I don’t think I disturbed the event too much. But, when you don’t flash, that means that many pictures are a blur simply because the slow shutter speed amplifies any camera shake or movement by the subject.
In several photos, Julia Butterfly Hill looks like she has butterfly hands, because they were flitting about a bit as she spoke. In most of the pictures, she is just a blur, but there were enough clear ones that I made a photo gallery and posted it to YouTube—it includes 20 or so photos of her, but that’s probably of around 100 that I shot.
Anyway, it was an engaging, interesting way to spend part of the Earth Day afternoon. Butterfly Hill had a powerful message, and even if I didn’t exactly record it in detail, I think I got some of it: Save the planet by your individual choices. It’s a message that transcends political identity, and even individual lives. As she noted, we’re all headed in the same direction anyway—we might as well give our lives to something enduring and important.
Like the Earth. Long may she live. And Julia, too.