- The Washington Times - Friday, February 4, 2000


When Julia Hill decided to leave Arkansas and travel the world, her reasons were simple enough. She was a mixed-up 23-year-old who had been dragged around America as a child by her father, a "preacher man," and then had been involved in a near-fatal car crash. Her plan was to follow the old hippie trail through the Far East in search of spiritual enlightenment.

In the end, Miss Hill only got as far as the Pacific coast of Northern California. Without really planning to, she drifted into the ranks of environmental "guerrillas" determined to save the last remaining sequoias, or giant redwoods, the world's tallest and oldest trees, from commercial logging. She joined the cause, climbed into a tree and stayed there.

For two full years, her feet did not touch the ground. She lived on a platform the size of a double bed, perched 180 feet high in the branches of one of the oldest trees of all, a "grandmother" that she named Luna. She said she would stay there until a promise was secured that her tree would be saved.

When she came down more than a month ago, she had won. She had also picked up a "green" nom de guerre and become Julia "Butterfly" Hill, all-time champion of the tree-hugging world and an international celebrity.

Now 25, she has inevitably secured a book deal and a huge advance payment for her story. Although she swears that everything was unplanned, she has unwittingly achieved the dream of her generation: instant fame and fortune. Her publishers, the HarperCollins conglomerate, are convinced that "The Legacy of Luna" will be a best seller when it is published in April.

All the money, Miss Hill insists, will go to her new foundation, Circle of Life. And the book would not have come out at all if the publisher had not agreed to print it on special paper 30 percent recycled and 70 percent pulped from wood produced by a forestry group in Canada that employs American Indian loggers and specializes in preserving natural biodiversity.

"I was not about to use a forest just to make this book," she says.

People magazine included Julia Hill recently in its "25 Most Intriguing People of the Year," George magazine listed her as one of its "20 Most Fascinating Women in Politics," and Good Housekeeping had her in its 30th annual "Most Admired Women" issue.

This is not the sort of media attention known to most of her colleagues in the grungy tribe of Earth Firsters and Greenpeacers who are at war with America's lumberjacks. She has found herself with enough clout to address the U.S. Senate. Refusing, of course, to come down from her perch, she persuaded Senate members to listen to her by speakerphone.

She is either the most amazingly lucky neo-hippy, an agit-prop genius or a portent of a new culture for the 21st century. And she might be a little bit of all three.

"I was naive," she says. "I wanted to attract the spotlight, but I didn't realize it would fall on me and not just the cause." That said, she had the presence of mind to climb into Luna armed with a mobile telephone and a solar-powered battery charger.

"Outreach," she calls this preparedness, and it proved to be the magic ingredient in her story.

"I was doing interviews and calling lobbyists, forestry officials and politicians from the start," she says. "But it was after the breaking-the-records thing that everything changed."

The local media began to notice her after 27 days, when she passed the national record for sitting in a tree. At 42 days, staying put through midwinter storms of snows and gales, she broke the international record, which had been set in Germany. "And at 100 days," she says, "it all went nuts."

She realized things had changed when the first of the tree-climbing journalists, determined to interview her face to face, asked her whether there was anything he could bring her. "I thought about it, and then realized that what I really needed was a diary day-planner," she says with a giggle. "I had become that busy, that much in demand. I needed to get organized."

With more than 600 days still to go, her Luna vigil was already becoming what she describes as a "life-transforming experience." She learned to wash herself in rain water from puddles on her canvas roof, to climb from branch to branch in bare feet to keep her muscles working, to "let go" and trust the movement of the tree in the wildest storms.

Movie stars and rock musicians began to make pilgrimages to her place of vigil. "Julia's evolved into an incredibly powerful figure," said actor Woody Harrelson. "Visiting Julia Butterfly was one of the most remarkable experiences of my life," added Joan Baez.

We meet on her first day in the urban jungle, in Sacramento, the state capital, where she has come to ask a public hearing for a ban on felling all remaining redwood trees. The effect of her presence is to transform an episode of local bureaucracy into national theater.

She arrives at the head of a column of several hundred protesters, with television cameras in tow. A poll has revealed that 70 percent of Americans are appalled at the destruction of trees like the one Miss Hill climbed, and California Gov. Gray Davis is scrambling for a compromise in an election year.

She still professes that her reasons for setting out on her journey were simple.

"All I really left home to do was find a way to fill the hollow feeling I had in my heart," she says, sipping tea. "I had realized that society's rules for my life were not valid.

"And then I spent 10 months recovering from the brain damage I got when I hit my head in the road accident I lost my short-term memory completely. I realized that if I had not recovered, if I had been disabled, it would have been as a person with no value at all. I cannot accept that.

"My childhood was very, very hard. I had no idea how to laugh, or have fun. When I finally went to school, when I was 15, I had to learn that it was not so terrible to have a friend, and be lighthearted and just be happy."

After years of wandering, her father, a nondenominational evangelical, finally parked his caravan and his family in Arkansas. "After all those years," she says, "my dad finally decided that he doubted the existence of God. So he stopped preaching."

This was stunning news for his three children, who had never been to school and whose entire lives had been dedicated to his cause.

Then, after nearly 20 years of marriage, her parents broke all their own rules and got divorced. All they had had in common, she says, were children and God. The children were growing up and God had already left the preacher's heart.

Miss Hill laughs at the suggestion that her childhood was perfect training for life on a platform, up a tree and under siege by rough-hewn men in plaid shirts. She agrees, but looks shocked when asked if she might have inherited her father's nature.

"One day I was talking to my dad from Luna, and he suddenly said that my voice had changed," she says. "And then he said he could tell from my voice that I had found what I had been looking for, that my soul was content.

"He told me that all his life he had been on a quest to fulfill his soul, and had never found the answer, and that now he was coming out to join me in the forest."

Amazingly, that is what he did. So as Miss Hill finds herself preaching "a different truth" in the city, her father has disappeared into the redwood forests to join the environmentalists.

"Our entire family gave up everything so my father could spread the message of love and truth, and I guess that, in a way, I am doing the same thing," she says.

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