The epic story of the woman who saved the last of the redwoods by living at the top of a giant tree 738 days
Twenty years ago, 23-year-old Julia “Butterfly” Hill climbed 200 feet to the top of a 1500-year-old giant sequoia tree in Northern California and refused to come down until a logging company agreed not to chop it down.
She expected they’d give in in about a week. It ended up taking two years.
For 738 days, she traversed the tree’s trunk and branches, never setting foot on the ground.
Her home consisted of two 4×6-foot wooden platforms covered with tarps, one 80 feet above the other.
She endured one of the harshest El Nino storms in history, was harassed by helicopters, intimidated by loggers and even received death threats.
She spent a good chunk of the time wet, cold and hungry. Volunteers had to hike 2.5 miles up the mountain to deliver food and supplies.
Sometimes “the discomfort and fear left me sobbing in the fetal position,” she wrote in her book The Legacy of Luna.
“One night, the wind blew me three feet sideways with every gust,” Butterfly said in an interview with the Chronicle. “I only made it because I emulated the branches that survived – by yielding to the wind. The ones that resisted broke.”
Teaching loggers how to love
The tree, affectionately named Luna, was one of the few of its kind remaining on the planet, thanks to logging and agriculture, which have wiped out nearly all of the 2 million acres of redwood forest that once covered California.
With over 97 percent of the ancient redwood forests gone, Butterfly understood Luna represented a battle between life and death for the tallest trees in the world — the trees John Muir called “the kings of their race.”
Butterfly was nominated as the tree’s protector at a reggae benefit concert to save a grove of ancient redwoods in Humboldt County.
A group of environmental activists had been rotating tree sitters in and out of the grove every couple of days to stave off Pacific Lumber Company loggers who were clear-cutting. The organizers wanted someone to stay in the tree a week.
“Nobody else would volunteer so they had to pick me,” Butterfly said.
Homeschooled and raised in a camper, the organizers weren’t sure of Butterfly’s credentials at first, but they soon learned she was the perfect woman for the job.
“Formidably articulate and photogenic,” she quickly “metamorphosed into the living emblem of the old-growth advocacy movement,” Glen Martin wrote for the Chronicle.
It didn’t hurt that “she looked like a Vogue model who’d taken up residence in a redwood,” he added.
She used a solar powered phone to serve as an in-tree correspondent, attracting international media attention.
“I knew that if I continued to debate politics and science and stayed in the mind instead of the heart and the spirit, it would always be about one side versus the other,” she said. “We all understand love.”
“But how could I convince the loggers to transfer those feelings that they might have for a human being to the forest? And how could I get them to let go of their stereotypes of me? In their minds, I was a tree-hugging, granola-eating, dirty, dread-locked, hippie environmentalist.”
The loggers cursed and threatened her, narrowly missing her as they felled trees around her.
“It was pretty vile,” she says. “They described in great detail all the things they planned to do to me. But I kept trying to engage them in conversation. I sang to them. After a while, they stopped yelling at me.”
Some of the loggers seemed to harbor a grudging respect for her, Martin wrote. One of them even fell in love with her and quit his job.
Butterfly never spoke detail about him, beyond revealing that he ultimately moved to Alaska.
“He was uncomfortable with the media spotlight,” she told Martin. “I will say that there is a lot of beauty in him, and he woke to that.”
Coming Down from the Tree
At the height of her two-year “career,” Butterfly debated Pacific Lumber CEO John Campbell on CNN about a massive mudslide that wiped out seven homes right below Luna in 1996.
“According to the best available science, you can’t say that logging causes landslide,” Campbell argued.
Butterfly took the opportunity to school him on how the root systems of forests hold soil together and retain moisture.
“I told Campbell that I may not have a science degree, but like anyone else, I can figure out that a sponge won’t hold as much water if you cut it in half.”
Finally, after two years of bad publicity, the company agreed not to cut Luna or any redwood within the three-acre grove surrounding it.
Butterfly has since become a reluctant celebrity, with Joan Baez writing a song about her and Neil Young referencing her in his movie. She’s even had a children’s novel written about her: