When Julia Hill, a preacher's daughter from Arkansas, arrived in
the woodsy environs of northern California in the summer of 1997,
blended easily and quickly into a loose-knit community of
She volunteered to climb a redwood tree near Stafford, Calif., to
save it from the saw - a show of commitment that gave her all the
credentials she needed to join a movement that shuns organization
After a couple of routine stints in the branches, she climbed the
tree for a third sitting during a ferocious December storm. A full
year later, Ms. Hill's feet still have not returned to earth. And
what started as an admittedly wide-eyed, almost spur-of-the-moment
protest, has turned into an odyssey of extraordinary proportions.
For many, it has become a defining act of environmental civil
disobedience in the 1990s. Its astonishing duration impresses fan
and foe alike. And its impact is heightened because of the contrast
it offers to the harder-edged eco-vandalism that apparently led to
the torching of a Vail, Colo., ski lodge last month in what may be
the costliest act of environmental sabotage in the United States.
Rik Scarce, an environmental historian at Montana State University
in Bozeman, sees the tree sit-in and the Vail arson as marking new
extremes of a movement wracked by growing tension over tactics:
disobedience versus destruction of property.
Yet Hill, who has taken the name Julia "Butterfly," has become far
more than a poster child for one form of environmental protest. Her
year in the tree, she says, has entailed an unexpected inner journey
to a personal philosophy that seems to have widened her appeal and
turned her into a one-person phenomenon that defies the normal
categories of 1990s celebrity.
She has a Web site and a full-time, on-the-ground media
coordinator. She communicates by cell phone, her voice increasingly
piped into conferences and classrooms. She participated by voice in
the recent Spitfire tour, which brought pop entertainers to college
campuses to promote activism. Her photograph has graced the pages of
the Patagonia outdoor apparel catalog. And a few months ago, Good
Housekeeping magazine nominated her as a candidate for "most
woman of the year in its "news" category.
Yet to think of Butterfly as just a cottage industry would miss
the mark. There is no sign of a calculated move to grab headlines or
sell a movie. To the contrary, even Butterfly's critics concede
that, however odd living in a tree might strike some, she genuinely
wants to save the tree she has named Luna and the nearby Headwaters