Protest and Prayer in a Redwood Perch

Article excerpt

When Julia Hill, a preacher's daughter from Arkansas, arrived in the woodsy environs of northern California in the summer of 1997, she blended easily and quickly into a loose-knit community of environmental activists.

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 and distrusts authority.

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: civil 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 admired" 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 Forest. …


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