She Lived in a Tree: The Spirit-Led Witness of Julia Butterfly Hill

At age eighteen she opened a restaurant, but a serious car accident three years later changed Julia Butterfly Hill forever. She needed to find a deeper purpose in life than running a successful business. She traveled to California and encountered a forest of giant redwoods, some of them a thousand years old, or maybe older. Among those ancient trees, she felt a powerful sense of aliveness she had never experienced before. She sensed something calling to her.  When she learned that the redwoods were being clear-cut by a lumber company, she prayed for guidance about how to help save the forests.

In mid November 1997, she contacted environmental activists, who told her that their base camp was closing for the winter, and that she wasn’t needed. She went to the camp anyway and eagerly volunteered to do a tree sit for five days.  That’s when she first met Luna, a towering, thousand-year-old redwood tree slated to be cut down soon by the Pacific Lumber Company/Maxxam Corporation.

Although the logging company was engaging in environmentally dangerous practices, legal efforts to stop them had failed. So environmentalists willing to commit civil disobedience had built platforms high in certain old trees and were maintaining a human presence on them, in an effort to prevent their destruction. A small platform had been built near the top of Luna’s 180-foot height. So Hill slogged up a muddy ridge in the rain to get to the tree. Using ropes and a harness patched with duct tape, she ascended to the top, terrified. It was a challenging ordeal to share the 6′ by 6′ platform with two others for five rainy, windy days, and she was eager to get to a warm shower and a real bed when she came down. Soon after her first sit in the tree, however, Hill returned for another five-day stint. Next, as the winter weather got worse and volunteers were harder to find, she offered to stay in the tree for three weeks or a month. She was committed to doing whatever she could to save the life of Luna.

She didn’t come down again for two years.

Luna was the tallest tree on a high ridge. From the platform covered with tarps near the top of Luna, where Hill made her home, Hill could see a nearby area that had been clear-cut the year before. Mud from the now barren hillside had been washed down by heavy rains onto the town of Stafford. Many houses were buried by the landslide and remained uninhabited. Now another swatch of forest was being clear cut on the other side of Luna. For Hill, it was heartbreaking to hear the chain saws day after day and witness one tall redwood after another falling to the ground, “screaming” on the way down and thudding heavily. The death of each tree that fell took a piece of her heart. The redwood trunks were sawed into smaller lengths. Helicopters moved them, and heavy machinery carted them off to be milled. In the wasteland of short stumps left by the loggers, rains washed away the top soil. Later Hill witnessed clear-cut areas being napalmed from a small airplane, to keep anything from growing

Two fiercely cold and windy winters damaged her health, but the intense harassment she experienced from loggers and the lumber company was worse. One day a helicopter, deliberately being flown dangerously close, threatened to knocked her out of the tree. For several weeks men and dogs guarded Luna around the clock to prevent her fellow activists from getting necessary supplies up to her. Although her courageous companions found a way to get through the blockade, after the first ninety days in Luna, Hill did not feel she could endure much more. A fellow activist climbed the tree to encourage her to stay for a record-breaking hundred days.

When receiving conflicting advice about when to descend from the tree, Hill turned to prayer to find her inward guidance.

Under pressure, I have trouble hearing the guidance I live my life by. While I take other people’s thoughts and concerns into account–I’ve never pretended to be a know-it-all–I get my ultimate guidance from prayer. That’s why I pray every morning and every night. … This world is so fast, and there’s so much pressure to move now, move quickly. But I knew that if I wasn’t feeling clarity, I had to take the time to let the right thing happen. I couldn’t let other people sway me just because I was unsure. That was part of the lesson that Luna had taught me: to be still and listen, even in the chaos of my life. I knew prayer had taken me to the Lost Coast, prayer is what guided me to the redwood forest, and prayer is what led me to this tree and up this tree. Prayer is what had given me the strength to continue all this time. (198)

In spite of many frightening moments, Hill persisted, hearing a call to give everything she had to protect Luna. She passed her record-breaking hundred days and felt guided to stay on, persisting even when she feared the winds of El Niño would sweep her to the ground, even when her toes turned purple and then black. She learned to relax and bend like the trees during the fierce winds. Her feet healed, but the dangers she faced were real. A man maintaining a tree-sit in a nearby tree fell and broke his pelvis. One day a logger, enraged by the presence of protesters in the woods, felled two giant trees in rapid succession in their direction. The second tree crushed a young man to death. No charges were brought against the logger.

When Hill and Almond, her helper on the ground, were feeling overwhelmed by the demands of getting their word out, she fasted and prayed because, as she wrote in her book, “this tree-sit needed some divine intervention.”

“Please send someone,” she prayed to God. “We need someone with skills to help pull all of this together.” Four days after she began her fast, she received a call from a forest activist named Robert Parker, who proposed to set up a press office. He then began to run “a well-oiled, international outreach machine.”

Eventually Julia Butterfly Hill became a media celebrity. Her solar-powered cell phone enabled her to be a regular guest on radio talk shows. Some famous people, including Bonnie Raitt and Joan Baez, climbed the tree to talk with her. Striking steelworkers, fighting against unfair labor practices by another company owned by Maxxam Corporation, found her tree-sit to be a source of inspiration. A leader of the United Steelworkers of America made a trip up Luna to thank her.

On radio shows, Hill talked about life in the tree, advocated for the protection of old-growth forests, and gave information about the destructive and sometimes illegal logging practices she witnessed. Using junk bonds, the Maxxum Corporation had taken over Pacific Lumber, an old company which had previously practiced more sustainable forestry. Now Charles Hurwitz, the owner of Maxxam Corporation, was trying to get as much quick cash from the forest as possible, without concern for the future.

Hill worked to develop personal human relationships with those who insulted, harassed, or threatened her.  One day she lowered a baggie containing a photograph of herself to some loggers below. When they saw that she was a beautiful young woman, their attitude toward her changed. Before she agreed to come down from Luna, Hill negotiated for more than half a year with the president of Pacific Lumber, with whom she maintained a cordial relationship.

The environmental group Earth First! built the platform on Luna and began the tree sit. During the early months of Hill’s residency in Luna, a twenty-minute video, LUNA The Stafford Giant TREE SIT, was made that showed the destruction of the redwood trees and featured Hill speaking from the platform on Luna.. Earth First! and a team of human helpers with activist names–such as Shakespeare, Geronimo, Spruce, Seppo, and Owl–were indispensable to starting and maintaining the tree-sit in Luna. In her book, The Legacy of Luna, Hill acknowledges dozens of people who helped support her witness. She also pays tribute to the ancient being who was her constant companion for two years. Luna herself provided the most tangible source of support for Hill’s tree-sit.

Early on, Hill learned to climb the tree without any harness or ropes. Keeping her feet bare enabled her to better sense which branches could bear her weight and which could not.  She used all of her limbs to distribute her weight as she climbed. She felt that Luna was guiding her.  During two critical moments, once during a terrible storm and then on the day she descended the tree, Hill sensed direct inner communication from the ancient tree.

By the time her feet touch the ground again in December 1999, Hill had secured a contractual promise of protection for Luna. Her 738-day tree-sit had also brought international attention to the ongoing destruction of ancient redwood forests on the Pacific coast.

Since then Julia Butterfly Hill has continued to work as an environmental activist and motivational speaker, teaching about spiritually-based activism. In 2002, she was arrested in Ecuador for protesting a proposed Occidental Petroleum oil pipeline being laid through a cloud forest in the Andes. She was sent to jail and then deported, along with other activists. That year Sounds True made a recording of Hill on a CD collection entitled Spiritual Activation: Why Each of Us Does Make the Difference. Meanwhile, both in court and in the trees, Earth First! and associated organizations are still fighting the ongoing unsustainable clear-cutting of forests that contain large, old trees.

Early in the efforts to save Luna, a solar-powered light was placed on her crown, to signal from a distance that the ancient redwood was still standing. It was called the Beacon of Hope. The first time Hill struggled to slog up a muddy ridge toward Luna, the light from that beacon helped her to keep climbing. Today, the witness of Julia Butterfly Hill serves as a beacon of hope to others. When people–both young and old–discover that something is more important than worldly success and respond to the call of their souls, then a hopeful future is possible.

© 2019 Marcelle Martin

Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey, by Marcelle Martin, is available from Inner Light Books in hardback, paperback, and ebook. (An excerpt and a study guide are also available on that website.) The book was designed to be a resource for both individuals and groups to explore their spiritual experiences. It describes the journey of faithfulness that leads people to actively engage in God’s work of making this world a better place for all.

Find a Quaker Meeting near you: Quaker Finder

Marcelle Martin is a core teacher in an upcoming 9-month program, to be held online and at Woolman Hill Retreat Center in Massachusetts. Nurturing Faithfulness is a faith and leadership program designed to help Friends meet God more deeply, hone methods of discernment, reach for fuller faithfulness, and ultimately bring these gifts and strengthened abilities back to home meetings, and beyond. Program participants become a community of practice to support each other in offering spiritual nurture and encouraging leadings, service, and faithful witness. August 2019 – May 2020

Here is a video in which past participants talk about the program:

An information webinar is scheduled for the evening of January 22nd. For more information click HERE.

About friendmarcelle

A Quaker writer, teacher, workshop leader, and spiritual director, I've traveled widely to facilitate workshops and retreats about the spiritual journey. I'm the author of Our Life is Love: The Quaker Spiritual Journey, and A Guide to Faithfulness Groups.
This entry was posted in All of Life is Sacred, environmental activism, Facing Life with Faith, Following a Leading, Stories that Heal and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to She Lived in a Tree: The Spirit-Led Witness of Julia Butterfly Hill

  1. John Custer says:

    This is a truly wonderful story. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Joan Deppe says:

    I knew this story but really needed to hear it again… thank you so much. Looking forward to meeting you at some point . Gratefully, Joan

    • Hi Joan, I heard this story many years ago, but learning more of the details recently made me appreciate even more what happened then, and consider what can be done now. Thanks for responding!

  3. Lois E. Jordan says:

    What a deeply touching story of the relationship between a human and a tree. I am reminded of a favorite old maple tree in my front yard where I grew up.

  4. Homer A Wood says:

    I am deeply touched by this story. Learning how Spirit can move some to extraordinary acts. I am unable to express the many feelings elicited by the courage and conviction of Julia. Too often,I read about those who seem to have lost all contact with Spirit. But that I was more like Julia.

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