Dec. 16, 1999 ©1999 San Francisco Examiner
Julia Butterfly, the ultimate tree-hugger, defeats Hurwitz & Co
ERIC BRAZIL OF THE EXAMINER STAFF
IT WAS Darryl Cherney, the indefatigable North Coast environmental publici
st and troubadour, who badgered me into interviewing a tree sitter
calling herself Julia Butterfly in February 1997.
Cherney was making his third pitch for coverage of the tree sit, a protest
tactic invented in the '80s to call attention to the clearcutting of
old-growth forests. Twice previously, I'd passed on the story. Overuse had
minimized treesitting's news value.
"But she's been up there 64 days, Eric! Sixty-four days! That's a record!"
said Cherney, who tends to speak in exclamation points.
It was a slow news day. His persistence paid off.
So Examiner photographer Kim Komenich and I drove to the Humboldt County
hamlet of Stafford and slogged in the rain up a sopping hillside to the
base of a giant redwood. Butterfly was camped on a platform high above.
I interviewed Butterfly, a k a Julia Hill, via walkie talkie, and Komenich
hoisted his personal Leica up to the platform and instructed a Finnish
traveler then visiting her how to use it. His name, he said, was Zeppo.
The story and photograph appeared on Feb. 12 on The Examiner's front page.
The story began:
"After 64 days living at the top of a 200-foot-high redwood, through storms
and a siege aimed at dislodging her, Julia 'Butterfly' says she is so
attuned to her host that she believes she has felt its tears with her bare
feet and body."
I wasn't the first reporter to interview Julia Butterfly. That was Beth
Bosk, a North Coast environmental activist publisher. But the so-called
"redwood curtain" keeps her readership local.
The Associated Press rewrote The Examiner story, sent it out on the
national wire - and presto! - the international media storm broke, and it
continues to this day.
Hill has become everybody's favorite wood nymph, a global celebrity able to
command more reportorial microphones and telephones and cameras than any
other living environmentalist. Her teleconference with two dozen reporters
last week generated yards of ink and minutes of air time. Sunday's New York
Times Magazine gave her a full page - including a stunning color photo of
her barefoot, clinging to a tree branch - to explain, in her own words,
what she's up to.
All this presents Pacific Lumber Co., which owns "Luna," the redwood that
Hill has commandeered, with a world-class public relations headache.
The company, owned by Texas tycoon Charles Hurwitz's Maxxam, Inc., has
tried to scare Hill down from the tree by buzzing it with helicopters and
harassing her with tough talk from tree fellers with bullhorns - to no
Lately, it has taken a less direct approach, while still trying to coax her
down. It has agreed not to log Luna or the trees within a 200-foot buffer
zone around it - if Hill and her supporters pay $50,000 and she agrees to
forswear treesitting and advocating the tactic to other activists.
Hill says she's OK with the money, but, "I will not sign away my right to
free speech." She won't be coerced, she says, into denouncing a form of
protest "that has been very effective in getting the word out to the world."
Frustrated, Pacific Lumber/Maxxam has now adopted the line that Hill is a
lawbreaking publicity hound who seeks to profit from ecoterrorism and is
unreasonably prolonging the whole scene.
The corporate executives evidently fail to understand that Hill regards
herself as a secular witness in the tradition of St. Simeon Stylites and
the other fifth century Christian anchorites who lived lives of physical
mortification atop pillars in the deserts of Syria and Palestine, praying
for the redemption of sinful humanity.
Hill is up her tree "to make the world aware of what's happening to the
forests of the world and to try to shift consciousness to come from a place
of love and respect for the Earth." For good measure, she's telling
Maxxam's Hurwitz that she loves him.
Hurwitz & Co. are never going to win this one. If they have any common
sense, they'll cut their losses, call off the lawyers and let Hill say
whatever she wants after she touches ground. The longer she stays aloft,
the more keenly the public becomes aware of the logging abuses that sent
her up the tree in the first place.
Eric Brazil is an Examiner reporter.
©1999 San Francisco Examiner Page A33
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