December 20, 1999 ©1999 San Francisco Chronicle
Tree-Sitter Recounts Life In the Clouds
Julia Butterfly Hill is tearful and triumphant
Glen Martin, Chronicle Staff Writer Monday
When Julia Butterfly Hill rappelled down from the ancient redwood tree that
had been her home for the past two years, she did it slowly. Sometimes she
stopped altogether, clinging affectionately to the bark of the hoary giant
she calls Luna.
When Hill finally touched down from her tree about 10 a.m. Saturday, she
collapsed limply in the mud, wracked by sobs.
"We did it," she said over and over, the tears streaming down her face. "We
After unclipping from her rappel rope, Hill talked to The Chronicle, the
only newspaper she allowed to cover her descent. For the next two hours,
during an arduous hike down the mountain from her redwood tree and out to
civilization and the waiting press corps, Hill discussed in detail both the
joys and travails of living in the clouds and carrying out her own unique
form of civil disobedience.
Pacific Lumber Co., which owns the tree, agreed not to cut it down, and
Hill agreed to leave the tree and come back only for occasional visits.
Hill, who is 25, had apparently humbled a corporate giant simply by
refusing to come down from a tree. She had stayed up in Luna for 738 days,
declining to descend until Luna was granted a reprieve from the chain saws
of Pacific Lumber, the Scotia company owned by Maxxam Corp. of Houston,
Through Pacific Lumber president John Campbell, Maxxam chairman Charles
Hurwitz had denigrated, threatened and cajoled Hill, first threatening to
remove her from the tree and then intimating legal action would follow.
She responded by sending Hurwitz chatty letters and Christmas cards, but
she says he never responded. And she stayed in the tree, of course,
insouciantly giving radio interviews by cell phone, answering letters and
dispatching press releases that were sometimes eloquent, sometimes
hackneyed, but always focused on the same point: Given their profound
scarcity, she said, big old trees shouldn't be cut down.
Nonetheless, Hill said she admired Hurwitz as a worthy adversary in their
"Hurwitz is a master chess player," Hill observed. "He's brilliant -- I
felt like I was his pawn so many times. If he ever got in touch with his
heart, he could do amazing work."
The agreement between Hill and Pacific Lumber preserves Luna and a 200-foot
buffer strip in exchange for a $50,000 payment to the lumber firm from Hill
and her legion of supporters. Pacific Lumber will donate the money to
Humboldt State University for scientific research.
Hill also pledged never to trespass on Pacific Lumber lands, but she can
visit Luna on 48 hours' notice to the company. Pacific Lumber withdrew an
initial demand that Hill refrain from commenting negatively about the firm.
As she hiked down the mountain to the press conference in the hamlet of
Stafford, Hill mused on what it was like to spend two years in a tree.
The top of a redwood tree is an exceedingly hostile environment for human
beings. It is aggressively vertical; gravity claws at you whenever you
move. It is always cold and damp; Hill was never truly dry during her two
years in Luna. And it is cramped. Hill lived on two six-by- six-foot
platforms. Luna's trunk was her sidewalk and exercise treadmill. She
learned survival tricks up there, such as seldom washing the soles of her
feet, because the sap helped her feet stick to the branches better.
Her company, for the most part, was the wildlife that inhabits the upper
canopy of Western coastal forests.
"I did my best not to tame them, but the flying squirrels found every (food
morsel) I dropped," she recalled with a laugh. "They knew that when the
candle went out, that was the time to make as much of a mess as possible
and tapdance on my head."
She sometimes had guests, including celebrities such as Joan Baez and Woody
Harrelson. And she was visited twice a week by her support crew, five young
men who hauled up her food, stove fuel, mail and cell phone batteries and
hauled away her waste.
One of them, Cole "Spruce" Fivenson, said his two-year stint supplying Hill
was one of the greatest events of his life.
"It taught me responsibility," he said. "Julia depended on us. She knew
we'd be there for her, that we weren't going anywhere. I made a commitment
to both her and Luna, and I kept it."
Now that she was down from the tree, her friends worried that she would be
unable to negotiate the trail after so many months in Luna. She quickly
dispelled their fears by racing downhill, an anklet of little brass bells
jingling as she walked.
In talking to Hill, who grew up as a preacher's daughter in the Bible Belt,
it soon became clear that environmentalism is a religious issue to her.
"I asked God to use me as a vessel," she said, "so I guess you have to be
careful what you ask for. . . . My hope is people can learn to feel their
connection to the magnificence of creation.
"I know that not everyone can live in a tree for two years," she said, "and
no one should have to live in a tree for two years just so it'll be
protected. Pacific Lumber talks about economics, but how can anyone place a
price (on a tree like Luna)?"
That, of course, is the problem: To many people in this economically
strapped portion of the state, trees are a matter of economics, not
spirituality. That's why the North Coast community is still sharply divided
over Hill and her brand of civil disobedience. Old-growth is like the
abortion issue up here: There is very little room for compromise on either
Hill appears to understand that better than many of her associates, most of
whom bristle at the suggestion that loggers' deriving a livelihood from the
woods is not inherently evil.
"I understand all of us are governed by different values," she said at the
base of Luna. "To some people I'm a dirty tree-hugging hippie. But I don't
understand how someone can take a chain saw to something like (Luna).
Anyone who wants to cut a tree like this should spend two years in it
And the future? Hill will probably stay in the southern Humboldt County
area, where she says she has roots. But although she now lives in a
completely different environment from Luna's branches, it is almost as
confining. Her celebrity has essentially stripped her of privacy, and she
finds that a little disconcerting.
On the way down from Luna, Hill and her group stopped to look at a chorus
frog perched on a log by the side of a logging road. Some of those who had
been filming and photographing the day's events crouched down and stuck big
lenses in the amphibian's face.
"Boy, I think I know how he feels," Hill murmured.
©1999 San Francisco Chronicle Page A21
Return to Home