Glen Martin, Chronicle Staff Writer
Last December 10, Julia Butterfly climbed 180 feet up an ancient redwood tree in Humboldt County's beleaguered Headwaters Forest, named the tree Luna, and refused to come down. She's still up there.
A year ago, she climbed 180 feet up this hoary conifer as one small part of a massive protest movement against the clear-cutting of virgin redwoods by Pacific Lumber Co., a firm that had been acquired in 1985 in a hostile takeover by Maxxam Corp., headed by Texas financier Charles Hurwitz.
At the heart of the conflict is the fate of the Headwaters Forest and adjoining groves, an old-growth complex covering 60,000 acres. Marches and direct confrontation between protesters and loggers have enlivened North Coast society since 1990, the year of Redwood Summer.
The struggle hit an ugly low on September 17, when David ``Gypsy'' Chain died after being hit by a felled tree in the course of an anti-Hurwitz demonstration.
But during the past two months, things have simmered down; however temporarily, the Humboldt woods are now generally quiet. Yet Julia Butterfly -- nee Julia Hill -- is still up that tree. She has kept to her precipitous perch through horrendous El Nino gales and harassment by testy loggers.
"The first few weeks were especially hard,'' she recalls. ``There was a two-week period in January when I had no real shelter, and I was constantly raked by storms. One night, the wind blew me three feet sideways with every gust. I only made it because I emulated the branches that survived -- by yielding to the wind. The ones that resisted broke.''
December 10 will mark a year since Butterfly's feet touched the ground.
And in those 12 months, a strange thing has happened: She has become the lens through which the entire issue is viewed. She has metamorphosed into the living emblem of the old-growth advocacy movement, its ad hoc spokesperson.
The impressions left by eight years of protests have been complex and sometimes contradictory: umbral groves of ancient trees juxtaposed with clear-cuts jumbled with slash; perplexed loggers trading jibes with drum-beating hippies; home town cops brusquely swabbing liquid Mace into the eyes of young protesters.
It is therefore hard to winnow the good guys from the bad in this conflict. Even if you accept the environmentalists' point-of-view, the people nominally in the wrong usually seem good-humored, competent and reasonable -- working men trained in the dangerous and demanding trade of hauling logs off the mountainside.
And the people viewed as ``right'' often come across as dogmatic, self-indulgent and bizarre in taste and habits.
Certainly, the average American doesn't want to see old-growth redwood forests razed. But that same American would probably feel a stronger bond with a Humboldt County logger -- a man who pays his taxes, has a couple of beers during Monday night football and spends his weekends fishing -- than a vegan Earth Firster huffing a bong-load of Emerald Triangle skunkweed while dancing around a bonfire.
But Butterfly has been able to redefine this barrage of discordant messages and images.
People may be dismayed by confrontational marches, they may glaze over during discussions of climax forest ecology, habitat conservation plans and the life cycle of the marbled murrelet -- but they understand a young woman who has lived in the upper canopy of a giant tree for a year because she has a heartfelt conviction that clear-cutting old-growth redwoods is wrong.
Especially when that young woman is formidably articulate and photogenic. Certainly, a large part of Butterfly's appeal is due to the fact that she is appealing: She looks like a Vogue model who has taken up residence in a redwood.
In Butterfly -- and the small team of activists who keep her supplied and help with her media outreach -- the Save the Redwoods movement has found something it was sorely lacking: a shining, inviolate symbol. A warrior saint. A Joan of Arc.
-- -- --
It's not easy visiting Butterfly. First, you have to bushwhack a couple of miles through thick brush and second-growth coniferous forest, straight up a steep mountainside. Your guide is usually Michael Van Broekhoven, a 24-year-old activist from Belgium who packs up most of Butterfly's supplies.
Then there's the matter of ascending the tree.
This is accomplished by climbing 100 feet up a rope through the use of a harness and two jumars -- cam devices that clip onto the rope and the harness. (Van Broekhoven and other members of Butterfly's crew disdain jumars as sissified, preferring to climb with ``prussiks'' -- simple looped lines that attach to the main rope with slipknots.)
With your feet in rope stirrups tied to the jumars, you ascend by sitting back in the harness and moving and locking the top jumar, then standing in the stirrups, pulling on the top jumar and deftly moving up the bottom device. Progress is made in small increments; climbing 100 feet is like doing 150 pull-ups -- while dangling over a steep mountainside strewn with sharp stakes and splintered branches.
Many have found the experience daunting. A few weeks ago, a cameraman from a Bay Area television station had a profound crisis of confidence about three-quarters of the way up the rope, and Butterfly and Van Broekhoven had a trying time talking him through it. Once you start climbing with jumars, you can't go down. They only go one way: Up.
At the top of the rope is one of the two four-by-six-foot tarped platforms that Butterfly calls home. The other is located 80 feet higher.
Butterfly blithely travels between the two like a gibbon, swinging from branch to branch. Barefoot. No rope. No harness. Nothing between her and eternity but a toe grip on a slippery branch.
She abandoned her safety devices, she explains, two weeks after ascending Luna -- the name she gave the tree after the construction of the lower platform, which was finished during a phase of the full moon.
``We evolved from ground-dwelling apes,'' Butterfly observed during an interview on a cold and clammy November day as she prepared green tea on a small butane stove for a hypothermic visitor. ``We're naturally uncomfortable with heights. You climb up in a tree like this, and things start feeling pretty -- airy. But whenever I felt like that during those first days, I'd just hug Luna, and I'd feel rooted. I could feel her life, her energy, flowing right down into the earth. After a while, I didn't need the rope.''
Butterfly has reached a comfort level in Luna that is, frankly, alarming.
The tree is her front yard, her office, her exercise treadmill.
She thinks nothing of balancing on a four-inch branch in her bare feet, talking on the cell phone she holds in one hand, gesturing emphatically with her free hand, swaying gently with the breeze, riding the tree like a surfer on a vast, soft swell.
-- -- --
Though she is usually alone -- save for brief visits from teammates like Van Broekhoven and a few journalists -- Butterfly is nevertheless solidly connected to the world beyond the trees. She receives well over 100 letters a week from around the globe, and she answers them all.
``My whole upper platform is stuffed with mail,'' she sighs. ``I'm so far behind in my correspondence I feel guilty when I'm not up there working on it.''
She also regularly sends long, chatty epistles to Hurwitz, urging a dialogue.
``He hasn't answered me yet,'' she laughs, ``but I remain optimistic.''
When she is not replying to letters it is usually because she's perched on a limb, participating in radio interviews on her cell phone.
She conducts up to five a day, most arranged by her media coordinator, Humboldt resident Robert Parker. The stations call in from all over the country, ranging from outfits with little dim-bulb transmitters to radio Godzillas with 50,000-watt ozone blasters.
Butterfly has by now honed her message into a series of digestible sound bites that go down smooth as honey.
In her resonant contralto voice, she speaks of the ``connectedness'' of life on Earth, and the responsibility humans have to serve as stewards of the planet. She talks of the redwood forest in spiritual and aesthetic rather than scientific terms.
Most significantly, she talks of the nature of her battle -- and in this regard, she has adroitly changed the tenor of the argument over old growth. A few years ago, it was hippies versus loggers -- but Butterfly has managed to frame the struggle in a different light, portraying it as a coalition of environmentalists and disillusioned loggers united against a rapacious corporation.
``I've never felt that loggers were the enemy,'' Butterfly says. ``Maxxam is the problem -- a company that has accrued hundreds of environmental violations from the California Department of Forestry in the last eight years. A company that's just had its logging permit pulled. A company that just handed 180 loggers their pink slips because it couldn't continue clear-cutting as fast as it wanted.
They don't care about their employees, and they don't care about their forests. When they're finished, there'll be no jobs, no trees -- just eroded earth. We don't have a problem with sustained-yield logging. But this isn't sustained-yield, and the loggers will ultimately suffer with the rest of us.''
-- -- --
Pacific Lumber executives, of course, see it differently.
``We're a responsible company involved in the responsible harvest of trees on our property,'' says John Campbell, the president and CEO of Pacific Lumber. ``I sympathize with Julia, but I think she has made her point. We have no intention of forcibly removing her, but we'd like to see her come down.''
Campbell says Pacific Lumber won't directly negotiate with Butterfly on the future of Luna ``because she is breaking the law. She's trespassing. And you don't negotiate with people who are breaking the law.''
Campbell also feels that Butterfly hasn't so much kindled a worldwide interest in the righteousness of her cause as conducted a successful sideshow.
``The public is always interested in bizarre things, and this definitely has the aspect of the bizarre about it,'' he says.
The response of many working loggers to Butterfly's mission has been less than cordial. But some of the men who work in the woods harbor a grudging respect for her. She has, after all, stayed up in Luna through incredibly grueling circumstances -- and loggers respect toughness and physical endurance above all else.
And sometimes there's more than mere respect in play.
Shortly after Butterfly moved into Luna's canopy, a crew of loggers began felling and bucking trees around her.
The simple act of narrowly missing Luna with huge trees was intimidating enough, but the loggers also cursed and threatened her.
``It was pretty vile,'' she says. ``They described in great detail all the things they planned to do to me. But I kept trying to engage them in conversation. I sang to them. After a while, they stopped yelling at me.''
-- -- --
One of the loggers, in fact, fell in love with Butterfly.
He began corresponding with her and eventually quit his job with Pacific Lumber. Butterfly won't talk in detail about him, beyond revealing that he ultimately moved to Alaska.
``He was uncomfortable with the media spotlight,'' she says. ``I will say that there is a lot of beauty in him, and he woke to that.''
Butterfly candidly admits she is not a trained forester or wildland ecologist. And she acknowledges that, although she has been up in Luna for 12 months, she is still learning the calls and physical characteristics of the birds that often flit around her.
``I finally got a field guide, and I'm studying it,'' she says. ``I know there's an owl that lives just behind Luna -- I hear it hooting. But I don't know if it's a great horned owl or a spotted owl, or what.''
But Butterfly isn't about science, she says -- she is about common sense, intuition and reverence for the natural world.
"I debated John Campbell on CNN about a massive mudslide that wiped out seven homes right below Luna in 1996, pointing out that it was due to over-logging,'' Butterfly recounts. ``He said, `according to the best available science, you can't say that logging causes landslides.'''
Butterfly rebutted this, noting that it is widely acknowledged that woodlands hold large quantities of water, like sponges.
``The fewer trees, the less water the soil holds,'' she says. ``I told Campbell that I may not have a science degree, but like anyone else, I can figure out that a sponge won't hold as much water if you cut it in half.''
The spiritual aspect of Butterfly's vigil can't be minimized. Her parents were evangelical Christians, and her father was an itinerant preacher. (He has since drifted from fundamentalist theology and currently works as a journalist.)
Butterfly was a devout Christian until she was about 15, at which point she lost her enthusiasm for organized religion -- but not for spirituality.
-- -- --
A turning point for her occurred in the summer of 1996, when she was involved in a near-fatal traffic accident. The steering wheel of her car penetrated her skull; it took almost a year of intensive therapy before she could again walk and talk normally.
``As I recovered, I realized that my whole life had been out of balance,'' she said. ``I had graduated high school at 16, and had been working nonstop since then, first as a waitress, then as a restaurant manager. I had been obsessed by my career, success and material things. The crash woke me up to the importance of the moment, and doing whatever I could to make a positive impact on the future.''
Today, she talks about ``the Universe'' with the same fervor she once talked about the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. It is obvious that, for her, the Universe -- the sum of all that exists -- has the aspect of the divine about it. She prays daily, and says her life is guided by the answers she receives.
Kathy Bradley, Butterfly's mother, lives in Bonita Springs, Fla., and still devoutly adheres to Christian beliefs. Divorced from Butterfly's father, Bradley is now married to a Baptist pastor. She describes Butterfly as a daughter who was always headstrong, who always marched to an internal drummer. And though they don't share the same religious beliefs, says Bradley, they are still extremely close.
``We have a very strong mutual respect for each other,'' Bradley says. ``I'm not the type of mother who pokes and prods. She said the Universe led to the trees, and I trust God to protect her while she's up there. I'm just happy she's living life to the fullest, and doing what she believes in. I'm very proud of her.''
Bradley says her daughter has garnered worldwide attention for a couple of reasons.
``She's articulate, like her father. He was always using 50-cent words, and Julia inherited his knack for speaking. And she's genuine, she's real. People are drawn to her because they sense she has no self-interest in this, beyond helping the forest.''
-- -- --
As her one-year anniversary in Luna draws nearer, Butterfly is hammering on one subject: the inadequacy of the Headwaters habitat conservation plan, the management blueprint that buttresses a pending deal between Pacific Lumber and federal and state agencies.
As the agreement stands now, Pacific Lumber would sell about 8,500 acres of old-growth groves in the Headwaters, Elk Head Springs and Owl Creek areas as permanent reserves.
An additional 20,000 to 30,000 acres of streamside forest would receive partial protection to preserve the spawning beds of threatened coho salmon.
But the deal's a shuck, claims Butterfly.
``In return for protecting a few museum groves, the plan allows Pacific Lumber to clear-cut one-quarter of their holdings (about 54,000 acres) in the next 10 years,'' she says.
``And that's not all. According to the country's best fisheries scientists, the stream buffers are totally inadequate for protecting coho. In many ways, it's worse than no deal at all.''
Campbell seems bemused by Butterfly's position, which he feels ignores such niceties as property rights and due process of law.
``We're a business,'' he says, ``and our business is harvesting and growing trees. We do that in a scientific way that preserves the integrity of the forest. But on top of everything else, she would like us to give up a whole section of property (roughly the one square mile surrounding Luna), and that's just not appropriate. We're talking at least 400,000 board feet of timber.''
Campbell and Butterfly thus seem irresolvably at loggerheads, and that's why it may be a long time before Butterfly descends Luna.
``I can't really say when I'm coming down,'' she says. ``I have so much
work to do here, and Luna would be cut in very short order if I left. If
anything happened to her, I'd feel like it would be happening to me.''
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