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Julia Butterfly Hill, From Treetop to Grass Roots

By Don Oldenburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 22, 2004; Page C01

You can take the girl out of the redwood, but you can't take the redwood out of the girl.

Speaking Sunday at the D.C. Green Festival, Julia Butterfly Hill takes only a few minutes to get around to the redwood tree -- the one she made famous, the one that made her famous.

Julia Butterfly Hill, pictured in 1998, lived for more than two years in a redwood to protest clear-cutting practices. Today she calls for do-it-yourself activism. (Shaun Walker -- Eureka Times-standard Via AP)

Hill, you might recall, was the hippie waif who became an international story in the late '90s when she lived 180 feet up an ancient redwood for 738 days to stop a lumber company from cutting it down.

By going out on that limb for more than two years, she saved the venerable tree she dubbed "Luna" and the surrounding three acres of redwoods. And she raised unprecedented awareness of the threat to old-growth trees. With that memorable stunt of activist endurance for the environment, she became the world's best-known tree hugger.

"I never thought that I was going to live in a tree," Hill tells the audience of more than 1,000 at a weekend-long exposition of environmental and social activism at the Washington Convention Center. "If I had seen what was coming, I would've went screaming in the other direction. But life doesn't give it to us that way; it just gives it to us moment by moment, day by day. We show up and give it the best that we can."

Although the audience is a mixed bag of students, green entrepreneurs, latter-day hippies and Birkenstockers, Hill's all-natural aura shines like a sunbeam. It has been five years since she climbed down, and now at age 30, she looks more like a fashion model than an earth mama. Her clothes are California beat -- simple black top, black boots, form-fitting black pants. The flowing black hair of tree-sitting photos is cut pixie-like. At 5 feet 10, she moves onstage with the grace of a dancer.

"We live in a world that is full of problems, and we are the solutions to those problems," says Hill, microphone in hand, moving nonstop onstage, stopping at the podium only to sip a yerba maté tea and soy milk mixture from a Mason jar. "After I came down from living in that tree, I started realizing how literally every moment we make choices and every single choice changes the world -- every single one of them."

Her 40-minute talk, "Making a Difference in Troubling Times," is familiar ground Hill has covered in her many speaking engagements -- most, like this one, without a fee. She receives more than 500 speaking offers a year. She has written two books, "The Legacy of Luna" and "One Makes a Difference," both carrying her make-a-difference message on 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper with soy-based ink and chlorine-free processing, with all proceeds donated to causes, she says. Her group, the Circle of Life, which she created while in the tree, spreads her message from tree-planting elementary school students to mainstream skeptics to veteran activists.

Like her life since emerging from those branches in 1999, Hill's vibe onstage is high-octane. If positive energy fueled automobiles and heated homes, oil companies would line up to tap Julia Butterfly Hill.

"We're here to talk about how to be awake in a time that's trying to make us fall asleep, how to have our hearts wide open in a time that's beating us into a pulp, how to have our spirits soar and fly when so much feels like it's holding us down," she tells the audience, her words eclipsing into the kind of consciousness poetry of her blog.

Hill preaches doing activism out of love of life, being conscious of the connection we have with all living things, from microorganisms to mountains. She says she learned that among Luna's lush leaves: Lumber crews harassed her from below and with helicopters from the air. The angrier she got, she says, the more she heard the answer: "You gotta love, you gotta love, you gotta love."

Big applause, hollers of amen. The audience is her choir.

Hill holds up a plastic water bottle, a plastic spoon and a paper cup and calls them weapons of mass destruction. "More water is wasted and polluted in making this plastic bottle than is actually held inside the plastic bottle," she says. "This is a paper cup that destroyed a forest somewhere."

Hill shows the audience the Mason jar she uses instead of bottled water. A vegan, she carries a metal eating container and metal utensils everywhere for meals. Proudly, she tells the audience she's "car-free," relying on walking, bicycling and public transportation at home in Oakland and on the road.

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