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Julia Butterfly Hill, From Treetop to Grass Roots

She says she has decided to be part of a "resolutionary movement" -- do-it-yourself activism in which "every moment of every day we are looking for ways to be living examples of all that is beautiful and humble and just and incredible about our world."

After the talk, Hill stands scissor-legged in the exhibition hall signing books. A hundred or so fans wait in line as long as 90 minutes to meet her. They ask for hugs, they take photos. She spends time with each one. They walk away beaming with beatific smiles.


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)

Rachel Bosch and her 10-month-old, Samantha Bosch-Bird, drove in from Morgantown, W.Va. "When Samantha was born, I felt more of a responsibility to start getting involved in things I believed in and make the world a better place," says Bosch, calling Hill "awe-inspiring."

Madelene Elfstrom, 15, a vegetarian and student at the nontraditional Washington Waldorf School who worked awhile on the Free Tibet campaign, says, "I find her a really incredible person."

Holding her 5-year-old daughter, Isabel, by the hand, Melissa Walker of Frederick says: "She's the main fan of Julia Butterfly Hill. Isabel just loves trees . . . and she's really into composting."

As two guys walk by, one says, "That's her, man! That's Butterfly!" They stare. Three women are getting books signed. Walking away, one says, "I think I knew her in a past life."

After the Green Festival crew rolled up the green carpet on the last of her admirers, Hill is sipping a glass of water with lemon slice and orders chardonnay at a nearby restaurant. "I make eye contact with every one of them," she says. She explains she doesn't want fans thinking she's more special than they are.

Hill was a backdoor activist, after all, almost not chosen to sit in that tree because of her lack of activist experience. The daughter of a traveling evangelist, her family dirt-poor, she lived in a camper trailer touring the East Coast from age 8 until 15. Her father preached, she and her brothers put on puppet shows. Home-schooled until high school, she graduated at 16, then majored in business at a community college in Arkansas. She opened her own bar and restaurant for a year in Jonesboro, Ark., then was a restaurant consultant focused on making money without a thought of making the world a better place, she says.

A car wreck in Arkansas in 1996, followed by 10 months of recuperation, got Hill, then 22, thinking about living a meaningful life. "The steering wheel in my head, both figuratively and literally, steered me in a new direction in my life," she says.

A chance road trip to California and a reggae fundraiser to save the forests put her in the right place at the right time. A group of "front-liners" had been rotating tree sitters in and out of giant redwoods in Humboldt County every couple of days to stave off Pacific Lumber Co. loggers who were clear-cutting. Organizers wanted someone to stay in the tree a week. "Nobody else would volunteer so they had to pick me," says Hill.

Once up the tree, Hill vowed not to come down until she had made a difference. Clinging to her mattress through violent storms, supported with food and necessities by a ground crew, she stayed two years and eight days. She climbed down barefoot and wobbly only after Pacific Lumber agreed to spare Luna and the trees in a buffer zone of company-owned land for perpetuity.

Thirty-six hours after descending the tree, she was in New York doing network TV interviews. She figured her 15 seconds of fame would last six months. But she has been a reluctant celebrity ever since.

Folk singer Joan Baez dedicates songs to her. A documentary, "Tree Sit: The Art of Resistance," recounts her story. The California State History Museum's year-long exhibit "California's Remarkable Women" is honoring her this year. Rocker Neil Young pays tribute to her in his 2004 fictional film "Greendale."

The "Butterfly" in her name only adds to her celebrity. She got the nickname at 7 hiking the Blue Hills of Pennsylvania. A butterfly landed on her hand and stayed close the entire day, she says. When she went up the redwood, she used Butterfly as her "forest name," which activists use to protect their identities. She kept it.

Active in many issues, her commitments keep her hopping. She's working with the "Activism Is Patriotism" campaign to counteract right-wing efforts to equate activism with terrorism. This summer she lobbied the California Legislature to ban all logging of old-growth trees. Last year she was arrested in Ecuador for protesting the destruction of Amazon forests by the oil industry.

Donating much of her time and work to activist causes, Hill says she draws a modest salary from her nonprofit group but is committed to living a simple life that's not driven by money.

All this affords little time for a personal life, says Hill. Staying vague on details, she insists she's getting better at personal relationships, though two years in the tree upset her equilibrium in such matters. "Like I said tonight, I have to live a sustainable life if I'm going to create a sustainable world," she says. "On a personal level, I'm looking to find what does that mean and who would that bring into my life."

But Hill wants to be known for more than being the woman who lived in a tree. "I don't want that on my epitaph," she says. "What I want is, 'This is a person who cared enough about the world to try to make it a better place.' "


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