Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

Up a Tree. Still? 

Environmentalists have all but won their fight to save the Headwaters Forest. Somehow, that's not enough to bring Julia Hill down from her treetop perch.

Wednesday, Nov 11 1998
Comments

Page 3 of 6

He's worked for PALCO for years, since even before the takeover, and has a strange mutual respect with Earth First!. They admire his woodsman skills, and he's intrigued by their continual ingenuity in designing obstacles to outsmart him. Climber Dan quickly shinnies up redwoods using a chain around the trunk and spiked "spurs" on his boots. Typically he'll climb above the sitter, cut down his or her supplies, and if necessary, physically escort the activist down the tree.

The concept of a character like Climber Dan seems almost the stuff of myth.
"These are mythical characters, doing ritual battles in the enchanted forest," says Robert Parker, media liaison to Butterfly. "I wonder what Joseph Campbell would make of it."

On the very first day of Butterfly's sit, Climber Dan ascended a tree neighboring Luna in pursuit of her. But she says he was physically unable to move from his tree onto the branches of Luna and bring her down. Climber Dan retreated, but efforts to dislodge Butterfly have never stopped.

As logging continued all around Luna, Pacific Lumber tried other methods to get rid of her. Air horns, spotlights, whistles, and shouted epithets -- one of the nicer comments was "Have a bad hair day!" -- wouldn't roust Butterfly from her perch. Chain saws toppled most of the trees surrounding Luna. Butterfly hung onto the platform as the wash from helicopter blades blew branches off her tree. She rolled up in her tarp to ride out the 90 mph winter storms.

But she didn't leave.
Robert Parker wanders through a garden, picking tomatoes to bring to Butterfly. The garden is at one end of a field outside Stafford, 250 miles north of San Francisco. On this location one year ago, an estimated 8,000 people, including Julia Hill, attended an Earth First! Headwaters rally and listened to speeches by Bonnie Raitt, Jerry Brown, and Mickey Hart. Except for a Headwaters banner and portable toilet, the field is now empty.

The 34-year-old Parker has been liaison for Butterfly since the beginning of her tree-sit. His Luna Media Services runs her Web site, sends out press releases, and coordinates her interviews, an average of three a day. In the 1980s he squatted with anarchists in San Francisco buildings. Now he works with Headwaters activists and since last December has been taking members of the media on an exhausting two-mile hike up a hillside to introduce them to Butterfly.

He makes one trip a week up to her, delivering an average of 50 letters, and she sends back as many. When she isn't talking to the press, she listens to a radio powered by a hand crank. They've had five offers of a free laptop computer, but have refused. A cellular phone, pager, radio, and CD player are enough. The two talk by phone at least twice a day, often until midnight, planning out the next day's activities.

Luna stands on a steep slope, surrounded by fallen trees that PALCO has yet to remove. The tree is approximately 1,000 years old, and its board-feet are estimated to be worth at least $100,000. People have embedded little beads and rocks into the bark. One side is burned and scarred, but redwoods are very resilient. Even before Charles Hurwitz was born, the tree had endured a lot.

Journalists are no longer allowed to climb the tree to visit Butterfly, only photographers. Parker says it's too much hassle. A videographer for Evening Magazine reached Butterfly and nearly fell off the platform. Others didn't even make it that far.

"A reporter from Time magazine got up 30 feet, and freaked out," says Parker. Climbing guides had to bring her back down.

Instead, Parker takes reporters up the ridge to a ledge, where they conduct interviews by walkie-talkie. At eye level, roughly 150 feet away, Butterfly stands barefoot at the very top of the tree. The wind blows her long hair, and the first sight of her seems surreal and dreamlike, like an animated character from a Disney film poised on a cliff, or the two lovers on the bow of the Titanic.

"Isn't she amazing?" says Parker in obvious admiration.
What's immediately apparent is that she's very personable. She laughs easily, with the sense of playfulness that often comes from someone who has nearly died and returned to life determined to be a completely pure human being.

And she has made great copy. In all the years of political activism in Humboldt County, no one person or action has ever gotten as much mainstream attention as Butterfly and her tree-sit.

Media wrestled with how to approach such a story. What do you say about a young woman who lives in a tree? Time called her a "chirpy New Ager." Jane magazine's headline blared, "Is Julia Butterfly Insane?" The New York Times stoically announced, "Redwoods Still Inspire Sturdiest of Defenders." Much of the initial press, especially the British, focused on her personal hygiene and how she went to the bathroom.

Parker is very defensive about the question of body odor.
"She doesn't smell! She smells like a redwood tree."
Throughout the initial months, Butterfly's family thought she was just hanging out in a treehouse, until an article appeared in the San Francisco Examiner. Her cousin, who lives in the Bay Area, mailed the clip back to Arkansas, where Butterfly's father is now a photojournalist. News spread to her mother, who does environmental outreach on the Internet, and her brothers, one of whom works for Intel. The family discovered their independent little Julia was, in fact, a celebrity spokesperson for the environmental movement.

"They are so supportive," she says. "They worry about me, but they believe in me." (She would rather not give out their phone numbers or have them contacted by reporters.)

About The Author

Jack Boulware

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed

Slideshows

  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"