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The Power of One

Butterfly's Hard Landing

Everyone talks about saving the world, but how many are willing to risk everything--comfort, career, even life itself--while trying? In this special issue, we bring you the stories of four people whose individual efforts on behalf of their causes have required extraordinary determination and personal sacrifice. Whether you agree with them or not, it's hard not to be inspired by the passion, compassion and commitment of those rallying to the cry on activist Julia Butterfly Hill's favorite shirt . . .

She Lived for Two Years on a Rickety, Weather-Beaten Platform Near the Top of a 200-Foot California Redwood. Then, Says Julia Butterfly Hill, Things Got Weird.

January 20, 2002|MATTHEW HELLER | Matthew Heller last wrote for the magazine about the transporting of radioactive nuclear waste along California 127

On this balmy October evening, some 400 well-heeled Angelenos have gathered in the auditorium of the Freud Playhouse at UCLA. They have paid up to $500 a ticket to attend a fund-raiser for the Ark Trust animal-protection group. Their ranks include stars such as Lindsey "The Bionic Woman" Wagner and Gillian Anderson of "The X-Files."

Gloria Steinem is hosting the event, billed as "An Evening of Music and Inspiration." Later, she will introduce singer Sophie B. Hawkins, who also is an animal-rights activist. But the first special guest will provide the inspiration. "No one is better proof of the power of one and the power of example," Steinem says.

From stage right emerges a slim, lanky woman in black slacks, bare feet and a purple T-shirt bearing the message "Do Something." She bows toward Steinem and faces the audience, the curtain behind her now covered in the projected image of a dense, murky forest. She is Julia Butterfly Hill--the eco-bionic woman who took Butterfly as her forest name and survived for two years atop a Northern California redwood called Luna. The audience gives her a standing ovation.

For the next 45 minutes, Hill paces the stage, a radio microphone attached to her waist, and delivers a bravura combination of performance art and pep talk, her husky voice oscillating in sermon-like cadences. She remembers her first visit to a redwood forest--"The air was so pure it tasted sweet on my tongue." She describes sitting in Luna as loggers felled nearby redwoods. With ear-piercing wails, tears in her eyes, her body contorted, she evokes the sound of a chain saw slashing, of a redwood plunging to the forest floor.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Friday April 19, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Pacific Lumber--The name of Pacific Lumber Co.'s corporate parent--Maxxam Inc.--was misspelled in a California section story Thursday about complaints that clear-cutting has hurt water quality for downstream residents near Eureka.

Still bursting with energy and passion, her audience captivated, Hill concludes by exhorting them to follow her example in some way, to realize that life is "interconnected" and that the "power of one" has a ripple effect that can create change. "Love in action has the answer," she proclaims before receiving another standing ovation.

"This isn't an act," she tells me later. "This is me, this is everything I care about."

Two years after Hill completed her epic vigil in Luna, saving it from the loggers, she is big box office, an environmental movement messenger whom some have compared to Joan of Arc and Rosa Parks. At speaking engagements across the country, she draws packed crowds.

Branching away from forest-protection issues, she has embraced everything from animal rights to the campaign to free Native American activist Leonard Peltier, who is in prison for murdering two FBI agents. She has helped inspire others, including an Arkansas grandmother, to do their own tree-sits. "She's an inspirational character," says John Knox, co-executive director of Earth Island Institute, a leading environmental organization.

Hill is marketed and merchandised. On their way into the Freud theater, audience members filed past a table displaying an array of Butterfly products, including copies of her memoir, "The Legacy of Luna," and two videos about the tree-sit, "Butterfly" and "Luna: The Stafford Giant Treesit." There also are Butterfly note cards and T-shirts. One T-shirt carries a message from Julia: "We arise beautiful and free." Some of the proceeds go to her nonprofit Circle of Life Foundation, which promotes efforts to protect and restore the Earth.

But some activists believe Hill has lost her way in the treacherous forest of celebrity. The down-home Julia of the tree-sit, they say, has metamorphosed into Julia Butterfly Inc., an example of the corporate machinery she once battled. They claim she has distanced herself from her tree-sit supporters and failed to articulate a cohesive message, preferring feel-good platitudes to thorough analysis of conservation issues. "She got famous, and her activism went out of her heart and into her mind," complains Darryl Cherney, a veteran organizer for the radical Earth First! group. "She started talking about respect and love instead of the forests."

With the recent death of David Brower, a Nobel Prize nominee and key figure in the development of the Sierra Club, Hill, who divides her time between friends' homes in Humboldt County and the Bay Area, is America's most famous environmentalist. Now she may be facing an even stiffer test than surviving in a redwood for two years. "She did well in the tree because she wanted to be alone and felt personally comfortable being alone," says Doug Wolens, a San Francisco filmmaker who shot the "Butterfly" video. "Since coming down, she doesn't have the ability" to tune things out.

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