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St. Julia and the Apostles

I walked into the Booksmith bookstore on Haight Street in San Francisco at 6pm to see what time famous tree-sitter Julia Butterfly Hill’s presentation was to begin. The reading was set for 7pm, but the 40 or so chairs that had been arranged in the back of the store were already filling up. So, though my stomach was growling, I sat down to wait for an hour.

The audience was composed mainly of fashionable hippie-yuppie cross-breeds who clutched hardback copies of Julia’s cheese-ball book “The Legacy of Luna,” to their chests as if magical rays beamed from it.

I made small talk with the young woman next to me — an angel-faced blonde wearing a creamy yellow tee shirt and black jeans with sandals. She had eyes like little daydreams. She held a copy of Butterfly Hill’s book in her lap. I asked what she thought of it. 

“Well, I just started it today, but I think it’s really wonderful.” She smiled and I heard bells chime from inside her head.

“Do you think she’s a good writer?” I said.

“Well yeah, she really writes from her heart,” the young woman said.

That sums up the current state of the environmental movement from Julia Butterfly Hill’s corner. “From the heart,” as intended here, means no one is to argue with anything the performer is about to say; the presentation is exempt from criticism because it is from Julia’s heart. 

The young woman wondered what had attracted me to the reading. I explained that Julia Butterfly Hill has received criticism as well as praise, and that I was there to hear for myself what she had to say. Angel Face became visibly uncomfortable with my potential skepticism.

So down with argument goes intellect. With no creative debate, how is anyone to continue learning — unless there is nothing left to learn. If a person has reached her “higher self,” for example, of course she has reached her limits of goodness and wisdom.

Such is the case with Julia Butterfly Hill, according to her own words. She announced more than once during her performance that she has achieved her higher self. She also said the people in the audience would “walk away more charged up,” and “spiritually awake.” She thought she could help free us all from “attachments that keep us in our lower forms,” and liberate us from our “inner demons.”

It could have been a tent revival.

It should be noted that Butterfly Hill struck a questionable deal with Pacific Lumber-Maxxam CEO Charles Hurwitz to end her two-year treetop vigil. It could be argued that her stunt ultimately did more harm than good for the environmental movement, that it was a leg up for the timber industry. Julia opted for a cash transaction to end her protest of capitalist greed. Hurwitz donated $50,000 to the HSU forestry program, a gift that will probably benefit his business in the long run. Today, he continues to be as destructive as ever, though Butterfly Hill claims she has made great strides toward saving forests.

Hurwitz won. He gets to look like a compassionate guy while Julia leads his opposition through a parade of spiritual cartwheels. To celebrate a false victory as Butterfly Hill does with her book and her tour is to encourage complacency in a movement which has come to a desperate stand-still. 

Butterfly Hill’s heart is in the right place. She recognizes the urgency necessary in dealing with the destruction of our world. But she either doesn’t recognize or isn’t willing to talk about the shortcomings of her grand stunt. If she could talk about the shortcomings then maybe she could initiate some serious discussion about how to deal with the corporate evil-doers.

But there is no arguing allowed. Instead, Hurwitz is giggling and stacking his cash while Butterfly Hill talks about consciousness and inner strength. Oh, it’s like a knife in my heart.

Right on schedule, a man representing The Booksmith introduced Julia Butterfly Hill. He said “she’s been called the Rosa Parks of the environmental movement.” That’s when my ears first started ringing. I don’t know who originally said it, but I’d like to thump my fingertip hard against that person’s temple until a headache blooms to end all headaches.

To compare this young, white preacher’s daughter, a naïve woman in her early twenties who got famous for sitting in a tree, to Rosa Parks, who could have been killed for attempting something so fundamental as riding the bus with dignity, is obscene. If Julia Butterfly Hill knew better, she would be embarrassed and would denounce the comparison. Instead, she appears to believe it, despite her contradictory claims of humility.

Julia finally emerged from a back room, removed both her shoes and took the podium, bright, confident and full of energy.

By 7pm the crowd had metastasized. People were sitting on the floor at Julia’s feet and standing up in the back. People packed against one another and filled over half the store.

Julia began her performance with enthusiastic shouts to greet her audience. Then she spoke about the mainstream press, how it’s like an information grinder. She said newspapers get hold of a good story, put it through their works, and by the time it hits the printed page it is unrecognizable. Her point: “I am a human being,” she said, “a regular person just like anybody else,” not the superhero the media has invented.

She is eloquent. Her gift for public speaking was apparent immediately. Like her preacher-father, I’m sure, she has a talent for drama. She addressed the crowd as with a sermon, not hesitating to lift the tone of her words to a religious level with her talk of spiritual such-and-such and inner demons, and so forth.

She gave a quick introduction, then read a chapter from her book called “The Storm,” about enduring harsh winter weather from her perch among the limbs of the redwood she calls Luna. 

Her prose, in general, was fairly weak. She read with overplayed animation in a too-loud voice to compensate for whatever intensity her printed words lacked. The effect was uncomfortable. Her story came at me like a 3-D dragon.

When she read a line about her worry over an impending storm she stuck her bottom lip out and made her voice shrill. When she imitated the voice of God as she related one of her father’s old sermons, she spoke in a deep monotone and drew a stone-like expression. When she imitated Luna — the almighty voice of the tree to which Julia prayed — she made a softer, sing-song voice and raised her eyebrows.

Julia Butterfly Hill has said before that she gained great wisdom from the tree. In “The Storm,” she talks about that wisdom. At one point during the bad weather she prayed to the tree to ask for strength and to confess that she felt like giving up. The voice of the tree came to her and told her to pay attention to the other trees in the storm. Were they standing rigid and straight? No. They bent and swayed with the wind and rain, and otherwise would have broken. Luna told Julia she should behave similarly if she wanted to make it through. A ha! So Julia, still reading from the book, related her process of breaking down, of letting go, then filling up with the person she has always been destined to be — her higher self. She said “letting go” helped her get through the storm and, likewise, applies to all of life’s obstacles.

This is the wisdom — an elementary analogy about going with the flow. It’s a good lesson — one everybody should, and I think does, learn eventually. But I don’t think Julia has tapped into anything profound. It is possible that Julia overestimates the greatness of the wisdom she has acquired. I think it’s possible that she may not have achieved the ultra-high, semi magical state of being she believes she has.

If she ever realizes it, the disappointment will be terrible.

The chapter she read ended with more talk of Butterfly Hill becoming her higher self by means of letting go and enduring a difficult trial. She compared herself to a caterpillar becoming a butterfly, of course. And a butterfly, she said, causes people to stop and think, “Isn’t that magic flying by! Isn’t that beauty in it’s purest form.” 

The last sentence of the chapter was “I was living proof of the power of metamorphosis.”

At that point the organ music could have started up and we, the congregation, could have swayed and clapped and sang “Ju-u-lia!”

Butterfly Hill mentioned only once, and very briefly, the deal that brought her down from the tree. “An agreement was struck that protects an ancient tree,” and the space around it, she said. 

During the question and answer period no one asked her to elaborate on “the agreement.” No one questioned the credibility of her stunt or asked her to talk about any possible shortcomings. In fact, the only questions asked were designed to further glorify Julia. 

Someone did ask Julia if she had ever met Hurwitz face to face. Indeed she has, said Julia, when she weasled her way into a Maxxam shareholders meeting. She said Hurwitz’ wife glided over and introduced herself in a gracious manner. Hurwitz himself approached her and said, “Hello, Miss Hill, we’re glad you’re here.” 

“Mr. Hurwitz,” Julia said, “I’m going to tell you something you already know because I’ve been writing it to you for two years.” She placed her hand on his heart, just a few inches left of his tie printed with healthy trees and bright-colored birds, and said, “The forests and I cry every day because of what you do to us. But even as you take our last breath, I will love you.”

“Thank you, Julia,” said Hurwitz in response. She smiled at the Booksmith audience as if that were a breakthrough. Perhaps Hurwitz went home to pray for forgiveness. 

The Booksmith reading ended in a confusion of Butterfly worshipers. The book-signing line stretched from the front of the store to the back. The crowd was so thick that no one could reach the front door. Gridlock. People cooed and grinned at Julia as she walked toward the signing table. 

The photo on the front cover of “Legacy of Luna” is of Julia hugging a tree, her long hair loose and blowing in the wind. Butterfly Hill has been so expertly marketed that even Julia herself has bought the story. She believes in the persona that has been created for her, even as she criticizes the media for having made her a false hero.

She scribbled loving words onto the dead-tree pages of the book she relentlessly promotes, after chastising the audience for using paper cups and plastic to-go containers. 

She smiled and the people felt warm and smug, while I experienced a feeling like road rage as I fought my way to the door through the traffic of bodies.

Luckily I made it out before becoming totally infected with the groovy flu, saving my family the expense of costly deprogramming sessions. I walked toward Ashbury. The streets were busy at dusk on a Thursday night. People scattered like ants into bars and restaurants and apartments.

“If Julia Butterfly Hill is the savior of environmentalism,” I mumbled, “we are all doomed.” But nobody heard me. Then I disappeared myself, through an anonymous doorway, just like the smug Butterfly worshipers who figure all they have to do is love the trees from their living rooms, and everything will get better.


One Comment

  1. Betsy Cawn April 14, 2020

    Huzzah, Olivia! And thanks, again, to the AVA — twenty years later, this essay is a wonderful treat for a “non-believer” and unimpressed observer of the razzle-dazzling phenoms of the forest defenders.

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