It was a low-key Sunday afternoon in UC Berkeley's Sproul Plaza. A casual observer would not have suspected that Liberation Now!, the fourth annual conference of the Student Animal Rights Alliance, was under way on the second floor of the Student Union. Student activists had flown in from all over the country, and tables represented everyone from East Bay Animal Advocates to Romania Animal Rescue, but the final day of the three-day conference was nonetheless a bit quiet. Small wonder, too; it was Halloween, Sunday, and a beautiful day to boot.
All things considered, it was impressive that about a hundred students dragged themselves out of the sunshine to hear Julia Butterfly Hill speak on behalf of animals. Although she pointedly describes herself as a "joyous vegan" to counteract the perception of vegans as dour and miserable, animal rights isn't necessarily her pet issue. Hill is, of course, best known for speaking for the trees. For more than two years, she lived high in the branches of a thousand-year-old redwood to protest and prevent the clear-cutting of old-growth redwoods in Humboldt County.
As courageous as Hill's feat was -- living under a tarp on a six-by-eight-foot platform 180 feet above ground and enduring frostbite, gale-force El Niño storms, helicopter-borne antagonists, close shaves from falling trees, attempts by loggers to starve her out, and even calls to come down from some of the very people who organized her tree-sit -- the whole thing sounds like something you'd have to be a bit out of your tree to do. And indeed, just as the public hears primarily about those animal-rights activists who bomb research labs or throw red paint on ladies in furs, people who know little about Hill except that she took the name "Butterfly" and lived in a tree named "Luna" have often dismissed her as a hippie nutball.
So, while some observers hail her as an environmental icon, others stoke the disparaging stereotypes with glee. San Francisco Chronicle commentator Debra Saunders dismissed her as a lawless trespasser. Fox News personality Sean Hannity suggested a contradiction between saving trees and then selling books. Marc Morano observed in the The Washington Times that "only nutcakes live in trees feeling the pain of plants." And when Hill appeared on Politically Incorrect in April 2000 a few months after her descent, Republican political consultant and talk radio host Michael Graham took every opportunity to paint her as a crazy wood nymph: "When you were talking to the trees, I'm wondering if they mentioned to you, Julia -- because in your book you said the trees spoke to you ... that more trees have been planted every year since 1950 than harvested. Did any of that get mentioned by the tree while you were chatting?"
Hill is aware of the preconceptions people have about her, and she takes them in stride. "People come to see if I'm as much of a freak as they think I am," she told the animal-rights activists. Her sense of humor about herself is immediately disarming. When talking about her time in the tree during an interview, she laughed and said, "Doesn't that make you laugh when you say it? To this day, when I say, 'Yeah, during my time in the tree,' I have to hold back an explosion of laughter."
Nor does she look like the long-haired, barefoot tree-hugger she once was. Her hair is cut short, with one silvery shock set off by her otherwise dark-brown bangs. She dresses sharply in a simple black T-shirt and pants, hoop earrings, and often tall black boots or a long blue denim coat. She often abandons her microphone early on to rely on her strong voice, practiced at projecting over large distances. She works the crowd like a stand-up comedian, making her audience participate, talking with her hands in broad gestures, walking around the stage. "I sat still for two long years, so I tend to be moving," she explains.
Once she finally came out of her tree, Hill hit the ground running. Almost immediately, she was on a plane to New York to meet the press, knowing it was her one opportunity for live, unedited media. "I knew that if I didn't go," she said, "it would be something along the lines of this: 'Julia Butterfly Hill has come down. The forests are safe. Yay, hurrah.' Click to commercial, everybody go back to shopping."
Five years later, she hasn't slowed down yet. Now thirty, she delivers about 250 presentations and travels more than 150 days a year, lending her presence and voice to a multitude of causes, events, and organizations. Last month alone, in addition to the animal-rights conference, she appeared at the opening of the Natural World Museum's exhibition of environmental art in the Presidio and later at its symposium on sustainability and culture. She addressed the Bioneers Conference and a Turn the Tide! youth activism event in San Rafael. She performed spoken word at Mystic Family Circus' Way of the Warrior benefit in San Francisco and again at a benefit for activist singer-songwriter Melissa Crabtree at Berkeley's Epic Arts. She appeared at the KPFA Peace Awards in Oakland and was a special guest at hip-hop poet Aya de León's political performance piece Aya de León Is Running for President at Laney College. She went out to Livermore to speak at the Earth Team student environmental leadership training weekend, and down to Los Angeles to speak at USC and appear at a Halloween costume party to help save the Westchester Bluffs.
But Julia Butterfly Hill has done much more than just talk. While still in the tree she founded Circle of Life, now an Oakland-based organization dedicated to activating ordinary people to make a difference in the world and to bringing activism into the mainstream. Part of the funds to launch the nonprofit came from her best-selling book The Legacy of Luna, which also helped set in motion a small environmental revolution in book publishing. She recently inked a deal for a film adaptation of the memoir of her 738 days aloft, through which she hopes to set in motion similar changes to the environmental practices of Hollywood.
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