It often happens that people who face death tend to feel very different about their lives afterward. Some people may lose hope, and others feel a renewed passion for life in which they want to make a difference. The latter is what happened to Julia "Butterfly" Hill when she survived a near-fatal car wreck one night in August 1996. The daughter of an itinerant preacher, Julia and her family spent many years traveling the country -- living simply and sharing the message of Jesus Christ. By the time she was in high school they had settled down in Arkansas, and she felt like your average teenager -- hanging out, having fun, and looking forward to living on her own soon. Then the car wreck happened.
After undergoing a year of intensive alternative therapy, she had mostly recovered. "When your life is threatened, nothing is ever the same. I realized that I had always been looking ahead and planning instead of making sure that every moment counted for something. I also saw that had I not come through the way I did, I would have been very disappointed with my empty life." She decided to go on a trip out West with her next-door neighbors for some spiritual nourishment and guidance. When they got to Humboldt County, California, to check out the redwood forest, she was enraptured. A passion and love for the ancient beauty around her - what was now left of it - inspired and guided her. She prayed. She was ready for the answer, and that answer came to lead her to live in a tree, named Luna, for more than two years.
She had no idea when she climbed up Luna that first time that she would eventually become a long-term resident. She went up because they needed someone to tree-sit for a few days. "Tree-sits have three purposes: to protect the tree and hopefully a few around it, to slow down the logging while the people who work within the legal system do their work, and to bring about broad-based public awareness." After seeing how much work it took to coordinate someone being up there all the time, Julia volunteered to stay up for a month -- it turned out to be more than two years.
During that time she endured many hardships. In learning her way around the vast branches of her new home she broke toes and suffered from acute frostbite. She dealt with jeers and mortal threats from Pacific Lumber loggers around the clock. She was also living in Luna when one of the worst storms to hit California, El Niño, came for a visit. "The wind howled. It sounded like wild banshees,rrahhh, while the tarps added to the crazy cacophony of noise, flap, flap, flap, babp, bap, flap, bap! Had I remained tensed for the sixteen hours that the storm raged, I would have snapped. Instead, I grabbed onto Luna, hugging the branch that comes up through the platform, and prayed to her." The answer came to her to let go. So she did. And she found that in doing this -- in bending and swaying with the storm like a tree -- she not only survived, but her heart received a much-needed transfusion of strength, power, courage, and love.
It was on her 24th birthday that the media caught wind of her story. The tree-sit got attention in both Newsweek and People magazines. Julia found herself becoming a public spokesperson. People repeatedly asked her if all that she was doing was worth saving a tree. Wasn't the hillside she was fighting for already a lost cause? "I never understood why they all focused on the negative. Even if Luna had been the only tree left, yes, she would have worth it to me." As time passed she received support from the likes of Mickey Hart, Bonnie Raitt, Woody Harrelson, and Joan Baez. All came to visit her. She also began developing a more personal relationship with John Campbell, the president of Pacific Lumber.
This new dialogue began the push in developing an acceptable agreement for all parties concerning Luna and the surrounding hillside. Oddly enough, it was a striking Kaiser Aluminum steelworker, John Goodman, who helped close the deal. Their discussions entered a public forum, and the support was overwhelming. "On December 18, 1999, a preservation agreement and deed of covenant to protect Luna and create a 20-foot buffer zone into perpetuity was documented and recorded." Julia climbed down from Luna.
Although it was a joyous occasion, Julia was also filled with sorrow -- and some fear. She was going back to the world of cars, money, and more media. She was leaving a best friend, Luna. But what she wasn't leaving behind was her heart. By listening to her heart, she had made a difference. She realized that no matter where she was, if she lived from her heart she would always be home.
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Fighting Fear with a Fork
Fierce winds ripped huge branches off the thousand-year-old redwood, sending them crashing to the ground two hundred feet below. The upper platform, where I lived, rested in branches about one hundred eighty feet in the air, twenty feet below the very top of the tree, and it was completely exposed to the storm. There was no ridge to shelter it, no trees to protect it. There was nothing.
As the tree branches whipped around, they shredded the tarp that served as my shelter. Sleet and hail sliced through the tattered pieces of what used to be my roof and walls. Every new gust flipped the platform up into the air, threatening to hurl me over the edge.
I was scared. I take that back. I was terrified. As a child, I experienced a tornado. That time I was scared. But that was a walk in the park on a sunny Sunday afternoon compared to this. The awesome power of Mother Nature had reduced me to a groveling half-wit fighting fear with a paper fork.
Rigid with terror, I couldn't imagine how clinging to a tiny wooden platform for dear life could possibly be part of the answer to the prayer I had sent to Creation that day on the Lost Coast. I had asked for guidance on what to do with my life. I had asked for purpose. I had asked to be of service. But I certainly never figured that the revelation I sought would involve taking up residence in a tree that was being torn apart by nature's fury.
Strangely enough, though, that's how it turned out. As I write this at the age of twenty-five, I've been living for more than two years in a two-hundred-foot-tall ancient redwood located on Pacific Lumber property.I have survived storms, harassment, loneliness, and doubt. I have seen the magnificence and the devastation of a forest older than almost any on Earth. I live in a tree called Luna. I am trying to save her life.
Believe me, this is not what I intended to do with my own.
I suppose if I look back (or down, as the case may be), my being here isn't all that accidental. I can see now that the way I was raised and what I was raised to believe probably prepared me for where I am now, high in this tree, with few possessions and plenty of convictions. I couldn't be here without some deep faith that we all are called to do something with our livesa belief I know comes from directly from my parents, Dale and Kathyeven if that path leads us in a different direction from others.
Even when I was a child, we hardly lived what people would call a normal life. Many of my early memories are full of religion. My father was an itinerant preacher who traveled the country's heartland preaching from town to town and church to church. My parents, my two brothers, Michael and Daniel, and I called a camping trailer home (excellent preparation for living on a tiny platform), and we went wherever my father preached. My parents really lived what they believed; for them, lives of true joy came from putting Jesus first, others second, and your own concerns last.
Not surprisingly, we were very poor, and my parents taught us how to save money and be thrifty. Growing up this way also taught us to appreciate the simple things in life. We paid our own way as much as possible; I got my first job when I was about five years old, helping my brothers with lawn work. We'd make only a buck or so, but to us that was a lot. I had my share of fun, but I definitely grew up knowing what responsible meant. My folks taught me that it was not just taking care of myself but helping others, too. At times, like right now, I have lived hand to mouth. But I knew that sometimes the work of conveying the power of the spirit, the truth as I understood it, was as important as making money. I've always felt that as long as I was able, I was supposed to give all I've got to ensure a healthy and loving legacy for those still to come, and especially for those with no voice. That is what I've done in this tree.
By the time I was in high school in Arkansas, life settled down for us, and I lived the life of an average teenager, working hard and playing hard. I knew how to have fun, and I enjoyed myself and the time I spent with my friends. I was a bit aimless, volunteering for a teen hot line here, modeling a bit there, saving money to move out on my own. I suppose I had the regular dreams of a regular person.
All that changed forever, though, that night in August 1996 when the Honda hatchback I was driving was rear-ended by a Ford Bronco. The impact folded the little car like an accordion, shoving the back end of the car almost into the back of my seat. The force was so great that the stereo burst out of its console and bent the stick shift. Though I was wearing a seat belt, which prevented me from being thrown through the windshield, my head snapped back into the seat, then slammed forward onto the steering wheel, jamming my right eye into my skull. The next morning when I woke up, everything hurt. "I feel like I've been hit by a truck," I said out loud, and then I started to laugh. "Wait a minute, I was hit by a truck! "
Although the symptoms didn't surface immediately, it turned out that I had suffered some brain damage. It took almost a. . .