on Julia “Butterfly” Hill, the awesome tree-sitting woman

This woman recently showed up on my “incredible/inspirational people to learn more about SOON” radar a month or so ago.

I came across her through doing a bit more research into war tax resistance stuff (Hill is a big name in the movement), but it was her two-year long tree-sitting in ’97-’99 that successfully saved a giant redwood tree – “Luna” – from being cut down that really caught my notice and subsequent interest.

Two years. For Hill, it was almost exactly two years up in that tree – one December to another. That’s equivalent to a stint in the Peace Corps. Or grad school, or some other master’s degree programs.

Besides the length of time Hill was living in Luna, two other things about Hill’s tree sit particularly caught my notice. One: Like me (or like I am now), she was 23 when she ascended that tree (though little did she know at the time that it would be so long before she would come down again). …I’m not sure if it’s narcissistic or natural that I keep noticing stories of women who have done incredible things at the same age that I’m at now, but either way (or, perhaps, somewhere in between) it is these stories that are especially catching my notice and sticking with me right now, and that I feel somehow compelled to take further (“official”?) note of here on this blog – if only for my own sake. Which leads me to the second thing about this story that I wanted to mention, something of special personal significance to me…

Two: Sometimes, it would seem, the most meaningful action we can take is to simply stay right where we are.

Well, Hill had to actually go to the tree, and choose to climb it in the first place. But once she did, she stayed put. She stayed. And because she, in a very literal sense, stayed still (or at least somewhat stationary – not leaving the tree until its safety was guaranteed), she accomplished something improbable and changed something big. Many days, it probably didn’t feel to her or seem to a lot of others like she was “doing” much at all; I mean, she spent two years tree-sitting. (Sounds a heck of a lot better than two years baby-sitting, at least.) Many people probably ridiculed her and thought she was wasting her time or her youth or her life – or whatever. But, actually, she made a real difference, she was a successful activist, by remaining, counter-intuitively,still.

The interplay or relationship between stillness and action is one that has been on my mind a lot this year. (The words of Psalm 46:10 have practically haunted me.) I don’t always like thinking that my primary role at some points may be to simply “Be still.” It feels like the easy way out, or like too much passivity inexcusable for one of my age, health, and background who “should” have an incredibly abundant supply of energy, necessary resources, and all the glorious strength of youth available to wield towards a specific and significant purpose in bettering the world. (Or, at other times, I’m somewhat ashamed to discover in myself what I suspect is a secret relief at not having anything more asked of me, apparently, at least not quite yet…)

More and more these days, however, I’m beginning to see that contemplation and meaningful action are two sides of the same coin. I’m starting to lose, too, some mistaken/disproportioned concepts of grandeur related to “my calling” or my own importance, and to gain what I hope is a healthier, more well-rounded sense of my own smallness and of what is actually required of me in this life – by God, by myself, as a human being in general, etc. Gradually, words like “Smallness,” “Littleness,” “Limits,” “Hiddeness,” “Slowness” have grown on me – these and other similar terms have become something of watchwords for me as of late (see Wendell Berry’s essay, “Think Little” and pretty much all of Berry’s work, in fact, particularly his agrarian essays; Ernst Shumacher’s book, “Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered;” and Carl Honoré’s “In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed” for starters). There are lessons and resolutions from my youth that I’ve been unlearning, however well-intentioned they were at their conception. ( I found Addie Zierman’s Relevant Mag article, “3 Youth Group Lessons I’ve Had to Unlearn,” especially what she says for #3, to be particularly illuminating and successful at expressing some of what I’m trying to say here.)

Maybe all of the above paragraph to say: I’m finding myself these days in a place where I am simultaneously both less sure and more sure of “what I’m doing” with this life of mine, of what I want to be doing, or of what I’m – quote – “supposed” to be doing with it…with this “one wild and precious life,” as Mary Oliver so poignantly phrases it.

At this point, tree-sitting (or some other equivalent) seems like a pretty viable option.

One other thing I do feel pretty sure of – I don’t want to try to be a “radical political activist” or anything cool like that merely for the sake of appearing busy, or seeming to have “important work” to do, either in the eyes of others or myself. But I also don’t want to use this as an excuse for apathy or wrongful inaction in this world, or simply to indulge in comfortable sloth. (I’m too good at laziness.)

Here is the first part of a documentary about Julia Butterfly Hill’s time living in the Great Redwood Tree Luna; I haven’t watched it all myself, yet, but I intend to soon, and to read Hill’s book about the adventure, as well:

Half of the reason I'm including this is just 'cause it has trees. I know.
(Half of the reason I’m including this is just ’cause it has trees. I know.)

Fun Update, 5/24/15: On a walk with my roommate, JuWon, this evening, we passed a rather large tree and started talking about it; then she randomly mentioned how when she was younger (years ago, she said) she had read a book called “The Woman in the Tree” (as the Korean rendered it)…and almost instantly, I knew she was talking about Julia Butterfly Hill’s story. Sure enough, she was. So there’s another cool connection via literature. (Earlier this year, another Korean friend and I had an ecstatic bonding moment over our shared experience of loving Sheldon Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy.)


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