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Fierce love: Julia Butterfly Hill

Saturday, July 19th, 2008

“I was born dead,” remarks Julia Butterfly Hill, almost in passing.

“Literally?” I ask.

Yes — she in fact needed to be resuscitated upon birth. Perhaps that’s one key to understanding how she, at age 23, was able to find the clarity and courage to occupy a California Redwood named Luna for over two years.

It was that experience that raised her consciousness regarding her consumption habits. After all, as she says, the people bringing her supplies risked arrest and potential harm; she had to be mindful of every detail.

Now, Julia is a free ranging activist, tackling social justice and environmental issues, and traveling the world giving workshops and holding conversations.

I’m sitting with Julia in Indianapolis at a small gathering of environmental activists. The people around this table struggle daily with the conundrum of fighting for the environment in a world where it seems too few people care. And even if enough people did care and big change happened fast, isn’t it too late anyway?

Julia doesn’t obsess over these sorts of questions and so she’s a drink of cool clear water to an apocalyptic zealot like me.

“Doesn’t it just drive you crazy how people behave?” someone asks.

Julia laughs. It’s one of the first things you notice about this 34-year-old woman. Her laugh.

She responds that she doesn’t worry so much about the “unconscious people, it’s the supposedly conscious people who are full of contradictions” — like environmentalist gatherings that don’t have recyclables.

But don’t get started on the subject of recycling.

Recycling, she says, is just a way to “make us feel better” about consuming in the first place.

“We’re addicted to comfort,” she says. Few are willing to challenge their personal status quo – whether it’s to put themselves in danger of arrest or harm, or to cut back on their lifestyle, or to skip taking a vacation this year.

She doesn’t admonish the comfort-addicted among us, though. Instead, she laughs again, her brown hair falling into her eyes. My eyes move to her t-shirt, with words Mother Earth.

Not everybody “can be on the front lines,” she says. Not everyone can put their bodies on the line.

The key to activism?

Loving action = fierce love.

Julia doesn’t operate out of anger or fear, but out of love. She says she began her sit in Luna out of “grief for what was happening to the Redwoods.” But that grief morphed into love. Love for the earth. Love for humanity.

That love for humanity makes her a shifting target for both those in opposition to her as well as environmental groups who wish she was as angry as they.

She’s able to parry that opposition by transcending traditional dichotomies.

“But how do we get people to care about our issues?” someone asks.

Julia ponders a moment, then answers: “By finding out what they care about.”

The “good stories” are out there, she maintains. Stories where people get together and make their neighborhood a better place — for example, the City Repair Project that started in Portland, Oregon, and has spread across the country.

Late in the gathering she wonders aloud if the carbon imprint of flying to Indianapolis and driving to this event was worth it. “I might have done more good by staying away,” she says.

We don’t agree, of course, having drunk the cool clear water of Julia’s clarity. And heard her laugh, over and over.

But I get the point. The more conscious you are about your consumption habits, the more you start to question every single decision.

“I’m in service not because the world’s in peril,” she says in closing. “I’m in service because it’s what I want to do.” — Jim

Julia’s blog can be found at: