The Mystic of the Redwoods

Under the clearest of north coast skies, four days before the winter solstice and the brightest moon for the next hundred years, Julia Hill, aka Butterfly, descended from her aerie in a redwood near Stafford, California, touching ground for the first time in two years, to a worshipful welcome from her cohorts, who call themselves the Circle of Life. Her way was prepared. Within 24 hours she was in New York, speeding to a rendezvous with Good Morning America, with Letterman lined up and other assignations with the press scheduled and brokered in a business-like manner.

In the deal that brings Madame Butterfly back to terra firma, Hill agrees to pay Pacific Lumber $50,000, culled from donations, t-shirt sales and book royalties. In exchange, Pacific Lumber pledges that it won’t log the Stafford Giant (which Butterfly calls “Luna”), the 1,300-year old redwood that was her arboreal hermitage for two years. Maxxam keeps the title to the land and only Butterfly is given a “perpetual right to visit the tree”. The transaction is scarcely social in nature. Admittedly, they had a lot more money but when the Rockefellers bought a redwood grove, at least it became a public amenity.

The company also says that it won’t clearcut within 200 feet of the redwood, although it reserves the right to conduct salvage logging inside the so-called buffer zone-all they were really able to do to begin with.

Every time money changes hands in the forests of Northern California Senator Dianne Feinstein hovers, harpy-like, over the transaction. First, she sealed the Hurwitz bail out scheme, giving the corporate raider $480 million for the core Headwaters grove, along with a green light to log the hell out of the surrounding landscape. Feinstein called it a win-win solution. But the only winners were the senator and her husband’s buddy, Hurwitz. Not only did Hurwitz get a hugely inflated price for Headwaters, but the deal also makes it nearly impossible to protect lands outside the core Headwaters area. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, as the psychoanalyists say. This time we see the process in miniature, with Butterfly paying her own ransom. “I am very pleased this agreement has been reached,” Feinstein said. “I’ve talked with all the parties involved. I believe Pacific Lumber did the right thing. I am now hopeful that the Headwaters agreement will be carried out. I believe that it is in the best interest of old-growth forest and sustained-yield of timber.” In other words, let the logging commence.

The civil disobedience actions on Pacific Lumber lands near Stafford didn’t start with Julia Hill, but with Earth First!ers and local residents who feared that logging on those unstable slopes put their community at risk of killer landslides. On New Year’s Day 1997, part of the logged over hillside above Stafford gave way. Mud and rocks and stumps hurtled down on part of the town, damaging or destroying more than 30 homes. The landslide originated on Pacific Lumber lands. The company said the blow-out was an “act of God”, offered the residents $1,000 each for their loss and busily began planning the logging of the remaining forest on the slope, including the stand containing the Stafford Giant. On October 7, 1997, Earth First!ers began a tree-sit in the 300-foot tall redwood. They were cheered by local residents of this logging community, a scene that was repeated earlier this year in residents of the timber town of Randle, Washington, where the wives and daughters of loggers baked dinner for tree sitters on steep hillsides which Plum Creek Timber Company wanted to clearcut.

Julia Hill came along in the October of 1997, on a self-described journey of spiritual discovery. Hill is the daughter of an Arkansas preacher. On August 18, 1996, she was in a terrible auto crash that laid her up for nearly a year. Released from her doctor’s care, Hill says she “headed West following my spirit to an unknown destination.” Her journey brought her to northern California where she saw “the great majestic temple of the Redwood forest” for the first time. “My spirit knew it had found what it was searching for,” Butterfly writes. “I dropped to my knees and began to cry, because I was so overwhelmed by the wisdom, energy and spirituality housed in these holiest of temples.” After a night of prayer on the Lost Coast Hill had a revelation. God spoke to her and told her that she should do what she could to save “the awe-inspiring” forests. Hill says she returned briefly to Arkansas, “settled my lawsuit, sold everything that I owned, said goodbye to the closest friends I ever had, and came back out west determined to do whatever I could to be of help.”

On December10 she ascended the Stafford Giant a young woman, a dedicated seeker with little background in the environmental movement. She expected to up there a couple of weeks at most. The weeks turned into months, the months to years. Along the way something happened. Julia Hill became Butterfly and she christened the Stafford Giant, Luna, embodying it with a spiritual presence. “Luna and I have become one,” Butterfly wrote 79 days into her tree sit. “Luna and I, with the amazing efforts of a wonderful support team, stand together in defiance of the destructive practices of corporate greed and paid-off politicians. Luna is our beacon of hope and truth. In all her majestic glory, she has become our platform to the world.” Two years later, Butterfly has come down a full-blown mystic, the Gurdjieff of the redwoods. The fiery anti-corporate rhetoric had been replaced by banal new age homilies and awful poesy.

It is impossible to demean the courage of Butterfly’s vigil. Tree sitting is a hazardous avocation. In the winter with high winds and driving rains it’s an especially dangerous business. Pacific Lumber also resorted to numerous intimidation tactics, such as cutting down ropes tied to surrounding trees, logging nearby lands with helicopters, setting security forces around Luna in attempt to starve Butterfly out by keeping her from being resupplied.

Treesits, especially ones that last for more than a year, are hardly ecologically benign forms of social protest. Had Butterfly’s roost been constructed on federal lands, it would have required a full-blown environmental impact statement. In the swirl of hagiography, an important fact has been overlooked: this is endangered species habitat. With all the action going on 180 feet up Luna, it’s difficult to imagine spotted owls or marbled murrelets nesting there. Still, that’s okay, if the tree was to stand as an objective correlative for the ecosystem, where the ecological integrity of that particular stand could be sacrificed in the name of protecting the entire redwood ecosystem. But that’s not what happened. Indeed, the equation was reversed. Luna was transubstantiated into a temple worthy of saving in itself because of its spiritual merger with Butterfly. The rest of the ecosystem be damned. This is exactly the kind of process that environmentalists have been trying to avoid for years. It’s not about spotted owls, we said. They are only a symbol for the health of the ecosystem. But by protecting the owl, millions of acres of ancient forest could be cordoned from the chainsaw. The protection of Luna yields only Luna.
It’s possible to recognize the bravery of an act of resistance and at the same time remark its folly. Butterfly’s 774-day sojourn was a foolhardy exile among the arboreal titans, misbegotten and obsessive, amounting to a kind of ecological fetishism.

We’ve never met Butterfly. But we’ve listened to her cell-phone sermons, read her monologues from on high and her poems. Here’s a sample from a poem called “Truly Blessed”:

Varying shades of green
raise their arms to embrace this magical beauty
I climb to the top of my perch
reaching in to the heavens
raising my hands in absolute adoration
to the spiritual wonderment of Creation

Gary Snyder this is not. But Butterfly is articulate and telegenic. The photos of her, wrapped in the redwood fogs, depict a woman of haunting beauty with faraway eyes, like Falconetti’s Joan d’Arc in Carl Dreyer’s film. The beatification of Butterfly probably began the day steelworkers hoisted Bonnie Raitt and Joan Baez up to meet her in a scene worthy of the brush of a French neo-classical painter. This, a kind of eco-tele-evangelism, is perhaps one reason Butterfly became a national celebrity, while the less photogenic defenders of Cove/Mallard and Warner Creek waged similar campaigns to an indifferent (if not hostile) press.

Pacific Lumber wanted Butterfly to sign an agreement that she wouldn’t seek to profit off her experience on their lands. She objected and the company relented. But Pacific Lumber got its point across. How many stylites (pillar-sitting mystics) signed book contracts? Now there is talk of a movie in the offing, with north coaster Wynona Ryder, the skin-and-bones actress from Petaluma, slated to play Butterfly.

But what is the message here? In the wake of her deal with Maxxam, Butterfly has said that Maxxam had taken “an unprecedented, courageous first step towards ending the timber wars. Their initiative in this agreement and covenant symbolizes hope that a new era of peace and cooperation has begun between the timber industry and environmentalists–between corporations and communities.”

If the high priestess of Luna now says that Maxxam is all right, who could argue with her without being called a heretic? Well then, let us be heretical. This is the same company that has ravaged the redwoods, ripped off its workers’ pension fund and looted a savings-and-loan. Now, once again, they are being paid not to destroy the environment. And what do we tell those steelworkers, with whom environmentalists have lately made a fruitful alliance? The 3,000 men and women that Charles Hurwitz has locked out of Kaiser Aluminum plants in Washington, Iowa and Ohio. It’s going to be a meager Christmas for those workers and their families and we don’t think Butterfly’s blessing of Maxxam is going to sit very well with them. Indeed, it tends to confirm every worst prejudice they had about “tree huggers.”

We shouldn’t blame this turn of events on Butterfly, so much as the organuizers who allowed her to stay up the tree for that ridiculous period of time. After all, they could have got her down in speedy fashion, simply by telling her that they wouldn’t be reprovisioning, and were sending up another sitter. But Butterfly was their Ace in the Hole, the title of a good movie years ago, when Kirk Douglas acts a reporter who realizes that the story will die as soon as the man stuck down a mine shaft is rescued. Up that tree Julia was a valuable commodity, and they didn’t want to give it up.

The legacy of John Jr. and Laurence Rockefeller stack up pretty well next to Butterfly. Yes, given their incomprehensible wealth their efforts on behalf of the redwoods could be considered chintzy. Undoubtedly ego-driven-Laurence wanted to know that his money had preserved the world’s tallest tree (in Rockefeller Grove) so badly that he was willing to let an even taller one be secretly logged off in the Redwood National Park further north to keep his record. But at least they bought up whole stands of trees, dozens of entire groves (with some clearcut and high-graded lands mixed in). And they turned them over to public ownership, in national and state parks. Certainly, this act of checkbook environmentalism indirectly benefited the clearcutters, driving up the price of Lousiana-Pacific, Simpson and Georgia-Pacific’s holdings. But what the Rockefellers bought was at least ours, open for anyone to hike through it and marvel at. Butterfly’s deal with Hurwitz is another story entirely.

Even worse, the deal reaffirms the hostage-taking mentality of corporate raiders like Hurwitz, forcing enviros to buy endangered species habitat from corporations to keep it from being destroyed. This is a doomed strategy that will pad the pockets of corporations but do almost nothing to aid the environment. At $50,000 per tree, it will take something like $3 trillion to buy-back the rest of the threatened big trees in the Pacific Northwest. In other words, the combined wealth of Bill Gates, Paul Allen and the Sultan of Brunei couldn’t save what’s left of the ancient forests.

Many enviros-in-training, a startling number of them Catholics, have felt themselves drawn to a particular breed of saint, the ascetics and eremites went out into the wilderness for forty years to stand alone against the forces of nature. One such was St. Anthony Aegyptus, about whom Flaubert wrote his beautiful novella, the Temptations of St. Anthony. For thirty years Anthony lived in solitude in an abandoned Roman battlement at Pispir in the heart of the Sahara, standing on a tall pillar from dawn to dusk, staring into the eastern reaches, awaiting revelations from above. He talked to lions, who helped him dig a grave for St. Paul of Thebes and ravens, who brought him bread, his only sustenance. The desert winds ate away his flesh; his open wounds became a host for maggots, which, according to Athanasius’ Life of Anthony, kept him from succumbing to gangrene. Anthony returned to Alexandria in time to crush the Arian heresy. In a small Gothic church in Tarcento, a village in northern Italy, the sacristy, a tomb-like room made of thick blocks of rock hewn from the Dolomites, contains the relics of St. Anthony: an ancient bell, a sliver of a crucifix and a leathered strip of flesh said to be part of his tongue.

Decades from now what relics of Butterfly will pilgrims journey to Stafford see? Her cellphone, Gore-Tex jacket and book contract? Certainly, Luna won’t be around. When the surrounding landscape is clearcut, this mighty redwood, exposed to brutal winter winds and rain, will come tumbling, a $50,000 piece of blow-down, whose meaning will be as inscrutable as that “colossal wreck”. Shelley’s Ozymandias, an enigmatic, fallen statue in the desert sands.


Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink co-written with Joshua Frank. He can be reached at: Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.