Five Months At 180 Ft.

  • High over the winding Eel River, wooded hills stretch to the Pacific Ocean. The mist rolls in, blanketing the valley below. On the forest floor, a tiny white butterfly alights on a fiddlehead fern. And from the canopy of a giant redwood, a voice crackles over the walkie-talkie. "I'm running out of power," it says, with a note of urgency. "Can you send up another cell-phone battery?"

    It's a setting Thoreau might envy, but a setup that would appall him. For Julia Hill, the 24-year-old ecowarrior who goes by the nom de guerre Butterfly and now holds the U.S. record for the longest, highest tree-sit, life is anything but mellow. From the 180-ft.-high plywood platform where she has camped out since Dec. 10, she fields calls from a New York City radio station, a Little Rock newspaper and German television, which is sending a crew up from Los Angeles. "I have become one with this tree and with nature in a way I would never have thought possible," she says, as her pager beeps for the fourth time in 10 minutes.

    The daughter of a former evangelistic preacher, Butterfly was bartending in Fayetteville, Ark., when she was in a nearly fatal car accident. Reassessing her life, she headed west last summer and ran into activists from Earth First, the environmental group that has waged a civil-disobedience campaign for the past decade to save old-growth forests. Soon the chirpy New Ager was volunteering to tree-sit, a favorite Earth First tactic.

    Her specimen, a rust-colored giant 14 ft. in diameter and perhaps 1,000 years old, overlooks a massive mud slide in Stafford, Calif., that destroyed or damaged 10 houses last year. Homeowners are suing the Pacific Lumber Co., which was clear-cutting in the area.

    The company, owned by Houston-based junk bond wizard Charles Hurwitz, would just as soon swat this photogenic Butterfly off her tree. It has disrupted her sleep with air horns and floodlights, placed 24-hour guards around the tree in an aborted effort to cut off supplies from her support team, and sent in chain saws and helicopters to harvest around her. On a video distributed by Earth First, helicopter blades are shown churning the branches of Butterfly's aerie, as a hard hat shouts from below, "Get ready for a bad hair day!"

    With ropes, Butterfly hoists up supplies hiked in by an eight-member support crew, who identify themselves by such econames as Spruce and Thor. She detached herself from a safety line after a few days and climbs barefoot through the tree for exercise. She hasn't had a bath since December, but she makes do by swabbing herself down. It has been cold lately, and windy, so at night she wraps herself tight in a sleeping bag, leaving only a small hole for breathing. Beneath an electric blue tarpaulin draped around the branches, she cooks vegan meals on a single-burner propane stove. "Her potato-squash stew was yummy!" says Doug Wolens, a San Francisco filmmaker who is shooting a documentary on her.

    Fifteen stories above the ground, Butterfly flips through mail from fans in Sausalito, Pensacola, Beaverton, and from a tree-sitter in Tasmania who calls himself Hector the Protector. "I've only had time to answer four letters today," she frets. Besides her cell phone, pager and walkie-talkie, Butterfly also has a radio and a solar-powered battery charger. She reads her poetry, written on the inside of Ronzoni pasta cartons, and tells of how one night El Nino's freezing rains and 40-m.p.h. winds nearly tore her off the 8-ft. by 8-ft. platform. "I thought I was going to die," she recalls.

    But she hugged the trunk, and "the tree spoke to me in a beautiful, very calming, powerful female voice. She said, 'Julia, think of the trees.' I said, 'Of course--what do you think I'm doing up here?' She said, 'No. Think of how the trees allow their branches to blow in the wind. I'll do everything to save you.'"

    Five miles away, at Pacific Lumber headquarters, spokeswoman Mary Bullwinkel deadpans, "I don't believe trees can talk." Butterfly's redwood tree is a valuable hostage; if it were sawed into boards for luxury-home paneling or outdoor decks, it would be worth a six-figure sum. And trees like that translate into jobs for loggers. When the Eureka Times-Standard, the local paper, printed stories about Butterfly last month, it was showered with complaints. "We write about rapists, but it doesn't mean we support them," huffed editor David Little in a column defending his news judgment. "Lighten up, folks. A woman is living in a tree. Isn't that the least bit interesting?"