The butterfly effect | An interview with Julia Butterfly Hill — The MOON magazine
When I first heard about Julia Butterfly Hill in 1997, she was a waif-like twenty-three-year-old living in a thousand-year-old redwood tree in Humboldt County, California. Earth First! activists had named the tree “Luna,” in honor of the full moon that had guided them as they’d built a platform in its branches. Hill wasn’t the first activist to “tree-sit” — others had been taking turns occupying the tree for several days at a time to prevent the Pacific Lumber Company from cutting it — but the media had begun to take notice of her because she had been at it the longest, refusing to come down until she was assured that Luna and the other redwoods were safe from loggers. I’ll admit, I thought she was crazy. She’d already broken the U.S. record for tree-sitting: forty-two days. Then she broke the world record of ninety days, and still she didn’t come down. Pacific Lumber, which was owned by the Maxxam Corporation, harassed and intimidated her, buzzing the tree with helicopters and laying siege to it from the ground to cut off her supplies. In her perch 180 feet above the earth, with only tarps and sleeping bags for protection, Hill endured the high winds, soaking rains, and freezing temperatures of Northern California’s coldest winter in recorded history. And still she persisted, becoming a countercultural icon. Celebrities and politicians came to visit the tree and talk with her by cellphone. Hill used her fame to draw attention to the plight of the endangered redwood forests, which had once stretched four hundred miles from Oregon to Big Sur, California. Ninety-seven percent of the redwoods had been cut down. Of the few that remained, only a small fraction were protected. Having failed to scare her down, the logging company was forced to try to wait her out. They waited two years before finally agreeing not to cut Luna or any redwood within the three-acre grove surrounding it. And in late 1999 Hill climbed down, having spent a total of 738 days in the tree’s upper branches. But she’d achieved her goal. Maybe she wasn’t so crazy after all. Hill was born in Missouri in 1974, and when she was still a young child, her family moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where her parents ran a small church called “Freedom Chapel.” When Hill was in third grade, her parents took their ministry on the road, raising and home-schooling her and her two brothers in a thirty-two-foot trailer. She says their example to their children was “God first, others second, and self last.” The family eventually settled in Jonesboro, Arkansas, where Hill attended high school. After she graduated, Hill and her father opened a restaurant and bar. The business failed, but she continued working in the restaurant industry until 1996, when Hill considers the accident a turning point for her. Although she’d rejected her parents’ Christianity while still in her teens, the accident prompted her to search for a deeper spiritual purpose. She headed west with friends who wanted to visit Washington State’s rain forests. They made a detour to see the Lost Coast of Humboldt County, and Hill had her first encounter with the giant redwoods. “When I entered the great majestic cathedral of the redwood forest for the first time,” she writes, “my spirit knew it had found what it was searching for. I dropped to my knees and began to cry, because I was so overwhelmed by the wisdom, energy, and spirituality housed in this holiest of temples.” She learned about the threat to the trees and soon joined the Earth First! activists who were opposing the logging company’s practices. The activists used “forest names” to protect them- selves from charges and lawsuits, and Hill chose “Butterfly” for hers, remembering how, when she was a girl, one of the insects had landed on her finger during a hike and stayed with her the rest of the day. She participated in other tree-sits prior to her famous one. Then her big moment came: the group was looking for a volunteer to sit in Luna for an extended period — two weeks. Hill almost wasn’t chosen due to her lack of experience. Had she known that those two weeks would become two years and eight days, she says, she would have run screaming. Hill has written a memoir of her experience titled The Legacy of Luna: The Story of a Tree, a Woman, and the Struggle to Save the Redwoods, and is coauthor of After coming down from Luna, Hill spent many years making public appearances — sometimes as many as 250 a year — to speak about activism and inspire others to find their own “tree” and make a stand. In 2002 she was arrested in Ecuador and deported for her participation in protests to save the rainforests from oil pipelines. A year later she became a U.S. tax resister, redirecting all her federal income taxes to programs that she felt were a better use of the money than the war in Iraq. Julia founded the nonprofit organization, Circle of Life, and was the visionary of We The Planet, setting the standards for green festivals, events, and tours in the US. With Van Jones and others she co-founded the Engage Network, and she is also the inspiration behind What’s Your Tree, a process for inviting inquiry into what could be your personal “Luna.” She also acts as a strategic advisor for numerous other organizations and speaks regularly on university campuses. She has addressed the United Nations, lobbied congress, and has continued to stand on the front lines of environmental and social justice issues all over the world. One Makes the Difference: Inspiring Actions That Change Our World. Several years ago she self-published a book of artwork, poems, photographs, and short stories titled Becoming, which is available on her website www.juliabutterflyhill.com. she suffered a head injury in a car accident that impaired her ability to speak and walk. It took her almost a year to fully recover.
In recent years, she has been making fewer public appearances, taking care of her own health issues and those of her beloved partner, who died in 2018. She now lives in Nevada City, California, where since conducting this interview in 2011, she has been involved with Bring Back South Central Farm, the South Yuba River Citizens League to stop the Centennial Dam, the Pollination Project, which gives a $1,000 grant every day to an individual working to create a more just, sustainable future…and more. She has dedicated her life to making a difference. — Leslee Goodman
The MOON: You’ve had an experience perhaps unique in human history: living for two years in the branches of a tree. What did it teach you?
Hill: In industrialized society we’ve been conditioned to want the flash, the glitz, the surface — and part of the reason my tree action was a success was because it was big and bold and flashy in some ways. It grabbed people’s attention. Yet I remind people that what’s referred to as a single tree-sitting action was, for me, 738 separate days: twenty-four hours in a day; sixty minutes in an hour; sixty seconds in a minute. It was the moment-by-moment process that transformed me.
I went through the worst winter in the history of California. I went through a logging company trying to bring me down by any means it could: helicopters, lights, bullhorns. I went through severe frostbite and day after day of being cold and wet and hungry. There were moments when all I could do was focus on my breathing, because everything else was falling apart. There were many times when I had to tell myself, “If I can just make it through this moment, then I might make it through the next.” [Laughs.]
I went through the process that caterpillars go through to become a butterfly. The caterpillar is literally liquefied inside the chrysalis. Most of us want to become the butterfly, but we don’t want to go through what it takes to get there.
In the tree I learned everything from how to flow with the storms of life, to how to communicate with people who at first seem different from me, to how to take a stand for love as a way of being in the world. My whole life since has been about sharing the lessons I learned. Underlying it all is the awareness that every moment is a learning opportunity; every moment counts. As a result I am able to experience life fully even in the minutiae, in the small places we miss.
The MOON: Can you give me an example of a lesson you learned in the minutiae?
Hill: Recently I was scheduled to speak at a workshop for yoga teachers, and I didn’t get the details until midnight the night before the event. Because I’m a public figure, people often don’t realize that I am an introvert. It’s very hard for me to speak publicly. I have to remind people, “I lived in a tree by myself for two years.” [Laughs.] So for me to say yes to this re- quest and then not be given the details until the last minute was very frustrating.
The morning of the event I was on the platform waiting for a train, and I was pacing up and down, thinking, Who do these people think they are? Here I am giving my time for free, and they can’t even get me the details in advance? I was wishing that I hadn’t agreed to do the event when something caught my eye: tiny white and yellow flowers coming up through a crack in the concrete platform. I stopped and looked at these flowers blooming out of the concrete, and I immediately got the lesson: Here these plants were, thriving in a hostile environment with hundreds of people stepping over them daily. They were just being flowers, being beautiful, wherever they happened to grow. It humbled me. Who was I to be whining that some logistical detail hadn’t been handled to my satisfaction? Yes, it would have been nice if the organizer had been more thoughtful of my needs, but complaining about it was a waste of time. I showed up for that event in a much better mood than I would have been in had I not seen those flowers.
Nature is always communicating with us, but we’ve forgotten how to listen. I think that’s why there are more and more natural disasters — more severe tsunamis and earthquakes and storms and fires. All these disasters are nature talking louder and louder and louder, trying to get our attention.
The MOON: After reading your book, I found myself feeling attached to Luna. Was it difficult to leave her?
Hill: Yes, because I was leaving the best teacher and friend I’ve ever had. Also, the person I’d been when I’d gone up and the person I was when I came down were so profoundly different that I wasn’t sure how I was going to be able to live in the world again. I hadn’t touched the ground for two years and eight days. When I set foot on the earth, there was a lot of emotion. There was extreme joy, because we’d protected the tree and the grove around it, which a lot of people had said was impossible. But there was also sadness. I had become so much a part of that tree, and it had become so much a part of me, that I wasn’t sure I would fit in with other people.
Though I left the tree, it’s still so much a part of who I am that I can just close my eyes and be in its branches all over again. I go back once or twice a year to visit. The experience taught me that every living thing can communicate. So I re- turn to let that area know that I still care and that we’re still working on behalf of forests all over the world. I don’t claim to know on what level the trees receive my communication, but there is scientific evidence that the natural world responds to us. It’s not just a philosophical idea.
The MOON: What is the current state of logging in the United States? Has it gotten better or worse?
Hill: In logging — as in all industries, unfortunately — it seems that humans are better at being destructive than we are at using long-term thinking. In the area where Luna stands, we had a success. Our efforts got the Maxxam Corporation out, and there’s a new corporation in there that is light-years ahead of Maxxam. They operate under SmartWood certification, which is currently the highest form of sustainable logging practice in the country. It’s similar to organic standards — not perfect but the best we have.
The MOON: Where does it fall short?
Hill: I am not an expert on the certification process, but I do know that, instead of creating a system that encourages and rewards companies that move in a more sustainable direction, the Forest Stewardship Council has continued to water down its standards to try to get more companies to join. The result is that consumers think they are making a responsible choice, but in many instances they are not. Also, the companies that are truly logging sustainably are not benefiting as much as they could be if the system gave more incentives for better practices.
But today there are no tree-sits taking place on the two hundred thousand acres of land around Luna, because it is against this new company’s policy to cut old-growth trees, or to clear-cut on steep hillsides like the one Luna stands on, or to cut close to streambeds. So there has been progress.
We need shelter; we need clothing; we need food. And this planet can provide for those needs, but only to the extent that we provide for what the planet needs. Unfortunately our country has spent billions in tax dollars to subsidize large corporations that use destructive methods for coal mining, logging, and oil extraction. We paid for the infrastructure that supports these practices. Our tax dollars helped build the railroads that allow the coal industry to ship its product. Our tax dollars have subsidized the petroleum industry in similar ways. Our tax dollars, which once paid for the protection of our national forests, now subsidize logging roads on supposedly protected land. The list goes on and on. Our government spends billions every year subsidizing activities that are destroying our planet and our future. So trying to move in a different direction is difficult.
Not only do we have corrupt government officials and rogue corporations; we also have individuals who make daily choices that are detrimental to the environment — even individuals who consider themselves environmentalists. I go to meetings all the time where they serve coffee in paper cups with plastic lids. Where did that paper cup come from? Where did that plastic lid come from? How can you say, “No more drilling for oil,” when you’re drinking coffee from a paper cup with a plastic lid that you’re going to throw away?
The MOON: Can you give us an example of how you minimize your own impact on the environment?
Hill: I haven’t owned a car since I was eighteen. I’m a vegan because I like to eat as low on the food chain as I can. I do my best to buy locally produced, nonpackaged foods as much as possible. (Even in the vegan community there are a lot of processed foods and packaging.) Most of my clothes come from thrift stores. I do my best not to use disposables. If I go someplace to get tea, and they won’t let me use my own cup, I’ll walk out. I’ve walked out because a restaurant wouldn’t use my reusable to-go container, and I’m not going to trash the planet for a meal. I’m careful about lights and water and all those things that are almost passé at this point. I realize that it’s the large systems that have to change, but I feel I have no right to demand that change if I’m not constantly looking to see how I can lighten my own footprint. It’s not about judgment or moralism or perfection. It’s about integrity.
The word integrity shares the same root as integral. Both refer to how things are connected. I constantly look for ways that I’m becoming disconnected from my vision for the world. It’s hard, because there’s no such thing as a perfect choice. I struggle with the fact that I get on planes to go to events when I know that planes are horribly harmful to the environment. I constantly weigh that choice, and I’ve not yet made peace with it, although I’ve done what I can to mitigate the negative effects, such as donating money to organizations that reduce carbon emissions to offset the carbon released by my air travel. I also try to schedule events so that I can fly in for several of them at once. But I can’t know whether the good I do by participating in the event outweighs the harm I cause by my travel. All I can do is strive for as much integrity as possible.
The MOON: The world is estimated to lose between a hundred and two hundred species a day. Scientists report that every major ecosystem is in serious decline. You allow this information to affect you emotionally. How have you been able to face this level of loss?
Hill: Sometimes I don’t do it so well. I’ve struggled with depression my entire life because I’m such a sensitive person.
So I have a lot of compassion for people who can’t take in the loss. Right now, when I think about it, I want to cry. I don’t seem to have an in-between zone. I feel everything deeply. I was a drug addict and an alcoholic in my teens, because I didn’t know how to be in this world. Even now there are occasions when I go into despair and numb myself with alcohol, and then I realize, “Wait a minute. What am I doing?”
I don’t mind sharing this, because I believe that we have to be honest about our humanity. I don’t want people to see me as some superhero. I’m a human being who struggles with the same problems that we all struggle with. But I know that we have to feel in order to heal. Pain is a message from our bodies that something is out of balance; something has gone wrong; something is unhealthy. The pain is there to get our attention so we don’t ignore the problem.
The MOON: What helps you stay grounded?
Hill: I have to be mindful of my triggers. I have found that if I am eating healthily, practicing yoga, getting exercise, and doing what inspires me, I feel less drawn toward my addictive side.
The reality is that we are all addicts in this society. We are addicted to comfort, shopping, food, television, movies, petroleum — you name it. Wherever you look, we are exhibiting addictive behavior. It’s part of why our world is suffering. Addicts cause harm to themselves and others because of their unwillingness or inability to overcome their addiction. Most people drive their vehicles too often. They go shopping for things they do not need, and they don’t do research to see who and what is affected by their purchases. They waste water in showers, sinks, and toilets. One of the leading causes of death globally is the lack of access to clean water, yet many of us waste and pollute water every day. We use disposable products and then throw them away. We take resources from the earth and future generations. All of these behaviors are the behaviors of addicts. It is easier to focus on people with drug or alcohol addiction than it is to look at how almost everyone in industrialized society has become addicted to consumption.
It’s vitally important that we stop numbing ourselves. People with paralysis have to protect a paralyzed limb from injury because they won’t be able to feel a cut there. They have no feedback that tells them they’re injuring themselves. The same is true of most of us on an emotional level. If we want to heal the damage we are doing to each other and the planet, we have got to feel it. Otherwise we won’t know that something’s wrong. I tell people to celebrate every day that they wake up and choose to care as a victory, because choosing to care in the world today is a courageous act.
The MOON: Why are activists so prone to burnout?
Hill: Anger and frustration lead to burnout, as does placing oneself on the front lines of the devastation day in and day out. This is why it’s so crucial to have some sort of physical and spiritual practice. People ask me all the time if I label myself an “activist.” I tell them I see myself as more of a holistic-health practitioner: I am working to heal from the inside out and the ground up. Wounds on the external landscape exist in the internal landscape first. We re-create those inner wounds on the outside, on the planet. So being a vegan, practicing yoga, and taking time to exercise and do things that nourish my heart and spirit are all vital parts of my “activism.”
Activists have done a great job of caring for the world around us, but we haven’t done a great job of caring for our- selves and each other. That’s part of the reason we haven’t been more successful, and also part of the reason more people haven’t been inspired to join us. We’re working for a healthy planet in a completely unhealthy way. If we’re going to ask people to open up to the pain of the earth, we ought to have systems in place that enable us to relieve each other’s pain.
The MOON: What would that look like?
Hill: Because the problems in the world are so big, we keep thinking that the solutions have to be big, but the most effective solutions often begin small. Part of what empowers individual actions is having a support circle. In the Engage Network we encourage people to build circles small enough that everyone in them can get to know one another, so that we don’t show up for huge protests and then go back home alone. We have to rebuild communities of care. People who are committed to the betterment of the planet know each other on the deepest level. We know what makes our souls sing, what breaks our hearts. We know if someone’s hurt, and we can step in and help. When someone gets sick, we should bring soup. In one community of care there was a young woman who parachuted out of a plane, but the parachute failed to open properly, and she slammed into the earth. She lived, but her body was broken in many places, and she was in a coma. Because she’d been a part of this circle, the group found out about it immediately. They decided to do something for her and her family, even though they didn’t know the family. They made a video of themselves talking about what they loved about this woman, how they were praying for her and sending healing thoughts to her. Her family was grateful and played the video every day for the young woman, even though she was in a coma and unresponsive. The woman came out of the coma and now has almost no damage to her brain or her body. She and her family believe that hearing those voices of love and support, day in and day out, helped bring her back.
Another group had a member whose barn burned down. This was where he had stored all the seed for his farm. His group helped rebuild the barn and raise funds so he could start over. Things like this happen in small circles, where people really have a chance to know one another.
The MOON: So if we want to change the world, we have to begin in our own lives.
Hill: That’s right. One of the best things about unsustain- ability is that it’s unsustainable: at some point it has to collapse. If we make changes in our own way of living, we can be ready to step in. That’s the silver lining. The grief comes when we see who and what is being destroyed in that collapse: it is those hundreds of species a day that are lost; it is poor communities; it is people who live on tiny islands that are submerged by rising sea levels. But at the same time there is hope that, because the old system is collapsing, we’ll have a chance to build something better. If we are strategic about it, we’ll look at that collapse as compost, and we’ll begin to build the beautiful garden we want. As the old system decays, it will become food for what we are growing.
This doesn’t mean we stick our heads in the sand and stop speaking out against what is wrong. But we have to invest just as much time, if not more, in creating what is right. Re- building communities, instead of always focusing on the big political actions, is what gives us strength. It’s like a pyramid: its strength is at its base, its foundation. We’ve spent so much time looking at the powers at the top of the pyramid that we’ve disconnected ourselves from the base.
For example, many people get involved in the presidential election yet do not know who sits on their board of education, their city council, and so on. They don’t know the people whose decisions affect their lives on a daily basis, yet they believe they are going to change the political debate from the top down. That’s ignoring the power at the base.
The MOON: What do you think of using social media, such as Facebook, as a community-building tool?
Hill: Social media plays an important role in today’s world. It has helped carry the messages of ordinary people around the world in a matter of minutes, shedding light on both problems and solutions. But, like any tool, it can also become a part of the problem if we are not careful. Social media cannot replace face-to-face meetings and working together. The communities that are the healthiest, safest, and happiest are ones where people are out interacting with each other in person. So, yes, social media can be great for sharing important messages and mobilizing people, but then we need to go out into our communities and engage, or we just become even more disconnected.
The MOON: You’ve said that when we throw things away, we really just put them in someone else’s environment.
Hill: In industrialized society we are living with a disease that I call “separation syndrome.” We all come from indigenous roots, although most of us are far removed from them, and indigenous consciousness sees itself as at one with its place, which includes people, animals, plants, air, water, the sun, the stars, the moon, the elements. We all come from that unified consciousness. But industrialization and colonialism created separation syndrome. It’s been passed down from generation to generation, getting more potent with each one. Just as alcohol or a tincture gets stronger when it’s distilled, so does this disease in our consciousness. The farther removed from the oneness we are, the more we believe that separation is inevitable. The many problems in our world — nuclear power, war, genetically modified foods, pesticides, the prison-industrial complex — are all symptoms of separation syndrome. Where it shows up most obviously is with trash. We throw things away, as if we think there’s a place called “away.” But no action happens in a vacuum. Every time we make a choice, it has an impact on the world. It’s just that we often can’t see the impact of our actions, so we think there is none.
Seven billion of us — and counting — are all “activists,” because we’re actively shaping our world. The only question is: Are we conscious activists, or unconscious activists? We see the results of unconscious activism all around us. Virtually every problem is caused by unconscious choices being made over and over and over again. To compound the problem, certain people want the rest of us to be unconscious, because they benefit hugely from it.
It’s impossible not to make a difference. Every choice we make leads either toward health or toward disease; there’s no other direction. The question is not “How can I, one person, make a difference?” The question is “What kind of difference do I want to make?”
The MOON: Do you worry that by chiding other activists for drinking out of a paper cup, you might alienate people who are nevertheless making important contributions to good causes? What if not everyone can achieve a certain political purity in terms of individual behavior? What if an activist has taken three buses to get to a meeting and didn’t remember to bring her own mug?
Hill: I am devoted to integrity, not judgment. I am passionate about the need for every one of us constantly to be looking for ways we can live with more integrity. It’s the foundation that supports everything else. I do my best to come from a loving place in my communications and actions, but that does not always mean speaking softly or mincing words. If I never riled anyone up, I wouldn’t have accomplished what I have. Once, a well-known environmental organization was going to host a debate on whether nuclear power is a viable solution to the global climate crisis. The only problem was that it was two affluent white men debating. The ones who get stuck with power plants and waste dumps are most often poor people of color. Native Americans especially are burdened with the waste. I told the organizers that if they moved forward with this debate, they would be perpetuating and exemplifying environmental racism, and that I would launch a full-on campaign to withdraw support from their organization. The organizers got upset and said I was being “unreasonable,” but I did not back down, and they eventually canceled the event. They later held the debate but included Native Americans.
The MOON: What are your spiritual practices? How do you stay centered when you’re angry about an injustice?
Hill: Part of my spiritual practice is to know when to put myself in timeout, like we do with a child who misbehaves. There are certain days when I’m feeling so judgmental that, even if I say the right words, my tone is going to convey criticism. If I were committed only to being right, I would go out and talk anyway, but because I’m committed to making a difference, I wait until I’m ready.
So one of my spiritual practices is to check in with myself moment by moment, to see where I am in relation to my center. There are times when I am so fierce in my communication that it unsettles people. It’s my responsibility to know whether my fierceness is coming from judgment or from love. The days when it’s coming from judgment, it’s better for me to shut my mouth and do yoga or draw or make jewelry.
Another part of my spiritual practice is being open to receiving lessons from whatever source might send them. I need support. I’m a human being. I have a lot of faults. I get angry and frustrated and overwhelmed and cynical, just like anybody else. I’ve learned that I can find that support in the most unlikely places — like in those flowers in the crack in the concrete — but only if I’m open to it.
Another part of my spiritual practice is to get out in nature. If I spend too much time in cities, I become mean and out of balance. I tore a ligament in my knee last year and ended up having to spend several months in the San Francisco Bay Area for surgery and physical therapy. By the time I left, my capacity for compassion — for myself and anyone else — was pretty much nonexistent. Thankfully I got back out into nature.
If you live in a city, and you’re not anywhere near a park or some wild place, pick a tree and go sit underneath it regularly and try to notice the shifts in the energy of the tree, in the color of its leaves, in the insects crawling on it. Even that can slow you down and root you back into the earth.
Growing up, I lived for a while in a violent neighborhood in Pennsylvania, and the trees there were one of the few things that saved me. That’s part of the reason why my first direct action was on behalf of trees: because they’d been there for me when I’d needed them. So if you feel disconnected from the natural world, just find a spot of nature — it’s around somewhere — and go to it again and again and allow it to speak to you.
The MOON: What about the noise in the city? It’s so hard to get away from the noise.
Hill: I live in Belize now, in a town with just one paved road and few cars. No sirens. The noises here are the sound of the waves lapping against the shore, and of birds singing, and of kids laughing, and of people calling out to one another because they’re not in cars. Coming back to the hustle and bustle of cities in the U.S. is like an assault. That’s why people living in cities really need to develop some kind of meditation practice to quiet the noise inside their head. It’s amazing how much noise we have in our minds that we don’t even notice. Even our response to external noise is loud: God, there’s so much noise! We don’t realize that we’re creating a second cacophony in our minds. Meditation practice can quiet the noise in our head, which can help us tolerate the external noise.
Yoga has also been extremely helpful in quieting my mind and giving me the tools to deal with the intensity of our world. Eating well is another big help. Healthy, vibrant foods are crucial. Also, practicing gratitude. A few days ago I was talking with some people, and a lot of strong statements were being made about President Obama. When it was my turn to talk, the mood in the room was so volatile that I just said how grateful I was to be among people who could respectfully disagree with one another. The mood immediately shifted — and mine did too. I’d felt myself getting worked up, because of course I have some strong opinions about this president myself. He is doing some things that I don’t want my president doing. But because of my commitment to be grateful, I was able to defuse the anger.
The MOON: Can’t anger be a motivating force?
Hill: Yes, but if you act only from your anger, then you are perpetuating separation syndrome. We must go beneath our anger and find why we are angry. Most often it’s because something we care about is being threatened or harmed. Caring is almost always underneath our anger. My practice is that, when I am angry, I breathe through the anger to get in touch with what I care about, then transform the anger into fierce compassion. Then I am coming from a place of love, not hate.
Goodman: What is the What’s Your Tree project?
Hill: The name came from my tree-sit. People often tell me, “I never could have done that,” and I always tell them, “Neither could I.” On December 10, 1997, the day I climbed up that tree, I thought it was only for a week or two. If you had told me what was ahead, I would never have thought I could go through with it.
Our thoughts limit what we’re capable of doing. There are external forces arrayed against us, but there are also internal forces that sabotage us before we even get started. Our mind is good at setting us up for failure and getting us to think small. But I have found that we will do for love that which we don’t think is possible. So the question to ask ourselves is “What do I love?” I could not have stayed in that tree for two years if I’d just remained angry at the corporation. I was definitely angry, but that anger was burning me out. What called me to action was being willing to have my heart broken open, being willing to love the tree, and the forest, and the world.
What’s Your Tree helps people clarify their purpose and passion, then take action. We all have our own version of a tree-sit that’s out there waiting for us. It’s our life’s calling. There is a “tree” for every one of us, and this tree can call us to be bigger than we believe ourselves to be and to create a life that is more amazing than we can imagine.
We all give our life to something. We can give it to anger, fear, cynicism, apathy, consumption, and addiction, or we can give it to love, care, commitment, compassion, and service. What’s Your Tree takes people on a journey to discover what they believe is worth giving their life to.
The MOON: Is this a physical journey or a metaphorical one?
Hill: Some people take it to be a physical journey. Nature’s wisdom teaches us that where life is in motion, it’s healthy; where it’s stagnant, it’s dying. But people have to interpret the journey in a way that’s authentic for them, rather than have us say, “This is the model that works best for everybody.” It’s a process based on deep dialogue, reflection, and your own personal passions. For example, a lot of artists incorporate art into the process. Others prefer physical movement, so they’ll incorporate yoga, or dance, or walks in nature. Whatever helps you. We call it “finding your own true north” — like on a compass. In production-driven societies we’re tricked into believing that our true north is outside of us. So we’re constantly looking outside ourselves to figure out if this is the right job, the right house, the right relationship, the right subject to be studying. But our true north is invariably inside us. When we know what it is, then instead of comparing ourselves with the outside world, we can ask, “Is this in alignment with my true purpose or not?” Suddenly decisions that used to take days or weeks or months can be made in moments.
Another theme of What’s Your Tree is deep listening, or what we call “beneath the beneath,” which encourages participants to go beyond just using their ears and listen with all their senses.
Goodman: You’ve said that should is a very uninspiring word. Can you elaborate?
Hill: I like the saying “We need to look at all the ways we ‘should’ all over ourselves.” [Laughs.] Living the way we “should” creates a big mess. Whenever you think you should do something, check in with your body: usually your shoulders are hunched over, your chest is constricted, and there’s tension in your neck and shoulders and head. A to-do list made from should literally creates constriction in your body. If we think of what we love to do, what we’re inspired to do, what we believe in, it creates an entirely different response in the body. Our chest area opens up; our head lifts; our shoulders drop back down. Our body literally expands.
The MOON: Fame came to you when you were quite young. Has it been an asset to your social activism or a hindrance?
Hill: I call celebrity a disease — “celebrititus” — because it makes us think that certain people are more important and more powerful than the rest of us. That’s a lie. One reason I agree to interviews is so that I can show my humanity. I don’t pretend to be perfect or to have my life completely together. I have my strengths and my weaknesses.
I’m a natural introvert, but I realize that my fame has given me a platform, and I choose to take joyful responsibility for it. I have, however, had to learn not to say yes to a request out of a sense of “should.” [Laughs.] That sucked all the joy out. I don’t do as many interviews and public engagements as I used to. I’m more careful now to choose projects that feel more in line with my goals, even though it’s hard for me at times not to help everyone who asks.
Extraordinary people are just that: extra ordinary. They don’t let their ordinariness get in the way of what they need to do. Look at cartoon superheroes: they always have their human identity as well as their superhero identity. What allows us to appreciate them as superheroes is their humanity. If he weren’t also Clark Kent, Superman would be uninteresting as a character.
I don’t play victim to my fame because that would be dishonest and disrespectful. I could have disappeared after my tree-sit in Luna. I could disappear at any point. I choose to keep working with that fame because it can contribute to people realizing that they have the capacity to be extraordinary.
The MOON: You’ve done a lot of reaching out to young people, making sure they are included in environmental movements and actions. Do you see yourself as a bridge between generations?
Hill: When I got involved in direct action, I was young and did not have any mentors I could look to for support. Young people have passion, enthusiasm, and creativity. Elders have wisdom and resources. I saw the need to bridge the generation gap because they both have so much to offer one another.
Bridging any perceived difference — whether it’s age, gender, race, class, or sexual identity — can be challenging because of how much pain has arisen historically from our differences. To celebrate our diversity, we have to be willing to stand in the heat and intensity of people’s projections and not get upset. Although it is rarely easy, bridge building is always powerful and profound.
The MOON: You are a war-tax resister. How did you come to that decision, and what have its consequences been?
Hill: About 10 years ago I sued three corporations for creating an ad using my image without my permission to sell a hand-held wireless device. I wasn’t looking for personal gain — I was planning to give all the money away — but I felt that their using my life and my work to promote consumption was against everything I stood for.
We settled out of court, and I found out that I would have a federal tax liability of about $175,000 on the settlement. Everyone told me just to pay it, but I couldn’t stomach it. This was right as the Bush administration was beating the war drums after September 11. I marched in the streets in San Francisco with hundreds of thousands of other people, and we shut down the Federal Building and the financial district. We caused creative mayhem all day. In the back of my mind the whole time was the thought that all these hundreds of thousands of protestors were eventually going to go home and feed with their tax dollars the very same machine they were protesting. I made the decision that day that I was not going to give that $175,000 to the IRS. It turned out to be the largest single instance of war-tax resistance in history. There’s never been a larger single nonpayment of taxes in protest of a war.
Defying the IRS is a scary prospect, so I took my time. I did my research. I went to the national War Resisters League, and I talked to people who had done war-tax resistance. I did everything I could to educate myself and keep the people I work with safe, because they were not signing up for the same choice. I took myself off all the governing boards I was on, including the one for my own organization, because my presence on the board could hurt it. I took myself off salary at my own organization. I did whatever I could to protect the people I work with. And then I filed my taxes.
Along with my nonpayment I wrote a letter that said I was not refusing to pay my taxes — I was redirecting them. I’m not against paying taxes. I believe in what we can do when we pool our money together for the collective good. But the same is true for the collective bad, because our taxes were being spent not only toward war in Iraq but toward war on this planet.
I ended the letter by saying that when the U.S. government starts choosing to use our tax money for the collective good, I will be more than happy to begin reinvesting. But until then I’m redirecting those funds.
With penalties, interest, and fees, I now owe more than four hundred thousand dollars. I cannot own anything, or the IRS will take it. I face jail every single day. Although they’re not techni- cally allowed to throw people in prison for not paying their taxes, because we don’t have debtors’ prisons anymore, they could take me to court and claim I’m evading my taxes, which I’m not. I’m consciously redirecting my money to causes I believe in.
The IRS hasn’t gone so far as to file formal charges, but they have taken me to tax court twice now to try to scare me into submission. They don’t seem to realize that trying to scare me into submission doesn’t work.
The MOON: How come? It works on just about everyone else.
Hill: [Laughs.] You know, my father came out to California while I was doing my tree-sit and gave a press conference. He said, “If Maxxam Corporation thinks they can outwait my daughter, they don’t know my daughter very well.”
If you try to threaten or scare me, it only makes me more determined. If Maxxam Corporation had left me alone, it’s quite possible I might have given up before they did. I’d like to think I wouldn’t have, but I do know that their harassing me and degrading me in the press — all the things they did to try to make me come down — only deepened my commitment.
The same is true with the IRS. I didn’t decide to become a tax resister lightly. I knew going into this that it would alter the rest of my life; that I would have to be creative in providing for my own needs. I knew that I was risking prison. So the threats from the IRS didn’t take me by surprise. They only strengthened my resolve.
The MOON: Do you have attorneys who represent you when you have to go to tax court?
Like what you read? Please consider a contribution to keep The MOON shining. There are two ways to contribute: via our secure PayPal link, or our Patreon page, where you can become a continuing supporter of The MOON for as little as $1/month. (To you beautiful souls who already support The MOON, thank you! Your contributions keep us going!)
Hill: I did at the beginning. I wanted to make sure I’d done everything correctly, so that it was clear that I am not evading my taxes but redirecting them. I wanted to demonstrate that I was making this choice with the utmost integrity. But I don’t have the money to keep paying for lawyers. If they were to drag me back into court now, I’d probably go without one, because I understand my legal rights as well as the risks of representing myself.
The MOON: You seem fearless.
Hill: People have said to me, “You’re so courageous. Aren’t you ever afraid?” I laugh because it’s not possible to be courageous if you’re not afraid. Courage doesn’t happen without fear; it happens in spite of fear. The word courage derives from coeur, the French for “heart.” True courage happens only when we face our fear and choose to act anyway, out of love.
A version of this interview originally appeared in The Sun magazine, April 2012.