By Erin Sherbert
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And she has made great copy. In all the years of political activism in Humboldt County, no one person or action has ever gotten as much mainstream attention as Butterfly and her tree-sit.
Media wrestled with how to approach such a story. What do you say about a young woman who lives in a tree? Time called her a "chirpy New Ager." Jane magazine's headline blared, "Is Julia Butterfly Insane?" The New York Times stoically announced, "Redwoods Still Inspire Sturdiest of Defenders." Much of the initial press, especially the British, focused on her personal hygiene and how she went to the bathroom.
Parker is very defensive about the question of body odor.
"She doesn't smell! She smells like a redwood tree."
Throughout the initial months, Butterfly's family thought she was just hanging out in a treehouse, until an article appeared in the San Francisco Examiner. Her cousin, who lives in the Bay Area, mailed the clip back to Arkansas, where Butterfly's father is now a photojournalist. News spread to her mother, who does environmental outreach on the Internet, and her brothers, one of whom works for Intel. The family discovered their independent little Julia was, in fact, a celebrity spokesperson for the environmental movement.
"They are so supportive," she says. "They worry about me, but they believe in me." (She would rather not give out their phone numbers or have them contacted by reporters.)
With every interview, Butterfly's natural shyness fell away, and her personality solidified. Media reaction was universal. The most cynical reporters came down from the tree shaking their heads at how the interview almost seemed like a spiritual encounter. She was naive and idealistic, yet so articulate. It was like spending time among the Amish. Was this woman crazy, or was she for real?
The tree has become her live/work office. Butterfly talks on the phone constantly -- giving interviews, lecturing to universities, and appearing on panel discussions. She cooks meals on a propane stove and bathes with a sponge. When the day slows down, she writes poetry, draws in a sketchbook, and sews little pouches. She prays every day. Once a week she talks to her mother.
Some of her stranger and more comical interactions occurred in the tree itself as she held conversations with loggers who were clear-cutting the hill around her. Talking the issues with them didn't work. When the loggers hollered mean comments to her, she responded by singing them a song from her childhood. PALCO employees stood there in their hard hats, holding chain saws, staring up at this barefoot woman in a tree who serenaded them with:
Love in any language
Straight from the heart
Pulls us all together
And once we learn to speak it
All the world will hear
That love in any language
Is fluently spoken here
She remembers another occasion, when she engaged a group of loggers in debate about old-growth forests. From their perspective, old-growth trees are just going to fall over and die anyway. Butterfly tried to explain to them that the trees are part of a delicate ecosystem, and they need to fall into the soil naturally because they provide habitat for endangered species, and nature has a reason for trees falling into the soil.
The loggers started up their chain saws and ignored her.
Butterfly wondered how she was going to get to these guys. And then it came to her. She waited until the chain saws stopped, and called down to one of them:
"Do you have grandparents?"
"Yeah. What of it?" he answered.
She asked if they were alive. The logger replied that they were.
"Why don't we just kill them?" yelled Butterfly. "They're just gonna fall over and die anyway!"
"He got so angry!" she laughs at the memory. "He was like, 'F! U!' and started his chain saw. And I knew it had hit home, because that's really what they're saying. There's not a difference between our elder grandparents, human or in nature. They're all important."
It's difficult to paraphrase her words because she speaks so much like a preacher. The cumulative effect is much more powerful than a quick soundbite. She claims that a few PALCO employees have actually quit their jobs after speaking with her. One day, after listening to her talk, a crew of grumpy loggers were moved sufficiently to take off their hats to her. In return, she bowed to them and started crying.
Butterfly has had less success in connecting with the hierarchy of Pacific Lumber Co., but she keeps writing letters to PR person Mary Bullwinkle (nicknamed "Hoodwinkle"), CEO John Campbell, and ... Charles Hurwitz?
Butterfly digs around her platform and produces the letter she recently mailed to the billionaire president of Maxxam, Inc.:
Dear Mr. Hurwitz, With love, all beautiful things are possible. Love can transform hurt into healing, destruction into rebirth, and even enemies into friends. I love you. Julia Butterfly.
"They won't write me back," she says. "I want to keep planting seeds in them."
On the last day of the California legislative session, a deal was finally struck to save the Headwaters. On Sept. 19, Gov. Pete Wilson signed into law a bill known as AB 1986, which appropriates $245 million to purchase 7,500 acres of Pacific Lumber's 60,000-acre old-growth redwood groves. Add to this amount the $250 million the Clinton administration is setting aside for the Headwaters, and the entire deal totals nearly half a billion dollars.